Monday, July 7, 2003

Show host tells story of his own rebound

For 20 years, Jim Smith had made his living speaking to thousands of people every week on the radio airwaves.

But his talk at Loveland United Methodist Church Sunday was unlike anything he's ever done.

Smith, hired last week by Christian WAKW-FM (93.3), spoke about clinical depression. His own clinical depression. The hopelessness he experienced during his 17-month absence from radio, his dark days after leaving the WRRM-FM (98.5) morning show in a pay dispute.

"During any given year, people will experience mental illness, or depression or anxiety disorders," said Smith, 46, heard 5:30-9 a.m. weekdays on WAKW-FM. "I've dealt with it in my life a few times."

Smith vanished from local radio without a trace in January 2002 when he couldn't reach a new contract to continue as the congenial morning host on Cincinnati's favorite soft rock station.

"Sometimes our pride can get in the way," Smith said.

The Loveland resident couldn't find another radio position that suited his low-key, conversational style, so he ended working part-time driving a Petermann bus and watering landscaping for businesses. He's still doing those jobs to make ends meet after joining the listener-supported contemporary Christian station that can't match the salaries of the big commercial stations.

When he left WARM98 after 13 years, "all my priorities weren't in order. I didn't have God first, my wife second, and my children third. One of the blessings from this is that I have my priorities in order," he said.

"For a long time I've been a believer in God, and trusted God, but I've never been so committed as I am now. God has used the adversity of the last year and a half to create a new faith in me.

"The depression was the thing that God used to break me, and then put me back together in a different way," said Smith, who will conduct another seminar about clinical depression at 9:30 a.m. Sunday at the Loveland church with his wife, Janie.

Smith holds no cold feelings about WARM98, ranked No. 3 in the most recent Arbitron ratings, with four times the audience of No. 16 WAKW-FM. "The only person who gets hurt when you're bitter is yourself," he told listeners one day last week.

"I won't kid you - I don't like what happened, and it surprised me," he said in an interview. "I left because I was told to leave, but I don't hold a grudge for that. I believe in my heart that God wanted me to experience leaving WARM98, and to use me in a new way."

Said Dan Swensson, WARM98 general manager: "We couldn't come up with an agreement with him (in 2002) that was suitable. We wish him all the best."

The 1975 Colerain High School graduate admitted that his initial search for a new radio job was limited. He wanted to stay in the Cincinnati-Dayton area to be close to family. And he didn't want to work for a raucous rock 'n' roll station.

"I had decided that only a handful of stations would fit my style. I wanted a family-friendly station, and to work where I could be who I am - and I don't say that to sound holier than thou," he said.

Finding a morning show job - radio's prime time - could be tougher in this city than most. The morning airwaves are dominated by voices heard here for decades: Jim Scott, Chris O'Brien, Eddie Fingers, Jerry Thomas, Craig Kopp, Bubba Bo Boulanger, Dusty Rhodes, Bobbi Maxwell and Janeen Coyle.

As Smith came closer to God, he found his way to WAKW-FM, which has the biggest audience among Tristate religious stations. A week ago, the station moved morning DJ Tom Klensch to production director, and pushed James Dobson's syndicated Focus on the Family back from 8:30 a.m. to 9 a.m.

"We've been praying about this for a while. We do believe God has led him here," says program director Daryl Pierce, who hosts afternoon drive with his wife, Julie.

It's a win-win situation. The Christian station gets a radio veteran who was one of the city's top morning DJs; Smith gets his career back on track. But Smith insists this is not about him.

"This radio show is not about me," Smith said. "I'm not here for my glory, but for his (God's) glory, and that's a great feeling. It's a transition I've gone through in the past eight to 10 months, and that's a blessing from God. And it's really cool."

"If there's a message for your readers," he told me, "it's that I was tested, and my faith got me through. This is the best place for me. God is good."



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