Who was Rich Walburg?
Rich was a radio guy.
Programming departments of radio stations employ two types. There are the ones who enter the business from other professions. Some were brought to it via their success or notoriety in another field, others because the skills they used in one line of work easily translated to being on the air, and it is certainly not uncommon for someone to stumble unexpectedly into a radio career with no prior training and ultimately achieve incredible success.
Then there are the ones who get into radio because well, for one reason or another, it is the only thing they ever really wanted to do. Someone told me early in my career that radio gets in your blood before you get into radio, and while I've always thought that characterization makes the industry seem nerdier than it already is, I understand where it comes from.
So did Rich.
Rich had an intense passion for radio, maybe not so much the business part, but the part that involved the crafting and execution of a broadcast. He loved the medium, he understood its power, and he had a deep appreciation for the time, effort, and nuance that go into a show and station sounding its best. Rich's radio instincts couldn't be taught, and his creative gene was such that the rest of us simply hoped that somehow his penchant for coming up with ideas would somehow rub off.
Rich knew how to deftly navigate his way through a business filled with competing egos and individual agendas. He was a master of multi-tasking, capable of doing the work needed to meticulously plan out weeks worth of shows while being able to handle the real-time complexities involved in being in charge of what's on the air in the middle of all hell was breaking loose.
He understood more than most that broadcasters aren't cookie-cutter and that shows aren't formulaic. Radio involves fundamentals, and there are basics that even some successful broadcasters never completely grasp, but Rich knew that good radio doesn't come from attending workshops or listening to some consultant, but from understanding the audience and figuring out each personality's keys to relating to it.
Rich had a firm grasp of radio's power to entertain and took seriously its responsibility to inform, and yet most important, he knew that medium itself is supposed to be fun, and that the best who do it take neither themselves or their jobs too seriously.
Rich was my mentor, not in any kind of official capacity or in any role that gave him the power to promote me, pay me more, or force me into a new line of work, although I'm sure he was tempted.
My life intersected with his when I was in college starting a pursuit of a radio career that most in my life at the time seemed to believe was more about going through a phase rather than a serious attempt at one day making a living. I would be exaggerating if I told you that my entry into the business involved me sitting around and hoping that someone would give me something to do, but only slightly.
One day Rich gave me something to do. Probably because he simply wanted me to get out of his office.
I don't remember exactly what he assigned to me - it was probably something mindless and banal, in fact, I know it was something mindless and banal, because that's what we do - but I remember badgering him with enough annoying questions that the look on his face began to suggest that he was having second thoughts about even interacting with the kid from UD whose face always wore a painfully dumb expression.
Exasperatedly, he told me to pretend he was dead.
What came off in the moment as a puzzling insult ended up being his way of telling me that I wasn't going to accomplish anything by constantly asking for guidance and approval. If I was going to work in radio, I would have to learn to make decisions and exercise judgement on my own, and if my choices weren't right, then so be it. Learn and move on, because moving on to what's next is at the heart of what we do.
I graduated from intern to part-time employee, and then to a full-time gig producing shows almost side-by-side with Rich, and while he treated me as the equal that I clearly wasn't, he was never shy about dropping the "pretend I'm dead line" whenever I'd wonder out loud about which guests we should book, which pieces of audio I should play, or whatever heat-of-the-moment decision the current circumstances demanded. Rich taught me how to trust my gut and play to my instincts, even I never trusted mine as much as everyone trusted his.
Rich groomed me. Not by sitting down with me and explaining how the business works, but by simply letting me observe and listen, and by introducing me to everyone in his orbit. Maybe he saw someone who desperately wanted a long-term radio career and it reminded him of himself. Maybe he liked having someone with whom he could exert such influence. Maybe he simply felt sorry for me for being socially inept and devoid of talent. I don't know.
I do know that not only did he teach me, he vouched for me, and he pushed the people above him to at least give me a chance to contribute in ways that I had no business contributing. He knew I longed to be on the air, but he also knew that the lack of confidence I had in my own abilities would mean I'd never push for what I wanted as much as I should.
So he pushed for me. And eventually, I got my shot.
He's far from the only person I owe my career to, but he's the person to whom I owe the most.
Rich was an amazing friend.
Our relationship quickly went from professional to personal, despite a decent amount of years between my age and his. We bonded over the same superficial stuff that dudes find common ground over like music, humorous absurdities, women we had crushes on, and how much we both loved UC basketball. More than anything, Rich was who I wanted to hang out with because he just made me laugh so damn hard so damn often.
Rich was was an unmatched drinking buddy and someone with whom I could kill hours with by simply mocking everything and everyone around, but even at the very outset, there was always more to it. Within a year of meeting him I was proud to include him on the list of my closest friends.
Friendship for Rich was a binding contract, not the kind of thing you cut and run from when there's trouble, or when the other person can't stop making the wrong choices, or even when they embarrass you with their almost nonstop drunken antics. With Rich, once you were in, you were in. For good.
I was in. In enough to be introduced by Rich to my first wife, and in enough to have him as my best man. Rich fielded more first phone calls than a cheap defense attorney, hearing from me in moments of heartache like right after my dad passed away, and in moments of elation when I told him excitedly that I met who I believed would be the second woman I'd marry, this time without his help.
Rich was the first person I reached out to when I found out I would be a father. He was someone I made sure to talk to before every major life decision, and he was the confidant I would make confessions to, often admitting to a terrible decision or awful situation I'd put myself or someone else in.
And he took thousands of phone calls from me after someone we knew did something dumb and I needed to make fun of them.
He was a sounding board, a shoulder to cry on, and maybe most of a all, a cheerleader. For someone inherently wired with self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy, to in your corner for nearly every day of your adult life someone like Rich is a gift.
I grew to be in awe of him. Rich embodied the notion that life is best lived independent of what others think or expect. He was the person I know who was most comfortable in his own skin, an important characteristic for a man with questionable tastes in clothing, but an admirable one even still. He didn't do peer pressure. He didn't go places just to be seen. He didn't have a need for nonstop attention. He didn't require the approval of others.
And he surely didn't give a shit if someone sent him a nasty tweet.
Rich's marriage to Cindy was one to behold. Rich didn't wed until he was well past 40 years-old, but no one was better equipped to be a husband. He was loyal to his bride to the point that what struck me the most about their relationship was how he talked about his wife, absent of the terms that most guys use when talking about their wives to other guys, speaking only in tones that reflected adoration and reverence.
Rich did the little things that made the people he cared about happy. He sent birthday texts to people who never reciprocated. He checked in on people, asking how they were and more important, actually caring about how their answer.
Rich was the kind of person who would stand in line outside Cinergy Field to buy you tickets to Game 163 even though he couldn't actually go. Rich was the guy who fed your UC basketball obsession by taking you to every home game of Kenyon Martin's senior season. He would ask a woman if she'd go on a date with you, not because you were a gangly and pimple-faced 13 year-old boy, but because you were a chubby and weird adult man armed with the confidence and social awkwardness of a pimple-faced 13 year-old boy.
I know he would do those things for you, because he did those things for me.
Rich would see books he thought I'd like on Amazon and send them to my house without prompting.
He would Venmo me some money when he knew I was at a Reds game and he'd tell me to put a round of beers on him.
He would text me randomly and demand that I send along updated photos of my daughter.
He never failed to ask about my daughter.
One of Rich's trademarks was his unrelenting optimism. About life. About his friends. About his beloved Bearcats. About how even the most dire set of circumstances would ultimately have a positive outcome.
Truthfully, I don't know how optimistic Rich really was as he waged his life's final battle. When cancer was taking a grip on his body, it didn't let go, its hold only tightening to the point where it could be hard to imagine there would be a positive outcome.
Yet he still somehow made me believe that at least that he believed that pull through, that he'd pull off a comeback, and that for he and I, the good times were simply being put on pause.
It was him providing me comfort. It was him giving me and assurance. And Rich being Rich, it was a man confronting the unfunniest of all possible circumstances finding ways to make me laugh.
Rich took great care of me, right until the very end.
That's the man he was.
Rich's legacy will live on through the the Richard Walburg Media Scholarship at the University of Cincinnati.
You can donate at: https://foundation.uc.edu/ccmscholarship
Please put Richard Walburg in the memo line.