40 years of politics on KET: pet pig, truth bell and more

Al Smith 
has written two memoirs since he retired and is working on a third.
Al Smith has written two memoirs since he retired and is working on a third.

By Al Smith

Watching candidates for the U.S. Senate debate on KET last month, I was glad the host in the middle was my friend Bill Goodman and not me.

Then, on Comment on Kentucky the Friday night after the elections, I marveled at how adroitly host Bill Bryant and his journalist guests wrapped up the results informatively and without bias and, my wife noted, not unkindly, "without you."

Now 87 and retired seven years from a long and mostly enjoyable stint producing and moderating KET's programs on public affairs — meaning politics — I have lost my zeal for struggling to coax politicians to say something original and insightful about government issues and the offices they seek.

But Goodman, ever unflappable, managed another season of chatting up the rivals in competitive races without blowing a fuse or laughing on camera as I did decades ago, losing it while announcing that a certain candidate I thought was a certifiable nut case would appear in the next debate.

When KET's founding executive director O. Leonard Press first told his bosses that he wanted to air programs about politics, several objected that a state-owned broadcast network would have no credibility. Press finessed doubters by promising to hire independent reporters from outside media.

So, 40 years ago, on Nov. 7, Comment on Kentucky went on the air, with me, a weekly editor contracted to moderate.

A year later I hosted KET's first televised debate. It was between Julian Carroll, Democratic candidate for governor, and Republican Robert Gable, a coal operator.

Despite rules against props, Gable surprised us with a dinner bell he said he would ring "every time Mr. Carroll tells an untruth." He rang it twice until I threatened to stop the show. Next day, the "truth bell" made as many headlines as the candidates' remarks. That was the ancestor of the debates Goodman hosts on Kentucky Tonight.

Before many of the subsequent elections, there was often sparring about the rules, but we were pretty free with the air time, even interviewing perennial candidates with slim chances but dear to memory, such as Thurmond Jerome Hamlin who lived in an abandoned school bus, Doris Binion who discussed her pet pig, and Fifi Rockefeller who, well, don't ask.

Back then, lacking quick access to election returns, I brought in knowledgeable guests who scanned meager results and guessed what they meant. Such was the night in 1979 when Democratic sage Edward F. Prichard Jr. shared the studio with Republican Larry Forgy. When the final returns indicated John Y. Brown Jr., the charismatic leader of Kentucky Fried Chicken, had defeated Republican Gov. Louie Nunn's bid for a second term, Prichard, who was blind, opened his eyes wide and remarked, "well, gentlemen, what have we seen tonight? The birth of a statesman — or the death of a salesman?"

"Come on, Prich," said Forgy, "I'll drive you home."

Forty years out, KET connects us even better. There have been pressures, mostly rebuffed, and fire storms but our elected leaders continue to budget for KET, donors continue to give, and the network managers grow calluses on their ears and tough spines trying to serve us all, without fear or favor.

As for me, I understand it takes more than one missing monkey to stop a circus.

We were lucky to have Len Press as the founder who fought to get all this in place. At 93 and a revered figure in broadcasting, he is still with us, still deserving of gratitude and applause.