Ralph From Ben Hill, former WGST radio host, dies at 74

His often controversial show in Atlanta got its start when he was a call-in contributor. He started at WGST in 1989, later worked in Baltimore
Former WGST radio talk show host Ralph from Ben Hill (Calvin Miles Smith) in one of the recording studios at the station. Hill died at age 74. (Frank Niemeir/AJC staff) 1990.

Credit: AJC Staff

Credit: AJC Staff

Former WGST radio talk show host Ralph from Ben Hill (Calvin Miles Smith) in one of the recording studios at the station. Hill died at age 74. (Frank Niemeir/AJC staff) 1990.

Former Atlanta radio host Ralph from Ben Hill has died at age 74.

Calvin Miles Smith Jr. — Ralph’s real name — died Tuesday from cardiac arrest, his family said.

He started calling into radio shows in the late 1970s and 1980s expressing his opinion on the news of the day. He was so entertaining that news/talk WGST-AM (640) gave him a radio show in 1989.

“He was delightful. He was engaging. He was interesting,” said Neal Boortz, a longtime Atlanta radio host who took Smith’s calls on a regular basis in the 1980s when Boortz was on both Ring Radio and WGST. “We didn’t agree on stuff but he was engaging and polite.” They would attend Atlanta Hawks games together, wearing kufis.

While on radio, Smith decided to call himself Ralph from Ben Hill. It’s a combination of his favorite TV show character, Ralph Kramden from the 1950s show “The Honeymooners,” and the Southwest Atlanta neighborhood he lived in.

Eric Seidel, who was station manager at WGST and hired Smith, found him hilarious, recalling him facetiously calling the afternoon traffic reports the “White Flight Report.”

On his WGST radio show, Smith espoused a controversial mix of Black nationalism and social conservatism, tweaking Atlanta officials and the white power structure.

“He was too radical to toe the line,” said Nancy Zintak, his producer at the time. “He couldn’t do it. He was like an unfettered, unleashed man with a microphone.”

The Anti-Defamation League filed a complaint against him in 1992, accusing him of inciting violence in the wake of the verdict exonerating Los Angeles police officers who were captured on video beating Rodney King. “Let’s take it to the streets, brothers,” he said, as the song “Burn, Baby, Burn” played in the background, according to the complaint.

“I’m torn between being an entertainer and liberator,” Smith told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1992. “My people want me to be Malcolm X, but the general audience wants me to be Arsenio [Hall], a good crossover Negro. I try to find myself a place somewhere between the two. It’s hard. I have to be real. If I ain’t real, it would be like a red flag. I ain’t trying to start no revolution or riot. I want folks to think. I want community-based action.”

Smith lost his job at WGST in 1994. After a short stint at WIGO-AM (1570), Smith moved to Baltimore where he did talk radio for several years.

In 2001, he returned to Atlanta and landed a morning host job at WAOK-AM (1380). But three days into his show, he sounded incoherent on air, battling terrible headaches. Doctors found a blood clot in his brain. After surgery, he was never the same and was unable to get back on radio on a regular basis. An attempt to do a show in 2004 lasted only two days.

Robert Townsend chats with WIGO Radio personality Ralph from Ben Hill  circa 1994.

Credit: A SCOTT WALTON

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Credit: A SCOTT WALTON

His son Calvin Smith III, in an interview after Smith’s death, said his father integrated Southwest High School in Atlanta as a child in the 1960s and it scarred him.

Smith Jr. told The AJC in 1990, “It was all Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley-type white guys, with their cars and teardrop shoes.”

“The nightmare started the first day,” he added, because of the racial epithets directed his way.

“Then I got my [expletive] kicked at an assembly,” he said. “I thought, ‘I just hope these white folks kill me, because I don’t wanna be here anymore.’ "

After graduation, he entered Morehouse College, thirsting for a more Black experience. He was a biology major, pledged Omega Psi Phi (as his father and grandfather did) and quickly switched to drama. But he left Morehouse after four years without a degree.

For years, Smith loved expressing his thoughts on Atlanta radio shows hosted by the likes of Tom Houck, Ike Newkirk, Larry Munson, Mike Malloy and Boortz. “I’d come in with short, poignant punches. It was like poetry,” Smith said in 1990.

He said he was tired of hearing whites complain about Black people. “So I called to talk about white folks,” he said.

His ex-wife Patricia Kornegay recalled her husband often huddling in the bathroom while on hold, awaiting his two or three minutes of glory. “I thought it was ridiculous,” she said. “He just wanted quiet.”

Kornegay said he was always very opinionated, but he also incredibly intelligent. “He had an over-the-top personality and liked attention,” she said. They had three children together.

Off air in his younger years, Smith worked at the post office, sold clothes, worked construction and became a social services counselor at Rich’s Academy at the old Rich’s downtown site.

After the 2002 surgery, Smith suffered short-term memory loss and was unable to work. Calvin, his son, said family took care of him, then placed him in nursing care.

“He was able to travel a bit,” Calvin said. “He was able to make our various graduations and weddings and such. Current events were a challenge, but he could hold good conversation and was a guest frequently on podcasts from his Baltimore colleagues. He remembers people especially before 2001, but he was roughly stuck there time wise.”

Ralph from Ben Hill, whose real name is Calvin Miles Smith Jr., with his kids around 1990. (L-R) Calvin III, Calvin, Che and Nina. CONTRIBUTED

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

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Credit: CONTRIBUTED

As a father, Calvin said, his dad was “very supportive. Education was huge for him. We all became doctors. He always had positive words for us. He would never bring us down.”

Smith is survived by his son Calvin and his daughters Nina and Ché.

The viewing will be at Willie Watkins Funeral Home at 1003 Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard in Atlanta from 3 to 7 p.m. Sunday, May 19. The funeral service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Monday, May 20 at the same location.