Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Hello, I Must Be Going: A Requiem For A Talk Show Curmudgeon

When I moved to Pittsburgh in 1990, my first job was selling copiers, practically door to door. I was on the road a lot, and (with the exception of my then-fiance), without a friend. I was still in love with radio, especially “talk” radio, and I fortuitously found 1250 am WTAE.

The afternoon shift was helmed by an unconventional host named Doug Hoerth. He could talk about books, TV, movies other entertainment, as well as politics. He was very intelligent, and downright goofy. I fancied him right away.

In 1990, Doug was in Pittsburgh for only 10 years and he was still a Jersey-boy at heart. That separated him from a lot of “yinzers,” that continue to populate the local talk show landscape. Matter of factly, Doug talked about reading newspaper after newspaper, magazine after magazine, book after book. (I learned about William F. Buckley's run for Mayor of New York exclusively because of Doug's show. I got Buckley's out-of-print book out of the Carrick library immediately after work one day as a result.)

It might be hard to find a more well-read talk show host (not to be confused with Jerry Bowyer, the smartest talk show host I've ever heard, but that's another story), as Hoerth went to downtown newsstands for New York tabloids and anything else he could read.

In the early 1990's, Doug Hoerth was as good a talk show host as there was anywhere. Anywhere.

Granted it also helped that Doug was surrounded by other talented talkers, like Lynn Cullen and Phil Musick. Lynn, I remember, wept on the air when former Pittsburgh Mayor Richard Caliguiri died suddenly. Musick was even more of a fan of books than Hoerth, but he wasn't nearly as entertaining (Phil was a writer first). It's easy to say that that lineup was the best I heard in my 20 years in this great city.

Hoerth was also eclectic. Some would say weird. He was.

A former bud exterminator in Florida, Hoerth challenged a radio station program director to put him on the air. That was the beginning of a storied career. He worked at much-larger KDKA but really found his footing at WTAE. It was obvious that Hoerth was prickly. His life was an open book for long-time listeners. He was an alcoholic, clean since something like the late 1970's. Unlucky in love—if memory—serves he was married once, long-divorced and without children.

Doug went out of his way to never mention exactly where he lived, but frequent listeners could figure out it was Bellevue, a working-class hamlet just north of downtown. He didn't cook, but ate every meal at restaurants in his neighborhood. Other than those outings, he boasted of never leaving his apartment, which was a stone's throw from his “Wall of Unwed Mothers,” a loitering area for young girls pushing strollers.

Some “homespun” stories revolved around a coffee pot he kept in his bedroom. It was a makeshift bedpan he used so he wouldn't have to haul himself out of bed at night. I'm not sure if that was inspired by anything Jean Shepard wrote. Shepard, a popular radio personality far before his “A Christmas Story” became a holiday staple, was one of Hoerth's inspirations.

Hoerth was summarily bumped from the afternoon shift to morning drive for inexplicable reasons. His show wasn't the powerhouse of intelligentsia it once was, with Hoerth and producer Lawrence Gaines talking about their lack of sleep, “All in the Family” and “The Godfather” over and over again. I'm not sure when it happened, but Hoerth was let go by WTAE. His prospects were limited.

For a while, another AM talker, WPTT, tried to pick up the mantle of smart, local talk. They hired Cullen, and after a while off the air, plucked Hoerth from near obscurity and put him back behind the microphone. (I even called the station and talked with the program director in an attempt to cast a vote on Hoerth's behalf about a year and a half before he was signed.) His first shift back was a frantic, excitable mess. But it was fantastic to have him back.

Internationally-known Forensics Pathologist Cyril Wecht was a perpetual guest. The two had tremendous discussions about everything under the sun, and Hoerth could stand toe-to-toe with the famed attorney/man-of-science. That wasn't always easy to do in talk radio, as Wecht's “Progressive” viewpoints often clashed with those of “Classic Liberal” Bowyer. Hoerth, a Libertarian, pretty much got along with everyone on air.

Another famed Pittsburgher, wrestler Bruno Sammartino was another visitor who was great for grand stories. In fact, it was on Hoerth's show that Sammartino “outed” famed actor Vincent Price for “liking larger men.” According to the long-time champ, Sammartino patronized a New York bar with friend Frank Sinatra and was unsuccessfully approached by Price. Hoerth about took a spit take on air. As did all who listened.

Granted, there was a time in which even I burned out from Uncle Dougie. His “edginess” was gone, never to return, except for the story of his mother.

Hoerth's mother lived with him during her waning years. After her passing, Doug started to talk that she was “back.” With Doug Hoerth telling the story, with his flare and sincerity, you truly thought it might be possible (even though it rarely happened outside of Divine Intervention). It was classic Hoerth.

Along the way he hosted listeners on Fridays. Four average joes would come in and they'd all discuss the issues of the day. I was originally on first after Major League Baseball players avoided a work stoppage. Most were happy. I said the Pirates would never compete unless there was a salary cap. To this day, they have not been competitive.

I was on again about a year later. During a commercial break, Hoerth looked at me, shook his finger and said. “You. You're good.” It was a triumph for sure. Hoerth then raced out and had a cigarette. Doug liked cigarettes. A lot.

It's a little known fact that Doug SCREAMED into the microphone, largely because of his own horrendous hearing. He said it was from a lifetime of listening to music through head phones. It was still jarring to hear his distinctive laugh and terrific thought of consciousness at a high decibel.

It's been a few years now since Doug Hoerth was let go from WPTT. The station nearly went dark, but it was saved by Ron Morris, “The American Entrepreneur.” It's a “Money Talk” station but Morris and long-time producer Darryl Grandy played a piece or two from Doug's archives today. Darryl, like Gaines (who passed a few years ago), like my friend Greg Kuntz, like my friend John Sawa, like my friend Dan Zabo, were producers for Doug Hoerth. And sadly, they were all shunned by the reclusive genius that was Doug Hoerth.

The radio show was Doug's reason to go on. And fan, any long-time listener knew it was.

According to published reports, a friend was worried about Hoerth earlier this week and called authorities. His body was found in his apartment. According to his own broadcasts, Hoerth was terrified of dying alone in his apartment and not being found for a while. That's exactly what happened.

Long time fans can't watch Blazing Saddles or hear Groucho Marx and not think about Doug Hoerth, the boy from Jersey who did good.

Doug Hoerth, dead at 66. Pittsburgh radio will never be the same. We all lost a friend.

1 comment:

Eugene B. Bergmann said...

From all you write about Hoerth, it certainly seems that there was some similarity between him and radio humorist Jean Shepherd. Shepherd spoke about everything one can think of for decades on the radio (he spent some time on Pittsburgh radio, too, before coming to New York, where he broadcast on WOR for over 21 years). Of course he created in all media you can think of. Much info about him can be found at and many hundreds of audios of his over 5,000 broadcasts are readily and inexpensively available through that above website and on ebay. Much more about his creative career can also be found in the only book about him, my EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD! THE ART AND ENIGMA OF JEAN SHEPHERD.