On the last night of his life, Kidd Kraddick picked out a stranger on a street corner in the French Quarter. It was a broiling evening last July in New Orleans. Kraddick had just left an oyster bar and had spotted the man selling pirated DVDs out of his trunk. Kraddick’s small entourage, a collection of friends and business partners, walked past the young man, nodding politely. But Kraddick stopped.
What are you doing? Why are you selling these? Don’t you know that’s illegal?
Kraddick’s friends, waiting for him, were annoyed, eager to get on with their evening. But that’s what made Kraddick one of the most successful radio hosts in the country—always asking questions, familiar with strangers, forever in search of a story. For decades, he had been plucking people out of crowds and putting them on the air, sometimes even giving them jobs. Kidd Kraddick in the Morning, broadcast from Kraddick’s own studio in Irving, was a ratings juggernaut that was syndicated across the country. He’d built that radio empire by taking an interest in normal people like the DVD hawker, changing their lives.
Lately, though, Kraddick had been making changes in his own life. At 53, he’d proposed to his girlfriend, who was 21 years younger. He’d apologized to his 23-year-old daughter for using her life as material on his show, sometimes without thinking about how it affected her. He had also begun to craft a succession plan to keep his radio show and his beloved charity operating after he was gone.
But on that night in the French Quarter, Kraddick thought he still had time. He stood on the street, listening to the hawker’s story. He was trying to earn money for school, hoping to become an accountant. Kraddick started talking numbers, testing the young man’s math skills. Impressed, he turned to his friend George Laughlin, the CEO of his company.
“Get this guy’s number,” he said.
Then Kraddick turned onto Bourbon Street with his friends, slipping into the crowds, stepping into the last 15 hours of his life.
Kraddick had always moved a million miles a minute, manic, driven, restless. He forever seemed to be juggling his two cell-phones, wondering where he put his sunglasses, his keys, his coat, his car, opening his fifth can of Diet Coke, furiously typing a script for the show. He didn’t pay much attention to his health. Kraddick ate fast food, slept little, and smoked constantly (a habit he worked to keep from his listeners).
About four years ago, he began to look like he was paying the price for his hectic, unhealthy lifestyle. Already wiry and slender at 5 foot 8, he had shed pounds and taken on a pale, weak appearance. There were days when he didn’t make it to the studio, instead joining his co-hosts electronically from his downtown condo, his listeners never knowing the difference.
When people around the station quietly asked questions, Kraddick told them he hadn’t been feeling well, but he remained vague. Some turned to Kraddick’s best friend, Toby Wilson, to see if he knew anything.
Wilson is a tall, rangy attorney from Arlington who had known Kraddick for about 15 years and served as the president of his Kidd’s Kids charity. Wilson was one of the few friends who didn’t listen to Kraddick’s show. And he didn’t call him “Kidd.” He used his real name, Dave. Wilson knew what was wrong with Kraddick, but he wasn’t talking either.
When Kraddick had started to look unwell, in 2009, he and Wilson played a round together at Dallas National Golf Club. The private course climbs through mesquite trees and limestone bluffs, looking more like the Hill Country than southwest Dallas. The club’s initiation fee is $150,000, and the brass plates on the lockers are engraved with the most recognizable names in Dallas: Mark Cuban, Richard Rainwater, Roger Staubach, Lee Trevino, Kelcy Warren, and so on. Kraddick had a 7 handicap and liked to gamble, sometimes wagering thousands of dollars on a round (ask WFAA Channel 8 sportscaster Dale Hansen).
That day, when Wilson and Kraddick pulled up to the eighth tee, Kraddick stayed in the cart, which was unusual. Always in motion, he’d rarely wait for it to come to a complete stop.
“I need to tell you something,” he began. “I’ve been hit with the Kraddick curse again.”
Despite his happy-go-lucky demeanor, in his quieter moments Kraddick tended toward pessimism. Whenever something bad happened to him, significant or trivial, he blamed it on the “Kraddick curse.”
“Oh, yeah?” Wilson said, chuckling. “What’s that?”
Kraddick looked at his friend. “I’ve got cancer,” he said.
Wilson paused, taking in Kraddick’s expression, waiting for a punch line. On his friend’s face, he saw only fear. Wilson sat for a moment, absorbing the news. Kraddick hopped out of the cart and headed toward the tee. Wilson had always relied on Kraddick to know what to say, to make uncomfortable moments lighter. But now, as they played the eighth hole, Kraddick swung his club in silence.
After they finished the hole, the twosome stopped at a snack shack for a soda. Wilson looked at Kraddick. “Do you want to stop?” he asked. It felt weird to finish the round. Shouldn’t they go back to the clubhouse and talk? Kraddick just laughed. He’d already shrugged off the seriousness of the moment. He climbed into the cart, and they headed to the ninth hole.
It was a glimpse of how Kraddick would handle the months ahead, the chemotherapy and radiation, the vomiting and hair loss. He wasn’t going to act differently, or stop doing his radio show, or feel sorry for himself, or burden anyone with his illness. He wanted to keep playing.
As they continued along the course, Kraddick told Wilson what he knew about his illness. It was lymphoma, and he had already begun an aggressive course of chemotherapy. The treatments left him weak, and he needed someone to drive him back and forth to the Arlington Cancer Center. He swore his friend to secrecy. He didn’t want anyone to know—not his co-hosts, not his listeners, not even his daughter. (Only with this story has his illness become public.)
It was ironic, really, that a man who had become so successful by talking about his life on the radio would choose to keep such news quiet. Part of it was just his personality, Wilson thought. He was a professional extrovert, but Kraddick could also be deeply private.
Of course, there were business reasons to keep his diagnosis under wraps. Would radio stations across the country continue to buy and air his show if they found out Kraddick had cancer? Would current affiliates let their contracts expire and sign other shows, preparing for the worst-case scenario? Telling business associates would add complications that he could avoid by keeping quiet. And if his co-hosts happened to find out, it was in their best interest to keep quiet, too. Their fates—and livelihoods—were tied to Kraddick’s.
But perhaps the biggest reason, Wilson believes, that Kraddick wanted to keep his health issues quiet is that he didn’t want to be pitied. Wilson’s 20-year-old son, Alex, was killed in a car crash that same year. Kraddick had been close to the young man. He watched how others began to treat Wilson. When he walked into a room, pity radiated. It’s who Wilson became, someone who elicited sad eyes and uncertain words.
Kraddick wanted no part of it. He refused to become “the sick guy.” His job was making people laugh. Cancer wasn’t really something to laugh about.
Kraddick started his first radio show when he was about 12 years old, using a CB radio in the early ’70s. He began talking at the same time every night from his twin bed on Parkwood Drive, in Dunedin, Florida. Breaker One Nine. He got his friends to listen, and his small audience grew across the middle-class neighborhood of stucco houses, station wagons, and basketball hoops. He called himself Dreamcatcher.
As the youngest of four children—born David Peter Cradick—attracting attention was a survival skill. The family’s currency was not who could throw the ball farthest or earn the highest grades, but who could crack the funniest joke. “Put a microphone in our family and good luck getting it back,” says his older brother, Gary.
Kraddick landed his first DJ gigs in high school, working part-time at a local roller rink, driving around with boxes of records in the back of his rust-colored El Camino. He lay in bed at night, listening to his favorite DJs on WLS in Chicago, then imitated them, recording himself talking and playing music on cassette tapes for a station he called WJAN, named after his big sister, Jan.
He went to the University of Miami but dropped out after a semester and enrolled in a 10-week broadcasting class. He landed an overnight shift at a small radio station in Sarasota, Florida. Then a program director at a bigger station, Q105 in Tampa, offered him a job. Right away, his ratings exploded. He was 18. Whenever there was a task no one else wanted to do around the station, a small event or promotion, the program director would say, “Get the kid to do it.” The nickname stuck.