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Robert Raiford, Charlotte Radio Legend, Dies At 89

Robert D. Raiford

Broadcaster Robert D. Raiford has died. He spent more than 70 years on the airwaves, starting as a teenager in Concord, then moving on to a career around the country before returning to Charlotte. Listeners nationwide got to know him as the "curmudgeon at large" on the Charlotte-based "John Boy and Billy Show." 

Raiford insisted he never had an ambition to climb the radio and TV ladder. But it happened anyway. He told WFAE's Mark Rumsey in 2014 that broadcasting appealed to the showman in him.

"I always had this I guess talent for drama, or whatever, maybe show business, because that's what it is anyway. I don't give a damn how much people say they are journalists. It's show business. As soon as that camera goes on, as soon as that mike goes on, you're in show business, buddy," Raiford said.

He got his start as a 17-year-old in 1945, filling in as an announcer at Concord Weavers baseball games, on WEGO-AM. The station manager liked what he heard and offered Raiford an after-school job on the air.

"And I said, 'Well sure.' So that's what I do. Maybe I had three or four hours in the afternoons. And then later, a full time job opened up and I think (it) paid $25 a week, and that's what I did. That's where I got started," Raiford said. 

Raiford went on to work in Washington, New York, and San Francisco, on both radio and TV. Eventually he returned to Charlotte, and WBT-AM, the city's big 50,000-watt station. Later, after a stint in TV news, he stumbled into what turned out to be a 30-year gig as the grouchy newsman on the daily "John Boy and Billy Show" at WRFX-FM, 99.7 The Fox.

His commentaries on the music and chat show railed against political correctness. That won him legions of followers, not just in Charlotte but at country music and rock stations nationwide that carry the show. 

In that 2014 interview with Mark Rumsey, Raiford talked about that move.

RUMSEY: Did you ever envision hooking up with a crazy rock-n-roll morning-zoo type format?

RAIFORD: No, but I was sure glad I did it because it's been a bonanza. You know I was anchoring television news here and I aged out of that at about 60. ... So my present wife, who is 25 years younger than I, used to listen to John Boy and Billy. I'd never heard of John Boy and Billy.

Raiford discovered John Boy and Billy was one of the top-rated syndicated daily radio shows in the country. He contacted them, and ... the rest is history.  Raiford worked there the rest of his career. At first, he wasn't sure he'd have chemistry with John Boy and Billy.

"Let's talk about mixing gasoline and water. Here I am an erudite, educated Southern gentleman mixing in with a couple of rednecks," he recalled. 

But it worked. John Boy - Johnny Isley - used to say on the air that Raiford had a lifetime contract if he wanted it.  In a statement Friday, Isley said Raiford "had the mind of a well-read intellectual, trapped in the body of a grumpy old guy who holds court at the end of the counter at Waffle House.”

Raiford was an actor, and a lifelong athlete and adventurer. As a boy, he dreamed of a baseball career. He rode motorcycles and flew airplanes. To celebrate 50 years in radio in the mid-1990s, he took up skydiving. But in 2015, Raiford was forced off the air, after a stroke stole his voice.

Raiford admitted he did a lot of crazy things over the years - on and off the air. 

"But I've mellowed," he said. "I used to think that was a bad word. You think mellowing is a bad word. But listen folks, if you want to survive, you've got to mellow."

Robert D. Raiford died Friday. He was 89.