LAUGHING ON THE OUTSIDE

 

Dwight Witten is funny and outrageous on air. Off-air, the WHAS funnyman has been battling crippling depression for most of his life.

Louisville’s radio audience has known Dwight Witten for more than 20 years. His schtick is an unfiltered good old boy from Dixie Highway with a colorful bourbon-and-cigarettes persona and a willingness to be as far out there as possible.

But when the microphone goes dead, there’s a very different Witten, whom Louisville’s radio audience doesn’t know at all. Even very few intimates did, until recently.

“I’ve been struggling with depression since my mid-20s,” he acknowledges. “At my lowest points, I’ve contemplated hitting the Exit button.”

Good days for him were few and far between, and the occasional good days made him desperate, like a junkie wanting that next fix. “I’d say, ‘Please God, let me have just one good day,’ because I knew what having a good day felt like – a day when I had clarity in my head, a day that wasn’t crushing depression.

“That’s how I was living my life for a long time – devastated and lost and defeated.”

Also constantly tired. Which was why his friend, Mary George Meiners, convinced him to get help. His quest for better mental and phyiscal health eventually led him to Nova Health and hormone replacement therapy. “The hormone replacement has helped my depression more than any medications ever did,” he says.

Witten has also felt rejuvenated by rejoining his former 100.5 The Fox partner, Tony Vanetti, on a two-hour evening show on 840 WHAS. One of the highlights was getting a congratulations call from WHAS mainstay Terry Meiners, whose own show immediately precedes theirs. Meiners was instrumental in the start of Witten’s career.

“As early as I could remember, I wanted to do something in the entertainment field,” he recalls. “And at about seven or eight, I identified that as radio.”

His first “yeah, I wanna do that” taste was Bill Bailey, “the Duke of Louisville.” But there were also Meiners and Ron Clay – Ron and Terry’s Morning Sickness.

“They had this dark humor about them,” says Witten. “My humor has always been dark, as well.”

He knew he wanted rock radio. What he didn’t know was how to go about it. After high school, he couldn’t afford college and was working in a car wash, thinking his dream would die a still birth. Then he saw an ad, on the back of Rolling Stone, for a $1,500 course that “will train you inside a radio station.”

“I thought, if I can get my foot inside the door, I know I can do this.” His mother lent him the money.

As an intern at WQMF, he pummeled the staff there with questions about how all this came together. Finally, the program director hired him for a Sunday night music show, “a time when nobody was listening.”

ork. Then the station’s morning hosts, Rocky Knight and Troy Roebuck, asked management to have Witten sit in, bring some characters and write and produce some content.

“I was on Cloud Nine,” he says. “I hadn’t arrived, but I did have my ticket.”

To supplement his income, he offered to sell advertising when his show was finished. He didn’t know that saved his bacon.

“A bunch of people were getting fired for budgetary reasons,” he recalls. “But when I got fired from the air, I got hired as a salesman. They handed me a phone book, and said, ‘Here. Sell!’ ”

He had three dress shirts, “and two of those had holes in the back. I had to walk around all summer in a camel hair jacket.”

Something worked. In his first year, he was a top performer.

In 2004, Clear Channel asked Witten to come back on air, doing a morning show with Vanetti on 100.5 The Fox.

He was living his dream. And still depressed most of the time. “I could have everything in the world going for me and I was just trying to survive the day,” he says. “People don’t understand that depression has nothing to do with what’s going on in your life. It’s all what’s going on in your head.”

So crippling was his depression that he was afraid to let anyone else into his life. “I always felt I had to get away from people, to escape by myself. It’s hard to do that in a healthy relationship. Most women wouldn’t understand.”

He felt that included Susan Tyler, whom he met at the station. “I was a horrible person, and a horrible boyfriend,” Witten admits. “I was scared to let her in, to get close. I always thought marriage would be out of the picture for me.”

They broke up and made up. “She was the one person strong enough, who loved me enough, to burden that weight I put on her. I honestly can’t think of a better person than my wife.”

He says he’s still a somewhat solitary person whose favorite time away from work is “hanging out with my pack.” That’s Susan and Lemmy, their German Shepherd rescue. His love of dogs extends to his volunteer activity with My Dog Eats First, an organization that provides food for pets of homeless persons, so that those people don’t have to share their limited supplies of food with their beloved pets – “likely the only thing they have left in their lives.” The organization also provides free vet care, and licensing, so the dogs can’t be taken away from their owners.

Witten knows how that feels. He cried so violently that he injured two ribs when Mick, his previous rescue of 15 years, died in his arms. So don’t be fooled by the class clown. The Dwight Witten behind the curtain knows what despair feels like. 


DWIGHT’S TOP FIVE

His most memorable concerts.

Witten says he rarely wants to leave the house, except for the live music he loves. Here’s what has rocked him the most.

Sammy Hagar’s 70th birthday party
Cabo San Lucas, October 2017

What’s not to love? It was Sammy’s 70th birthday party in Cabo Wabo. If you go there once, you’ll be there twice!

Motorhead and Saxon
Indianapolis, 2015

Lemmy Kilmister passed away just months after the show. I was fortunate to hang out with Saxon before the show, sitting in during their sound check.

The Rolling Stones
September 1989, Old Cardinal Stadium

It was their triumphant return after an eight-year hiatus. The weather was perfect. Even the party in the parking lot rocked.

Bruce Springsteen
November 1996, Louisville Palace

I had seen Springsteen many times before. However, this will always be the gold standard for me. Nothing but the man and his acoustic guitar. His solo version of “The Promised Land” still haunts me to this day.

Elton John and Leon Russell
Louisville, 2011

It was the first step of mending the relationship with the woman I love, the one who’s my wife today.


Posted on 2018-01-04 by Steve Kaufman
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