Walton Marshall Bodine, who chatted through radios and televisions for over seven decades to his many friends, we Kansas Citians, died early Sunday morning.
The dean of Kansas City broadcasters, known to everyone as “Walt,” was 92.
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Bodine’s electronic media career in Kansas City lasted more than 50 years, spanning the golden age of radio, the birth of commercial television and the advent of the Internet.
“Like everybody’s uncle on the radio,” as Patricia Deal Cahill, KCUR’s general manager until last year, said when Bodine signed off for the last time. “Comfortable, familiar.”
For almost 30 years he hosted “The Walt Bodine Show,” a popular call-in talk program broadcast on public station KCUR-FM at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“Doing those talk shows day in and day out, week after week and year after year — not to mention merely surviving in the broadcasting market — required energy, resilience, brains and a sharp wit. He had those, and a winning personality to boot,” said Monroe Dodd, author and former editor for The Times and The Star, who co-hosted local history segments on the show. “Walt was devoted to Kansas City and it showed.”
On either radio or television, Bodine was a plain-speaking interviewer and commentator whose common-sense approach epitomized fly-over country fairness and good will. With his famous catch phrase, “What do you say to that?” he polled public opinion without ever seeming to court it.
“I try not to be heavy-handed,” Bodine told The Star in 1984. “I don’t use a meat ax ... I don’t get too lofty, but I do try to bring things into focus.”
When he wasn’t pounding the streets for the perfect malt or bowl of chili, he covered the ruinous 1951 Kansas City flood by radio, the devastating 1957 Ruskin Heights tornado as a TV documentarian and the first night of the Kansas City riots in 1968 as a talk-radio host.
“There are so many stories,” his son, Tom Bodine, said last year. “The night of the Hyatt skywalk collapse, he stayed on the air all night and into the morning so the show could be a place for people to express their feelings and to get up-to-the-minute information. It was a place where people could gather.”
The Star’s one-time TV and radio critic Barry Garron assessed Bodine’s staying power in 1989:
“Over the years, Bodine’s trademarks have been his moderate style, his respect for the intelligence of his listeners and his ability to identify with the average person. Meanwhile, Bodine’s disdain for fluff and hype and knack for reaching the heart of an issue have helped him to remain afloat in an industry of transient employees and brief careers.”
Despite chances to work elsewhere, including two separate opportunities at Los Angeles radio stations in the 1960s, Bodine remained in his native Kansas City.
“Maybe I was chicken, but what I really think it was is that I’m wedded to this town,” Bodine said. “Someplace else, I would just have been the new guy. Here I know where all the bodies are buried.”
As a youth, Bodine scooped ice cream for customers at his father’s all-night drugstore at Linwood and Troost avenues. In 1940 he got his first radio job announcing on KDRO-AM in Sedalia, but after just two weeks, he recalled, “I was unceremoniously fired.”
He spent the next year at KVAK-AM in Atchison, Kan., where music from a downstairs piano store occasionally provided unintended accompaniment to Bodine’s newscasts and interviews.
The year 1941 saw his Kansas City career launch as an announcer and newscaster at KCKN-AM. After serving three years in the U.S. Maritime Service and U.S. Naval Reserve during World War II, he returned to KCKN but soon left for WDAF-AM.
In 1950, he married Bernadine Beisner, a former social worker. They had met at what they called a “man-trap” party.
Until 1965, Bodine was staff announcer, news reporter and news director of both WDAF-AM radio and WDAF-TV, Channel 4. While at WDAF, he teamed with Jean Glenn to host the talk-radio show “Conversation.”
By the early 1960s, he established a familiar presence on “The Walt Bodine Show” weekdays on WDAF. The Star’s Harry Jones Jr. wrote then that the show offered “a varying format involving telephoned chitchat, argument, expostulations, information, philosophy and just about any other feat the human voice is capable of accomplishing over the phone.”
Bodine also hosted “Nightbeat” from 1965 to 1968 and “Sunday Night Town Hall” from 1968 to 1974 on WHB-AM. In 1978 he moved his public-forum concept of talk radio to KMBZ-AM until joining KCUR in 1983, the same year he began doing commentaries for KMBC-TV, Channel 9.
Cahill worked with Bodine for 25 years before leaving KCUR. She is currently the chair of the Washington-based Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which directs federal funding to public radio, television and online services throughout the United States.
“He taught me about broadcasting, how to do talk shows and how to be a friend,” she said Sunday.
Through the years, he also was an editorial writer for KMBZ; news director at KCIT-TV, Channel 50; host of “Bodine’s Beat” on KSHB-TV, Channel 41; and beginning in 1983 a professor in the communication studies department at UMKC. He also found time to write restaurant reviews in the ’90s.
Besides his books, including “What Do You Say to That?” and “My Times, My Town,” he batted out columns for the old Squire newspapers. A popular board member among civic groups, he served as regional director of the National Conference of Christians and Jews from 1974 to 1979.
He was especially proud of receiving the Harry S Truman Community Service Award in 2005.
Bodine was diagnosed in the early 1960s with a degenerative eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa.
“For decades, unbeknownst to most of his listeners, Walt’s eyesight was limited and eventually gone,” Dodd said, adding that his friend also didn’t even have what was considered a great radio voice. “Yet throughout his life, he persevered and prevailed. He entered the pantheon of Kansas City’s memorable personalities. It’s a pretty exclusive club.”
Bodine interviewed a variety of notable figures in his career, including Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., scientist Jonas Salk, artist Thomas Hart Benton, novelist James Michener, actor Charlton Heston, Watergate felon John Dean and, of course, Harry S. Truman.
“When you are in the business of interviewing people, you learn that the people who are hard to deal with are almost always the minor celebrities, the people who may have a hit television show but will be obscure again in a year,” Bodine said.
“But the big, really big, people are always easy to deal with. I remember Robert Kennedy as being one of those.”
Louis Armstrong was another. On a December night in 1957, Bodine was curious about a New York subway workers strike. He telephoned Hurley’s bar in Manhattan, hoping to find someone stuck in the city because of the strike.
Instead of a riled commuter, Bodine found himself on the phone with the famous jazz trumpeter, who had little to say about the strike, but spoke freely on a range of other topics. That was Satchmo. And that was Bodine, who taped and aired the unexpected conversation for his radio audience.
“For too long news directors have operated on the theory, ‘If it bleeds, it leads,’ ” Bodine wrote in his second book. “Can it really be that the only thing that interests us is human misbehavior? Emphasis put on the daily bucket of blood does nothing to answer the broad array of serious problems facing the nation, the states and the city.”
Max J. Skidmore, a political science and government professor at UMKC, met Bodine in 1972 when the broadcaster interviewed him about a book he had written. It was the first of several interviews and later, he, Bodine and a group of other regulars including former Kansas City Mayor Charles Wheeler would gather for Saturday brunch, first at the Rockhill Tennis Club and after it closed, the Grand Street Cafe.
“He was the grand old man of broadcasting and had a long, distinguished career,” Skidmore said.
For his last years, Bodine was on the air on Fridays only, but previously, KCUR’s Gina Kaufmann, no longer with the public radio station, assisted Bodine on and off air for the daily show. In the planning and execution of the show, no matter Bodine’s ability to participate, his philosophy was clear, she said.
“He often said, ‘Let’s not get too exotic,’ ” Kaufmann said last year for his retirement. “The local aspect of the show was dear to him. If a show idea seemed to be getting too big for our britches, he would remind us what we were there to do. And he was right.”
Bodine truly loved the call-in segments, she said.
“His respect to the listeners — it’s not just a platitude — it was beyond respect,” she said. “The listener was really on a pedestal in his mind.”
When he retired last year at 91, frail, blind and in a wheelchair, Tom Bodine, noted: “He loves radio and he loves Kansas City, and he’s a lucky man who’s had a job that pulled those two passions together. ...
“He’s had a very loyal and intelligent audience in public radio. Even when age has held him back, his audience has been there with him.”
As Bodine’s pacing and consistency changed with his age and health, Kaufmann said, his news and conversational instincts remained strong.
“His determination to come to work no matter how he felt — I was in awe,” she said. “It was not only admirable to see, but it made you think differently about your own attitude. If more people of my generation had that, I think we would be living in a totally different world.”
Cahill visited Bodine last week at the Brighton Gardens assisted living community in Prairie Village.
“He smiled at me and seemed to understand what was going on, but he was very weak,” she said.
Tom Bodine said his father was surrounded by his family when he died at about 12:50 a.m. Sunday at Brighton Gardens. His father arranged for his body to be donated for medical research.
“There won’t be a funeral, but we will arrange a celebration of life service but we don’t know when,” Tom Bodine said.
Bodine leaves his five children: Marty, Tom, Mary, Damien and Rebecca. Bernadine passed away in 2003.