Less than three months ago, on a beautiful fall evening on the banks of Spa Creek in Annapolis, I was sharing cocktails with WBAL talk show host Ron Smith, chatting about empires and immigration, I recall.
We were there that evening at the invitation of the Maryland Public Policy Institute. It was the institute’s 10th anniversary, and it was honoring Smith with its first Charles Carroll of Carrollton award for advancing the cause of liberty in Maryland.
I was invited gratis at the last minute, but more than happy to honor a man who was indeed, as the institute referred to him, an “icon” of Baltimore broadcasting.
Smith wasn’t even the featured speaker that night, but he was the man we came to fete. “I don’t care much about awards, but I care about this one,” Ron said.
I was only the occasional guest on Ron’s show; my reporting didn’t provide him enough of the red meat he craved for the show.
But he is a master of the format – a talent much more difficult than it appears — and one of the best read, most informed talk show hosts you’re ever likely to hear.
He is often described as conservative, but more of the libertarian persuasion, so he took an award honoring his commitment to liberty very seriously. In recent years, he has become exceedingly pessimistic about our political and financial system, a function of age and knowing too much. Oh, and he was always willing to rant about the right to bear arms. “I’m not a gun nut,” Ron said that night. “I’m a Constitution nut.”
His integrity is well known, and when this ex-Marine opposed the war in Iraq from the get-go, he lost a third or more of his audience. Despite his own political leanings, he was always fair to the guests with whom he disagreed, such as a U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, even though he referred to members of Congress in general as “temple monkeys.” (A nice front page sendoff from The Sun’s David Zurawik on Sunday recounts Cardin’s conversation with Smith.)
On Oct. 17, I was driving to Annapolis for the first day of the special session on redistricting as Ron announced on his show that he had stage four pancreatic cancer, but he promised to fight it. A month later he gave up on the chemotherapy, but continued to appear on the show. Monday morning, he gave that up too, saying he was retiring, too weak to stay on the air. (Zurawik again has the full story.)
The phone calls in tribute flooded in Monday morning and guest host Marta Mossburg, who had invited me to that September celebration honoring Ron, did an admirable job with a host of callers wishing well to the man that she was temporarily replacing and who will soon die. By his own choice, it is a more public passing than most of us will have.
There are number of good talk show hosts in Baltimore, and I’ve appeared on their shows. But none had the breadth and depth of Smith, the range and the knowledge, the staying power. His listeners offered even more eloquent farewells.
Thousands of people will miss the “voice of reason,” as he styled himself. I will be one of them. That was worth saying before he passes away.