Steve Bell, a mainstay of radio broadcasting in Kansas City for four decades, died Monday. He was 77.
Bell collapsed while doing what he loved most – working in the KCUR newsroom and preparing for the day’s afternoon newscast.
“We are in shock. Steve was such an integral part of KCUR,” said Donna Vestal, the station’s director of content strategy. “He was a proud, accomplished journalist who had a tremendous influence on all of us. He will be missed every day.”
Possessed of a resonant bass-baritone that carried both gravitas and personality, Bell’s voice was familiar to generations of Kansas Citians. He joined KCUR in 2000 after hosting news and talk programs on five AM and FM stations in Kansas City. For many years, his was the signature voice of KCPT Channel 19.
He had, at times, a whimsical writing style but he was always a newsman first and foremost, adept at covering breaking news.
He began his radio career at KANU in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1958 and recorded his first jingle for the HD Lee Co. in 1960.
“Over the years there would be advertising people … who would call me up and say – ‘hey, we got a jingle thing to do.’”
He wrote (and recorded and sang) a number of jingles for agricultural companies. Listen to this memorable one:
A man of many interests, Bell had a Ph.D. in psychology and took off about 15 years to practice as a psychologist before returning to radio, his first love.
He was born and raised in Kansas City, and attended Brookside Day School, Southwest High School and the University of Kansas. He earned a Ph.D. in counseling psychology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 1983.
One of his passions was bluegrass music. A lifelong “picker,” he liked to dabble, as he said, in guitar and banjo playing. He made many friends at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas.
He rarely took any days off, except for a dedicated week - each year for nearly 15 years - when he attended the festival in September.
Bell would spend a few days to get ready for the festival, and then take a few days - after late nights playing music around campfires, learning songs, and listening to music - to recover.
One of his favorite radio stories was a 2009 piece he did featuring his reflections on and music from the festival.
“The festival started in 1972 with a two-day flat-picking guitar contest,” he recalled in the piece. “In this, its 38th year, about a fourth of the music on the three main stages is bluegrass. Not surprisingly, you’ll hear the old time fiddle tunes and honky-tonk of groups like the Wilders.”
Steve Bell was born Henry Asbell. He changed his name because, as he recounted, his first radio boss said his name sounded “too Jewish.” Bell was a Methodist.
He is survived by his wife of 56 years, LaNora Asbell, his son and daughter-in-law, Steven and Valerie, a sister, Bettie Asbell, five granddaughters and six great-grandchildren.
Of her husband, LaNora said, “He was not a quitter. He’s been in the radio broadcasting business since he was 19.”
Son Steven said: “He was the best friend a son could have.”
Bell was particularly devoted to his two dogs, Moose and Sherwin, whose behavioral miscues he catalogued with (mostly) great affection. The dogs were the screensaver on his computer in the recording booth.
He was a master of the short-form news story. His signature broadcast style – conversational but authoritative – carried over to his raconteuring. He was fond of regaling colleagues with anecdotes and occasionally off-color jokes about the assorted politicians, celebrities and ne’er-do-wells he met during a storied career.
“You can call a spade a spade,” he liked to say, “but not a f------- shovel.”
Longtime KCUR and NPR reporter Frank Morris was KCUR’s news director when he hired Bell.
“I couldn’t believe I got to hire a guy of his chops,” Morris recalled.
At the time, the news staff consisted of Morris and Laura Spencer, who split her duties between news and hosting.
Morris said Bell was “really the first guy hired in the build-up of the newsroom,” which now numbers a couple of dozen people.
“I always felt like you were in good hands with Steve,” Morris said. “He was a consummate professional and incredibly dedicated. You never had to tell him to try harder.”
Dan Margolies, editor of the Heartland Health Monitor team, is based at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.