Al Smith, who brought KET’s public affairs programming to households across the commonwealth for 33 years as the host of the popular program Comment on Kentucky and served as a tireless advocate for journalism and education during his long and successful career, died on March 19, 2021 at age 94.
“The Comment show was a wonderful third life for me. I was able to be a journalist on a larger stage. KET turned on the lights and the cameras, and we were talking to the whole state of Kentucky.”Al Smith, Visions, 2007
Smith debuted as host of Comment on Kentucky, a weekly roundup of the commonwealth’s news featuring a panel of journalists, in 1974. The program, created by KET founder O. Leonard Press, became a must-watch event for those interested in public affairs reporting and analysis, especially regarding the state’s lively political doings.
“The Comment show was a wonderful third life for me,” Smith told KET’s Visions in 2007 upon his retirement as host. “I was able to be a journalist on a larger stage. KET turned on the lights and the cameras, and we were talking to the whole state of Kentucky.”
Smith welcomed journalists from every corner of the state to weigh in on important issues facing Kentucky, as it underwent significant economic, demographic, and political changes during the late 20th century and into the 21st. The show was renowned for spirited discussion from both sides of the political spectrum, and was driven by Smith’s deep experience in the commonwealth’s civic life and his talent for storytelling.
“Through his more than 30 years as host of Comment on Kentucky, Al established KET as the place to be on Friday nights,” said Shae Hopkins, KET’s executive director and CEO. “Known for his many colorful stories, Al’s passion for addressing the issues facing Kentuckians fueled a remarkable career in journalism.”
From the start, Smith used Comment on Kentucky to emphasize rural journalism as a vital voice that informed the state’s citizens throughout 120 geographically and culturally disparate counties.
“Through his more than 30 years as host of Comment on Kentucky, Al established KET as the place to be on Friday nights. Known for his many colorful stories, Al’s passion for addressing the issues facing Kentuckians fueled a remarkable career in journalism.”Shae Hopkins, Executive Director and CEO
That devotion to the importance of the small-town newspaper came from Smith’s own upbringing and foundational years in journalism. Born in Sarasota, Fla., Smith grew up in Florida and Tennessee, served in the U.S. Army, and attended Vanderbilt University. The young journalist began his career in New Orleans, working at two newspapers, but faced a crossroads when he was fired from his job as an assistant city editor and moved back to Tennessee in the throes of alcoholism.
As recounted in his 2011 memoir, Wordsmith: My Life in Journalism, Smith found personal and professional rebirth in the western Kentucky town of Russellville in Logan County, where he worked as editor of the Russellville News-Democrat and met Martha Helen Hancock. Smith gave up drinking, married Martha Helen, bought the News-Democrat, and eventually acquired seven papers in rural Kentucky and Tennessee. He sold the papers in 1985.
“Here in Kentucky where we make that good whiskey is where I learned, in a small town, not to drink,” Smith told KET’s Bill Goodman in 2012 when discussing Wordsmith. “And what I really learned from that town was about love and about community support.
“There was so much life in little Russellville… and Kentucky itself was a microcosm of the world, of the country. There’s so much history in Kentucky. I saw in this state the possibilities of a different kind of life, and when I achieved some of that, I was so grateful.”
From 1980-82, Smith took a leave of absence from Comment on Kentucky and served as the co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission for Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. His lengthy list of accomplishments included serving on the boards of the Kentucky Press Association and the Governor’s Committee on Education, helping to start the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence and the Kentucky Oral History Commission, and co-founding the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.
Many colleagues credited Smith as a mentor and inspiration for their own careers, including KET’s Renee Shaw, who served as producer of Comment on Kentucky during Smith’s final years as host.
“His love of our commonwealth was undeniable, and the forum he created to debate its issues and celebrate its triumphs remains the gold standard by which the rest of us strive,” Shaw said. “I, and others, will cling to memories of his feisty spirit, fervent intellectual curiosity and deep passion to connect our experiences and elevate rural communities.”
Smith received numerous honors for his journalism and his public service. Among them are the Al Smith Award, established by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2011. He also earned several honorary doctorates, including a Doctor of Letters from the University of Kentucky in 2011. A former chair of the Kentucky Arts Council, Smith is honored with the Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship at that organization.
“His love of our commonwealth was undeniable, and the forum he created to debate its issues and celebrate its triumphs remains the gold standard by which the rest of us strive. I, and others, will cling to memories of his feisty spirit, fervent intellectual curiosity and deep passion to connect our experiences and elevate rural communities.”Renee Shaw
In addition to his memoir, Smith published a collection of writings, Kentucky Cured: Fifty Years in Kentucky Journalism, in 2012.
Upon receiving the inaugural Al Smith Award, Smith said, “I respect rural journalism for its traditional reports on the vitality of rural life – the honor roll, the 4-H champ, the star guard, the purchase of a fire truck, the largest deer killed, the two-headed calf, and the obituaries, births and weddings, and vacation Bible schools. These are the footnotes for the history of every community in rural Kentucky. If there is not a weekly paper or a sundowner radio station or cable system for these chronicles, our past goes from dim to dark, our children lose the light of wisdom, of knowing the past to guide them when they shape the future.”
He added, “Local journalism is also the canary in the mineshaft, the signal that things are wrong at the roots of our society, that air has gone stale and democracy is smothered.”
Videos to Watch
Comment on Kentucky Remembers Al Smith
Comment on Kentucky pays tribute to the program’s longtime host, the late Al Smith. Joining Renee Shaw are guests Al Cross, director of UK’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues; John David Dyche, a Louisville attorney; Mark Hebert, former WHAS-TV reporter, now communications manager for Jefferson County Public Schools; and Jamie Lucke, former Lexington Herald-Leader journalist.
Premiered: November 16, 2007
A special one-hour edition with news of the day and a retrospective of retiring host Al Smith’s journalism career and influence in the industry. Guests reflect on the issues and personalities that have been fodder for reportorial…
Premiered: January 24, 2012
Al Smith, who was the moderator of KET’s Comment on Kentucky for over 30 years before his retirement in 2007, joins Bill for a discussion of his new memoir, Wordsmith: My Life in Journalism.
Premiered: February 24, 2013
Al Smith talks about his new book, Kentucky Cured: Fifty Years in Kentucky Journalism, a collection of stories about mesmerizing people that he has met during his decades in the Bluegrass State.