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Tuesday, March 18, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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KIRO-AM's Dave Ross broadcasting from Persian Gulf

Seattle Times staff reporter

"I guess it's all a part of trying to be where the excitement is," Dave Ross said. "Sometimes it's on stage, sometimes it's in the real world."

In this particular case, the overachiever talk-radio host is sitting in his Mercer Island home office explaining his penchant for performing in Gilbert & Sullivan musicals. Hardly a kink that merits cross-examination; it's just that you don't see Paul Harvey warbling onstage in a pirate costume.

But several days later, Ross has followed the excitement to the real-world location of Qatar in the Persian Gulf. He began broadcasting his KIRO morning radio show from its capital city of Doha yesterday and will stay through Friday — maybe longer, depending on how the scenario unfolds in Iraq. He's following Gen. Tommy Franks' command staff and doing his 9 a.m.-noon show via a digitally enhanced phone line.

Add this field trip to the long list in his staggering 25 years at KIRO — which he marked in January. Great Britain with the pope in '82, the toppling of the Berlin Wall in '89, the L.A. Rodney King riots in '92, Jerusalem after suicide bombings last year. It's a list too long to print here, and just a list of his current activities nearly is, too, in much detail: In addition to the show, he also does daily CBS radio commentaries, fill-in duties for Charles Osgood, a long-running "Chip Talk" computer feature for Associated Press radio — and the amateur musical thing during his scant free time.

Just a regular guy

As careers go, radio years are like dog years. An on-air job even half as long in that turnstile of an industry would be notable. Few people reach middle age, let alone old age, on the airwaves these days.

"I could never get them to fire me," Ross, 50, says back at home, sitting by the keyboard where he churns out parody songs, the best of which could stand alongside those of the legendary Tom Lehrer.

You'd never do a double-take passing him on the street or sitting near him in a cafe, unless you caught the voice, resonant and friendly with only a hint of the typical broadcaster's heyyyy affectation. Currently without the beard he sports in many pictures, Ross looks younger than his age and slightly elfin, his brown hair just starting to thin. Exceedingly regular, in a two-story house that's flat-line regular.

What flair there is in the home comes from his wife Patti's handful of Japanese art objects.

They met at Cornell, where she studied art history and he studied English. "He was persistent in his own quiet way," she recalls, standing against a kitchen counter.

In fact, she says what would most surprise his listeners is "that he's really shy. Put a mike in front of him, though, and he's glib."

Proving her point, he wanders away and into his office. Paintings by his dad, a commercial artist for Madison Avenue ad agencies, hang above his desk. Nearby are photos: young Dave interviewing him with a tape recorder, teen Dave in a radio booth, bearded Dave at one of his numerous public appearances (add those to the above list, too). And lots of magazines — he thinks novels are a waste of time.

"I'm a ham," he explains. "I've always enjoyed performing. My dad points out that when he brought home the first tape recorder that we had, he rarely got to use it because I was always taking it and doing little radio shows on it."

There's something to be said for consistency, at least according to Arbitron. His current "little show" on 710 KIRO-AM is the Seattle area's top-rated one. His listening share is 8 percent of the radio audience, with 215,000 listeners in an average week, beating syndicated host Rush Limbaugh (who airs on KVI with a 7 share in third place with 125,000 listeners).

Why? The short answer is that he's very Seattle.

The longer one is that you can define Ross partly by what he's not: strident, aggressive, superficial, one-note or even particularly colorful — certainly not edgy.

A different background

On the continuum where fulminating talkers and grating "morning zoo" personalities squat on one end and the pointy-heads of National Public Radio perch on the other, Ross alights somewhere in the middle. His reputation among listeners and colleagues is one of intelligence and a curiosity that's made him conversant in wide-ranging subjects. Solid, calm, unpretentious but still a touch professorial, he's all up-the-middle common sense as advertised. And, for the record, no party affiliation.

"I think most talk-show hosts started with a point of view or a shtick or a personality, so it's marketed that way," Ross said. "I came into this as a reporter who was strictly enjoined from giving his opinion and whose bottom line was to be accurate. Therefore, I can't give you my opinion on something until I've collected a few facts and preferably collected them by talking to the people who generated them, by going as close to the primary source as possible."

He reported for four years at an Atlanta station, and did the same thing at KIRO until they gave him a show in 1987. Here's his daily morning routine, which Ross recites to the minute:

4:55 a.m.: Wake up to hear the 5 a.m. news, mull over the stories for potential use later. Shower, listen to more radio, grab an apple.

5:45: Start driving in time to hear the 6 a.m. news.

6:15: Arrive at the studio in the Entercom building on Eastlake and begin "triage." Scan a Web page customized with sources from The New York Times to local papers, looking for fodder.

7 a.m.: Listen to the top-of-the-hour news again, choose a subject for the CBS commentary, start writing.

7:15: Consult with producer Tina Nole about potential guests to line up on the phone.

7:38: Read the commentary out loud, get it to a strict 90 seconds. Follow up with Nole about guests, then promote on the 8 a.m. news any that she's locked in.

8:08: Another on-air promo for the morning's show.

8:15: Cut the commentary to 87 seconds.

8:30: Feed the commentary to CBS. If it's Friday, do an additional one for Saturday.

8:35: Get tapes, notes and other show prep ready on the computer. Look for stories, op-ed pieces, listener e-mails or reflections to open with, preferably something light or funny.

9 a.m.: Start the show.

There's little room for screw-ups. And after all this time, Ross says he still gets nervous, still sweats — despite the sedate, solitary figure he cuts in the studio that looks out on an Azteca restaurant next to Lake Union.

It's Nole, 30, who's the bundle of energy. Separated from him by glass in a booth of her own, she makes calls and screens calls, hears complaints that Ross is too left-wing and too right-wing, shares an instant-message computer screen with him and ducks into his space for break-time planning. No snappy repartee, no antics, no franticness.

A gracious host

On the air, Ross listens, circles around guests with Socratic questions, then makes sharp observations but never goes for the jugular. On a recent morning, state Rep. Lois McMahan, R-Olalla, tries to explain her absence from a Muslim prayer that opened a legislative session. Her less-than-philosophical views on the relative merits of different religions are awkward at best. Easy target. Another host would have vaporized her. Ross remains gracious — even when she issues a backpedaling statement the following day.

During breaks, Ross debates with Nole about replaying the representative's statements, which have been archived on computer. He worries it could discourage future guests. Eventually, he plays a clip, but cushions the impact with his own mitigating words — enormous self-restraint in the radio biz.

At home later he says, "Well, I've asked people to call me up. Should I scold them because they did?"

His ferocious drive doesn't match his temperament, then. Ross' colleagues and his wife both say that he doesn't really hang out. Nor does there appear to be a Krusty-the-Clown off-air side to him that's much different than the one you hear on-air. But what does drive him?

"I desire not to be bored, I guess. I don't know," he says. "I, I, uh, these are things you have to do. They're obligations I've taken, and they have to be fulfilled."

Which doesn't much answer the question. But you can't declare a man hostile witness in his own home — although Ross likely wouldn't throw you out.

"I guess I must like it," he answers when pressed. "That's got to be what it is, right?"

Early years shaped career

You can say at the very least that Ross isn't stoked by the typical need for approval common among celebrities who weren't hugged enough in childhood. He grew up with a brother and two sisters in an Italian-Jewish suburb of Yorktown Heights, N.Y. He calls it a typical, sheltered, 1950s Beaver Cleaver upbringing. His Italian parents still live in the same house.

Although his religious knowledge is evident in on-air debates, Ross doesn't tout his still-strong Catholicism. "To me, God is what you use to regulate your own conduct, not the conduct of the guy next door. So I take to heart the injunction that when you pray, don't make a show of it. Do it in your closet and let them know you by your example."

However, he adds, "I was certainly picked on in school. Mostly because of my size. So I guess I have a Napoleon complex. The thing that scared me most was seeing gym class on the schedule. Because I was usually bullied in gym class. Until I got smart and decided to take weightlifting and do wrestling. And when you were paired up with kids your own size, you could achieve some self-respect."

He compensated by being on a cable TV station and doing plays — like the Gilbert & Sullivan stuff — as well as developing a love for math and science, he says. So at least some of how far Ross has gotten and where he's going can be traced to the first revelation:

"I think that's probably why I don't do television. Because it's inevitably a disappointment when people ... see me. Because they hear the voice on the air and they always think: gray hair, about 6-2, maybe 180-200 pounds. And then they see a guy who's 5-6, 150 and a little gray hair, but physically unintimidating."

Hey, for Ross it may all just boil down to the fact that "it's the coolest thing in the world" to talk into a microphone from a little room — or Qatar or Kurdistan or Ground Zero in New York — and have millions hear it. But there, he notes, is a dichotomy:

"It's the idea of being able to influence opinion and still be a mystery. Because very few people know what I look like, and nobody driving by the house here would think that the guy behind those Venetian blinds talks to 11 million people when he fills in for Charlie Osgood, right? So it's the idea that I'm kind of a sleeper cell here on Mercer Island."

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

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