This DJ is OK: Baltimore native Robin Quivers talks abuse, illness and survival

For The Baltimore Sun
Baltimore native Robin Quivers is a soul survivor.

Robin Quivers is on the line, and the minute one hears her honey-tinged, melodic voice, it's easy to see why the Baltimore native has become one of America's best-known and most beloved radio personalities.

"Oh, I love what I do. I think it's my calling," says the long-running news anchor and co-host, the straight woman to shock jock Howard Stern and his crew's irreverent, often risque antics on Sirius XM radio.

"For many years, I worked long hours for very little money, but it's wonderful that it has become lucrative," says Quivers, who earns a reported $10 million a year.

The 62-year-old has achieved professional success as one of the nation's top broadcasters and is arguably one of the most influential African-American women in media. Legions of fans enjoy her sharp intellect, cheery personality and effusive laugh.

Along the way, she has become a sometime actress and a best-selling author. Her memoir "Quivers: A Life," released in 1995, reached The New York Times best-seller list. In 2013, she wrote a cookbook, "The Vegucation of Robin: How Real Food Saved My Life," which describes her transformation from carnivore to vegan.

"I'd battled weight gain and various health issues over the years, but after changing my diet, I've never felt better," says Quivers.

Yet the University of Maryland grad has weathered her share of pain and trauma: alleged physical and sexual abuse as a girl, depression and, more recently, a 15-month battle with endometrial cancer. During that period of surgery, chemotherapy and other treatment, she did the radio show from home, and her condition wasn't initially disclosed to listeners. "I thought she was a goner," Stern has said.

Today, Quivers joyfully declares: "I've been cancer-free for 21/2 years."

The upside of her challenges is that Quivers is a proud survivor. She exudes strength and confidence, and she isn't afraid to speak her mind. One area where she has emerged as a national voice is the issue of child abuse.

"As a person who suffered child abuse when I was growing up, I know what it does," says Quivers, who is scheduled to headline the Baltimore Child Abuse Center's second annual Be A Hero fundraiser on April 30 at Power Plant Live. "Millions of children are untreated, unsupported. It's something you don't want to talk about, it's embarrassing — even for the child."

The center, the oldest children's advocacy facility in Maryland, provides victims of child abuse in Baltimore with comprehensive interviews, medical treatment and crisis-counseling services. The nonprofit serves about 1,000 children annually.

The sold-out event will honor local community members for their commitment to keeping children safe from sexual abuse, while raising money that will enable the organization to continue serving clients.

"We wanted a speaker who was memorable, who could have this hard conversation in a way that is relatable," says Adam Rosenberg, the nonprofit's executive director. "Last year, we welcomed Sugar Ray Leonard. Robin is also from this community, and she's certainly outspoken. We believe she will help us raise awareness of our mission and services."

Quivers plans to auction a chance to appear with her in the studio of "The Howard Stern Show" as part of the fundraiser. "I'm very excited that the event is sold out," she says. "But you can still be a hero and donate."

Challenging childhood

Robin Ophelia Quivers was born at home in the city's Cherry Hill community in 1952. The daughter of Charles A. Quivers Sr., a steelworker, and Louise, a homemaker who sometimes worked as a maid, she and her family, including an older brother, moved to a rowhouse in the Pimlico neighborhood in the late 1950s. Over the years, foster children joined the fold.

According to her autobiography, theirs was a household rife with secrets and dysfunction — from alleged domestic violence, to beatings from her mother and sexual abuse at the hands of her father as a preteen.

"For a very long time, I kept the secret, and it controlled my life," says Quivers. "Once I spoke about it, got the help and support I needed, it changed me. I was freed to be happy, successful. It wasn't gonna happen while I was under the effects of abuse. I want people to know you don't have to be a permanent victim."

In an essay for the Huffington Post after the Pennsylvania State University child sex-abuse scandal broke, Quivers wrote of being 11 years old when the alleged molestation began.

"It was like a nuclear explosion going off in my life, destroying everything," she recalled of the kissing and fondling. "The things I thought I knew about the world were all wrong. The things I thought I knew about myself were wrong, too. I was left with nothing, and in the wake of this nothing, I had to figure out how to make myself safe again."

She wrote that one day, she decided to resist, describing how she bit her father as hard as she could.

"At first, he didn't even seem to mind, so I tried to bring my teeth together. Then I was sailing across the room. He had tossed me away to stop me from biting him. … I was sure he would beat me to death at this point."

But instead, she was taken aback because her father seemed surprised by her actions. "He apparently didn't realize I didn't like what was happening. He said something like, 'Oh, you don't like it when we do this?' My father never touched me again."

Broadcasting break

Not all of her childhood memories are quite so painful.

"I love Baltimore. It gave me a great foundation," says the Western High School School graduate, who went on to earn a nursing degree at the University of Maryland. Later, she joined the Air Force, eventually attaining the rank of captain. "I think growing up here had a lot to do with my success."

Following an honorable discharge from the military, Quivers relocated to California to find herself — and what she hoped would be a new profession. She tried jobs that included pharmaceutical sales and temp work in offices.

Eventually, her money ran out, and she wound up back in Baltimore. Nursing paid the bills, but she remained unfulfilled. One day, she cracked open the Yellow Pages and started looking up schools in various fields of interest.

"In L.A., I had briefly worked for a broadcast consulting firm," she recalls. "When I called stations, the people always seemed happy and enthusiastic to be there. I made a mental note of that."

Quivers was in her late 20s when she enrolled at the Broadcasting Institute of Maryland. The school's then-president, John Jeppi, immediately took a keen interest in her voice and diction, and became a mentor. After graduation, she landed a series of East Coast radio gigs, including at WFBR in Baltimore.

Eventually, a program director introduced the budding broadcast star to a radical jock by the name of Howard Stern. The duo have been together on air ever since.

"The Howard Stern Show" became a top-rated radio phenomenon and morphed into a syndication behemoth, and its eclectic cast and unique brand of entertainment conquered the New York market — and beyond. The show moved to Sirius XM satellite radio in 2006.

Asked about Stern — her boss, friend and co-conspirator of more than three decades and counting — she chuckles a bit. "Howard's doing great. … We've been working together since 1981, and we don't mark anniversaries. We just keep going and do what we do."

Quivers, the queen bee in an all-boys club, has sometimes been criticized by feminists and black celebrities for what they perceive as Stern's racist and sexist rants and what she says — and doesn't say — in response on the air, but many in the industry call her a consummate pro.

"We're very proud of her," says Lois Carrigan, general manager of the Broadcasting Institute of Maryland. "A lot of times, people will ask where a celebrity came from. Robin's work is so notable, and she took off in radio after learning all kinds of skills here."

Today, Quivers resides in a waterfront mansion in New Jersey but maintains ties to Baltimore.

Active in causes that include child abuse and cancer research, Quivers has raised $25,000 toward scholarships for The SEED School of Maryland, a nonprofit boarding school that helps at-risk kids in the city. "When it comes to education, I think it's one of the most important things for changing a person's life."

After a period of estrangement, she resumed communication with her parents. Her father, who had Alzheimer's, died some years ago, and her mother died in January at age 90.

"I have family and friends here. I get back a couple times a year, mostly on weekends," she says. "I've always wanted to be a favorite daughter and do what I can for the community."

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