By Julia Duin The Seattle Times
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Julia Duin shares an intimate portrait of the joy and pain of Delilah Rene, the most listened-to woman in American radio.
The Seattle Times
It has been more than a year since he left her: the carefree 18-year-old son with the tousled hair and crooked grin.
Zachariah Miguel Rene-Ortega's ashes are buried under an apple tree in a planting bed shaped like a tear. "Zack's Grove" also includes Greensleeves dogwoods, two fig trees and a wooden bus shelter with a sign stenciled in white: "Every hour I need Thee." Scattered about the grove are little talismans left by his friends.
Zack's mother is Delilah Rene, the most-listened-to woman in American radio. She lives with her large family on a 55-acre Port Orchard farm, along with one zebra, three emus, three dogs, four pigs, five sheep, six cats, 30 goats and dozens of chickens.
A remodeled 1907 farmhouse on the property serves as her six-bedroom, 2,500-square-foot home.
A multiwindowed turret on the second floor is set aside for prayer. This farm is where Zack grew up and made friends with local kids who still come over.
"Stuff just shows up," Delilah says, standing in the rain at the grove. "I come out here and find little tokens, mementos, stakes and flags."
She still dreams of Zack: happy, beautiful, ageless.
When asked how she gets through each day's mix of regret and sadness, she mentions God. "I know he's with Him," she says. "And when my time comes, I'll be with him."
Millions of listeners know Delilah, 59, from the radio show named after her. Although her voice has the smoothness of rich cream with a hint of a Southern drawl, she is a child of the rural Pacific Northwest. Born in Reedsport, Oregon, she is steeped in the values of God, family, frugality and hard work.
Any given day, 55,000 people try to call in to vent, ask advice or dedicate a song to someone they love; her shows are a dialogue between Delilah and the 80 to 100 who actually get through. After listening to callers pour out their problems, Delilah finds a song that matches their situation.
Delilah's common-sense advice and sympathy during the 34 years "The Delilah Show" has been on the airwaves have won her a huge following: 8.3 million listeners each week.
Her show airs daily from 7 p.m. to midnight on 164 stations (all listed on Delilah.com), stretching from Honolulu and Anchorage to Bangor, Maine.
Her syndicator, iHeart Media, runs the show off its app and her website in a continual 24/7 loop. She recently picked up new markets in Buffalo, Philadelphia, Sacramento and Phoenix and in January 2018, began a daytime show with KSWD in Seattle.
Delilah has earned some of the biggest accolades in the business: the Radio Hall of Fame in 2016; the National Association of Broadcasters/Marconi Award Network/Syndicated Personality of the Year, also in 2016; the NAB Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 2017.
She calls herself the "queen of sappy love songs," and she is an industry in her own right. Her Facebook page and website are peppered with names of celebrity friends, such as actress Roma Downey and singers Christina Aguilera and Jon Bon Jovi. And her website is full of marketing: books, contests, recipes, music, candy.
Delilah most recently chronicled her story in her 2018 book, "One Heart at a Time": how she cut her teeth on local radio in Oregon as a teen; was disowned by her father for marrying a black man; weathered three divorces (she's now married to her fourth husband, Paul Warner, who has five children of his own); started the nonprofit organization Point Hope, which advocates for foster care in the United States and for forgotten children in Ghana; and clawed her way to the top of radio stardom after multiple firings and moves around the country.
It's a story of inspiring success, and almost-unbearable heartbreak.
After high school, Delilah worked in Coos Bay and Eugene, then moved to Seattle in 1981 for a job at a rock station. Her flagship nighttime show started in 1984, when she began hosting "Lights Out with Delilah Rene" for KLSY-FM. The program director, Chris Mays, allowed her to add listener phone calls and stories to the songs, and she parlayed the combo into a successful brand that stuck.
She had a natural sympathy for her audience then because of her own ups and downs: The birth of her first child, the collapse of her first marriage, and the death of an older brother and his wife in a plane crash all occurred around that time.
She continued working in Seattle for KLSY and other stations until 1990, when she left for a job in Boston. After several job switches, her career took off in 1996, when she began syndicating her show out of Rochester, N.Y. She returned to Seattle in 1997, after the syndication rights to her program were sold to Seattle-based Broadcast Programming.
She bought a home in West Seattle, where she settled with her third husband, Douglas Ortega, and three biological children: Isaiah Harris, now 34, a Tukwila police officer; Shaylah Rene-Ortega, 24; and Zack. When Zack was born in 1999, Delilah and Douglas had just adopted three siblings from state foster care.
"It was more than we could handle," Ortega says now.
The couple divorced in 2002. Delilah began looking for a larger place, where she could have a farm similar to what she grew up with, and the bigger family she always wanted. She bought the Port Orchard property in 2001; the farmhouse required several years of remodeling before she moved in, in 2006.
BY THIS TIME, Delilah was airing on almost 180 stations and had been noticed by Kraig Kitchin, co-founder and president of Premiere Radio Networks. Premiere (a subsidiary of iHeart Media) was syndicating the Dr. Laura (Schlessinger) program at the time, and Kitchin saw that same star power in Delilah.
"I knew there was tremendous potential for her personality to shine if new media relationships could be made," he says.
"Within two years, we were doing that."
The $50 million contract she signed with Premiere in 2004 has been renewed several times. "The business of the program is very lucrative," Kitchin says. He's since become her business partner.
Delilah is worth millions but doesn't flaunt it, preferring to shore up her wardrobe with treasures from the Port Orchard Goodwill, also where she loads up on affordable clothes for the kids of Point Hope. (Goodwill helps sponsor her KSWD show, and in return, she tapes commercials for Goodwill.)
She first became involved in West Africa after a woman in Ghana emailed the show, asking whether Delilah would like to adopt her three starving siblings. She has adopted 11 children over the years, including Sammy, a boy from Ghana, who died of sickle cell anemia in 2012. Recently, Delilah added 3-year-old Paul to the family, her 14th child. Each one, she says, was a call from God to make room for one more.
If there's one thing that drives Delilah, it's a compulsion to rescue or help people in dire situations.
ZACK WOULD SHOW UP in the kitchen late at night, after Delilah finished taping her show, and she'd fix his favorite snacks: nachos, chili, beef stew.
She called him her "wild child." Diagnosed at 18 months with sensory integration disorder, a form of autism, Zack inherited his mom's mischievousness and propensity for practical jokes.
Growing up in Port Orchard, Zack moved to Issaquah in the fall of 2016, his senior year of high school, to live with his father.
Zack got into a car accident; a girlfriend dumped him; and he got sick and missed two weeks of school, then learned his absences would make it impossible for him to graduate the following spring. His father recognized something was eating away at his son.