CRAWFORD | Signing off: Metz is no longer here, but his voice will be remembered

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — If you can feel Louisville’s heartbeat pounding down the home stretch of Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May or detect its circulation from the banks of the Ohio River, you could hear its voice five nights a week on WHAS Radio for 34 years, and in countless ways after.

Milton Metz, the pioneering host of the “Metz Here” call-in program and a legendary Louisville television and radio figure, died Thursday at the Magnolia Springs senior living facility at the age of 95.

Metz not only established talk radio as a Louisville institution at a time when WHAS radio was transitioning from the grand-voiced announcers like Jim Walton, Bill Britton and Ray Shelton to a more contemporary format, but the strength and reach of WHAS’s 50,000-watt, clear-channel signal during his nighttime program gave him a voice in establishing the forum nationally.

The first thing people noticed when walking into his office was the map. He placed push-pins into it to record the locations of callers into his program. And they called from everywhere, the pins filling especially the Eastern half of the U.S. and beyond, from Canada down to Key West.

“There were pins in that map from more states and cities than anybody would believe,” said Rick Bozich, WDRB Sports columnist and longtime Courier-Journal columnist who was a guest on Metz’s program several times and credits him with starting sports talk radio in Louisville. “He didn't view the map as a reason to puff up his ego. He saw it as his responsibility to his listeners to entertain and be a great listener.”

Byron Crawford, a colleague of Metz’s from 1973 to ’79 at WHAS Radio and Television, said, “They were all over the U.S. on a given night. Way, way out west. I would hesitate to say we got any from California, but I think we did. It was amazing, that signal of WHAS. We’d get them, sometimes, from outside the continental U.S.”

And always, Metz was an educated, quick-witted, even-tempered voice of reason and rationality. He didn’t care much for the tone of modern talk-radio. But his was a program that could go into any topic, and he was a patient ear for listeners from all walks of life in disparate regions of the state and nation.

His program’s original name was its phone number — Juniper 5-2385 — and went on the air on June 30 of 1953. That was four years after he came to WHAS from Ohio State University, where he attended after serving in the Military Police during World War II. Metz was given a business program, did weather news and was a special events reporter. When the Davis Cup came to Louisville, Metz, an avid tennis player his whole life, provided reports.

Metz began reading books for the American Printing House for the Blind, and in 1957 won a Ford Fellowship to study and work at the United Nations, where he produced and broadcast news programs.

But it was in his role as the region’s listener-in-chief that he flourished. When opinion matters are concerned, debates often get heated, and Metz never ducked big topics, religion, abortion, politics and cultural issues. In 1988 he was honored with an award from the American Psychiatric Association for his monthly programs with psychiatrists and dealing honestly with the topic of mental illness. But whatever the topic, his temperament was pitch perfect. He maintained his even-handedness during discussions, and treated his callers with respect.

“The word gentleman comes to mind first and foremost,” said veteran WHAS radio and television host Terry Meiners. “He always remembered his manners — even on the phone with someone who wanted to spew venom. Oftentimes he would win over someone who hadn’t heard him before. He was also very well-read. There weren’t any topics that escaped him. You never heard Milton Metz say, ‘I’m sorry, I’ve never heard of that.’ Didn’t matter if it was ballet or cockfighting, Milton Metz knew.”

Metz was urbane. A 1967 Courier-Journal profile of him said he looked as if he stepped out of last week’s Esquire Magazine. Yet his program resonated across societal lines in Kentucky, crossing the divide of rural and urban, and those of race and political ideology. Everyone listened to “Metz Here,” as the program was titled for the bulk of its run. He had little in common with the many who fiddled with their radios to pick him up out in the more remote areas of the Bluegrass, but they loved him.

A woman in Illinois told The C-J in that same profile that she bought him a ticket in the Irish Sweepstakes every year with the lone request that if he won the $250,000, he would take her out for a steak dinner. Another woman, in Cincinnati, said she made room in her budget for long-distance calls to his program. A farmer from Hustonville, Ky., told of listening to Metz while milking his cows. 

“I don’t know if he ever fully understood them; I don’t know if he fully understood me,” Crawford said. “I think I was the source of some amusement to him. But he took advantage of what people liked. And if he judged that it would meet with people’s interest, he would try it. . . . His was a show, if people who had never been on the radio would call into that show, Juniper 5-2385, their story and voice would be heard across the nation. People sat up for that show. They waited for it. My grandmother just about wouldn’t miss him. And when I went to work for WHAS, it was a big deal to her because I was in the same building with Milton Metz and Cawood Ledford.”

Being in the building with Metz was itself a big deal. He was the television weatherman for WHAS for 19 years. He once interviewed a penguin in that role. And he was the host of a popular morning talk program, Omelet, with Faith Lyles, for nine years.

Once, Crawford said he turned the corner to see Metz walking down the hallway chatting with actor Leslie Nielsen, who had come in to do the show. Another time, he came face to face with Clayton Moore, the original Lone Ranger, in full costume.

“He went through his routine with me, quite straight-faced,” Crawford said. “And when he left he handed me a plastic silver bullet. Milton was comfortable with all of the big stars, and could do just about any kind of interview on any kind of subject really well. He did plenty of television, but he was just an institution in the radio scheme of things. He really did talk radio to perfection. He had an almost hypnotic ease about him on the air. He had a great voice and an easy delivery. Anyone who wanted to be heard, or wanted media attention, wound up on Metz’s show.”

Col. Matt Winn made the Kentucky Derby a “celebrity” event. But Milton Metz helped continue the tradition with his yearly hobnobbing with the rich and famous at Kentucky’s signature event. His office was adorned with photos of Metz interviewing some of the biggest names in entertainment and news. 

The first time Metz interviewed Walter Cronkite, he mentioned that he’d read Cronkite liked to play tennis, and invited him to play. The next day, the pair was on a public court in Louisville, drawing stares from players around the park.

Once at the Derby, Metz said to Cronkite, “Walter, I’ll bet you didn’t know you’re on Millionaire’s Row right now.” Cronkite shot back, “No, Milt, not until I saw you here.”

Metz became a signature face of the long-running WHAS charitable outreach, the Crusade for Children. He was a lifelong supporter of the arts in Louisville, making sure that theater events or others in the arts community had a forum, with the power of WHAS behind it.

In nominating Metz for the Governor’s Award in the Arts, Crawford noted that Ray Harm, the wildlife artist whose limited edition prints became extremely popular in Kentucky and who became the best-known wildlife artist to come out of Kentucky since John James Audubon settled in the state, credited Metz’s support for much of the popularity of his work.

“I remember Ray having Milton and me and his family to Ruth’s Chris in Louisville, and Ray commenting about how much Milton had done for his career,” Crawford said.

Crawford and fellow C-J columnists Bob Hill and Richard Des Ruisseaux, along with Meiners and Lucie Blodgett of the Voice Tribune and maybe others, appeared on an occasional Metz ensemble he called the “Off the Wall Gang.” Metz’s humor was well-known among friends.

He liked to tell people that if he got a nickel for every time he had to say, “Turn your radio down, please,” he’d have been the richest man in America.

James Zambroski, former reporter for WAVE TV, said Metz’s humor was one of the first things that struck him when he encountered Metz late in his career, doing on-air commentary for WAVE.

“I knew I was in the presence of greatness, but then, I'd had the privilege of bumping up against a lot of great people,” Zambroski said in a Facebook message. “What was different about Mr. Metz was that he was naturally funny, without effort or effect. Old age didn't put any rust on Milton back then; great guy; felt privileged just to be in the same room now and then.”

Metz took his obligation to younger people in the business seriously.

“The best part about him was as a mentor to people who would come in here,” Meiners said. “First thing he said to me was, ‘Now that you work here, it’s important for you to understand you’re now a community leader. Don’t ever do anything you don’t want to see on the news or read on the front page of the newspaper.’ He was a father figure for the young people who would come into the business. He wanted you to exceed his own goals. I was always impressed with his humility. And he worked — diligently, day-in and day-out, doing an incredible variety of things and doing all of them at a high level every time.”

Freda Ann Smith from Taylorsville, Ky., wrote in a message that her first thoughts of him are always of his coverage of the April 3, 1974, tornado superoutbreak in the region.

Metz hadn't spent much time on the radio that day, with the station’s news staff providing coverage. But that night, he was back behind the microphone, in his customary spot.

“He was a voice of calm, and that was what people needed,” Crawford said. “They were used to hearing him at night, and he handled things very well. It happened to be that I was on with him that night, until 11 or midnight. He turned his whole programming block into listening to people’s stories, and we spent a lot of time trying to mop up, keep people informed of what was going on, telling them to stay off the streets, giving out numbers to call for help. And we were taking calls, until the operator interrupted a call that we were responding to on the air to tell us that we had a call from the governor’s office.

“We automatically thought it was Tommy Preston, Gov. Wendell Ford’s press secretary, and Milton took the call and said, ‘Hello, Tommy.’ And the caller said back, ‘No, this is Wendell.’ It was the governor himself. And I’ll never forget him saying that.”

In 1989, with Hurricane Hugo slamming into South Carolina, many local radio stations lost power or went off the air. Milton Metz, on the air in Louisville, realized people there were getting the WHAS signal and listening. And for a night, he was the voice of Charleston and other hard-hit South Carolina towns. A year later, he received a commendation for his work in the midst of that storm, a testament to the power of his medium, and the wisdom of a man determined to use it in service to people.

That same year, Metz was inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. A decade later, he was was honored with a Gold Circle by the Ohio Valley Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Joe Creason, Metz’s longtime friend and tennis compatriot (the two had been playing tennis together when Creason died of a heart attack in 1974), and himself perhaps the most beloved columnist in the history of The Courier-Journal, called Metz, “One of the smoothest users of the unrehearsed, extemporaneous spoken word I’ve ever heard.”

During his final call-in show for WHAS, there was another call from another governor, Brereton Jones, who told Metz, “No one in this state has more respect than you. I’m just glad you didn’t decide to run against me.”

Metz’s wife, Mimi, died in April of 2016. He’s survived by a son, Perry. Funeral arrangements are pending, through the Herman Meyer Funeral Home.

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