Bill Cunningham eyeing retirement in August 2023
WLW-AM's talk show host Bill Cunningham says "if all goes well," he'll leave the airwaves after reaching his 40th anniversary at the station.
It's what politicians and talk show hosts sometimes do: They move the goal posts when talking about issues or answering questions.
Bill Cunningham had often said he wanted to host his talk show until WLW-AM's 100th anniversary. That was March 2 — if you use the date the station was licensed to Powel Crosley Jr. — or March 23, the day Crosley implemented WLW-AM's first programming schedule. The station will celebrate that day on Wednesday with some historic audio.
But Willie has changed his mind.
Cunningham, who turned 74 in December, says he's pushed back retiring to August 2023, his 40th anniversary at the station.
"At this point, I'm having too much fun," says Cunningham, who hosts noon to 3 p.m. weekdays plus a nationally syndicated show 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday night.
"If all goes well, I have one or two years left," he says. "In August of next year, I will complete 40 years all on 700 WLW. Not bad. That's my goal now."
Not bad for the lawyer-turned-talk host who went on WLW-AM in 1983 by accident. Cunningham was representing WKRC-AM talk host Alan Browning, who had signed a contract in 1983 to jump to the 50,000-watt station that August. But he didn't. So WLW-AM operations manager Randy Michaels gave the late-night talk show to Cunningham, who had made some appearances on Browning's popular WKRC-AM show.
"Absolutely it was accidental. I never intended to be a radio talk show host," says Cunningham, who was born in Covington and raised in Deer Park. He was captain of the Xavier University baseball team his senior year (1970) while earning a history degree, and got his law degree from the University of Toledo in 1975. His wife, Penny Cunningham, retired in 2019 from the Ohio First District Court of Appeals bench.
His career choice has been rewarded twice with the National Association of Broadcasters' prestigious Marconi Award for Large Market Personality of the Year, in 2001 and 2009. He also operated several Willie's Sports Cafes in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.
Cunningham, after about 15 years working nights, was moved in the late 1990s to noon to 3 p.m. That put the outspoken conservative Republican head-to-head with Rush Limbaugh's popular national show airing on WKRC-AM. Cunningham won the ratings handily.
He also did a stint as WLW-AM's program director. He was the manager who moved Xavier basketball analyst Joe Sunderman to play-by-play in 1997 when Andy MacWilliams experienced voice problems, and hired Byron Larkin as analyst.
On the air, Cunningham calls himself "The Great American" and the "uncommon voice of the common man" — even though he and his wife live in Sycamore Township almost adjacent to Indian Hill. It's all part of his radio act. Last week he railed about “elite” college professors living in “suburban enclaves,” hoping his listeners didn't care he lived in a wealth suburban enclave.
Conservatives love him and others don't. Cunningham has succeeded on radio because he plays to the station's predominantly white male audience. He's been a loud, ardent supporter of Republican politics, and has boasted that he was an "unofficial Midwest advisor" to President Donald Trump starting in 2017, after Trump had seen Cunningham on George Stephanopoulos' Sunday morning TV show.
Not every prominent Republican has cozied up to Cunningham. Presidential candidate John McCain threw him under the bus for remarks Cunningham made about Democratic candidate Barack Obama while warming up the crowd before McCain's Memorial Hall rally in Feb. 27, 2008.
The next year, the Southern Poverty Law Center's "Hate in the Mainstream" report flagged Cunningham's comment about Black people on welfare, when he told WLW-AM listeners that "poor people … are not poor because they lack money. They're poor because they lack values, ethics and morals."
When Michaels' WGN-AM lured Mike McConnell from WLW-AM to Chicago in 2010, Cunningham rejected a similar overture. But a year later he was hosting a daytime Bill Cunningham show on WGN-TV and other Tribune stations, which was picked up by the CW network and aired afternoons from 2012 to 2016. He would do his WLW-AM show from his New York dressing room between TV tapings.
Cunningham, then 68, turned down a three-year renewal from the CW because "I just don't want to work this hard," he told me at the time.
When I interviewed Cunningham in 2015 for Xavier Nation magazine, he told me that a Xavier history professor named Roger Fortin "taught me the love of reading. And right now I spend every day on the Drudge Report, Newsmax and WorldNetDaily.com. I go to Cincinnati.com, 700WLW.com. I spend my time reading about current events … because every week on this (WLW) gig of mine, I have 25-30 guests every week. So in a year, I’ll have 1,400 guests. I have to know a little bit about something, and so I read everything that I can."
Maybe in 18 months he'll slow down.
"I have been humbled it has lasted this long, but I still have a few gallons left in the tank," he says as the station prepares to celebrate its 100th birthday. "It is crazy how quickly 39 years have flown by."