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Sunday, December 12, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Northwest People

Delilah -- When Darkness Falls, Delilah Rules The Airwave World Of Hope And Healing Hearts

IT'S AFTER DARK in radio land, which means the Queen of Sappy Love Songs has slipped into her glass studio in downtown Seattle to reign over the airwaves of the night.

Fade in Tinker Bell chimes.

"Maybe you're feeling lonely," she purrs. "Maybe your loved one is far away. Or maybe there is no Loved One. Whatever your situation, we're here for you . . . smoooOOoothing off the rough edges of your day." More Tinker Bell chimes. "I'm De-li-lah (warm breath) and you're listening to Warm 106.9!"

After-hours across America, millions of listeners tune in while packing tomorrow's school lunches or scrubbing through the night shift or driving through the rain with not much company except the swoosh of windshield wipers and the glow of the radio.

And Delilah. She is the sister, best friend, soccer-mom disc jockey who has been through it all. She knows what to ask, how to share, when to laugh, and when to simply play the music. She is the girl from next-door Oregon who got kicked out of the house at 18, found a home in radio, stormed Seattle, lived hard, loved badly, ate poorly, hit bottom, found God, found Al-Anon, left the Northwest, found love again and now, almost 40, finds herself back in Seattle with six children and the hottest evening music show in the country - 199 stations in all 50 states.

Life has careened out of control at various times, but Delilah has always taken good care of her voice. It is an amazing voice. Smooth, sophisticated, strong. It is unabashedly sappy, but never cute. It flows around whatever you're doing, fills any emptiness with a soothing soundtrack straight from love central.

"Radio affects most people intimately, person-to-person," wrote social critic Marshall McLuhan in "Understanding Media." "A private experience . . . it (has) the power to turn the psyche and society into a single echo chamber . . . to touch remote and forgotten chords."

If you tune in from 7 until midnight any night except Saturday, you'll hear sappy love songs, Delilah chatting about her kids' Christmas bake sale, commercials, more sappy love songs, conversations with listeners (taped anywhere from two minutes to several hours earlier) that have been slightly edited for broadcast.

Calls pour in to "Delilah After Dark" all night long, 100,000 call attempts every day. The weepy mom whose 18-year-old son will spend Christmas on a Navy battleship. The teenager whose sweetheart fled the moment he learned she was pregnant. The couple going through rough times because he got fired and blew up and then she left for the weekend not knowing whether to return.

It's a hit parade of personal triumph and tragedy and listeners who want Delilah to pick a song that says more than they know how. Romantic love. Parental love. Recovering love. Lack of love. She's-just-a-good-friend-but-I-couldn't-live-without-her love. Regretful love. Loyal love. Once a mother and daughter even requested a comforting song after they tried to microwave a Vick's inhaler and it exploded. ("Listeners," Delilah warned. "Don't try that at home!") Anthems to everyday American life.

In her glass studio, the Queen of Multi-Tasking swivels from this to that as music and commercials play, headphones hang from each ear, baby Zachariah nurses at her breast, a carton of Chinese takeout congeals by her elbow. Most listeners picture a willowy brunette, but she is actually a tall blonde, heartily built, with a gorgeous smile. She autographs glamour shots of herself ("Love Somebody! - Delilah"), taps out replies to some of the thousand e-mails she receives every day, then shimmies up to the big yellow microphone, ready to go on air again.

LINE 5. Jenni from Carnation. Just witnessed the birth of her nephew. Came home and had to share the thrill with somebody, but the house was empty because her husband and children were out of town. So Jenni e-mailed Delilah and Delilah called her back.

"Hi Jenni! How are you?" Delilah sounds like she's singing. Sounds like she's been waiting all night to talk to Jenni. She massages the vowels in Y-O-U so they slide off her tongue like fudge ripple. "You sent us an e-mail. We wanted to contact you because you were BRaaAAaGGING?!"

"I was! I was excited!"

Turns out that 13 years ago, Jenni's sister Karen had given birth to another son whom she gave up for adoption because she was 18, unwed, no diploma.

" . . . So, because she made that sacrifice, God has honored her and given her a baby that she gets the joy of raising this time!" Delilah says. "Now, has she had any contact with the adopted family? Does she know how the child is doing?"

"She did the first year," Jenni says. "Got pictures, but it was a closed adoption. So, no. But she keeps that little boy in her prayers. He's 13 years old now. . . . "

"And probably very blessed to be raised by a family that could care for him," Delilah says.

"Definitely. And she really believes that, too, knowing where her life has gone in the last 13 years. . . . "

"Well, let me find a song to help her celebrate . . . your nephew Nicholas. . . . Congratulations, Auntie!"

Elton John's "Blessed" unrolls with a gentle strum of synthesized guitar and a rhinestone lullaby:

Hey, you

You're a child in my head

You haven't walked yet

Your first words have yet to be said

But I swear

You'll be blessed. . . .

Several weeks later, in Jenni's sunflower-theme kitchen, the two sisters are talking about the song dedication. They agree that Delilah picked the perfect music. Karen: "I had wanted a baby for so long after I gave my child up for adoption." Jenni: "It's not just the baby being blessed, but my sister and her husband being blessed."

Together, or apart, Jenni and Karen listen to Delilah almost every night. In the kitchen, the Elton John lyrics, memorialized on tape, melt into a mood. The sisters are washed by all that has passed between them. Jealousy. Rebellion. Respect.

Sister love.

THE QUEEN of Sappy Love Songs was born Delilah Rene Luke almost 40 years ago in North Bend, Ore. She grew up in Coos Bay and Reedsport, the second of four children in a family warped by addictions. (Yes, her real name is Delilah. Her parents tried a different tack after naming her older brother Matthew Mark. Delilah publicly uses only her first name now to protect her family's privacy and security.)

The theme song from those early years?

Delilah thumbs through her mental music archive. She chooses Patti LaBelle's "There's a Winner in You." It opens as blues with an uneasy drum roll, as if it's going to rain, but the threat quickly dissolves into a gently swelling tribute from a soulful godmother:

I'm tired of you putting yourself down

'Cuz in spite of all you've been through

I still believe - there's a winner in you!

The song captures the tension of Delilah's childhood. On the good side were doting grandparents who had a farm where Delilah went when things got tough at home. Her grandmother worked in a fish-packing plant to earn extra cash for Delilah's school clothes. "She was there for me 110 percent," Delilah says.

The other joy was discovering and being discovered by radio. In junior-high school, Delilah won a speech contest reciting the Gettysburg Address. The judges, who owned the town's only radio station, invited her to apprentice. "That was it," Delilah says. "I became a radio junkie."

She loved everything about it: the smell of vinyl records, writing commercials, the rock-star posters, the AP wire spitting out news, the glowing filaments in their clear vacuum tubes. In high school, Delilah woke at 4:30 a.m. to warm up the station transmitter and then went on air at 6 with the weather forecast, boating report and sports. "I couldn't say Martina Navratilova. Someone would make 36 points in last night's game but I couldn't pronounce their name, so I'd just skip them. People would call and joke with me and tease me. I loved that."

What she hated was her parents' constant fighting.

Delilah has described her father, on air, as a high-functioning drinker and control freak. "My dad could get addicted to anything - tiddlywinks, drinking, playing pool. He would find things to consume him so he didn't have to deal with intimate connections." Delilah's mother was colorful and outspoken, but a classic co-dependent.

"Dysfunction is generational," Delilah says. "They weren't given the tools to make healthy choices. Even now, it's still taboo for a guy to say: `I'm suffering depression.' My father didn't know where to take it, so he took it to his family."

Delilah rebelled. She kept up her grades but flirted with a fast crowd. The night she graduated from Reedsport High School, she went to a party at her best friend's house.

Be home at 10, her father ordered.

"No, it's graduation night," she replied. "I'll be home at midnight."

She returned at 11 p.m. to a locked door. Her suitcase was waiting on the front porch, packed.

LINE 4. It's Mike from Everett, who met his new bride in a "Star Trek" chat room on the Net and wants Delilah to play "Love of My Life" by Jim Brickman and Michael W. Smith because that's exactly how Kelly makes him feel.

Delilah: "Have you ever seen that list? Why Captain Picard is better? Why Captain Kirk is better?"

Mike: "Yeah, I have. I think I've got both of those."

"I love the line: Why Captain Kirk is better. One word: HAIR! Ha ha! HA!" Delilah has a hearty laugh. " . . . So Kelly and you are both Trekkies, you met in a chat room and what happened?"

Kelly was a Wal-Mart clerk and city map maker in Utah; Mike was a pastor-in-training and gas-station attendant in Abbotsford, B.C. They'd both had their hearts broken before. After a week phoning and e-mailing each other, they declared eternal love. The courtship orbited around the computer, astronomical phone bills and mega-commutes holding hands in Kelly's crimson-plush '85 Chrysler, listening to - what else? - "Delilah After Dark."

Kelly remembers hearing the tale of another long-distance couple who met on Delilah's show. "Cool," Kelly thought. "We're not the only ones."

The following year, Kelly and Mike transported to Everett and, this past August, married. Their first apartment is crammed with Starfleet Academy training manuals, Disney videos, religious books and a galaxy of wedding photos.

The great thing about meeting online, Kelly says, is that they were intimate with each other's hearts and minds before they had a chance to be distracted by superficial appearances. In an early e-mail to Mike, she wrote: I am 24, 5-foot-6, light brown hair, hazel blue eyes. Built like a lineman. . . .

Guys come in two basic types, Kelly explains several weeks later. "Underwear model has the body. Joe Shmoe has the mind."

"Which am I?" Mike asks.

"Joe Shmoe," Kelly laughs. They nuzzle, coo, gaze into each other's eyes. Newlywed love.

"DELILAH AFTER DARK" thrives in this era of nostalgic family values, but the show is actually the younger sister of 1960s tie-dyed counterculture.

Rock-'n'-roll FM radio was born in California in 1967, the brainchild of Tom Donahue, a popular 350-pound DJ who quit his day job on the AM band because he was sick of playing Top-40 bubble-gum hits.

Instead, on FM, he spun his personal collection of Dylan, Joplin and Hendrix in free-form sets that spoke to social issues of the day: Vietnam, the civil-rights movement, sex, drugs and revolution.

The underground jocks who followed his lead used FM radio as a sort of tribal drum. The DJs voiced the spirit of '60s rebellion, writes Jim Ladd in "Radio Waves: Life and Revolution on the FM Dial."

A protester would call from a pay phone during a demonstration, and Ladd, a counterculture jock, would broadcast over the airwaves:

"This is KBRK, and I'm gonna play this next set of songs for everyone out at the peace rally going on in Griffith Park, for all of the soldiers on both sides of the DMZ and most especially for the politicians in Washington." Then he played "Universal Soldier" by Donovan, "Unknown Soldier" by The Doors, "I Don't Want To Be a Soldier" by John Lennon.

"This was the rush," Ladd writes. "This was the connection: taking a request or an idea from one listener, and sharing his feelings with thousands of others."

Two decades after the FM revolution, "Delilah After Dark" continues the dialogue between listeners and the music. The conversations are personal, rather than political, and most songs drip enough syrup to make an aging hippie gag. But Delilah is one of the few music hosts in the country with the freedom to say and play pretty much what she wants.

Most jocks aren't even allowed to change the order of songs, let alone choose them. The tight play lists have been pre-selected by consultants and focus groups based on the formula: Proven hits = More Listeners = Profit.

To Delilah, this adds up to:

"Garbage. Disgusting shock radio. Or bland crap that program directors think listeners want. . . . All those boy bands that are popular have consultants and image managers and PR people. They're business, not a talent. It's unfair to listeners and musicians. Unless you have a publicity machine, you can't get a hit anymore on the merits of a song."

The Queen of Sappy Love Songs has a mouth, as well as a voice, and she never minces words in the battle to preserve her show's character.

She recounts some spicier moments: "You want me to say: longer half-hour sets of continuous soft-rock favorites?" she told one boss. "There is no such thing as a longer half hour! I will not say that. Ever!"

And she didn't, because the general manager called her the most aggravating witch he'd ever known and fired her. Similar conversations, and partings, have punctuated Delilah's two decades at various stations around the country.

"It was so ugly," she says. "I love listeners, but I hate the politics and the sexism of radio. I've had male program directors sit and tell me that they know better than I do what women listeners want. I say: When was the last time you had to go to the drugstore and buy emergency Kotex?"

Delilah's current supervisor at Broadcast Programming, Jim LaMarca, has not recently purchased feminine hygiene products, but he did come of age with DJ Jim Ladd, was part of the FM rock-'n'-roll revolution, and does believe in Delilah.

"We're in a shallow time," he says. "Radio has become, well, it doesn't have a soul. . . . She's one of the few that makes people think a little bit without scaring or confronting them. She's consistently saying: Love someone. Believe in something."

So Delilah keeps talking on air (minutes longer than test marketers advise). Slow down, she tells listeners. Make time for friends and family, never mind the towels on the floor. When was the last time you played a board game with your kid, anyway? People are more important than things. Take care of yourself. Find a 12-Step program. Embrace difference. (Her own multiracial family includes her Latino husband, Doug, three birth children, an adopted son, Manny, and two African-American teenage foster children she is in the process of adopting.)

"Delilah After Dark" also adopts causes, like sending teddy bears to orphans in Brazil or matching cancer survivors as mentors for women recently diagnosed with lumps. And yes, Delilah talks about God on the show, even though that makes her bosses cringe.

What do they know? The Queen of Sappy Love Songs laughs. Every week, 3.4 million listeners tune in to her syndicated show on KLCE in Pocatello or WCTW in Poughkeepsie or WROE in Oshkosh, hundreds of hamlets all across the country. "The cool thing is," Delilah says, "God keeps blessing my ratings."

"BORN TO BE WILD" opens with the snarl of snare drum and the growl of electric guitar before exploding into a motorcycle riff that climaxes in Steppenwolf's rallying cry: "Born - to - be - WiiIILLLDddd!"

This was Delilah's life.

After the porch trauma on graduation night, Delilah attended community college in Eugene and worked at a local radio station. In 1981, she loaded all her stuff in an old blue Dodge Aspen, drove up I-5 and stopped at a West Seattle park overlooking the city. She lived a couple days there, in her car. She was 21.

"Seattle was my big start," Delilah says. "My dream."

She landed a job at KAYO, doing weather and traffic from an airplane, then moved to KING. She fell in love. But when she brought her sweetheart home to meet her parents at Christmas, another porch scene ensued. Her father, looking out the window, spied his daughter's African-American fiance and chased the couple away with a shotgun. The next year, Delilah and her honey married. The year after that, Delilah gave birth to her oldest son, Sonny. Before the baby even cut teeth, Delilah's husband took up with another woman.

"I was crazy in love with that man," Delilah says. "But our relationship was screaming insanity. . . . I was anorexic and bulimic. We were fighting constantly. He cheated on me, I cheated on him. . . . Whose earrings are these in my bedroom? Well they're not mine! I threw him out thinking he'd come back." Her bluff failed. He had left for good.

Things got worse. Delilah's favorite brother was killed in a small-plane crash on the way to Sonny's baptism. She jumped into a relationship with a cocaine addict. And then, after climbing the DJ ranks at KAYO, KING, KZAM, KLSY and starting her own soft-music show, "Lights Out," Delilah lost her job.

"That day I was desperately lonely and aching and hurting and confused. I said: God, if you exist, I need to know." She went to Pike Place Market to buy a hombow. When Delilah returned to her car, someone had left a Bible on her windshield and the note: "Jesus loves you."

Change the music. Fade in celestial keyboard and wide-eyed Michael W. Smith crooning, "My Place in This World" . . .

The wind is moving

But I am standing still

A life of pages waiting to be filled

A heart that's hopeful

A head that's full of dreams

But this becoming, it's harder than it seems.

Delilah's life didn't change overnight.

It took four years of pastoral counseling, Al-Anon meetings and soul-searching. "It's like you peel an onion," she says. "I realized my father had a drinking problem, and I had a slight addiction to diet pills. And here I am, an intelligent woman, a hard-working woman, and I'm sleeping with the dregs of the earth. What's wrong with this picture? Oh, I'm attracted to abusive men! I'm deathly afraid of honest commitment!"

Meanwhile, after seven years with the No. 1 show on KLSY, Delilah was fired, rehired, then lured away by a lucrative East Coast offer. She moved across the country with Sonny, then 5, and worked at stations in Boston, Philadelphia and Rochester, N.Y. In 1996, she began syndicating what is now "Delilah After Dark."

In between, she met and married the love of her life (they attended the same church and met after he called her show to dedicate a song to his ex-girlfriend - "a real loser," he now says); gave birth to their daughter, Shayla; and helped her sister DeAnna nurse their mother through the final stages of brain cancer.

"God restored my relationship with my mother before she died," Delilah says. "God has done so much for me."

Back in Seattle, one of Delilah's former bosses had been following her career from a distance. Edie Hilliard had met Delilah at KING during the Born to Be Wild years. "A lot of life experiences taught her some wonderful lessons," says Hilliard, who went on to become president and general manager of Broadcast Programming, a radio programming and syndication company. "They gave her the understanding and empathy that's part of her success in connecting with listeners."

Hilliard's company bought Delilah's show and in 1997 brought her home to Seattle.

LINE 1. Mike from Woodinville, head over heels in love with his wife, Laulani, after 23 years of marriage.

Fade in acoustic-guitar version of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" . . . I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me. . . .

"Welcome aboard," Delilah sings. "You're thinking of someone precious tonight."

"Oh, absolutely!"

"Tell me about your bride."

Mike launches into a tear-jerker about Laulani and her cancer - a stage IV synovial sarcoma so aggressive and so far along she didn't have much chance. But Laulani decided she was going to beat it. She assembled a "healing board" of friends and family to help with their three children and cheer her up. She went through chemo, spinal surgery and two months of radiation in Boston. She prayed like crazy.

"At this point," Mike concludes, "she's cancer free."

Delilah, after a pause: "Wow."

"She did it herself. This is the kind of person she is."

"No she didn't. She had help from you, from friends and family, and from someone upstairs who did a miracle."

Mike, clearing a lump in his throat: "That's for sure."

On the other side of the radio, in their cathedral-ceiling living room, Mike and Laulani delight in being middle-aged, alive and in love. The secret, they explain, is weathering the challenges and mysteries of life - together.

But there's one thing they've yet to figure out:

Delilah was on the radio in Seattle years ago, when Laulani was commuting nights to law school in Tacoma and Mike called "Lights Out" to dedicate Judy Collins' "In My Life."

Delilah was on the radio in Boston last year when Laulani went for radiation treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital, fiddled with the stations, and to her surprise, heard Delilah's familiar voice 3,000 miles from home.

And this summer, Delilah was on the air in the redwood groves when the family drove to California.

How, they marvel, can Delilah be everywhere all the time?

SOMETIMES DELILAH wonders that herself.

Her life really is as she describes it on the radio: the joys, the mistakes, even the messy house. There are pumpkins rotting on the porch, piles of laundry, soccer cleats scattered.

In the hour before she leaves for the studio, Delilah plays pretend chess with 5-year-old Shayla and 14-year-old Manny; empties tuna cans to make another baking-soda volcano; researches the price of a second-hand van via cordless phone; searches for a calculator and compass; helps with math homework; changes Zach's diaper; teases neighbor Josh about raking leaves; scolds someone for leaving a hairbrush in the kitchen sink ("That is disGUSTing!"); pours rice and Goya seasoning into a huge frying pan to start dinner; retells the story of her romance with Doug.

Delilah had promised God she wouldn't flirt. Doug had given up praying for the right woman and had started asking God to make him the right man. Something about a fish tank and a ceiling fan and dancing at a church party. Doug liked heavy metal. Delilah liked Barry Manilow. They both wanted a tribe of children. Sparks flew. The good kind.

On the stove, the rice and chicken sizzle while a kitchen crowded with teenagers bubbles with laughter over a tale about public farting. Delilah's incredible voice floats around the house, making real life sound like a sitcom; actual electronic blare is charmingly absent. (The family's only television, an ancient model, is in the basement, and they don't even own a stereo to listen to Delilah's show.)

The Queen of Sappy Love Songs twists open a bottle of caffeine-free Diet Coke. "This is my one remaining vice," she says. She no longer needs the others.

Delilah's current theme song? "I Could Not Ask For More," by Edwin McCain. "The lyrics just say everything," she says. "I mean, my life is complete. Solid marriage, great kids, everything I ever dreamed of except a '57 Corvette." Fade in tambourine, country twang, loping rhythm:

Lyin' here with you, listenin' to the rain

Smilin' just to see, the smile upon your face . . .

These are the moments I'll remember all my life

I've found all I've waited for

And I could not ask for more . . .

Well, maybe just one thing. Her jacket. Where is it? Delilah grabs Shayla's miniature umbrella and heads for the car. She's late. Millions of listeners are waiting. "Kisses all around," she yells. "Store those up!" Then the Queen of Sappy Love Songs rushes at the door into the airwaves of the night.

Paula Bock is a Pacific Northwest staff reporter. Benjamin Benschneider is a staff photographer for the magazine.

# USE INFOLINE BUG

Want to hear a bit of Delilah and her music? Call The Seattle Times Infoline, 206-464-2000, from a touch-tone phone and enter category 5683 (LOVE). This is a free call in the local Seattle calling area.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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