A longtime S.F. Bay Area radio and television personality's voice will never be heard again. Ralph Barbieri passed away on August 3, 2020 after a valiant battle with Parkinson's Disease. The most interesting man in the world does not have much on Ralph - spiritual seeker, radio and television personality, Ivy League student, European traveler, Madison Avenue account executive, Hawaiian beach bum and most importantly, single father. Remarkably, all of these designations refer to but one man, Ralph Barbieri, who accomplished all that he set out to do and always did so at a very high level.
Born in San Francisco, CA, on October 28, 1945, to Louis J. and Gloria (Santini) Barbieri, Ralph was raised in Millbrae, CA, where he attended St. Dunstan's Catholic Grammar School. Named the top student in his graduating class, he turned down a scholarship to the Catholic high school of his choice to instead attend Mills High School, where he was voted Student Body President his senior year and from which he graduated in 1963.
By virtue of his SAT scores, Ralph became a member of Mensa. Receiving an academic scholarship, Ralph attended USF. He graduated in 1967 with a major in Political Science and a minor in Philosophy. At age 21, Ralph headed off alone for Europe. His original intention was to stay for 3 months but he ended up touring extensively for exactly a year. Ultimately, he hitchhiked through 20 countries and came back to the U.S. a different person. It was when he was traveling through Sweden, that Ralph came across a Time magazine article, featuring prestigious colleges looking for liberal arts' students to enroll in their MBA programs. One such school was the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, in which Ralph ultimately enrolled though, at that time, he hadn't even realized that Penn was a member of the Ivy League. He received his MBA degree in 1970 and took a position with Doyle Dane Bernbach Advertising, N.Y. The agency was the first to turn down all cigarette advertising and had a lot of pro bono accounts. He loved the city but found the whole money-driven atmosphere to be greedy and superficial. It was at this time that he vowed never to stay at a job that he disliked and didn't want to get out of bed for. But he agreed that, "If you could make it there, you could make it anywhere." So he stayed for a year and a half, just to prove that he could do it, and left there of his own volition after a promotion and a raise.
Ralph returned to S.F., without any visible means of support. He had a reputation for always getting into sticky situations and coming out smelling like a rose. Intuitively, he felt that something life-changing was going to happen. For a few years, Ralph did odd jobs and visited several ashrams. The truth is that he was not actively looking for a job. But sometime earlier, he had stumbled across the teachings of Ram Dass, whom Ralph would later call his "guru," and he felt confident that as long as he was a good Buddhist and always "chopped wood and carried water," his fate would be what it was supposed to be. He became a vegetarian (and remained one until his passing), started meditating and began making significant changes in his life, including championing animal rights, and adopting and caring for a little kitten he would name Sunshine and who would be part of his household for the next 17 years.
About this time, Bill Walton joined the NBA, signing a $2 million contract (huge at the time) to play for the Portland Trail Blazers. Because of his unconventional lifestyle, his injury and the fact that he would not do any interviews, Walton was often derided by Portland fans. Ralph wanted to urge Walton to "keep the faith," so he wrote him what was little more than a fan letter with the intention of delivering it to Walton in person. In 1974, with his letter in hand, Ralph headed to Oakland where the Portland Trail Blazers were in town to play the Golden State Warriors. Walton did not arrive with the rest of the team. Ralph waited at the hotel for 5 HOURS. Finally, Walton came walking in with long hair and a beard, wearing jeans and sporting a walking cast. Ralph was taken aback when Walton invited him to have lunch. He told Bill, "I haven't worked for 3 years, so I guess I have time for a late lunch." During the course of the meal, just to be courteous, because he did not really need to ask for his permission, Ralph asked Bill if it was okay for him to write an article about him. He explained that he had never written anything previously, had never even taken a course in journalism, and had no expectations of getting the article published. Walton said that he really was not doing any interviews but nevertheless, he also said that if Ralph really wanted to do a good job, he should come to his home in Oregon for a week to see how he lived. He eagerly accepted.
After a week in Oregon, Ralph returned to his humble abode in Mill Valley. Two months and 15,000 words later, Ralph had compiled a manuscript about Bill Walton. It was around this same time, that the FBI came to Mill Valley to question Ralph. Unbeknownst to him, two of Walton's several housemates, writers Jack and Micki Scott, had been driving Patty Hearst around the country and the FBI had been looking for her for over 1- 1/2 years and they knew that Ralph had spent time in Oregon with Walton.
(The Scotts were not at Walton's when Ralph was.) The FBI offered Ralph a bribe to return to Oregon and get any information he could on Hearst. He ended up sending the FBI packing, but harkening back to his erstwhile marketing expertise, thought that by using this incident as an epilogue, it just might make his overly-long Walton piece (that everyone thought was too long to be suitable for any magazine) publishable. When Ralph showed his article to the Examiner's prize-winning sports' columnist, Wells Twombly, Twombly replied, "Well, if you want to find out if you can write, there's nothing like starting out with the hottest sports' story in the country!" Twombly was friendly with Dick Schaap of NBC Sports, N.Y., who was also the editor of Sport magazine. He contacted him about the article. Ralph received a call from Schaap 3 days after he had mailed the manuscript, wherein Schaap told him that they normally did not accept "unsolicited manuscripts" but that he thought that the Walton piece was great, and he was going to publish it, unedited (as Ralph stipulated) in Sport magazine, in the August of 1975 issue. And he would pay him $1500.00 (which was a lot for an article back then). Ralph was overwhelmed. It took 15 pages, along with a biographical sketch of
Ralph. Most writers make several attempts before something is deemed worthy of being published (if it ever is). For the record, Ralph wouldn't ever write anything that was NOT published. Bruce Jenner's first national cover story was for Sport magazine and was penned by Ralph, who spent a week with him at his small apartment in San Jose, CA. At the time, Jenner was the decathlon
World Record holder, but no one had ever really heard of him. After the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal where Jenner would win gold, everyone knew his name. (In later years, while channel surfing, Ralph came across an episode of "Keeping Up with the Kardashians." Framed and on the wall in one particular shot, was a copy of Jenner's Sport magazine cover.) A few months later, Ralph was listening to Scotty Stirling's radio show on KNBR and Jenner was Stirling's guest. Ralph phoned in, to say hello to Jenner. Stirling recognized Ralph as being the author of the article on Walton and asked him to come be a guest on the show sometime soon. After doing the show, Ralph became smitten with talk radio. He knew then that this was what he wanted to do; however, the Program Director told him he could never be on the radio with his terrible voice and went so far as to suggest that he see a speech therapist. Ralph refused and instead, he headed for Hawaii.
Ralph had intended to stay in Hawaii for a couple of weeks but ended up staying for over four years. It was there that he was hired at age 33 for his first radio job, making $3/hour, the minimum wage in Hawaii in 1979. (He would end his career 33 years later, earning $400,000.00 annually.)
It was a one-man operation on the late-night shift. He loved it. And, didn't care what it paid. He went to work every night with a bottle of wine. Ralph's penchant for alcohol would eventually catch up with him, admitting that his entire existence since USF, had been plagued by his addiction to alcohol and that it "veiled and blurred" his whole outlook, dooming several one-on-one relationships. Ralph lived with several women, but never for longer than 2 years. It was a miracle that he lived through that period of his life. He had 3 DUI's within a 12-year period, pleading No Contest to the last charge and entering a treatment program in lieu of doing jail time. (He hasn't had a drink since.) It was during his employment in Hawaii, he would have the distinct privilege of interviewing his guru, Ram Dass. The conversation moved many call-in listeners to tears. In addition to his new new-found career,
Ralph could be found every Saturday morning playing softball at Ft. Ruger on Diamond Head, for the Honolulu Press Club. He said that they were actually pretty good. Ralph loved it and often referred to it as his therapy. Eventually, Ralph had a decision to make. Should he stay in Hawaii and "bliss out" with the tropical, 80-degree sunshine and the beautiful women (not to mention, the best weed in the world) or should he head back home to S.F. where radio really meant something? Reluctantly, he opted for the latter.
After arriving back in S.F., Ralph was lucky enough to get a spot on KGO, the perennial Number 1 news-talk station, doing the all-night show on the weekends. He had absolutely no problem switching from sports-talk to news-talk. Things were going pretty well but after a year, a nasty sex scandal ensued. (Ralph was not involved.) But some changes had to be made. Ralph was "laid off," along with the Program Director and a couple of other show hosts. That was a blow, but Ralph kept the faith. Just "Chop wood and carry water." A short time later, Ralph found out that KNBR's night time sports-talk show (remember Scotty Stirling 6 years previously?) was available. He called the station and got an audition. After the audition, the G.M., Bill Dwyer, whom he had never met, told Ralph that he liked him but that he had finished second, because his demeanor was too irreverent. Dwyer believed that Ralph wasn't safe. He couldn't be sure of what he was going to say next. That's why Ralph was somewhat surprised when, in 1984, a few months after the audition, he received a call from Dwyer, who asked him if he would be interested in a job reading sports' headlines every 1/2 hour during 2 of KNBR's afternoon general talk shows. Ralph immediately jumped at the opportunity, even though he had never done anything like it before. Ralph knew that once he got on the air in any capacity, they wouldn't be able to get him off. Before long, Ralph was injecting his personality and opinions into the scripts.
Shortly thereafter, the station was sold. Employees knew after a few weeks that a big shake-up was coming but no one knew exactly when. Ralph was uneasy because he knew he would be absent during this critical period because he had previously committed to play in the first softball game ever held in Russia, with the Washington Square Bar & Grill team. It was there that Ralph got the nickname "Razor Voice," coined by his teammate, Herb Caen, causing his voice to be viewed by others as more of a novelty than an annoyance. His voice was so distinctive that whenever anyone heard him utter a sound, they would instantly know who he was. It was shocking - cab drivers, telephone operators, everyone. The glass that was half empty became half full.
Upon his return to the States, Ralph found out that, as a result of the sale, KNBR had a new G.M., Tony Salvadore, whom Ralph had met only once. Rumors were flying that radical changes were coming to the station. Salvadore called Ralph into his office and asked him if he would take over the night-time sports-talk show. He said he wanted to give Ralph the job because he preferred his irreverent sound, the exact opposite of the previous G.M. Ralph was blown away and readily accepted the offer. It was a couple of months before the real bloodletting occurred. More than a third of the employees were let go.
Station management wanted to transform KNBR from a station with only one nighttime sports-talk show into a 24-hour sports format but before they could accomplish that, they felt that they had to succeed doing sports in afternoon drive. Ralph asked Salvadore if he would consider him for that time slot but he was told that, while he was fine for nighttime, he was still too contentious for afternoon drive, when people wanted a relaxing trip home.
They tried two prominent sports' personalities, one a former athlete and the other a sportscaster doing sports-talk in the afternoon, but neither succeeded. As it turned out, the ratings for that time slot had been abysmally low before, during and after the sale. Salvadore eventually acquiesced and told Ralph that the show was his. Although the gains were incremental, the ratings tripled within 6 months after Ralph took over. That led management to believe, perhaps for the first time, that an all-sports format was possible. Shortly thereafter, they proceeded to hire other sports-talk hosts and KNBR was on its way to becoming the national power in sports-talk radio that it is today.
Ralph took great pride in his interviews. He considered that the key components to a good interview were having a smart guest and asking good questions. He always tried to ask the best questions, and he wanted answers. When some people said he interrupted too much, he would respond, "If I have to ask the same question 2 or 3 times, or interrupt, so be it." His interviews were meant to elicit the truth, and for the listeners to get to know the guest better. Whether he was interviewing someone or speaking off the cuff, Ralph had 2 cardinal rules of broadcasting: 1. Don't say anything about anyone that you wouldn't be willing to say to their face. 2. Don't sensationalize the subject or give a false opinion just to stir the pot and make controversy for controversy's sake. Many broadcasters would say whatever was necessary, if they thought they could gain another rating point.
Ralph constantly had great guests. He interviewed such local celebrities as Brent Jones, Steve Young, Ronnie Lott, Joe Montana, Steph Curry, Barry Bonds, Joe Thornton, Tom Brady, Willie Mays and Willie McCovey. When Ralph pointed out to Johnny Miller some of his particularly memorable golf shots, Johnny replied, "You really broke par with this interview." After Ralph had recited from memory, the scores of all 5 sets in his victory over John McEnroe at Wimbledon, Jimmy Connors said, "You really did your homework, didn't you?" McEnroe, one of Ralph's favorites, would later give Ralph and Tayte 2 of his own personal tickets to Wimbledon. Many people were surprised when Ralph broached the subject of his use of LSD with the NBA's hallowed Phil Jackson. He had no problem talking about it because, although few people remembered, he had discussed it several years earlier. Ralph discussed the O.J. Simpson trial at length, in disbelief that anyone could even suggest that he was innocent. He made fun of rich sailors who had the audacity to ask for financial contributions to the America's Cup on television. He also made fun of women's basketball, not because he objected to women playing the game but because he thought they received too much coverage, given their limited quality of play. He never really thought that his opinion carried enough weight to either damage or help a player. But he did take some small satisfaction when someone would suggest that he had hastened the exit of Armando Benitez from the Giants' bullpen. And he was always up for his weekly show with Giants' G.M. Brian Sabean which became almost legendary. On more than a couple of occasions, Sabean hung up on Ralph.
No story of Ralph's life would be complete without mentioning the most important interview of his career -- Barry Bonds. When the Giants signed Bonds to a 6-year, $43.75 million contract (arguably the best free-agent acquisition ever), Giants' management wanted Ralph, as KNBR's premiere sports' host, to do the first interview with him. It would be live from Candlestick Park. Ralph found himself in a predicament. On the air, a couple of months earlier, he had called Bonds a "punk" for a variety of reasons. They were alone together in the broadcast booth hours before the game. Ralph knew that if he mentioned it, that Bonds might be very upset. He actually thought that Bonds might possibly resort to physical violence, but he had to be true to himself and said, "On the air a couple of months ago, I called you a punk." And then he explained why. Bonds couldn't believe it. No other sportscaster in the country would have had the guts to tell him that, especially if he was sitting next to him. He said to Ralph, "I have much respect for you being willing to say that to my face." Ralph's straightforward admission resulted in as close a relationship as Bonds had ever had with a member of the media (whom he generally despised). Some writers were jealous because of the information that Ralph could get from Bonds (occasionally, even when he wouldn't talk to anybody else) and accused him of being a kiss-ass. Nothing could be farther from the truth. That was manifested in many long interviews in which Ralph might ask intimate, personal questions about subjects that no other sports' writer would dare broach. His listeners got to know Bonds much better than they otherwise would have. And, steroids or no steroids, Bonds was the greatest pure hitter that Ralph had ever seen.
Before he had a partner, he would have occasional guest co-hosts. One of them was famed San Francisco 49'ers coach Bill Walsh. Many people are called "genius." Bill Walsh was truly a genius. He told Ralph many private stories during the commercials. Even when the mic was on, he would discuss such issues as cocaine use among the players in the 80's, being on the brink of a nervous breakdown and his relationship with the De Bartolos and the Yorks.
One day Ralph had a slice of an Amici's east coast pizza, and he thought that it was the best pizza he had ever tasted. Ralph became Amici's ONLY advertising spokesperson for many years. His ad-libbed commercial spots helped Amici's grow from a fledgling company of a few restaurants to a multi-million-dollar business with over a dozen locations. Because he was the only spokesman for so many years, when people thought of Amici's they generally thought of Ralph.
It was during this period of time that Ralph began to have some very strange feelings come over him. He wondered why and how he had come this far in life without having a family. He never had a burning desire to be married, but he became almost obsessed with becoming a father. He was 54 when the last woman that he lived with was 38 and he thought that he would have at least 1 more chance to become a father. He was elated when he found out that she was pregnant with his child, but he was flabbergasted when he found out that she wanted to have an abortion. Ralph pleaded with her not to go through with it, but she proceeded with the abortion. He was completely devastated. The very sight of a father playing with his son in a park would bring him to tears. Even though adoption would have been just fine with him, Ralph heard about in-vitro fertilization, where he would be the blood father of the child. And with that, he was on a mission to realize his dream of fatherhood with the help of an egg donor, a surrogate mother and an East Bay fertility clinic. He spent countless days and months (almost an entire year) at appointments with various facilitators (legal, medical, etc.) in order to make his dream a reality. In June of 2000, his son, Tayte Ali, was born and Ralph embraced his new role as a father, taking a month's leave of absence. For 10 years, Ralph had done a once-a-week sports segment on local television, as well as 2 well-received TV specials (similar to Barbara Walters' in-home interviews), just to prove to himself that he could. But he much preferred radio to television. He left television when Tayte was born.
He once said in an interview that Tayte was "the most over-privileged kid around." Father and son were like two peas-in-a-pod and went everywhere together - to a Sharks' play-off game in the team owner's private jet, on a Mediterranean cruise and to a Warriors' basketball camp in the Caribbean, amongst many other adventures. The Giants' mascot, Lou Seal, even attended one of Tayte's birthday parties and Tayte became a frequent visitor to the Giants' clubhouse, much to the chagrin of some other writers - but Bonds always wanted to see him. On Tayte's first visit to Candlestick, when he was just 2 months old, Bonds abruptly snatched him out of Ralph's arms saying, "I know how to handle babies." And Tayte's relationship with Barry blossomed from there.
At about this time, program directors around the country came up with the idea of multiple hosts for their sports-talk shows. After doing the show alone for several years, Ralph found himself paired with Tom Tolbert and "The Razor and Mr. T" show was born. On the face of things, it seemed that it was a terrible mismatch. Tom, a 6'8" former NBA player, was 20 years younger, with spiked, bleached blonde hair who wore shorts everywhere. Ralph had doubts for about 3 days, and then found it easy to make the adjustment. Ralph was supposed to be the smart one, Tom the funny one; but Tom was smarter than people thought, and Ralph was funnier than they expected. He would say that doing the show was the most fun he ever had in his life. When Ralph did the show alone, it was frequently the number one show in afternoon drive. When Ralph did the show with Tom, it was almost always number one. Because the ratings were so strong, they would frequently take liberties and the programming would get a little edgy. An example would be their "Fridays Mean Danger" segments. One time they called up a taxidermist on the air to ask whether or not a caller could get his dead grandmother stuffed-so he could hang her over the doorway. Irreverent, but hilarious. Then
they would find out that the wife of the owner of the Giants at the time, was listening to their broadcast on her way to the Giants' game, and they would laugh even harder. Most people believed the pairing would last maybe 2 weeks, but instead, it lasted 15 years. The duo was arguably one of the most creative broadcasting pairings ever. Their chemistry was magic, like spun gold and all they had to do was just be themselves. Tom said there would never again be another sports-talk show like "The Razor and Mr. T." The two became the best of friends. Tom was the only person Ralph told about his journey to fatherhood and was devastated when Ralph was fired. His emotions were evident on his first solo show when he had to pause several times to compose himself. He once told Ralph, "I know you think that our relationship is more important to you than it is to me, but that's not true." The two were in touch until the end.
With 2005 came diagnoses of Parkinson's Disease and Type 2 Diabetes. Ralph kept this to himself for several years but with social media being what it was and with many bloggers hot on his trail, Ralph was afraid that his situation would be revealed by someone other than himself. He really didn't want that. He was happy that his contract was up for renewal because he wanted to tell management about his illnesses for the sake of complete transparency before that occurred. So, in late 2011, he did tell station executives, and later on the same day shared it on the air with his audience. Although his contract was renewed, it was done so with many loopholes for management to unilaterally extricate themselves from the situation. Ralph would later be accused by Cumulus, the station's parent company, of using his illnesses as a bargaining tool in the negotiations. Although that wasn't at all true, he was fired without notice 5 months later, while still on top of the ratings, and escorted off the station's property, after 28 1/2 years with KNBR. He would later file a lawsuit against Cumulus, alleging that he was discriminated against because he was 66 years old and sick, which was settled for an undisclosed sum of 7 figures in 2013. As far as the lawsuit was concerned, he said he had never had an endeavor of that magnitude go so smoothly.
In 2004, the American Diabetes Association named Ralph one of the recipients of its "Bay Area Father of the Year" award. Tayte, 4 at the time, confidently and proudly presented his father with the award. In 2011, Ralph was inducted into the Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame.
Ralph was predeceased by his parents and is survived by his beloved son, Tayte, his sister, Annette (Dan) Dell Osso, his niece Christina (Bob) Corsetti and their daughters and a nephew, Daniel, all of Novato, CA. A great debt of gratitude to Letticia, without whose assistance he could never have lived to see Tayte graduate from high school, the one goal he had set for himself.
In honoring Ralph's wishes, there will be no services held because he wanted to be remembered neither by a somber wake nor by a celebration fueled by alcohol consumption. He reminded people (and himself) on a daily basis, that "Angels fly because they take themselves lightly." (A quotation that he got from an Alan Watts' book, originally credited to G.K. Chesterton.) What he really wanted to be remembered by was the extraordinary nature of his journey through life. He felt that if we examined it closely, even with all of its convolutions, we could better see the many blessings that could be waiting for us if we remain open and receptive to their existence. Ralph's belief in God was mainly based on his life's experiences. He thought it was impossible to believe that all of the remarkable things that happened to him could have happened by coincidence.
Please consider making a donation in his name to The Milo Foundation, a No-Kill, Non-Profit Rescue, Adoption Center and Sanctuary for Domestic Animals at P.O. Box 6625, Albany, CA 94706
Published in San Francisco Chronicle from Aug. 4 to Aug. 9, 2020.