Not long ago, we heard about a fellow PWD (person with diabetes) who’d recently retired after an illustrious career as a radio personality that spanned nearly half a century.
Not only was he one of the pioneers who helped shape the radio station formats of today, but he learned the radio ropes in places across the globe and even has experiences reminiscent of Robin Williams in the movie “Good Morning Vietnam!“
We’re talking about Bob Leonard of South Florida, who’s been living with type 2 for almost 20 years now, and whose tale of proactive life change and self-management coupled with his taking D-Awareness to the radio waves is nothing short of inspiring. Although he’s now partially retired, the 65-year-old has more plans in store that may very well include D-awareness coming to an improv comedy stage near you!
A Guest Post by Bob Leonard, Radio DJ with Diabetes
Radio has always been a very important influence in my life, as a child growing up in the 1950s. We didn’t have a TV when I was young, and really no one did, so all of our entertainment came from listening to the radio waves.
As I got a little older, TV had become a staple in practically every home on the block, but radio still mattered. Our music was becoming a statement and the disc jockeys I listened to positioned that statement like nothing I had ever heard. They were loud, they were creative, they talked fast, and they talked to ME.
So to me, it was just a given that I’d end up in radio. I would just have to age a little and look for a window of opportunity. But being drafted in 1966, that dream took a detour. When I came home from basic training, there was a brand new “soul” station in town that played all the best music around. This was music borne of the jazz and blues I’d heard growing up in my particular household, where entire walls were covered with shelves full of records. I took a ride to the station and introduced myself, not knowing whether I’d be coming home from my service in Vietnam that I’d soon be leaving for. But the station took a chance on me, and I started learning the ropes of the radio world.
That continued during the next four years in places ranging from Nashville, TN, to the Republic of China, and even in Saigon, Vietnam, where I took advantage of the local radio scene to learn more and get involved in any way I could, before coming back to California in January 1970.
Stepping off the plane in San Francisco, I threw my duffel bag in a ditch and headed toward my career behind the microphone. It took a short while to get my foothold in what later became a truly storied career, as I was fortunate enough to be involved in a number of “firsts” in the industry.
In the mid 70′s, FM was still very new and fairly untested. I was on the air in Plainfied, New Jersey, and had been offered a job in Philadelphia at a brand new radio station called Magik–WMGK-FM. It was my first major market and I was their first-ever morning man. I couldn’t turn it down. But after a while, I learned that I also couldn’t support my young family with what they were paying. I asked for a raise and was told that I would never make any more money as long as I stayed there.
So I reached out to a couple of local stations, — WIP, an AM giant and the No. 1 station in town, and WYSP, a small FM station with a new rock & roll format. After meeting with program director Sonny Fox at WYSP, I took that position doing the morning show… not knowing Sonny had an ulterior motive! The station was doing a lot of new and experimental programming, and about a month after I started Sonny approached me about creating a new show based on radio comedy duo “Bob & Ray” in Boston and New York. I’d found them inspirational and entertaining, and was enthusiastic about doing our own show like that!
We became “Fox & Leonard,” and in those early days, Sonny did the show from his apartment while I was in the studio. We never saw each other as we created a show based on “theater of the mind,” comedy and rock & roll. After a short time, Fox & Leonard became the No. 1 morning show in Philadelphia and we later learned it was the prototype for the “morning zoo” format that eventually took over morning radio nationwide.
In 1981, I left to become morning host on WLS in Chicago for another groundbreaking experience. That’s where I helped physically build the studios and become the first person to turn on a microphone at the Satellite Music Network, which was the debut broadcasting company to experiment with 24-hour formats delivered by satellite. We were very successful and eventually became the ABC Radio Network, from where my morning show was syndicated on nearly 260 radio stations throughout the country and in a few other parts of the world for a quarter of a century. Through the auspices of ABC, I also became the first American to be broadcast by Radio Shanghai in the Peoples Republic of China – a show that I did twice a week for seven years.
These radio “firsts” were fun and very rewarding, but the 90s brought a health change for me that wasn’t either of those things: type 2 diabetes.
In 1994, I became the first person in my family to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. My doctor wasn’t happy with my blood work and wanted me to see an endocrinologist, who was very matter of fact in his diagnosis. “You have diabetes,” was really all I heard. That, and myself crying when I got to the car. I was devastated. I had worked very hard to get to where I was in the radio industry and this guy had just given me what I perceived to be a death sentence. I went home and told my wife through sobs that all had been for naught, that I was diabetic and it was all over.
Well, we got over my little “pity party” pretty quickly and we took a proactive approach to my health. Without any family or friends with diabetes, I didn’t know anything about this condition or how this could have happened. We later learned that my exposure in Southeast Asia during the war to Agent Orange could have contributed to type 2 diabetes among those like myself who served there.
But with family support, we charged full force into what seemed like an uphill battle. We got rid of the “Fry Daddy” and began compiling recipes and exercise programs. Within two years, I’d come off all meds and was maintaining my diabetes quite nicely. After a job loss and move to Miami, FL, I went back on Metformin three times a day.
That’s when I realized there was something more I could do for others living with diabetes, who might be facing what I’d gone through. I had the perfect outlet in radio to educate and entertain people about diabetes, and my microphone could carry this message nationally and even worldwide.
What better way to teach something, I thought, than to make it fun and, maybe even rewarding? I came up with an idea for a daily contest. I would take my blood sugar readings on the air and give the listeners a chance to win a prize by guessing my numbers. The person who came closest would be the winner. It became so popular that listeners would take their own readings at the same time and we would compare notes. Because of the nature of my show, I also often had authors and experts on air to explain things. Diabetes had become an integral part of my show, with the intention of getting rid of societal stigmas surrounding it. Everyone who listened to my show knew that I was diabetic and that I was on a crusade.
I was “That DJ with Diabetes, who wouldn’t shut up about it.”
My partner at the network and I would often make personal appearances in cities where we had affiliates. On one such visit to Helena, Montana, we were at an event signing autographs and meeting the listeners, when a man walked up with his little girl. He said that she wanted to give me a hug. It seems they were listening one morning as I was playing the “Guess My Blood Sugars” game, when the little girl jumped up excitedly and screamed, “Daddy, he has diabetes – just like me!” I gave her a hug, cried a little and realized that my diabetes had, indeed, made a difference in someone else’s life. This little girl was no longer ashamed. During the next few years, I received a number of letters and calls from people who also no longer tried to hide the fact that they were diabetic and no longer had any problem with “testing” in front of other people. They were able to realize that it was just the way it was!
I retired in 2011 after 47 years — amazingly the same year that WIP, where I’d first applied to back in the 70s — took over WYSP (94.1 FM) and changed formats from classic rock to sports talk radio. How ironic!
I’m now living near Fort Lauderdale in South Florida. I’m now getting my care through the VA Hospital, am still taking the Metformin and insulin has been mentioned as an option, but I am maintaining very nicely at this point. Our proactivity in regards to diabetes has simply become our way of life — our comfort zone. Diabetes has been a blessing for our entire family. I have no complaints about being diabetic. It’s caused me, and consequently all of those around me, to eat, think and act healthy.
My plan is to go back to acting and improve comedy, which I did a lot of in the 20 years living in Dallas working for ABC. It’s “work” that I love and can take the time to do now – along with writing, fishing and playing golf like any good South Floridian does in the middle of winter! Will I factor diabetes into my new improv and comedy gigs? Well, it’s improv, so I suppose if the opportunity should occur, I won’t shy away from it!
Honestly, I’m quite proud of my career and life, but something stands out in my mind about all that I’ve done through the years. I have met and interviewed politicians, rock stars, movie stars and authors… including hanging out and giving a smooch on the cheek to Mel Brooks! It’s been nearly 50 years of comedy, rock & roll and great fun…
Yet, the greatest accomplishment, in my mind, was making a difference in the life of that little girl, and subsequently, other diabetics who happened to tune in. They now feel the way that I did when I created a bumper sticker not long after my diagnosis that read: “I may have Diabetes, but Diabetes will NEVER have me.”
What a great attitude and important message, Bob, especially at a time when diabetes was mostly “under the rug.” We’re grateful for that, and hope you can crank up the volume on that message in this next chapter of your life!