The most listened-to woman on American radio—the woman who in some years, “probably earns more income than most women in [the state of] Washington,” in the words of her manager—slips on a pair of Jimmy Choos for the very first time. The New Yorkers in the room look confused: Before them, this media mogul and very wealthy woman…who doesn’t own a TV. Who buys her clothes from thrift stores and grows and cans her own food, then gives most of it away. “My son, who is 16, can’t stand the fact that I have 200,000 miles on my car,” she says of her 2004 Cadillac. “He’s like, ‘Mom, get a new car. You should get a new car.’ I say, ‘Why?’ This one runs perfectly fine. I change the oil every 5,000 miles. It’s in perfect condition.”
You’re listening to Delilah, the long-running mononymous radio host who dispenses advice and dedications to 8 million listeners on more than 150 stations nationwide, five hours a night, five nights a week, from the basement of the suburban Seattle home she shares with the youngest five of her 13 kids (three biological and 10 adopted range in age from 7 to 36). Outside, a 55-acre working farm houses hundreds of animals, many of them rescues, including dogs, cats, chickens, a barn-full of horses, two emus, a zebra/milk cow best-friend pair and three “guard geese” named after characters from the movie Shrek. “They like to stand in front of my 16-year-old’s Prius whenever he tries to back out of the driveway, honk and hiss,” she says. “He’s just sitting there shaking his head, going, ‘Oh jeez, how soon do I graduate and get off this farm?’ ”
The kids know about the radio show, of course. But she says they have no idea she’s so successful, at least not the ones still living at home. When you do too much for your kids, she says, they don’t appreciate it. “They grow to expect it. And when people have expectations that you’re going to do for them what they need to do for themselves,” she says, “you ruin them.” She talks for a living, but the lady’s not all talk. Her yard has a trampoline, a zip line, a zebra. But there’s also up to four hours a day of farm chores and, as mentioned, no TV. “I want my kids to know the value of hard work,” she says. “And that life’s not fair. There’s nothing fair about it.”
In an industry whose imminent doom has been predicted for years, Delilah, a sort of Casey Kasem-Oprah-Pioneer Woman hybrid, has not just survived but thrived, finding her niche in the universal and the durable—love, loss, moving on. She shoots straight, follows her own rules and has created a brand not just inspired by but fully intertwined with her own life, which has been filled with as much sadness and heartache as it has joy and success. She lost a son in 2012, has been married four times and knows what it’s like to be “dirt poor.” Even
the most cynical can relate to something she says. And so, at 56, some 30 years into her career, she shows no signs of slowing down or going out of style. Aside from maintaining a Facebook page with 1.3 million followers, which she updates herself with posts about recent caller stories, inspirational slogans, the latest pick in Delilah’s Book Club and what sort of shampoo she’s loving lately, she does little to attract that lusted-after 18-to-34 demo. She doesn’t need to. They come all on their own.
“My audience is hipper, much more media savvy, than they were 10 years ago,” she says. In response, Delilah and her producer have become more current in the songs they choose to play as dedications—more Adam Levine and Adele, less Richard Marx and Bette Midler (though don’t worry, the classic lite favorites that earned her such titles as “The Queen of Sap” still get plenty of air time). “But the topics are timeless,” she says. “We have new technology, but we’re still the same. We still love our families fiercely. We still give our hearts completely. We still have dreams and hopes for the future. We still face discrimination on a million fronts. That hasn’t changed. That’s not going to change.”
The Delilah hotline fields more than 100,000 attempted calls each night from listeners eager for a chance to share. Many of the stories are happy, but most are incredibly sad: tales of things unsaid, opportunities lost, partners betrayed, parents who never loved them. Most of the real drama never even makes it to air; the average call lasts for 12 minutes, though it’s edited down to play at fewer than three. “They really consider me their best friend,” says Delilah. “So it’s a very fine line I walk, because a lot of times the stuff they tell me would be great radio, but if I think in any way it would hurt them or somebody else, I don’t air it. I don’t even keep the files.” As longtime producer Jane Bulman says, “She’s very honest, and she’s always been so compassionate, but the thing about Delilah is that she’ll listen more than she talks. That’s why she gets these great stories.”
But while many people ask for advice, most just want to be understood, which, Delilah says, she does. “When you have gone through as many things as I have, you can say with confidence to someone, ‘You are going to make it through this,’ ” she says. “I have a sign when you come down my driveway that says, ‘In the end, it will be all right.’ If it’s not all right, it’s not the end. So you think right now you’re going to die because he broke your heart, and I get that, but you are going to make it through.” She knows this to be true in her own life.
“There is a limited universe of incredible talent who stand the test of time, and Delilah is one of them,” says Julie Talbott, president of Premiere Networks, Delilah’s syndicator. “What makes talent like her special is passion—it drives them to continue honing their skills and adapting to an ever-changing environment.”
Delilah only sort of sees it that way. She agrees she’s passionate—her radio booth is her happy place. But she says she hasn’t felt the need to redefine herself, choosing instead to honor, rather than resist, the passage of time. “People don’t have to redefine themselves to redeem themselves,” she says. “I have to make hard choices, because if the stations had it their way, I would be traveling every weekend, and I can’t, because of my family. I won’t. But I’m lucky in that I don’t feel like I have to choose one or the other. I can have both.”
If she’s changed at all, she says, over 30 years—since Delilah, a onetime small-town traffic reporter, became Delilah, the radio icon—it’s that she’s grown much bolder in her gratitude evangelism. It’s a talk she’s always walked, but especially since establishing Point Hope, a foundation dedicated to feeding children in Ghana, from where she’s adopted six of her children. “I certainly have more empathy today because of stuff I’ve gone through,” she says. “There’s a ramped-up urgency to tell people to enjoy every minute. But at the same time, my tolerance for crybabies in America has really gone down. I have no patience for people who want to stare at their own navel and talk about their own problems ad nauseam. It’s like, get out of yourself. Go do something good for the world.”
In main image: Rosalie dress (worn open), price upon request, LAFAYETTE 148, lafayette148ny.com. Sweater, $995, ESCADA, escada.com. Pants, $110, NYDJ, bloomingdales.com. Aurora pumps, $595, JIMMY CHOO, jimmychoo.com.
In inset: Cardigan, $498, LAFAYETTE 148, lafayette148ny.com. Sweater, $995, ESCADA, escada.com. Pants, $110, NYDJ, bloomingdales.com. Aurora pumps, $595, JIMMY CHOO, jimmychoo.com.
Stylist: Paul Frederick. Hair & Makeup: Jessi Butterfield at Exclusive Artists Management.