Tom Barberi, a radio talk show host who loved to poke fun at Utah institutions and became one himself, has died.
Barberi died Friday morning, according to daughter Gina Barberi, who followed her father’s career path and is now a host of X96′s “Radio From Hell” show. He was 78.
Family members did not disclose a cause of death Friday, though they later said Barberi had been battling multiple sclerosis for a few years.
Known as “The Voice of Reason” on radio station KALL from 1971 to 2004, Barberi mixed news and sports and politics. He interviewed powerful and not-so-powerful people, and took calls from listeners.
Barberi often took aim at the Utah establishment — from politicians to religious leaders.
“He pushed a little bit. He teased Utah in a good way,” said former Salt Lake Tribune Editor James E. “Jay” Shelledy, who is now a member of the nonprofit Tribune’s board of directors. “But he was always kind — never mean about it. And he was quite popular for a long time.”
When he left KALL, Barberi had the longest run of any Utah radio personality doing a daily show at a single station. (That record is now Doug Wright’s, who spent 40 years at KSL.)
In 1991, when Barberi was celebrating 20 years at KALL, he told The Tribune he went into radio “because I have no marketable skills. See, it’s either do radio or go back to San Jose to the loading docks and unload boxes. I think I’d rather abuse people over the air than work for a living.”
And, he said, he didn’t spend much time planning each day’s installment of “The Tom Barberi Show.”
“I never know what I’m going to talk about when I go on the air,” he said, “and I never know who is going to call me. It’s just as much of a surprise to me as it is to the listeners.”
Shelledy said he didn’t recall Barberi going after the state’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, on matters of religion, but that he did push back against Utah’s cultural norms.
In 1976, thousands turned out when Barberi promoted a “bicentennial people’s parade” on July 4 — which was a Sunday, after the Utah establishment eschewed a formal observance on the actual 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
“He went after the culture of the state,” Shelledy said, “and where there’s a dominant religion, that’s going to be part of the culture.”
Barberi made Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka a frequent target, once outraging her children when he referred to them as a “litter.” He also made Utah’s liquor laws and its politicians two of his primary targets, often going after state lawmakers.
“He pushed the Legislature hard,” Shelledy said. “I don’t know if he got anywhere with it … but I think he probably was somewhat successful. At least it made life more palatable for the rest of us. He wanted to legalize adulthood in Utah.”
For 18 years, Barberi wrote a Sunday column for The Tribune. “Legalizing Adulthood In Utah” became the title of a collection of those columns he pulled together into a book.
Laurie Wilson, who co-wrote many of those columns with Barberi, said in 2004 that he loved to be hated.
‘’He was outrageous. That was his style. He wanted to be the Howard Stern of our market — without the lewdness,” Wilson said. “If people disliked him, that meant they were thinking and it meant that he was effective.’’
He also just wanted listeners to “go to work with a smile and forget their problems.”
“Then I feel like I’ve done my job,” Barberi said in 1991. “My brain is like a fun-house mirror. What goes in is straight, but what comes out is a little distorted and funny looking.”
Thomas Dale Barberi was born March 21, 1943, in Gilroy, Calif., and grew up in San Jose — a self-described “class clown.” He attended Idaho State, San Jose City College and Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, where he majored in “football, girls and beer — not necessarily in that order.”
After working at several small radio stations in California — including, his family said, hosting a morning show in San Jose, where station management gave him the radio name “Tom Berry” because Barberi was “too ethnic” — he got a call from KALL and moved to Salt Lake City in 1971.
Barberi became a big backer of the University of Utah and a big detractor of Brigham Young University, at least when it came to athletics. He particularly loved the U. football team, and his weekly prediction for the team — “Utah by five” — became a catchphrase.
His ardor didn’t wane despite the fact that the U. lost a lot more games than it won in the ’70s and ’80s.
In 1997, Talkers Magazine included Barberi in a list of the 100 most important radio talk show hosts in the nation — a list that included Larry King, Rush Limbaugh and Don Imus. In 2005, he was inducted into the Utah Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
He loved working in radio and made it clear that he wasn’t ready to go when he was cut loose by the then-owners of KALL, Clear Channel Communications. He told The Tribune he was summoned to a meeting — “a little ambush” — and that it was “as cold and dispassionate and disrespectful as it could be.”
“They called me into the office and basically said, ‘We are going in another direction.’ I asked, ‘Does that mean I get to sleep in tomorrow?’ and they said, ‘That’s right.’”
Memorial services are pending. The family suggests, in lieu of flowers, people donate to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society or “a charity that means something to you. … And after your good deed, pour yourself a scotch.”