Ron Smith: The Real Thing

–Richard E. Vatz

Ron Smith was the best at what he did. There was no luck in his success, except perhaps in marrying the exceptional June. He discussed political issues on “The Ron Smith Show” with the best and brightest, present company excepted, and he never met an argument he shied from confronting.

How was he off-the-air? The only difference in the off-air Ron Smith was that he displayed even more intensity, if possible, than he displayed on the air. He respected his tremendous WBAL colleagues off-air – always.

He was honesty personified: he never, to my knowledge, uttered an opinion he didn’t hold, and he never denied an opinion he did hold. What was his most salient information-gathering quality?

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Ed Kiernan, WBAL’s general manager, said it precisely and perfectly in David Zurawik’s superb column today: Ron was “a voracious reader.” Everything he could get his hands on, he read. So why was he such an inveterate reader? Because he was insatiably curious, the necessary component for being an interesting discussant and being “Talk Show Man,” a title once used by a columnist on one of that writer’s churlish days to disparage Ron, but accepted as a compliment by the always unthreatened Ron Smith.

Ron was interested in all contentious issues. He sought out the best articulation of views that were the opposite of his own. He was a genuine scholar. I was not in Ron’s inner circle, but I knew him as a politically compatible guest on his show for years and years and a friend who would dine with him on odd occasion at The Oregon Grille.

Ron Smith, simply put, was the best radio talk show host I have known, and there are and have been some good ones nationally and, indeed, locally. This is a professional judgment, informed by the research and teaching I have done on Media Criticism, unaffected by the warmth I feel toward him.

As I was quoted in Zurawik’s column today, I think of the same words frequently whenever I think of Ron: he hated insipid conversation. I also said what everyone notices, that Ron was well-informed, but that doesn’t say it all. He was conversant with an incredible wealth of categories and issues — politics, economics, criminology and more – and this was truly daunting for those who would challenge him.

He had nary any intellectual insecurities; he would tackle the best arguments on issues consistently and compellingly. I am a genuine expert on a specific area, the Szaszian philosophy of mental illness. Ron and I have gone toe-to-toe on issues relating to that philosophy, and Ron, who is 90% with Thomas Szasz’s positions, gave me the toughest fight on that issue, hands-down.

We always seemed to disagree. In his last days on the air, we disagreed – we agreed on so much, but on the air it seems we never agreed – on the need for hyper-security at airports, and we had our usual great fight. “Nothing personal,” as Ron said on the show, but we loved the fight: fair, unyielding and substantive, always substantive.

We disagreed humorously, but sincerely. The fight for which we are best known together was on whether Christiane Amanpour was fetching. Were we kidding? I still don’t know, but Ron thought she was not as I saw her. It became a facetious running feud, but I can tell you that Ron never gave an opinion he didn’t actually hold.

The intensity was sometimes more on the air, but there was no fakery to Ron. He respected his callers tremendously, but not all of his callers. He might from time to time cut a caller short, but it was never due to his being threatened by a good opposing argument; it was due to the caller’s obtuseness or the caller who persistently — and it was only when that persistence never stopped –interrupted him and talked over him, uninterested in a dialogue.

If you weren’t interested in dialogue, Ron wasn’t interested in you. Regarding such callers, incidentally, I shall never understand Ron’s patience to the extent it was there.

Finally, I want to say that in another David Zurawik column Ron compliments personally some political adversaries, and I have had identical experiences with those he names: Gov. Martin O’Malley, Barbara Mikulski, Doug Gansler, and Peter Franchot. That tells you a lot about the quality of political disagreement in which Ron Smith engaged: it was all about the issues and was never personal with quality people, which these politicians are, and at the top of that list is Ron Smith.

Richard E. Vatz, a Towson University professor, was a frequent guest on Ron Smith’s show.

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