From a very early age, Delilah has had a lot to say. And for more than 30 years, radio has been her ideal place to share it.
It is that gift of conversation — coupled with her honest take on relationships, her open personality and her ongoing contributions to the radio industry — that leads the syndicated radio personality to the doors of the NAB Broadcasting Hall of Fame. The National Association of Broadcasters will induct Delilah Rene at its Radio Luncheon on April 25 in Las Vegas.
She was studying for a career as a doctor and working part-time at a local station when she had her “ah-ha” moment, discovering the delight and sense of community to be found in radio. Why, she wondered, was she putting in backbreaking hours at school when the career she really wanted was in front of her?
But she actually first became interested in broadcasting when two radio execs came to judge a middle school speech contest and found, hey, here was a girl who really, really liked to talk.
Jerome and Steve Kenagy, owners of KDUN(AM), along with engineer Wes Lockard gave Delilah the opportunity to share school news and sports reports on the Reedsport, Ore., station.
“My mom started to apologize on my behalf [after the speech contest], saying ‘We try to get her to be quiet,’” Delilah said with a laugh, “but they said ‘Wait, this is a good thing.’ They taught me how to do school news and sports, how to sell commercials and how to get my first class broadcast license.” At the time, she was the youngest person in the state of Oregon to earn that license.
In 1996, her syndication career took off. Mike McVay was consulting with WVOR(FM) in Rochester, where Delilah was working at the time and where Ken Spitzer was general manager. They found three more stations to air her program, including WSSH(FM) in Pittsburgh and KSNE(FM) in Las Vegas.A year later, she and her team had landed 12 affiliates and sold the distribution rights to Broadcast Programming in Seattle.
Since 2004, the program has been owned by her company Big Shoes Productions and distributed by Premiere Networks, part of iHeartMedia.
From the beginning, radio sparked a passion in her that she couldn’t find anywhere else: a sense of community, a sense of connection, a medium that would allow her to spread her gospel of self-respect and acceptance.
“Radio is what I love,” she told Radio World. “It is fulfilling. There is an immediate feedback when working in radio; you don’t have to jump through a thousand hoops — you turn on the microphone and talk to people. There’s that instant connection.
“I love the fact that it’s very transparent. I’m the same person on the air and off the air.”
The honest and genuine nature in which Delilah conducts herself at home and on the air may explain her ongoing popularity. Her adult contemporary radio show audience is 8.3 million Americans each week on 155 stations across the country and on the Armed Forces Network around the world. That has made her the most-listened-to-woman on radio in the United States, according to the NAB.
NAB Executive Vice President of Radio John David has described her as “one of the most significant voices in American radio,” a status sometimes that brings unusual attention.
She received headlines last year when her show was the focus of a 2016 Bloomberg BusinessWeek story about the perceived impact of the Portable People Meter ratings system on format data and programming decisions. Bloomberg reported that she’d lost more than 50 affiliates from a peak of 225 eight years before, and it quoted her putting the blame on unintended consequences of the PPM: “It’s destroying radio in general, and especially shows that don’t play for the meter.”
But she carries on, always with her trademark warmth and strong enthusiasm for the radio industry.
Delilah, 57, uses two studios, one in the basement (not the barn) of her century-old farmhouse and another in West Seattle, equally equipped to create her nighttime program.Premiere Networks built the studios for her.
She revels in her work because of the instant connection she makes with listeners via a medium she calls the most vital, alive, wonderful in the world.
“It’s the most-listened-to medium — it always has been, always will be. With all the technological advances and all the changes we’ve seen … nothing else even comes close.
“People can connect with you,” she said. “There’s nothing more important than real relationships. And so I talk about my life and reflect that back to my listeners.”
What attracts listeners to her program is trust, she believes.
“I made a promise to my listeners that this show is not about politics, it’s not about beating you up; they know they’re being respected and honored.”
In return, listeners share stories that dovetail with milestones in Delilah’s own life: The reality of living in foster care. The pain of dissolved marriage. The desire to connect.
“I’m not there to take a moral stand,” she said. “It would be much easier to do it the other way, and go for the ratings. If you could hear some of the calls I take, it would be easier to mock someone and turn it into huge joke.” But that’s not Delilah’s way.
Her delicacy when it comes to handling raw emotions with openness has affected her own career track as well. She attributes her success partly to a knock-down-but-get-back-up mentality, alluding to an incident of harassment at a radio station earlier in her career that might have sent some running out the studio door.
“I took a breath and got back my feet,” she said. “In radio you’re only as good as your last [ratings] book; you don’t have the luxury of leaving and coming back to it.”
She’s stayed with the medium because of the daily calls and life-changing experiences that have come from working on the air.
“Just yesterday I got an email from a man in prison who said my program has helped keep him sane,” she said. “He paid the price [for his mistakes] with four years in prison, has since reconciled with his family, and said ‘Your program has kept me sane.’ When you get a confirmation like that, I know I’m in the right place every night … There’s no way you can get that [immediacy] on TV.”
Craving Good Content
What does she see when she looks ahead to radio’s future? Whatever changes do come, in terms of delivery systems or new technology, the key remains delivering good content.
“People still crave good content. In my mind, it doesn’t matter how that is being delivered,” she said.
What she’d like to see change, however, is radio’s approach to recruitment.
“I’d love to see radio leadership find a way for young talent to develop their skills,” she said. “One of the things that’s happened with consolidation and syndication is we no longer have weekend slots [for young people] to develop their talent. I’d love to see radio leaders take that on.”
Where to look? To high school and college. “We need to go into high schools and colleges and find those kids that are quirky, that have passionate insights, that have the gift of being able to connect with listeners.”
Her on-air goal every evening is the same: To reach those who need it. “If that’s one person, great. If it’s 100 people or if it’s 8.5 million, fabulous,” she said. “When you finish interacting with me, when our conversation comes to a close, I want you to feel enriched. I want to be in the addition column, not the subtraction column. To add wisdom and add insight.”