Friday, November 16, 2007

227 -- Al Smith, a true Comment on Kentucky

I do not like to copy other people's work - I have done it once or twice. This blog is meant as a forum for me and my thoughts. However, my words or thoughts or knowledge are not enough for the now-and-then significant events which may happen in Louisville, or Kentucky, or elsewhere.

Tonight an era in television journalism centered on the Commonwealth I know and love and call home, and the politics therein, which I also know and love, will come to an end. I have watched Al Smith's Comment on Kentucky on KET for years, not religiously, but enough to be called a junkie. It has provided me with insight from journalists across the state on issues important to me and ones which perhaps should be to you. I am not qualified to make personal comments on Mr. Smith's retirement except to say that for a confirmed political junkie and hack like me, he will be missed. Reprinted below are comments from someone who is qualified, Courier-Journal columnist Tom Dorsey. His column today on Mr. Smith's retirement, culminating in a closing broadcast tonight of Comment on Kentucky, follows below.

Mr. Smith, thank you.


Al Smith era ends
'Comment on Kentucky' pulled state together

Tom Dorsey

Kentucky is a big state with its head in the North, its feet in the South and arms extending east and west. It's also divided by more than the compass points.

Bringing it all together is hard to do, but Al Smith did it for a generation on KET. He's stepping down from his TV pulpit after three decades with a final one-hour "Comment on Kentucky" at 8 tonight on KET1. The farewell show briefly follows the normal weekly political discussion before featuring a salute to his career.

Smith, 80, has been host of that program since 1974 except for a stint when he served on the Appalachian Regional Commission. "Comment on Kentucky" is the longest-running show on KET. Smith has been the host longer than any other public-affairs show moderator in the PBS system.

Tonight's tribute will also be about the love affair he has had with his adopted state for nearly half a century. His weekly program was a political forum on which he showcased the best and brightest reporters from around the state, who explained what was happening within the commonwealth.

"Al provided a common thread of water-cooler conversation across the entire breadth of the state," said Ferrell Wellman, a former WAVE-TV political reporter who is now a journalism professor at Eastern Kentucky University. "He'll be missed," said Wellman. "He was one of a kind."

"The program is a way for people to see the curtain pulled back … to say what the news is but then to have the opportunity to say what it means," said Al Cross, a former Courier-Journal political reporter who is now an assistant journalism professor at the University of Kentucky. "Commentary is essential to the coverage of politics," Cross emphasized, "because there is so much spin."

"He's an encyclopedia of Kentucky history and politics," said WHAS-TV political reporter Mark Hebert. He said Smith's program showed people from all over that in an often divided state they had a lot in common.

Beyond all the professional compliments, Hebert said Smith is "the nicest guy on the planet … very generous with his time and his money. If you're a friend of Al Smith's, you're a friend for life. If you get mad at him, he'll still stay your friend," Hebert said.

Smith has acquired a wealth of friends across the state since he first arrived in Kentucky in 1958. It had been a bumpy ride to the Bluegrass State for Smith, and he had his hat in hand back then.

He was born in Florida but moved to Tennessee with his family as a child. He joined the Army at 17 and served at Fort Knox. His dad had a drinking problem. The son picked up the bad habit.

Drinking and not showing up for classes caused him to leave Vanderbilt University, according to a profile in Kentucky Monthly magazine. He drifted to New Orleans, where he worked on two major daily newspapers and tossed away that future too.

"I had a good career in New Orleans until I blew it away with a bottle," he said in a recent phone interview. The city was a wide-open town where you could drink around the clock, which is what Smith did for a decade until he got fired. Drinking may have also cost him to miss out on following in the footsteps of a famous broadcaster. It happened when NBC in Chicago called Smith in 1957.

"They said, 'We got this kid named John Chancellor who is going to New York and will give you a chance (at his job), but you'll have to do a screen test,' " Smith recalled. He couldn't make it.

"I had the shakes so bad … I couldn't have gotten on the bus to go to Chicago without a pint of whiskey in my pocket, but I don't regret it because that's what brought me to Kentucky."

A friend had told him of a job on the then-News Democrat in Russellville, but the bottle soon followed. That's when a friend invited him to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. "I stopped drinking," Smith said. "It saved my life, but I don't get up on a soapbox about it."

"The people who knew me when I was at my worst stuck with me when I changed," he said. He wound up owning the paper and several others. The outspoken editor also made a name for himself. The Courier-Journal once dubbed him the "devil and the darling of Russellville."

Smith always felt he was destined for the big time, but he began to see the world differently in Russellville.

"When I figured out that Russellville was a miniature of the world, I got my head on straight," he said. "Everything that went on in the bigger world was there in the little world. The police, the schools, the fire department, the need for jobs, for health … every issue was right on my desk every day for a country editor to think and write about." But it was interacting one on one with his readers that he loved.

"The people involved were right there at the Rotary Club and the church with you, playing ball with your kids," he said. "There was no barrier between you and the people you were writing about. They would come right in off the street and tell you what they thought. If you wrote about a school principal, you were sitting with him the next day at the Lions Club breakfast eating pancakes."

Then in 1974 the phone rang. O. Leonard Press, the founder of KET, was on the line looking for a journalist to start a new program on the state network.

"He turned the lights on for me," said Smith. Suddenly Smith had a megaphone that could be heard across the whole state.

"This state has enormous barriers between the different regions," said Wellman, but he believes Smith's program managed to break through them.

Wherever Wellman went reporting, from small towns to county courthouses, people would mention Smith's show. "It was the one source of information people could rely on across the entire length of the state every week. That just hadn't existed before," Wellman said.

Smith, who had lived in every region of Kentucky from the mountains to small towns and cities, sold his papers and moved to Lexington in 1985 with wife Martha Helen. He went on to become the senior statesman of Kentucky broadcast journalists.

He's seen lots of changes in more than half a century of reporting. Smith has watched people go from sole reliance on newspapers for all their information, to radio, to television and now to the Internet.

"Journalism has become more Wal-Marted … by conglomerate ownership," he said. "Everything is part of a chain now." Smith doesn't think that's all bad and believes many newspapers are better now than before. But there are also some downsides.

"Stock-market ownership means when the market goes down, they start cutting newsroom staff," he said. " Even with all the information we have, there's still not enough getting down to the grass roots."

Smith is leaving the program because he thinks at 80 it's time to relinquish the chair. KET will use guest hosts until a successor is named. "Those who follow simply stand on his shoulders," said KET executive director Malcolm Wall in a press statement.

Smith won't retire to a rocking chair. He wants to finish his memoir about life and politics in Kentucky. He also wants to help Cross, who is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, maintain and strengthen small-town newspapers, which hold a big place in Smith's heart.

"The job is to be honest and informative," he said, "to keep the doors open for different opinions and ideas to be expressed and to face the person whose ideas you are debating … to live next door to them and to have your child marry their child. That's the interesting part of small-town life, and I loved it. It's been a great ride."

1 comment:

Nick Stump said...

Very Nice.

As you pointed out, Al Smith has always been a good friend to rural Kentucky. What a tremendous public servant he has been.

I'm also glad to see him joining with Mr. Cross and his outstanding Rural Blog. It's a good fit. If your readers haven't seen this outstanding site, I highly recommend it.

I'll certainly miss the Comment On Kentucky I've known all these years.

The Archives at Milepost 606


Louisville, Kentucky, United States
Never married, liberal Democrat, born in 1960, opinionated but generally pleasant, member of the Episcopal Church. Graduate of Prestonia Elementary, Durrett High, and Spalding University; the first two now-closed Jefferson County Public Schools, the latter a very small liberal arts college in downtown Louisville affiliated with the Roman Catholic Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. My vocation and avocation is politics. My favorite pastime is driving the backroads of Kentucky and southern Indiana, visiting small towns, political hangouts, courthouses, churches, and cemeteries. You are welcome to ride with me sometime.