Sound of Silence

In retrospect, it could have been much worse. When KLIF-AM 570 talk radio host Tom Kamb didn't show up for work two weeks ago, station management immediately began a worried search for him. Kamb, a race- and gay-baiting conservative known for angering Mayor Ron Kirk and garnering a nearly infinitesimal audience, had vanished hours after being chastised by his bosses for his latest cursing outburst to a caller. He left the meeting, went on a sales call with a station advertising representative, then announced he had to "check on his guns." That was the last his co-workers would see of the former cop for days.

KLIF management feared the worst. Even casual listeners could tell that Kamb was becoming increasingly unstable on the air, although when the host is an acknowledged homosexual who loves to rail against "homos" and who advocates shooting illegal immigrants at the border, the line between genuinely unsettling behavior and silly premeditated outbursts is often unclear. It seemed that the pressures of working at KLIF were getting to him. He was a big-dog hire at a station that had become a wounded puppy yelping in a field, lost and sad. Witness the station's ranking, about 30th in the market, and Kamb's 0.7 rating, roughly 4,200 listeners during any 15-minute segment. Clearly, given that Kamb has lost listeners since he debuted last year, his cries, although shrill, were too weak to be noticed.

But that's not the only reason KLIFers were concerned. They knew that Kamb had been doubly troubled: Earlier this year, someone very close to him died in a tragic way. Who that was and the circumstances surrounding it aren't important, and since I couldn't reach Kamb, I don't feel comfortable detailing what happened. Suffice to say it was the sort of misfortune from which some people never recover.

Kamb, though, responded by working right through his suffering. As he became increasingly high-strung on the air--co-workers say that in person at a social setting he is low-key and easygoing--management worried how the pressures would manifest themselves.

Which gave rise to their frantic efforts to find Kamb. They tried to reach him at his apartment. They called the police and filed a missing persons report. The police then searched his place, finding no clues as to where he was. The station called Kamb's family to ask them to help find him. Finally, after a few days of this, the call came. Kamb said he had just taken off. He would come back in the office Monday to discuss his future. On Thursday, a few hours after a request by the Dallas Observer to discuss Kamb's disappearance, the station announced via a press release that Kamb was leaving the station.

"[The] tragedy has created a need for me to return home and deal with the grieving process," Kamb, who is from San Francisco, said in the press release. "Furthermore, the stress and anxiety associated with this event has made it impossible for me to consistently perform a daily talk show."

Kamb thanked KLIF management and added, "If anybody thinks they didn't support my style of radio, they are mistaken."

I have no doubt that's true. Kamb's numbers were horrible, but so are the entire station's. At least he was generating some press. (He'd been suspended after calling a listener an asshole, and some of his publicity stunts received coverage in this paper and the dailies.) Plus, he'd been on the job less than a year. There was no spin in management's press release.

"We just came to the conclusion," says KLIF General Manager Lon Bason, "that it was in the best interests of everyone to move on. It was not healthy for him to stay on the air, and it was not healthy for the station."

The real question, then, is not, "Why did KLIF get rid of Tom Kamb?" but is instead, "Did they get rid of him soon enough?" In other words, should management have found a way to address the grief and strain Kamb was battling before he disappeared?

At first, I thought so. But several of Kamb's co-workers and other radio managers pointed out that some DJs, like any other worker, effectively use their jobs to help bring them focus after tragedy. All, however, admit they could see a problem coming. Said one station manager at an all-music station, "That microphone picks up everything. It pulls out of you what you're really feeling, your emotional state, and everyone listening picks up on it. And that's even at a music station, much less a talk station."

Bason believes they handled the problem as quickly as possible. In fact, because of their protracted dealings with former KLIF host Kevin McCarthy ("Last Call," May 11, 2000) after he began suffering apparent panic attacks, Bason says the station resolved to make a fast decision.

"It made us bring up the subject with Kamb a whole lot sooner," he says. "We wanted to make sure we gave him any help he needed, and quickly. In Tom's case, with what happened, you resist that help for so long. And he said he knows now he needs that."

It could be argued that a talk show is in itself therapeutic, an aural couch where hosts, Frasier Crane-like, are able to work out political, cultural and even personal issues. The problem is that talk radio has all the trappings of therapy, yet its effect is completely opposite. Instead of opening up and humbling its subject, a talk show emboldens its host, makes him feel more powerful and sure. It's why so many radio types crumble when they're forced to leave their jobs. They've been mainlining ego-crack. Withdrawal is inevitable. If you're worried your host could possibly be suicidal, that reality makes a radio suit's job all the more difficult. You don't want to take away a junkie's junk.

"On the air, you've got to open up," Bason says. "Anytime you become a host, you divulge a lot about yourself, just by sharing your opinions, if nothing else. Your life becomes an open book, which ironically can lead you to even more depression. It's really tough to know what to do.

"Which is why [program director] Jeff Hillery has the most difficult job in radio. We have to build the station, we have to have patience, and he has to make sure everyone is OK day to day. Not easy. But we all have to be psychiatrists in this business."

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Eric Celeste
Contact: Eric Celeste