Charlotte radio curmudgeon Robert Raiford dies at 89

Robert D. Raiford, the unrepentant iconoclast whose war on political correctness amused Charlotte radio listeners for decades, died Friday. He was 89.

Raiford started on radio as a teenager and left the airwaves only in August 2015, after a stroke robbed him of his mobility and discombobulated the source of his livelihood: his voice.

For 30 years, Raiford served as “curmudgeon at large” on the “John Boy and Billy Big Show” that originates at Charlotte’s WRFX-FM (“Fox” 99.7) and is syndicated to 57 other stations nationally.

A curmudgeon, Raiford once explained, is a person who provides the public service of observing all things and interpreting them for others. “I call it a curse of sensitivity,” he said.

“Invariably, dissenters are asked: Well, you’re quick to criticize. What would you do about it?” he said in a 1993 interview with the Observer.

“Well, we don’t pretend to have the solutions. It’s like a baby crying. The baby doesn’t know how to fix what’s irritating it, but he damn well knows something is out of whack – and howls about it.”

Wry and stern, his commentaries – all composed on an Underwood manual typewriter he refused to relinquish – were often tough-love fusillades targeting the acolytes of political correctness. They tended to sting – but not wound – and were served with a formal theatrical zeal set a notch below serious.

“Who says that?” he would ask rhetorically at the end. “I say that!”

His secret side

“Bob Raiford had the mind of a well-read intellectual, trapped in the body of a grumpy old guy who holds court at the end of the counter at Waffle House,” said Johnny Isley, known to listeners as John Boy. “He was a fan of Nat Cole and Sinatra, but could command a rowdy crowd at a bar with a heartfelt rendition of ‘Dixie.’ 

Co-host Billy James said that Raiford’s unpredictable musings were a key part of the success of the show for three decades.

“He could talk about anything,” James said, “because he’d done a little bit of just about everything.”

And Raiford had – he was a broadcaster, actor, pilot, parachutist, motorcycle enthusiast and bungee-cord daredevil.

Robert D. Raiford and the restored U.S. Air Force T-34 flight trainer he flew in a dogfight with his son Ray. Courtesy of Robert D. Raiford

War-time job

Raiford hit the professional airwaves in 1944 at age 17 in his native Concord as a play-by-play announcer on WEGO-AM (980) for the Concord Weavers, a minor-league team that featured pitcher Tommy Lasorda (who went on to manage the Los Angeles Dodgers). Even then, he had what they call in radio “good pipes”: a voice resonant, distinctive and authoritative.

He went on to study communications at the University of South Carolina and by the early 1950s was a leading announcer on Charlotte’s WBT-AM (1110), one of the nation’s pioneer radio stations, then known as the “Colossus of the South.”

Raiford was at the microphone on the night of April 12, 1956, after news was received that singer Nat King Cole had been the victim of a racial attack in Birmingham, Ala.

At WBT, discussion of racial matters was strictly forbidden. But Raiford was resolute in his personal beliefs and was an early champion of civil rights.

Calling himself “a native Southerner,” he told listeners he didn’t believe “the unprovoked violence in Birmingham represents the true feeling of the South as a whole and the state of North Carolina and the city of Charlotte in particular.”

After he condemned the racial violence, Ken Tredwell, WBT’s station manager, called and told him to change the subject immediately. Raiford kept ranting. Tredwell called back and fired him over the phone.

Raiford signed off, playing Cole’s song “For All We Know, We May Never Meet Again.” Among its lyrics: “We come and go, like the ripples on a stream.”

On to Washington

Soon Raiford was working at WTOP, the CBS affiliate in Washington, D.C., then and now one of the nation’s premier radio stations. One of his colleagues there was an up-and-comer from Missouri named Walter Cronkite.

One November afternoon in 1963 he showed up at work to learn that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Three days later, the CBS radio network used him as one of the reporters narrating the drama as the funeral cortege marched toward Arlington National Cemetery.

For 14 long minutes, Raiford held the national audience in the thrall of his voice as he described the somber scene unfolding 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.’ 

Back to Charlotte

Raiford has been fired many times – usually for good reason, he would readily admit – and his career at WTOP ended with a prank when he lit off a firecracker in the studios. “I had half a jar of corn liquor in me,” he later admitted.

He found his way back to Charlotte in the early 1970s with a morning talk show on the old hard-rock WIST-AM and uncloseted his liberal views.

“There have never been more talk shows here,” Observer radio critic Charlie Hanna wrote in October 1973. “But the degree of controversy voiced remains low, despite one show host determined to make it otherwise. That would be Charlotte’s newest addition to the gumbeater bunch, Bob Raiford.”

At WIST, Raiford railed against Richard Nixon, fundamentalist preachers and cast himself as a middle-aged hippie. His in-your-face weather report: “It’s the same as it was last month. When it changes, I’ll let you know.”

On to television

In 1978, Raiford took a job with Charlotte’s NBC affiliate on Channel 36 as news anchor and host of a no-budget TV talk show, “Call Raiford.”

“Newsman/curmudgeon Robert D. Raiford” is how he was described in his work on the “John Boy and Billy” show; Raiford is at far right; Claire B. Lang also did news and commentary. Tom Franklin

In 1986, when John Boy and Billy were developing their new morning show for WRFX-FM, they would sometimes make fun of the old man who did the TV call-in show with a single telephone on an empty desk. Someone said they should get him as the news reader for their new show. They thought it was just crazy enough to work, and Raiford went back to radio.

In the early days of the show, Raiford would report in his faux-serious voice on “fake news” he’d clipped from the wilder supermarket tabloids, stories about Bat Boy, Lobster Man and Hitler ghost squadrons being spotted on the moon. Later, he began writing satirical commentaries just speaking his mind. And he was blunt.

“Frequently, we get letters saying we shouldn’t talk like we do because children are listening,” he said in one. “Why are children listening to ‘The John Boy and Billy Show’ on a rock ‘n’ roll station anyway? ... You have umpteen radio stations in this city serving up pablum. Why aren’t you listening to them?”

While delighting the core audience, his rants would bring waves of complaints from those he targeted. It was the job of Randy Brazell, executive producer of the “John Boy & Billy” show, to take the heat.

“Bob was everything you thought he was when you heard him on our show – crotchety, tight and opinionated. But he was also a sensitive, tender man that I could make cry just by telling him I loved him – which I did often,” Brazell said.

“He was a self-proclaimed curmudgeon with a gift for calling things like he saw them, without worrying about whose toes got in the way. Unfortunately, I’m the guy who would have to argue with him about laying off something when the complaint calls numbered too high. On one of those exchanges, he barked that it was his job to ‘piss people off’ – to which I barked back, ‘Fine, but not all of them at the same time!’ 

He graduated from Concord High School and lived most of his adult life in the house his father, a textile company representative, built for the family in 1935 near the Cabarrus County courthouse.

Raiford picked up bit parts in TV and movies, usually as a gruff authority figure, often a judge. He had three appearances on “Matlock,” a legal series filmed in Wilmington starring Andy Griffith.

Fought back from stroke

After his stroke, Raiford went through two years of arduous rehabilitation to regain his speech and mobility, said his wife of 30 years, Kelia Raiford.

But he remained frustrated to the end that he couldn’t resume his independent lifestyle. He loved to ride his Harley Davidson motorcycle and was an ardent skydiver, having jumped more than two dozen times with the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg.

In October, Raiford’s strength suddenly sagged and he entered a rapid decline.

Raiford is survived by his wife Kelia, and four children. Three earlier marriages ended in divorce.

On the subject of obituaries, Raiford was outspoken. He would fuss about how people in the Observer and Independent Tribune in Concord would “enter the kingdom,” “earn his wings,” or “go to her reward.”

“When I die,” Raiford would rant, “just say, ‘He died.’ None of that other stuff.”

Request granted.

Observer staff writer Tim Funk contributed.