For her predominantly female radio audience, Delilah Rene's show is the comforting auditory equivalent of chicken pot pie. Women say "hubby" here, and "stud muffin," and rarely fail to mention their gratitude for God's blessings.
De-liiii-lah ... The unmistakable lead-in to the show wafts every weeknight from her studio near Seattle to 222 stations nationwide, making her the most listened-to woman on the radio. An estimated 8 million people a week tune in to hear the self-described "Queen of Sappy Love Songs." She reaches out to lonely drivers and overworked moms, shuffling requests and dedications between empathy and advice.
But tune in long enough, and you'll hear the radio star (born Delilah Luke 50 years ago) drop hints about how she has made every mistake, how unlucky she has been with men and how ironic it is that so many ask her for advice.
Consider: She has been divorced three times. One marriage lasted six weeks.
Steve Kenagy, the man who gave Delilah her first job in radio, said she was 14 when she started working at an Oregon station, a natural talent with a penetrating voice.
"But she would get all crazy about some guy," Kenagy said. "We'd say, 'Don't throw your life away chasing a boy.' "
But again and again, she would be overwhelmed by the compulsion to find love.
Sit with her and she'll run through the doomed marriages, the 10 children -- three biological, the rest adopted -- the drama and dysfunction.
But the boy-chasing didn't portend professional implosion. Kenagy couldn't have known that her full-throttled obsession with love would be the linchpin of her success.
"I think the saddest thing in the world will be for people who face their death and realize they never lived. That won't be me," Delilah says.
She's an attractive woman with a broad face and long legs. She displays a more chic aesthetic than her radio persona suggests. She's tucked into the softly lighted basement recording studio of a renovated farmhouse 70 miles from Seattle. It's her primary office, allowing her to slip downstairs to purr at listeners after feeding dinner to the five kids who live at home.
On the fireplace mantel sits an old yellowing box radio.
The journey begins
Delilah Luke would lie in bed with that AM radio as a kid in Reedsport, Ore., trying to pull in stations out of Portland and San Francisco. When her Girl Scout troop took a field trip to the local radio station, she came home with teletype broadcast material. She read each sheet aloud to an imaginary audience.
In eighth grade, she won four out of five categories in an oratorical contest Kenagy was judging. The next year, she started doing a weekly report for the station. But it was apparent that her motivation was as much about escaping a troubled home as it was about learning radio. She enrolled at a community college in Eugene, Ore., and worked part time at a radio station. She set off on a personal journey and a professional one.
Delilah's taste in men, and people, tends toward the needy. "Delilah was always the kind who wanted to pick up ... the down-and-outer, to get them on their feet," Kenagy says.
At 21, she married George Harris, a divorced man who also worked in radio. Her parents disowned her when they found out she'd wed a black man, she says. She eventually reconciled with her mother.
Throughout Delilah's life, one craving has surpassed her hunger for romantic love: the desire for babies. Harris resisted the idea, but at 24 she gave birth to son Isaiah. In her telling, Harris walked out on her and their 10-month-old baby. Harris, a San Francisco radio reporter, says Delilah "threw me out."
The tenure for any radio personality is often short, and by 1984 she had worked for eight stations. When her Seattle station, KLSY, switched from rock to easy listening, Delilah asked if she could start a call-in show.
The program director was skeptical but let her give it a shot. She went on the air with "Delilah After Dark." A few months later, a plane carrying Delilah's older brother and his wife, en route to visit their new nephew, went missing. (The wreckage was found six years later.) Shortly after the plane disappeared, her split with Harris became official.
And between on-air calls comforting listeners, Delilah spent much of her time weeping. Religion wasn't a part of her life growing up, she says. After her marriage died and her brother's plane went down, she lay in bed one night, ravaged with loneliness and grief.
Out loud, she said: "God, if you're real, I need to know."
The next day, after stopping at a market in Seattle, Delilah says, she found a small book on her car windshield. It was a tiny copy of the New Testament with a handwritten inscription: "Jesus Loves You."
It was at church that Delilah met her second husband. She says they had a six-month romance and were man and wife for six weeks before she had the marriage annulled.
Single again in 1990, she left Seattle and took her show to the East Coast. Letting callers pour out their personal lives and responding with comfort was almost always a hit with listeners but fared less well with program directors, a still mostly male group.
She met Douglas Ortega, a man eight years her junior who was involved in her church. He was handsome and funny and religious. But also, she says: "I wanted more kids."
By 1996, when she moved to New York, they were wed and had baby Shayla.
The show started out on three stations and within a year was being carried on 12. A company called Broadcast Programming bought Delilah's show and took her back to Seattle. In a little more than a year, she could be heard on more than 200 stations.
Edie Hilliard, who was the general manager of Broadcast Programming said, "Delilah was able to match songs that had lyrical meaning to a particular caller's issue. It resonated with listeners."
Delilah still longed for more kids, so she and Ortega began to adopt. Then Delilah discovered she was pregnant. "So I went from having two biological kids ... to having six children in one year," she says.
But she and Ortega separated, and in 2001 they divorced.
She feared she was disappointing God with her failed relationships. "Then I realized, you know what? ... You do the best that you can do, and when you can't do it, you can't do it."
To the great vexation of radio program directors, Delilah talks constantly about God on her show, but her allegiance to organized religion is tenuous. To her, religion boils down to one line she likes to paraphrase from the Book of James: "True religion is to care for the orphans and the widows in their affliction."
She adopted a toddler and a 20-year-old single mom.
Radio Delilah is a source of encouragement, gushing sweetly to listeners on how special they are, how treasured. She is radio's patron saint of positivity.
She has visited Buduburam, a Ghana refugee settlement of almost 100,000 people, 15 times and created a nonprofit agency called Point Hope to provide its residents with medical care, skills training, food and fresh water. She also adopted two girls from the settlement, bringing her child count to an even 10 -- and she won't rule out adopting more.
In 2004, Delilah bought the rights to her own show. The move made her wealthy, allowed her to hire old friends and gave her full prerogative to talk about God.
She won't talk about her current romantic life, but in her 2008 book, "Love Matters," she writes about finding love again with a motorcycle-riding man named Paul.
She will say that her perspective on romance has changed a great deal over the years.
"When I was young, I thought romantic love was the end all-be all," Delilah wrote in an e-mail. "That it was THE main thing you needed to have happiness and joy in your life."
Now she tells listeners that searching for love is fruitless, but, "if you're in the business of living your life fully, love will come to you -- so much love you won't be able to even receive it all."