Robert D. Raiford – celebrated curmudgeon of Charlotte’s airwaves for decades – isn’t happy, not a bit, and he says he’s kept the reason why a secret long enough.
A stroke in August has cost the veteran broadcaster his mobility, all sensation on his right side and the source of his livelihood: his voice.
Through months of arduous rehabilitation, Raiford has regained the ability to walk haltingly with a cane and speak well enough to make himself understood to those who know him best.
But even at 88, Raiford feels he’s been cheated out of his life. He wasn’t ready to retire or give up his adventurous hobbies that include riding a Harley, piloting planes and parachuting into the blue.
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“It was so sudden,” says Raiford. “One minute you can do anything and suddenly, Bam! It’s terribly, terribly sad. Just go ahead and put me in the ground.”
For nearly a year, his 12 co-workers at the “The Big Show” starring John Boy & Billy – on WRFX-FM (“Fox” 99.7) and syndicated to 60 stations from Nags Head to Artesia, N.M. – have deflected questions about Raiford’s absence. They’d tell callers he was on medical leave but getting better. Raiford’s a proud man and didn’t want people to know of his struggle.
But in May, he quietly retired. On Thursday morning, hosts John Isley and Billy James broke the news to listeners that Raiford was done. For now, at least.
“We’ve made it clear to him that there will always be a place for him on our show,” Isley said in a statement. “We look forward to announcing his ‘un-retirement’ soon.”
Prologue to stroke
About five months before his stroke, Raiford was recording one of his commentaries at WRFX-FM when his words got jumbled.
He stepped away from the microphone and walked around the office a few moments. He went back and finished the recording.
Doctors that afternoon decided he’d had a TIA – a transient ischemic attack, a brain flutter better known as a ministroke. It did no damage, and he was prescribed blood thinners.
About 1:30 a.m. on Aug. 23, he returned from the bathroom knowing he didn’t feel right. He woke up his wife. His speech was jumbled.
Within 30 minutes, he was in the hospital. Couldn’t talk, couldn’t stand. He’d suffered a stroke.
Glass half full
Raiford is a terrible patient. He knows it. He’s frustrated by his physicians. He’s cranky about his condition.
If you want to make him angrier, tell him he’s getting better, or that you know someone who did.
Kelia Raiford, 62, knows he’s getting better. He can walk some now; he can talk; he can feed himself.
“He’s the glass half-empty kind of guy, and I’m the glass half-full kind of gal,” she says.
“If it happened to someone less active, it might be less trouble. He’s always been so independent. Before this, I never had to do anything for him.”
She is Raiford’s fourth wife. She spotted him one night on a talk show he used to do on the old Channel 36 back in the 1980s.
“I saw him and thought, hmmmm, he’s interesting,” she says. “I wrote him a fan letter. He called me back before the ink was dry.”
They’ve been married 29 years. If you think that Raiford the curmudgeon would be intimidating, you should know it appears to be a marriage of equals.
She just wants to get my money, Raiford mutters, as he counts dollar bills in pantomime.
“And I’ve earned every cent of it, too, haven’t I?” she replies. “Haven’t I?”
Raiford laughs and nods.
Raiford’s first broadcast came as a baseball announcer for local games on WEGO-AM (980) in 1945 in his native Concord. He was 15 and had a voice for radio even then.
He worked at WTOP radio, then and now one of the nation’s premier news radio stations, in Washington, D.C., beside an up-and-comer named Walter Cronkite.
For the funeral of John F. Kennedy in 1963, the CBS radio network used him as one of the reporters narrating along the route. For 14 long minutes, Raiford held the national audience in the thrall of his voice as he described in crisp detail the somber scene before him.
“The coffin approaches, drawn by those seven white horses. People raise their cameras to take pictures; others stand on tiptoe to try to get a better view. … A child of 6 said, ‘He was nice. We went to church and prayed for him when we heard he’d been shot.’ Another man said, ‘He’s just a good Joe.’”
He’s been fired many times – once from WTOP for setting off a firecracker in the studios – but his most famous termination came in Charlotte on April 12, 1956. Singer Nat King Cole had been attacked in Birmingham, Ala.
Raiford had a night show on WBT-AM (1110). Talk of racial matters was strictly forbidden by station policy. Raiford didn’t care.
He condemned the racial violence. His boss called and told him to knock it off. He kept ranting.
His boss called back and fired him. Raiford played Cole’s song “For All We Know, We May Never Meet Again” that includes the lyrics, “We come and go, like the ripples on a stream.” Then Raiford signed off.
John Boy & Billy
Raiford’s wife wasn’t the only one who watched him on that Channel 36 talk show. So did John Boy and Billy. They made fun of the old man who sat on the stark set taking calls from viewers on a telephone like it was something from the 1950s.
They were developing their morning show for WRFX-FM. Someone suggested Raiford as their news reader.
“We thought, that’s just crazy enough to work,” says Isley. And it worked for 30 years.
In the early days, Raiford would report on stories from the wilder supermarket tabloids about Bat Boy and Lobster Man in his faux-serious voice. Later, he began writing commentaries just speaking his mind.
A social critic in the mold of Andy Rooney and H.L. Mencken, Raiford railed against what he thought were the outrages of the day and constantly savaged his eternal enemy: political correctness.
His partners had fun with his idiosyncrasies. Raiford was a fan of Harry Connick Jr., so once “The Big Show” sent him to St. Louis to cover one of his concerts.
They didn’t tell Raiford – who didn’t carry credit cards – that it was a one-way ticket.
An angry Raiford called collect, desperate to get home. “It was like ‘Survivor: Old Guy Edition,’ ” says James.
What most people don’t know about Raiford is that he was highly sensitive to others, says Randy Brazell, “The Big Show” executive producer and for decades the official apologist to listeners offended by Raiford.
“He’s one of the most compassionate people you’d ever want to know,” he says. “It was easy to make him cry.”
Finding the words
Raiford’s speech, once sonorous, has wilted. His cadence has returned, and his mind is still sharp, but his vocabulary is strewn in a lagoon of disorder.
He reaches for one word and utters another. He’s talking about doctors but calling them “gothics.”
His numbers don’t work at all. He’s trying to say his age. “Two-thirds,” he says, then blurts a correction, “a century.”
Oddly, he cusses as well as ever. Every curse word is clear as can be, right where it belongs in the salad of the sentence as verb, adjective or gerund, but the words around it take some patient study.
“All of a sudden, everything was gone,” he says, and says it clearly. “God, why did this ever happen to me?”
Don’t bother applying for his job. They’re holding it open.
Some people recover from these things, and Robert D. Raiford is making progress every day. His brain is carving new neural pathways for his words, and not only the bad ones.
Just don’t tell him that. It makes him angry. And then he speaks frankly and clearly, as he has done so well for so long.