For the moment, Amy Lewis is no longer part of the Sacramento radio scene for the first time in nearly 40 years.
KFBK (1530 AM, 93.1 FM) parted company with the endearing and unconquerable Lewis last week — ending a remarkable run for a self-made woman who left Sacramento State without a degree or any experience to take her first job in a merciless radio business where most people don’t last three years, let alone 38.
Lewis was discovered when she was a receptionist at a taekwondo academy in downtown Sacramento — and really, who else can make such a claim? This was in 1980, and from such humble beginnings, Lewis became a pioneer for women in radio and media; a survivor in her own right of #MeToo transgressions, she endured with grit and courage; the No. 1 local radio host for much of the 1990s; an institution in a Sacramento community that she loved and that loved her back.
That it’s over for now is sad but not in any way that suggests defeat or an embarrassment. None of us is guaranteed anything in life, and none of us in media can ever feel complacent, because change is always around the corner. Her replacement will be Cristina Mendonsa, who also, despite a couple of decades at Channel 10, faced that change and uncertainty in broadcasting when she left her anchor duties at Channel 10 in 2017.
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If, in fact, Lewis decides that she won’t do radio anymore, it will be a loss, because her voice has marked many wonderful years of growth and positive progress for Sacramento.
Listening to Lewis’ clear, direct and warm voice has been a ritual for many Sacramentans for decades, including me. For nine years, she and I did a weekly segment on KFBK. Woe to me if I wasn’t ready to go once that segment began or if my voice was ragged because I struggled to get up at 6 a.m. Lewis was rising every weekday at 12:30 a.m. so she could be in the office at 3 a.m. and then go on the air at 5 a.m.
Why wake up nearly five hours before air time? “Hair and makeup, baby!” she said to me with her 10,000-watt smile. Even though Lewis’ listeners would only hear her, she was always impeccably dressed. Her content preparation was always comprehensive, because her work ethic and her sense of style were extensions of who she is.
She is the daughter of a schoolteacher and a telephone company operator who raised her to be somebody in the Plumas County community of Portola.
“I’m a mountain girl,” she said. “When I came to Sacramento to attend Sacramento State, it was like the big city to me.” As recently as 2014, Portola had fewer than 2,000 residents, so no wonder Lewis saw Sacramento as a sprawling metropolis when she first arrived here way back in 1978.
Despite her first impressions, Sacramento was a much smaller, much more provincial town in those years. A radio executive could walk into a taekwondo academy to pick up his kid, strike up a conversation with the receptionist (Lewis) and be impressed enough to hire her. The radio executive was the late Alfred Grosby, who was president and general manager of KRAK, the legendary country station of yore in Sacramento. The taekwondo establishment, Kang’s United Arts College, is still there on 16th street.
“To this day, I don’t know a lick of taekwondo,” Lewis said. She didn’t know a lick about radio either, but she learned. She did weather and traffic. Her big break came as a DJ, spinning country tunes to keep sleepy truckers awake from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. every weekday.
“I played Willie, Waylon, Johnny, Ricky Skaggs,” she said. “I used to get calls from truckers at 4 a.m.”
I found this video of her from those years on YouTube, and it is vintage Lewis: charm, warmth, good humor and the inner glow of someone who loves life and wants to connect with people who feel the same. Once she had learned her craft, that spirit took Lewis a long way.
By the early 1990s, Lewis had moved to KFBK, where she joined Dave Williams to form the highest-rated morning drive show in Sacramento. “It was a rush, it was crazy,” she said of those years.
But it wasn’t all great.
“I remember when management wouldn’t let (Lewis) miss her last hour of the show so she could be there for her daughter’s first day of school,” said Judy Farah, a longtime former radio producer and reporter. In the 1980s and 1990s, radio was a tough workplace for women.
“I was approached and hit on a lot,” Lewis said.
Harassment didn’t stop at words. There was inappropriate touching, a lot of it. “It was open,” she said.
“Back then, you took it, she said. “You pushed it away. You got on with the job.”
Women in the workplace were silenced through the old-fashioned patriarchal intimidation. She said she thought speaking out would end her career.
“I don’t think my (three) daughters understand (about those years) as viscerally as I wish they would,” she said.
Maybe not, but Lewis said she has witnessed her own daughters stand up for themselves. She tried to be a mentor to young people in radio, particularly young women. In 2000, she and Williams left Sacramento for Los Angeles and a huge jump in market and exposure. She was there for 18 months and had it all but didn’t have what she wanted.
Doing morning drive in L.A. left Lewis feeling empty, despite having the trappings of an elite radio career. “I didn’t know my daughters,” she said. They moved back to the Sacramento area in 2002, and Lewis raised her daughters with her husband, Stuart. She got that Sacramento State diploma in 2005, and KFBK called in 2006.
“Amy is one of Sacramento’s great, heritage radio personalities and was a force of nature in the KFBK newsroom,” said Alan Eisenson, who once ran the KFBK newsroom. By 2011, Lewis used her platform to tell the stories of women who survived breast cancer, a cause close to her heart. “Survivors showed me their scars, they told me their stories,” Lewis said.
“I really believe that Amy helped raise awareness about breast cancer,” said Farah.
Even as talk radio became more conservative, Lewis played the news straight. When she did interviews, she wanted to hear all sides. The divisive nature of talk radio troubled her, made her sad. The last time we were in a studio together, earlier in the summer, she paired me with a conservative guy, hoping to discuss President Donald Trump constructively.
Let’s just say the chap sitting opposite me blew his stack and, mercifully, the segment will be shredded some day. But that she tried to bring people together — that she tried to find consensus among opposing Americans — spoke well of Lewis and what she is about.
“I always felt that as long as I had the microphone, I wanted to make a difference,” she said. “At first I just wanted to keep my job. Later, I wanted to make this a better planet to walk on.”
Come Monday morning, I’ll miss that voice. If Lewis decides to stay out of radio, many more will miss the spirit of community Lewis brought into the studio every day for nearly 40 years. You could feel that spirit coming through the radio. We need that now, more than ever.