I N TOE EXCITEMENT OF THE MOVE, MARK and Kathi Davis didn’t sweat the warning signs. It’s not uncommon for multiple sclerosis to flare up sporadically, and Kathi had had symptoms off and on since she was 16. Sometimes a leg might go numb, or she might feel some tingling in one of her hands. But the symptoms had always faded.
Kathi and Mark were moving from Washington, D.C., to Bedford, Texas, with their 2-year-old daughter, Regina, for Mark’s new gig as midmoming talk-show host at WBAP-AM 820. After a nomadic radio career, Mark was ready to settle down. It was March 1994. He flew to Texas a few days before Kathi, leaving her to tend to last-minute details. The day before the move, her old illness returned. leaving her fatigued and limping. “It was just a killer for her,” Mark says. Still, “We just laughed about it: ’What, this thing again? It’ll run its course and be gone.’”
As the months passed in Texas, the symptoms didn’t. Kathi’s limp grew worse, and she began to lose the use of her arms and legs. It had been only three years since Kathi’s older brother, Chris, died from MS at 36.
Over the next live years, Kathi’s condition worsened. MS attacks nerve cells and renders them useless, and Kathi gradually lost control of her limbs. She’s now 40 and spends most of her time in a wheelchair. She can usually move one hand well enough to maneuver the motorized chair. She cannot feed herself. Meanwhile, as Kathi’s health has deteriorated, Mark’s radio career has flourished. Competitors watch helplessly as his numbers zoom up the charts. In the winter Arbitron ratings, Davis’ show ranked No. 1 among all listeners from 9 a.m. to noon with a 6.2 share; he also earned a 4.7 share for fifth place among listeners between the ages of 25 and 54, which advertisers scrutinize closely.
Talkers magazine has included Davis in its “100 Most Important Radio Talk-Show Hosts in America” list for the past four years. No one else in Dallas has made it even two years in a row, let alone four. “Considering that there are almost 5,000 talk-show hosts in the country, that’s a hell of a golden circle,” says Michael Harrison, Talkers editor. “He makes more money than many nationally syndicated hosts do, and he is more well-known within his market than they are nationally.”
But Davis has the best of both worlds. His local success has earned him a national spot from noon to 3 p.m. Sundays on the ABC Radio Network, making him not only the most successful talk-show host in town, but the hardest working. In case someone somewhere hasn’t gotten the message, he also writes two columns a week for the Fori Worth Star-Telegram.
Davis, 41, credits his success to his staff and to WBAP’s 50,000-watt thunderbolt of a signal. When pushed, he will acknowledge that he might have something to do with it. “But I’m not trying to change the world,” he says. “I’m not even trying to change people’s minds. I’m trying to create an entertaining show.”
And that’s as far as he’ll take it. He’s happy for the ratings but is loath to analyze them for fear of bursting the bubble. Still, perspective hasn’t come easily, and he has struggled to balance his work with the constant presence of Kathi’s disease. But while Davis believes strongly in God, he doesn’t believe in fate. “I think things happen randomly,” he says. “Things just happen to people. It’s what you do about it that counts.”
“ARE YOU GOING TO REPORT THAT A CRAZY MOTHERF- ER TOOK A f-ing church hostage.” the gunman snarled, “or are you going to report that I have a valid argument?” It was 1979, and a Vietnam veteran named Harold Mann had stormed a church in Charleston, W.V.. armed with a deer rifle and a bad attitude. But many of the congregants were elderly and buckling under the pressure. When Mann agreed to a hostage exchange, the reporters on the scene took it as a chance to gel up close and personal. Among them was 21 -year-old Mark Davis, barely six months out of college. “Like idiots,” he says, “we went in there.”
Mann soon released everyone but the media. Between profanity-laden diatribes and complaints about his constant federally ignored headaches, Mann held his rifle to the reporters” heads and queried them about the slant their stories would take.
Of course, the answer was obvious, says Davis: “Oh, man. valid argument, valid argument, V.A. all die way. valid argument.” After six hours Mann surrendered, and Davis wound up with the kind of war story some reporters yearn for their entire lives. To hear him tell it is to understand why he continues to obliterate his talk-show competition. He doesn’t just quote Harold Mann: slipping into a keening, nasal hillbilly brogue, Davis becomes the enraged gunman, His delivery, timing, and vocal pyrotechnics evoke a vision of Robin Williams working on a Walter Winchell routine.
Davis studied journalism at the University of Maryland and worked for the college radio station. A 1978 gubernatorial primary converted him to broadcasting for good. The station had assigned him to a dark-horse candidate who pulled off an upset. In the ensuing excitement, Davis realized how powerful, immediate, and gratifying radio could be. “I said. ’This captures this event more vividly to me than reading it tomorrow morning in the newspaper.”
IT STARTED WITH A LOUD “THUNK,” DAVIS SAYS. LIKE A HUGE TRANS-former coming to life. Two minutes later, a convicted murderer was sitting dead in the Florida State Prison electric chair. There was nothing gory about it. Davis says-just a sense that justice had been served. After the execution, Davis spoke with the victims’ families. “One guy said, ’At least I don’t need to lie awake at night knowing he’s breathing the same air I’m breathing. I was glad to see him go.’ And I was never ambivalent again, I became a staunch, staunch supporter.’”
Davis hosted talk shows in Florida. Memphis, and Washington. D.C. Along the way he divorced his first wife of eight years and met two people who would change his life forever: program director Tyler Cox and his second wife, Kathi.
Davis met Kathi Graves at WHBQ in Memphis in 1987. He was a talk-show host; she was selling air time. They married two years later. Kathi’s illness “was a virtual nonissue,” Davis says. “The MS was something she used to have, as far as we were both concerned.”
Twelve weeks after the couple moved to Florida in 1989, the Tampa/St. Petersburg station changed formats and Davis was again out of a job. But on a whim, he had sent a tape to WWRC-AM in Washington, D.C., shortly before losing his job in Florida.
Tyler Cox arrived at WWRC at about the same time as Davis’ lape. Cox had never heard of Davis, but he played the tape and “it just absolutely riveted me. The passion with which he discussed topics, the obvious preparation, the way he intertwined personal experience into the show-and all in a very entertaining style that just drew you in.”
Cox knows something about talk-show hosts. He was the program director at the Sacramento, Calif., station where Rush Limbaugh worked before going national. In Davis he found a host with the same work ethic and drive. “Mark is in a league of his own,” Cox says.
The respect is mutual. “Tyler Cox is the best thing to ever happen to me professionally,” Davis says. “For the rest of my life I will thank God I met him. I love that man so much.”
After two years of hosting a hit show in his hometown, Davis was devastated to (earn that Cox had signed on to help WBAP move from country to news/talk. “1993 was a miserable year,” Davis says. “The station’s ratings went to hell. For the first time in my life, I was not happy coining in to work every day.”
Cox, in Texas, needed a midmorning host. When he learned that WWRC had not yet renewed Davis’ contract, he wasted no time. “I told him, ’Come down for a couple of days.”’
Davis says once he got over the idea of leaving Washington, the decision was a no-brainer. He wanted to settle down, and he relished the thought of working with Cox again. Kathi, who had begun working as a physical therapy technician, supported the move wholeheartedly.
Davis hit the air at WBAP on March 28, 1994.
It’s the kind of day talk-show hosts long for and dread, It’s April 21, the day after two teenagers shot 12 students and a teacher to death before killing themselves at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. On the air, Davis sounds angry, resigned, and slightly bewildered.
But the horror of the shootings doesn’t mean he’s going to cut his callers any sympathetic slack. “Why should anyone want to take firearms away from law-abiding people?” he asks a man who is calling for stricter gun-control laws. When he s on the air, Davis ’ head tilts down at a 45-degree angle, his face frozen in concentration as he takes in his callers’ points. When he responds, he continues looking down, as if the caller is somewhere there in the console. “Every American should support it [the right to bear arms],” he continues. “It’s in die Constitution, and a gun in my hand to protect my home-a gun in your hand to protect yourself-is a good thing,”
It’s that kind of talk that gives Davis his conservative reputation. But his detractors often conveniently fail to hear his softer, more Libertarian side. In fact, just a few callers later he blasts a Wichita Fails woman named Robin who says the shootings happened because lawmakers “took God out of the schools.”
“Do you think so little of God that you think he can be taken out of a school?” Davis says. “God is in every school in America right now,”
“But the teachers aren’t allowed to talk about him,” Robin replies. “They could have counseled those kids and said, you know, * Hey. Jesus loves you.”’
“Well, guess what?” Davis counters. That’s unconstitutional.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“Ma’am, of course it is. Please, darling, get hip….We are a pluralistic society with many, many faiths. It is the job of the home to give a kid what he needs in tenus of spirituality.”
It’s tempting to compare Davis to Limbaugh. but the comparison stops at “conservative.” Limbaugh’s dramatic orations make it seem as though the world is drowning in a fetid pool of liberal lies and deceits; Davis bemoans the same lies and deceits, but he believes the world can swim well enough to survive them. Davis says he’s always flattered to be compared to “the most dominant talk-show host in the history of the planet,” but he points out the differences. On a Mark Davis show, he says, “you’re likely to get more variety of topics, less predictability, and less demonization of the opponents.”
Davis often sides with the ACLU on mailers of personal freedom and expression, but he refuses to call himself a “moderate conservative.” “Conservative” would work fine, he says, if not for extremists who keep their eyes peeled tor black helicopters carrying U.N. troops to training grounds in Kansas. He strains to remain civil when such malcontents call his show.
Kathi listens to Mark’s show, but not all the time. When she critiques the show, Mark says, she usually accuses him of being too mean or too snide to a caller. Mark says Kathi agrees with “70 percent of what I believe in.” Kathi doesn’t seem so sure, but both agree that theirs is not a Carville/Matalin arrangement Still, Kathi says, “Most of his callers probably agree with him more than I do.” They complement each other well. Mark can remember the date of every important event in his life, but he can’t find yesterday’s mail. Kathi, meanwhile, can run the entire household sitting down. A nurse comes to the house during the day to help out, but Kami’s always supervising, always where the action is. “He’s so brilliant,” she says, “but it’s the simple things. He can’t untie a knot, for instance.”
About the only things that anger Davis are bigotry, religious intolerance and, well. Bill Clinton. He stops short of calling the president evil and will even acknowledge that it’s probably impossible for a saint to be elected president, but he says Clinton lowered the standard more than anyone. “He absolutely perjured himself; he absolutely obstructed justice.” He also cheated on his wife. Has Davis? “No. I’m clean. I practice what I preach.”
AS SOON AS THE DOCTOR INSERTED THE TUBE IN HER NECK, KATHI DAVIS could tell something was wrong. The tube, which was supposed to run to her chest, felt like it was snaking its way up the side of her head. She complained. The doctor at the Mexican clinic politely, but condescendingly, told her she was wrong.
But an X-ray confirmed Kathi’s suspicions, and she and Mark beat a hasty retreat back to Texas. They laugh about it now, and yet the trip was another bitter disappointment. They had met people there who had been cured, people who had suffered as Kathi suffers but who had found their way back. Mark and Kathi have traveled the continent searching for alternative treatments, from a hyperbaric oxygen chamber to shark cartilage to injections of snake venom. Nothing has worked, but they remain convinced that a cure is out there somewhere. The longer it takes, the harder it’s going to be for Kathi to recover.
It’s a crisis almost too horrific to contemplate. But Mark and Kathi are so much in love, their movements so natural, well-choreographed and smoothly executed, that at times it’s easy to forget any thing’s wrong. When she wants out of her chair, Mark simply picks her up and carries her to the sofa. When she wants an arm in a different position, he moves it for her, gently rubbing her hand, sometimes brushing her hair back. “What we deal with and how we deal with it often gives people strength,” Kathi says. “At least that’s what they tell us. And as tough as it all is, I swear I think we have more fun than most people do.”
Kathi recently joined a group of partners planning to open a gym for the handicapped. “Think about somebody in a wheelchair,” she says. “Who needs to exercise more?”
Davis brings the same energy that has made him No. I on the radio to his home life. Kathi’s father, Tom Graves, says of his son-in-law, “He’s just an unusual man. He’s very compassionate and understanding of Kathi and her problems, but he’s also keeping her up all the time, keeping her going.”
AS MARK’S WORKLOAD AND POPULARITY HAVE INCREASED, SO HAVE his heartaches. He lost both parents within five months of each other, his father to heart disease, his mother to cancer. Meanwhile, Kathi’s health shows little signs of improvement. “She goes through Herculean lengths every day just to stay seated upright in a chair.” Mark says. And although she’s been stable for a couple of years. Mark says, “the bad days are worse than they used to be.”
Davis’ haven from his difficulties is a small, dimly lit studio in the heart of the WBAP offices in Arlington. He rises about 5:45 a.m. and arrives at work about 15 minutes before the show starts, carrying several newspapers and research material such as The Almanac of American Politics.
Davis acknowledges, somewhat guiltily, that for him talk radio has been a kind of talk therapy-three hours during which he can concentrate on the problems of the world and not on Kathi’s illness. “I’m doing that, and there’s nowhere else I’m needed,” he says. “She gets no escape from this. I guess I do get one.”
Davis has fired up a cigar on the back porch and is enjoying the first warm night of spring when Regina. now 7, leaps into his lap. complaining about the cigar smoke on his breath. As he stands to escort her to bed, the subject of sweet dreams arises. “I can’t have sweet dreams because I never dream.” Regina announces.
The Davis house, though, is full of dreams. Dreams of a day when Mark and Kathi find the one treatment that will allow her to stand up and kick that electric wheelchair so hard it never runs again. So many things have gone right for them in Texas, and yet that one goal remains just out of reach.
But now Regina is demanding her father’s attention. Davis takes her by the hand, and, as they head toward the door, he asks her, “Do you know how many nights you dream? Every night. The question is, ’Do you always remember them?’”