Longform

The Quiet Man

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Smith gets around with the help of his scooter and his wife of twenty years, Diana, who bathes him and helps him get dressed in the morning. He describes his scooter as a "hindrance," though he says he's not complaining. "When there's a media crush, [the Americans With Disabilities Act] won't help me get access to a person," he notes. "Sometimes there's so many people and so many cords."

Mostly, though, Smith's struggle has been about keeping himself on the air for so many years, despite low ratings and an industry more renowned for blue-collar Lous from Littleton or over-the-top shock jocks who make a living from provocation. "Now it's, 'I'd rather have somebody that's loud and people will pay attention,'" says veteran Denver sportscaster Sandy Clough, who was once known for his abrasive, phone-slamming style but has now mellowed to the point that it seems logical for him to follow Smith's 10 a.m.-to-noon slot on the Fan. "Thierry's been able to survive through a period of change. People who follow him tend to be very loyal."

No one else but venerable Denver sports-talk hosts Irv Brown and Joe Williams survived "the lean years" of the late 1980s and early 1990s, says Paul Walker, a communications instructor at the University of Colorado and sports-radio buff. "Six, seven years ago this market was awful, a dead zone for sports-talk radio. I don't think Thierry has to take a backseat to anyone."

Smith has worked in local sports radio since 1981, first at KDKO, then at KYBG ("K-Big"), then back to KDKO, and now at the Fan. Sixteen years, he admits, "is an unusual period for anyone to survive in this business."

He has survived largely by making the high-school sports scene his niche. And he has survived by carefully playing off his racial identity. He knows when to turn it off and when to turn it on. He remains the only black voice in Denver sports radio, where, as Clough notes, "the people making the decisions are primarily white.

"If he weren't black, he'd still be a legitimate figure on the scene," adds Clough. But Smith thinks it was being black that got him into trouble at K-Big.

The trouble started in the fall of 1990, when Smith made a big deal of becoming a Raiders fan after the team hired the first black head coach in the NFL, Art Shell. Though the announcement angered some callers, in reality the stunt was as much about provoking controversy--Smith's partner at the time was ex-Broncos linebacker Jim Ryan--as it was a political statement.

"That was all about entertainment," Smith says today. "You'd call rooting for another team, and we'd ambush you. I knew it was going to be somewhat of a shock. Even Ryan's mouth dropped open at first, but then he caught on."

Smith's comments, however, didn't sit well with station manager Ron Jamison, who allegedly wanted Smith to tone down the "black" commentary.

"I just think Ron, when he hired Thierry, was looking for someone who just happened to be black but was the same as Irv Brown or Joe Williams," says Billy Scott, referring to Brown's and Williams's play-it-safe style on race issues. "He was instructed not to mention any racial issues, no matter how legitimate or current."

"They felt good about hiring this black talk-show host," adds Smith, "but they didn't realize what came with that--more minority callers, minority issues. It wasn't something I discouraged callers from."

Jamison, Smith suggested in a lawsuit filed in May 1994, was opposed to the "Sports Rap" title of the show and dismayed at the high number of black callers. Though constrained by a confidentiality clause signed when the case was settled this past summer, Smith says he was targeted for making innocuous comments that were misunderstood.

During UNLV's trip to Denver for the NCAA basketball championship in 1990, for example, Smith made an on-air remark about the dearth of black cheerleaders for the Vegas squad. "The Vegas cheerleaders were like clones, all blond and blue-eyed," he recalls. "I said it would have been nice to have a minority girl, and--boom!--here comes a memo."

The memos came often, he says, "berating you every day for comments you thought were innocent. It got to where I was paranoid. I never thought of myself as a racist."

The following May, Smith had been moved from his daytime post to a nighttime slot. By the summer, he was off the air, assigned to do community-relations work for the station. The following year he resigned. Roughly two years later, in May 1994, Smith filed suit in federal court against KYBG and Jamison. (Jamison, now out of the radio business and running a Quizno's sandwich shop, declines to discuss the case, citing the confidentiality agreement.)

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T.R. Witcher