Missing Bernie Ward

Mostly, I miss Bernie Ward on Sunday mornings, when I hear “Godtalk” on KGO Radio. The first time I ever met Bernie was when he was hosting that show. I’d come to San Francisco from New York, just for the weekend. My sister was having an engagement party that I traveled to California for. But I ended up never going back home to New York. I went to Austin for a while, as a PA on a film, and after that wrapped, I got a job working for Willie Nelson on an hour length music video. (As far as I know, that particular piece of art never made it to TV or even video.) Then I came back to San Francisco. I went to KGO to see if I could get a producer job. I’d worked in New York for Alan Colmes who had, at the time,  a radio talk show out of a network called Daynet that used ABC’s studios. KGO was also out of ABC then so it all felt familiar to me.

KGO told me I could be a fill in, an on-call producer, which would probably entail late nights– Ray Taliaferro’s shift. And the weekends, odd hours. That was fine with me. I was twenty-six years old. I had no problem staying up all night.

So there I was at 6am, light just coming up, and Bernie walked into his studio. He sat down and played a recording of Amazing Grace on bagpipes. It was beautiful. I remember thinking: this is so weird. How did I get here at 6am, listening to Amazing Grace, listening to this guy talk about Jesus?

My mother is jewish, my father is episcopalian. I didn’t grow up with any religion. I was fascinated listening to Bernie go on about God, argue with the church, speak about the real messages of Jesus’ teachings, this jewish carpenter, Bernie called him.

Not long after I met Bernie, a producer spot opened for his night time show. It was the most fun job I’ve ever had, and Bernie, in spite of his reputation  as angry, cranky, or mean, was great to work with. He was kind, attentive, brilliant and hilarious. We had many disagreements, right from the start on the issues he discussed on air. I began working for him around the time of the whole Monica Lewinsky scandal. Bernie basically believed Hillary Clinton’s whole right wing conspiracy theory. Not that I didn’t believe that, I did. But for me, there was more to the story. I’d voted for Clinton as a young woman in my twenties, and I hated that this new kind of president, who I believed would do great things for women, had messed around with an intern. Instead of advancing powerful women, Clinton’s presidency was perpetuating antiquated sexual stereotypes that go back to biblical times i.e. a young woman’s sexuality destroys a powerful man.  I was so tired of that same old imagery and pissed off Clinton was reincarnating it again. “Imagine if Madeline Albright was considered sexy because of her brilliance, position of power and stature? Imagine that her young male interns had crushes on her? Do you see the sexism now?”

“I never thought about it that way,” Bernie said, and he put me on air for the first time. It felt great to have my ideas amplified through that microphone, wafting out over the Bay Area. Bernie essentially disagreed with me, but he was able to see my point of view and then elaborate on it. That’s a talent few people have. He encouraged me to write down my thoughts. I started publishing pieces in newspapers and magazines. Then I started getting invited on TV programs– CNN, FOX News, Good Morning America. Bernie taught me how to debate, that it was OK to interrupt, that I only needed to have three points I wanted to make and to just keep re-making those points.

Producing Bernie’s show– a liberal, no-less– I realized how many more men called up than women, eager to go on air. Also, when I invited women experts to come on the show as guests, they often refused, claiming they weren’t qualified, recommending a “better” colleague, often a male. My experience at KGO inspired me to start a non-profit that provided  professional training for women including media skills.

After seven years of producing the show, I left. That’s a pretty long time to be a producer in talk radio world. I had a baby, and initially my idea was that I would take care of the baby during the day and my husband would watch her at night. But I had no clue what being a mom was really like. I was exhausted all the time. I never saw my husband. Plus, I had my writing and the non-proft to work on by that time, and I didn’t really need KGO anymore. So I quit.

A couple years later, I got a call from Bernie. He told me that federal agents had come into his home and seized his computers; he would be charged with possession and distribution of child pornography.  He was sentenced to almost seven years in prison.

Since Bernie has been in prison, I think of him often, but I haven’t written him or visited him. I can’t reconcile in my head the Bernie I knew and the Bernie that was accused of so many things. I think seven years is a harsh sentence for someone who did not create any pornography. That said, I can’t see how Bernie could look at those kinds of images and not feel anything for those little kids.

I’ve never had something like that happen in my life, watch a good friend, a mentor, someone I idolized, have his whole life fall apart. I hope I can write him. I’d like to be able to visit him. But for now, I just miss the Bernie I knew.

8 thoughts on “Missing Bernie Ward

  1. Hi Margot….when you filled in as host, I thought you were just terrific–couldn’t believe they did’t give you a slot. I also really enjoyed those on air interactions between you and Bernie–I have wasted the better part of a life listening to kgo and heard nothing else remotely as entertaining between other hosts and their producers….Bernie gets out in 2014? Not at all to defend down loading or sending child porn, but 7 years just seems so inappropriate. Given Bernie’s extensive support system, one would expect him to do well on his return. He was scheduled to call in tonight to the Christine Craft show tonight, but the connection didn’t work out. Another guest though related that he is doing well, and that he has lost 100 pounds…just saw on the web that his house is in foreclosure.

  2. As a long-time former Bay Area resident, I heard Bernie often. The remarks about the consequences of his actions should be tempered with the knowledge that he tried to hide his identity and, I imagine, he thought he could be anonymous.

    The Internet isn’t set up that way. When you retrieve information, it is sent to an address. Nothing moves without being addressed. It has to GO somewhere quite specific.

    The closest you can get to being anonymous is to hook on to a stranger’s wi-fi network (if he’s foolishly left it unsecured). Even then, the logs in the stranger’s router may reveal something about you, depending on what you’re running on your computer.

    Best advice: Don’t do it. Too late for Bernie, obviously.

  3. Paragon, I agree that this whole, sad story is very strange, indeed. I don’t know why Bernie did what he did or how someone as intelligent and knowledgeable as he could have acted so recklessly. It appears as though some part of him invited punishment for sins real or imagined. Judging from what was divulged on KGO subsequent to his sentencing, it seems that he had been visibly troubled long before he met his legal fate and probably even before he committed the acts that invoked it.

    I hope that he undergoes healing during his incarceration and after, even though I wonder how possible such a process can be in the harsh conditions of prison life and in its aftermath for a famous registered “sex offender” for the rest of his life. It’s going to be a very hard road under the best of circumstances, but the unwavering support of forgiving family and friends can surely help.

  4. Steve … I’m sure there’s more to this story. I was quite surprised that he used the internet and the contacts that he made through it without thinking there’d be consequences. The entire episode was very strange. And of course, his critics had a field day … looking into his past … and pushing it to favor their opinion of him.

    But I agree with you .. whatever happened .. the pieces should come back together into some semblance of normalcy and acceptance.

  5. I remember listening to you and Bernie while you were his producer. It was quite interesting .. the back and forth and all. I write to him occasionally and sent it some subscriptions for his favorite news mags.

    He’s in Lompoc now so his family can see him more often as opposed to his stay in Texas on the Gulf. It’s quite sad what happened to him.

    I think the sentencing he received was quite severe in comparison to other similar cases I have looked into where molestations had acutally taken place. I suspect his high profile had something to do with it.

  6. Margot, I never met Bernie in person, but I listened to him from the beginning of his long tenure on KGO to its sad end, and I remember when you produced his shows.

    I don’t understand why Bernie did what he did to end up where he is now, but I’d like to think and actually do think that the goodness in him is greater than the troubled part of him that plunged him into the darkness that enveloped him. And having exchanged letters with him since he’s been incarcerated, I know how much he appreciates hearing from people, and I can’t imagine that he wouldn’t be thrilled to hear from you.

    I think it’s fair to say that Bernie needs all the new and old friends by his side that he can find as he struggles to piece his life back together, and I hope that you’ll be one of the latter.

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