Broadcaster battling cancer

By DENISE L. SCOTT, [email protected]

Conservative talk radio host Rich King — programmed into the telephone speed dial of faithful listeners throughout Southwest Florida — has retired from his morning slot on WINK-1200 AM/WNOG-1270 AM.

King was diagnosed with abdominal cancer in March 2002 and took medical leave from “The Rich King Show” in mid-December. This is his third battle with cancer in 10 years.

King joined WNOG in Naples 12 years ago and was simulcasting on WINK for the past six. His producer and fill-in host, Josh Knauer, 37, of Naples, has taken over the show.

“To say he’s touched the minds and hearts of thousands of people in Southwest Florida would not be overstated,” Meridian Broadcasting program director Bob Grissinger said.

King was not always the talk radio host who politely provoked listeners to analyze local, national and world events. Once upon a time, he was rock ‘n’ roll DJ “King Richard.”

While resting at his home in Naples, the Chicago native recounted his evolution from the job at an AM rock station he worked at while a student at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

“It was a far-out place,” King said.

After graduating from Marquette in 1956, King had to choose between Harvard and a radio career. A job offer at a top St. Louis rock station sealed his fate.

“That was a wild five years,” King said. “I was out on three or four appearances in one night. St. Louis was a great music town.”

In 1962, he moved to another rock station in San Diego, followed by a contemporary adult music station in Cincinnati. While at WCKY-AM in Cincinnati, King Richard evolved into Rich King.

“I was getting older,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to be King Richard when I’m 63.’ I thought there had to come a time when I got into adult radio.”

AM was mainstream radio then and King interviewed nearly every personality who came to town: Presidents John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter as well as Bob Hope, Elvis Presley and countless other entertainers.

He said Hope was the most delightful celebrity to interview. As for Elvis, “He was very nice. He was obviously on something, but he was very nice.”

King said he purposely has kept few celebrity friends.

“I wasn’t particularly fond of people in the industry because they took themselves so seriously,” he said. “Even people in the smaller markets would get that persona and thought they were major figures in the world.”

His wife, Joan, said he has always been down to earth.

“He’s always said, ‘I hate broccoli, cocktail parties, chit-chat and waiting in line,’ ” she said. “In a way, he’s shy. But when he has to be in front of the microphone, he turns into a different person.”

King simply loves talking to people.

“There are people who call regularly and become characters on the show,” he said. “They can be an enormous pain in the neck or become part of the interaction. Most people are very funny.”

Cindy Kucharski of North Fort Myers has listened to King for six years and called nearly every day.

“I’m kind of a talk radio junkie,” she said. “I worked part time and home-schooled, so it started as a background thing I had on. Then I was compelled to call in for comments from the peanut gallery.”

Tony Phelan, owner of Pincher’s Crab Shack, started listening to King while driving to Pine Island every day, then he became an advertiser. “(King) came out and inspected the place,” Phelan said about his restaurant. “If you say ‘fresh grouper,’ he says, ‘Show me the fresh grouper.’ ”

Events, some tragic, helped keep King grounded as he developed a large fan base — including “Late Show” host David Letterman, who listed King as one of his influences in “The David Letterman Story.” He cited King’s idea to rally excitement over a race between two slow-moving river ferry boats for a charity.

“I spent two-thirds of my work on charity stuff,” King said. “To me, broadcasting was making money for people who needed help.”

His charity work became a more personal crusade when his 4-year-old son, Ricky, died of Reye’s Syndrome. Ricky was one of King’s five adopted children from Mexico, Vietnam and the United States.

The Kings created The Ricky King Children’s Fund, which raised more than $1 million in Ohio to help discover the link between Reye’s Syndrome and aspirin when given to children with the flu or chicken pox.

Money from the fund pays for equipment for children with severe mental and physical disabilities. It helped about 40 local families in 2002.

King’s career has thrived in Southwest Florida, but his health has not. He battled and beat esophageal cancer in 1993 and prostate cancer in 1999.

“When I had cancer of the esophagus, I had a 3 percent chance of survival,” King said. “Within five months, I would be gone. I was told by at least 10 doctors to wrap it up, make my will and forget it.”

He only missed work a few times because of chemotherapy and radiation.

“My doctor said, ‘It’s really important for you, a Type A (personality), to get back to work, or you’re going to go crazy and this is going to kill you,’ ” King said.

So he did as the doctor ordered. At one point, King actually got chemotherapy treatments from a battery-powered kit in the studio.

“The batteries were in backward and started on fire while I was on the air,” he said. “It was attached to my hip on a fanny pack and was smoking and started to flame a little bit.”

He kept right on doing the show, signaling for his engineer to put out the fire.

King’s abdominal cancer had been misdiagnosed for more than a year. After finally getting treatment, he switched his show from the afternoon to the morning in May 2002 but is now too weak to work.

His son Danny King, 24, remembers the last time the doctors expected the worst.

“I remember him telling us he wasn’t going anywhere. He had too much to do here still,” he said, recalling a father who taught his brood to blow bubbles and play ball in the back yard.

“He’s always beaten the odds,” Danny King said. “He’s so determined. You could give him a week and he’ll last 10 years. He’s not going down until he’s ready.”

Reprinted with permission from the Ft Myers News Press.