Learning of this interview with local media legend Kitty O’Neal, who has been anchoring news at KFBK for an astounding 37 years, a fan of hers gushes, “Wow! I watch her on the radio all the time!”
It says something about O’Neal’s warmth, longevity and ubiquitous community presence that the fan is convinced someone he listens to five days a week — on KFBK, the No. 1 news and talk radio station in the Capital Region — is also someone he sees that often.
Radio can do that. Before the advent and domination of television, it was the country’s favorite and most evocative medium, using nothing but sound and silence to compel attention. For many, like O’Neal herself, it is still a favorite.
“There’s just something more intimate, more personal, more friendly about radio,” she says at a recent lunch, where her presence upends the normally reserved equilibrium of the Sutter Club where it takes place. In the span of about 90 minutes, O’Neal is approached, hugged and whispered to by admirers ranging in age from their mid-20s to late 70s; they race over to greet this petite, unprepossessing but stylish woman who politely stands to greet each one. O’Neal’s charisma and kindness never falter, even when it looks as though she could be jostled or even knocked over by some of the enthusiasts.
“It’s pretty hard to not enjoy people,” O’Neal says during a break in the greetings. “I rarely have negative encounters. And on the rare occasions I do, I find that humor is the easiest way to handle it.”
This may be pertinent to understanding O’Neal. While she projects a professional but also fun-loving demeanor — both on the air and in the emceeing she does on behalf of charities and nonprofits throughout the year, nearly always gratis — her familiar, sultry alto can also dip into deadpan humor, offset by her cheerful grin.
Example: Asked if she would like to someday own a radio empire of her own, her eyes widen with mock excitement then narrow with mock thoughtfulness as she finally says in a definitive tone: “Uh … no.” A few seconds later: “I could never consider doing that for even a moment.” She shudders dramatically at the very thought.
Jeff Holden, the founder and owner of Hear Me Now, a podcast production company, worked for more than two decades with O’Neal as both a sales director and market manager at KFBK, now part of the national iHeartMedia fiefdom. Asked how he thinks O’Neal has avoided being yanked into the revolving door of local news personalities, Holden says, “Simple. She’s the real deal. People absolutely love her — and her warmth, personality and genuineness come through in her voice and in person. She’s a personality in the community like no other, and none of it goes to her head. She takes it all in stride.”
“Kitty is the ultimate professional in broadcasting,” says Judy Farah, this magazine’s editor who, for more than 20 years, was O’Neal’s editor and producer (O’Neal now produces the majority of her own stories). “If a guest fell through and didn’t call in for an interview, she could immediately pivot and fill those three minutes with content she kept on hand. Some news anchors would stumble and toss to a commercial break to fill the dead air.”
As for how adeptly O’Neal handles breaking news, Farah says, “All I had to do was run into the studio to hand her copy. She knew by my expression it was serious, and she’d flawlessly deliver unscripted breaking news. Remember, radio broadcasters don’t have teleprompters.”
Former Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness, now a fellow radio host with O’Neal on KFBK (and a recent subject of this magazine’s Icon column), says, “Kitty is the consummate professional. She treats everyone with kindness and endeavors to find the good in people. She has personal feelings and beliefs, but as a journalist, she does not advocate a position. She tells the story with an impartial tone.”
That unquestioned discipline — which O’Neal seems to carry effortlessly to her triple-threat job as a writer-newscaster-producer, paid advertising spokesperson on radio and television, and the star attraction at charitable events — started young.
As the daughter of Col. Howard O’Neal, who served as commander of Mather Air Force Base — now a civilian airport which has been run by Sacramento County since 1995 — she had a “very itinerant childhood” living in Japan and the Philippines. The family moved to Arlington, Virginia, when her dad was stationed at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
Her father, who died in 2010, “was very loving but very strict,” she recalls. “If I was even two minutes late coming to dinner or whatever, I’d get the same little lecture. He’d say, ‘In battle, men can die when you show up late.’”
Mary Lee O’Neal, O’Neal’s mom, attended UCLA and worked as a freelance writer. A Southern belle, she taught Kitty “you catch more flies with honey.” Her brother, Chris, is a retired state worker and another brother, Casey, is a real estate agent in Arlington. The O’Neals moved from there to Sacramento in 1972. She attended the high school at Mather AFB, “but we were bused to Folsom High.” She attended American River College, then the University of Hawaii at Mānoa. Ultimately, she graduated from Sacramento State. “But I need to make clear that I had a formal upbringing and lived with my parents until I was 21,” she says.
O’Neal says she’d thought about a career in television “once upon a time” and was an anchor and reporter on Channel 13, which is now a CBS affiliate, for three years. She also hosted the weekly real estate show Home TV, which ran for a decade. During that time, she became an annual fixture at the Academy Awards ceremony, doing red carpet celebrity interviews (she still flies down and files reports from there each year). Though the camera seemed to adore her as much as her fans, “Radio seemed to better suit my temperament,” she says. “I work pretty hard, but I feel a lot more freedom and time to tell stories properly.”
In her off hours — when she’s not doing TV and radio spots or emceeing fundraisers for the region’s numerous nonprofits — O’Neal and her husband, restaurateur and executive chef Kurt Spataro, perform as the rock band Skyler’s Pool. Music, in fact, was the catalyst for the couple’s first getting together in 1982. O’Neal says she had been performing as a vocalist and went to audition for Spataro.
At a recent dinner that honored his culinary career, Spataro told a funny story about meeting O’Neal. “Kitty showed up in a miniskirt and boots, so naturally I asked her if she’d like to go see a Shakespeare play in Ashland,” he said. O’Neal came to the microphone to endorse the tale, generating major applause. Turns out, Spataro’s account was exactly what happened: The two shared a love for theater, and their first date really was at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
“We got married in 1985,” she says, adding “and I made my own wedding dress.” O’Neal, says her former producer Farah, “is a talented seamstress, sewing several of her own gowns for the Academy Awards.”
While some of her high school friends remember her as Cathy, O’Neal has been Kitty for decades. Most people assume it’s because of her well-known love of animals, specifically of the feline persuasion. At the moment, she and Spataro have at least four cats ranging in age from three to 15 years old — yet she says she was nicknamed after an Aunt Kitty. “Oh, but I always loved cats,” she adds, laughing.
Asked about where she thinks her career and industry may be headed in an era of countless radio and TV stations, at least 4 million podcasts (according to the website explodingtopics.com) and innumerable fringe media outlets, O’Neal smiles and sighs. “I just have no idea,” she says. At this interview, she’s delighted to have just renewed her contract with iHeartMedia and dismisses her interviewer’s surprise that there could have been any doubt.
“I don’t think of myself as a local institution,” she says. “I love my job and my life. But anything can change. This is a business. I’m replaceable.” Maybe. But what other announcer has fans who claim to watch her on the radio?
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