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May 10, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Shortly after 3:40 a.m., David Lile flips through The Kansas City Star and The Washington Post, then skims The New York Times online. He jots a note to his wife, to remind her they’ve been married for more than 4,500 days and that he loves her. He eats breakfast in the pre-dawn silence while his 9-year-old daughter sleeps. Then he sneaks out the door and onto his blue Specialized road bike. By 6 a.m., his steady tenor voice — like that of a baseball announcer calling a new batter to the plate — is streaming all over Columbia.
David is the host of Columbia Morning with David Lile on KFRU/1400 AM. On a recent Monday morning, he’s sitting in a studio in front of a control board that looks like it was engineered by NASA. The studio’s fluorescent lights emphasize David’s bright eyes behind his wire-rimmed glasses. His short gray hair sits above a face gently lined with age, and he’s astonishingly alert for a guy who’s been up since 3:40 a.m. but doesn’t drink coffee. He plays the switches on the panel with the fluidity of a jazz keyboardist. David is 57 years old and has spent 25 of those years on the radio. For the past 15, he has hosted Columbia Morning every weekday between 6 and 9 a.m. Like a teacher in his classroom or a great storyteller in front of a congregation, David comes to life in his studio.
“Those three hours,” he says, “are when I feel most comfortable. That is when I’m in my world, and there are few places that match that in comfort level.”
Sitting in his sunny office, post-show, he’s left that realm of control and comfort behind. On and off the air, David guards himself with incredible modesty to a self-deprecating degree. On air, he is an atypical host in the talk radio niche, which is so often dominated by characters rather than actual people. He fears offending people or making them feel as if he’s prying. He jokes that he always thought the best radio job would have been as an overnight disc jockey, “because I knew that no one would be around to bother you. You’re just there, not talking to too many people.”
It seems out of character for the at-times timid David to want to facilitate live discussions with politicians, authors and doctors. He’d have you believe that the evolution of his radio career was more or less the evolution of a few other careers that went off course. Simon Rose, co-host of the program that follows David’s on KFRU, says it’s David’s indirect path to the airwaves that sets him apart. “It’s those accidental ones, the hosts who have tried their hands at other things before, who are the best, who are most dynamic.”
The first time David ever stepped into a radio station was as a teenager while searching for a job in Macon. The station manager asked him to read a news script. He pronounced Washington, D.C., “Warshington, D.C.,” heard it played back, and realized, somewhat sheepishly, that he had a north-central Missouri accent. He left the station and didn’t return.
Since then, David studied at Northeast Missouri State, MU and worked at the U.S. Postal Service in Macon. At 25, he left for Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City to pursue a master’s in divinity with the goal of getting a P.h.D. Through this time, he continued working in part-time in radio at a local Louisville Christian station.
But things began to happen in the Southern Baptist church that bothered him over time.
“Fundamentalism was taking over,” he says. David began noticing that many of the professors at the seminary, people who had mentored him, were being asked to leave or were leaving themselves. Some very conservative Southern Baptists began questioning seminaries as places of higher learning, believing these institutions were becoming godless. As David’s favorite professors left, he noticed the seminary becoming a much more fundamental, conservative place. “I just didn’t have a future in that,” he says.
While he was at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., pursuing his Ph.D, David switched to Methodism. He didn’t receive his degree but returned to Columbia and earned his teaching certificate. Beyond a brief, three-year stint teaching 10th- and 11th- grade English at Centralia High School, he went back into radio in Columbia at KARO-FM, now KPLA/101.5 FM, in 1988.
Radio has been a huge part of his life ever since. On weekends, David travels with and broadcasts the MU track and field team meets, MU women’s basketball games and Rock Bridge High School football games.
With that schedule, even his courtship had to be programmed. David met his wife, Marty, in March of 1999, proposed in August, and they married in October. Had they waited, they would have had to postpone the wedding until the next June because of David’s schedule covering the football, basketball and track teams. He’s usually on the road with the basketball team over Thanksgiving, and sometimes his family accompanies him as he commentates sporting events.
By Robert Partyka
David Lile sits down with Vox to talk about his show and why he thinks people listen to him each morning. Lile also talks about how people react to his show, and how staying objective is hard to do when each person has a different opinion they want to share.
Although his show is described as apolitical by the Columbia Business Times, and many of his listeners might agree, David is not apolitical. He has a strong set of values that dictate his beliefs and opinions. He incorporates these subtly and infrequently, into Columbia Morning.
Like the discomfort David felt over what he saw as the ultra-conservative direction of the Southern Baptist Church, David in the past few months has questioned conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh’s program being broadcast on KFRU.
David isn’t a huge Limbaugh fan, but for the past 15 years that KFRU has broadcast both Columbia Morning and The Rush Limbaugh Show, David has seen no reason to protest. But when Limbaugh controversially called Georgetown student Sandra Fluke a slut and a prostitute following her testimony to house Democrats in March, when she advocated for insurance coverage of contraceptives, David had hoped KFRU would consider pulling the show.
David says he received letters from listeners who wrote they would stop listening to his show if KFRU didn’t pull Limbaugh. Columbia Daily Tribune columnist Bill Clark even wrote: “After the first few times I heard this trash-talking, rabble-rouser (Rush Limbaugh), whose mindless, inflammatory babble should turn off every American, I never again honored his existence by listening to him — and that includes any radio station that carries his vitriol. Sorry, David Lile.”
Even with this feedback, KFRU has kept The Rush Limbaugh Show on air six days a week. So one Monday morning, David included in his program a response to listener complaints and voiced his opinion on the controversial broadcaster.
David wrote and then read on the air a fable about Rush Limbaugh at the gates of hell. In the story, Limbaugh wonders how he arrived there and claims that he’s lived an honest life. Lucifer tells Limbaugh that he’s given every bully in the world a way to justify what they do: call it all satire. “And satire is a blameless act of comedy and commentary,” David said into his microphone sarcastically. Lucifer eventually tells Limbaugh that he will, in fact, go to heaven, but in heaven, he will be unable to talk. “You will be mute. You will be confined to a small corner where you will sit on a chair forever. The heavenly hosts will come by to pity you. Undoubtedly, some will heap scorn on you in various ways because their brains will think clearly, their spirits will be undistracted by your bitterness and their tongues will be untied.”
“That doesn’t sound like heaven,” Limbaugh whines in David’s fable.
Lucifer responds, “Oh, but it is ... for everybody else.”
Two weeks after reading his fable, David made another on-air response to email and phone messages he’d received from listeners who wanted Limbaugh off KFRU. He’d sent the messages to the station’s managers and had sent the managers’ names to unhappy listeners as a response to complaints.
However, David believes that now more than ever people of all backgrounds are ready for a less caustic conversation about polarizing issues. David hopes that his radio morning broadcast might provide it.
Sundays are family days for the Liles. Every morning, Marty, David and their daughter, Beeler, attend Missouri United Methodist Church together. Marty and Beeler hand out programs at the start of the 8 a.m. service, and David gives the benediction at the end.
On Palm Sunday, about 50 people gather in the church’s small chapel. The churchgoers look in the hymnals as they sing while David sneaks into the pulpit. When everyone looks up, he’s smiling in front of them, his eyes carrying the same brightness as they do in the studio. He cracks a joke and then dives into his benediction, reading it from the sheet of paper in his hands.
A noticeable alertness comes over the room as if everyone waits for David to come on, and they are silent. Background noises fall quiet as he reads a brief speech he’s written that parallels a biblical Palm Sunday story with presidential campaigns in the U.S. He reads fast, with almost no theatrical pauses or dramatic punctuation, a noticeable difference from his speech on air where the audience isn’t a few feet in front of him.
As the parishioners trickle out of the chapel at Missouri United Methodist Church, a woman says, “Those other services, they’re nice, and they certainly aren’t as early, but they don’t get David Lile.” The rest of Columbia will just have to tune in tomorrow.