Thursday, June 24, 1999

Airwaves carry host beyond his disability




BY JOHN JOHNSTON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Greg Smith poses at the WHIO radio antenna in Kettering.
(Thomas E. Witte photo)
| ZOOM |
        YELLOW SPRINGS, Ohio— Greg Smith has a deep, robust voice that resonates perfectly on the radio. “But what matters more,” the 35-year-old talk-show host says, “is what's between the ears.”

        Meaning a brain, of course. Mr. Smith's is in fine working order. His body, well, that's another story.

        He wears a pleasant smile, a beard and glasses. But at 65 pounds, he almost disappears into the seat of a motorized wheelchair.

        This Sunday evening, he maneuvers the machine through his parents' home in Yellow Springs, about 60 miles northeast of Cincinnati. He stops in a bedroom that doubles as his radio studio, where in a couple of hours he will broadcast On A Roll: Talk Radio on Life & Disability, a weekly syndicated program heard on 15 stations in 10 states. (www.onaroll.com)

        The program is on a roll. Mr. Smith has interviewed big-name guests such as Bob Dole and Christopher Reeve. William Kennard, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, is scheduled to be on in a few weeks.

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        Although no Cincinnati station airs it, WHIO-AM (1290) in Dayton carries the second half of the two-hour program live from 10 to 11 p.m. Sundays.

        Mr. Smith started the show in 1992 in Phoenix. Focusing on people with disabilities — “America's largest minority group,” Mr. Smith notes — the program dispenses information and resources via interviews, listener call-ins, and the host's upbeat banter.

        “I don't know what it's like not to have a disability,” says Mr. Smith, who was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy when he was 2. “So I'm just doin' my thing, living my life, and trying to make the most of it.”

        He's also trying to dispel misconceptions about the 54 million Americans with disabilities, including 2 million in wheelchairs.

        Among his on-air guests this night is Rusty Redfern, a Stone Mountain, Ga., artist who was born without arms. Mr. Smith asks him what it was like playing guard and tackle on his high school football team.

        “Never got penalized for holding,” Mr. Redfern says.

        It's the kind of funny line Mr. Smith loves. He tries to make his show entertaining in the hope that non-disabled people also will tune in.

        “The most disabling aspect of having a disability is not the fact that I can't lift more than three pounds or that I can't walk,” Mr. Smith says. “The toughest thing is the attitude and limitations that non-disabled people place upon us. I want to open some minds up to the fact that everybody can be looked at as equal.”

        In many ways, he's led a life non-disabled people can relate to. He went to college. Got married. Had three children. Separated from his wife. Tried to make it work again. Eventually got a divorce. Moved to Yellow Springs in January 1998. He has custody of the kids, ages 7, 5 and 2, who are spending the summer with their mother in Arizona.

        Mr. Smith's parents, Adelia and Jim Smith, instilled in their son the notion that he could do whatever he wanted.

        Doctors recommended he attend a school for children with disabilities. Instead, the Smiths sent him to public schools.

        He walked — with great difficulty — until he was a teen. Lacking strength to move one leg in front of the other, he leaned from side to side. Eventually, that led to painful spinal problems. And so at age 13 doctors broke his back, straightened it, and fused the spine with metal rods.

        That forced him into the wheelchair. But it didn't slow him down.

        On his first day of high school he told his mother he wanted to be a drummer in the marching band.

        Fine, she said.

        At first he played on the sideline, but he felt out of place. So the band director helped move the joystick of his electric wheelchair to the footrest. Then with his foot he could motor around the field, drums strapped to the chair.

        “He's a living example of someone who doesn't just sit back and feel sorry for himself,” his father says.

        Mr. Smith's broadcasting career began in suburban Chicago. His high school had its own radio station. A big sports fan, he announced football, basketball and baseball games.

        “Play-by-play was a way for me to perform, like the athletes were performing,” he says.

        He continued announcing at Arizona State University, where he became sports director of the campus station his freshman year.

        As graduation neared, he gravitated to the business side of radio. He sought a job as a sales rep at commercial stations.

        “Nobody would give me a chance,” he says. “They told me they didn't think anybody in a wheelchair could do the job.”

        He eventually found work as research director with a Phoenix station. While there, he hosted the post-game show of pro football's Arizona Cardinals.

        But still he longed for a sales job. He approached his boss, who told him, “You're not a sales rep.”

        “You don't know what I am!” Mr. Smith fumed.

        He brainstormed ways that his disability could help, not hinder, his career, which led him to launch “On a Roll.” It became a reality in 1992 when BankAmerica signed on as a sponsor.

        Slowly, the show expanded into other radio markets. A 1997 syndication deal further broadened the audience. In time, more corporate sponsors — including Microsoft — signed contracts.

        One sign of the show's growing reputation: Mr. Reeve asked to be on the program.

        Mr. Smith acknowledges that the interview with Mr. Reeve, whose injury resulted from a horse-riding accident, was “a little awkward.”

        “I didn't want to do the Oprah-style interview or David Letterman-style interview where they're just amazed that he's out doing things. I'm not amazed by that. I wanted to know what he's doing for people with disabilities, other than directing all that spotlight toward spinal cord injury cure.”

        There's nothing wrong with finding a cure, Mr. Smith says. “But if someone like Christopher Reeve can shine a third of the spotlight he's got on cure to (issues such as) respect, dignity, equality, civil rights, access and employment, that would drastically change the lives of people with disabilities.

        “My mission is to open up minds about the fact that we're just humans, like everybody else.”

        That mission got a boost in February when Mr. Smith was featured in a Wall Street Journal article.

        Soon after, Mr. Smith got a call from the Radio Center for People with Disabilities, based in Chicago. That led to a syndication deal that he hopes will help get his show into untapped markets, such as Cincinnati.

        He's also working on a book deal.

        “It's all kind of playing into my plan of being a multimedia crip buddy to America,” Mr. Smith says, smiling.

        In one hour he goes on the air. He must make some last-minute preparations. His computer is logged on to the Internet. His computerized address book is open, and he's checking in with guests. As he leans forward, a Velcro strap holds his slight frame into the wheelchair.

        “I've never seen anybody work as hard as this guy,” his father says. “It can be 3 o'clock in the morning and I'll hear that click, click, click on the computer.”

        Greg Smith isn't about to let up now.

        “I've noticed a little decline in my strength, but it's to be expected,” he says. “It's not something I dwell on. I feel good. I'm excited about this time in my life. I feel like I'm on the verge of a lot of success in my career.”

       



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