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When the wheel's not spinning, Sajak is on air

Pat Sajak strides into the Annapolis radio station that he owns, slips on a pair of radio headphones and begins taping a two-minute commentary on the subject "Life is a risky business."

His script, on everyday risks, was inspired by a friend scolding him for eating a hamburger and french fries.

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"You weigh the risks against the rewards, the drawbacks against the pleasures, and the yogurt against the ice cream," he says in a clear, ebullient voice as the tape rolls.

In the best of modern worlds, he adds, knowing that eating a candy bar would take precisely 12 seconds off your life would come in handy: "Then you could make an intelligent decision."

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Sajak is best known for hosting the popular TV game show Wheel of Fortune for the past 25 years, but in recent months, the Severna Park resident has also returned to his original medium: radio.

"It's smile material," he says. "Two minutes of ephemeral musings."

For Sajak, 59, the segments are another example of how he has raised his community profile in Anne Arundel County, where he and his family now spend most of their time.

Five years ago, Anne Arundel Medical Center named a new building after Sajak and his wife, Lesly, after they donated $1 million for a breast center.

Sajak and County Executive Janet S. Owens also taped a mock-Wheel of Fortune video to promote county economic development.

Sajak is a "citizen with a capital C," Owens says.

With Lesly Sajak serving as a vice chairwoman of the hospital board, the county executive adds, the couple has made a mark on the county's wellness. "It's not just that they give money, but they come to events and give their time," Owens says.

The radio segments can be heard on the two Maryland stations Sajak Broadcasting Corp. owns: WNAV-AM in Annapolis and WTTR-AM in Westminster.

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Steve Hopp, general manager of WNAV, said station management asked Sajak to lend some luster to its identity - in industry speak, its "audio image."

"He's a quick-witted individual. This [weekly] feature allows him to bring that forth," Hopp says. "Pat is the same whether he's on camera or off. When he ad-libs, that's his strong suit."

On a recent weekday, the first order of business in the beige WNAV studio on Admiral Drive is a playful video tribute to Alex Trebek, the longtime host of TV's Jeopardy.

Sajak ends on a quasi-serious note about Trebek. "They love you up there and I don't blame them," he says, referring to Trebek's native Canada. Next is the two-minute taped audio segment, a weekly feature titled "I've Been Thinking About ... "

Sajak delivers the radio essay in 2 minutes, 1 second - a wrap for the sound engineer.

"They're just things that occur to you," Sajak says of the pieces, which he tapes weekly, generally from his home, and which run periodically during the week. Other subjects he's touched on are pet owners, job titles, Oreo cookies, steroids and grumpiness.

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"I write pretty much the way I talk, in a simple style," Sajak says. "It's like Andy Rooney with less-bushy eyebrows." Then he laughs at his jest.

Sajak says he finds the new feature a refreshing sideline. It also brings back his first broadcast job: the midnight shift in a 500-watt Chicago station when he was a college student.

After joining the Army in 1968, Sajak hosted a morning show from Saigon on Armed Forces Radio during the Vietnam War, according to his Web site. He held a number of other radio and TV jobs before Merv Griffin tapped him for Wheel of Fortune.

Hopp, the station manager, says that in the current climate of national politics, "Pat didn't want to do anything hard-hitting, no editorial comments."

Sajak has gone on the record with his conservative leanings - he is friends with William Buckley, the dean of the conservative movement and the founder of the National Review - but he said he will not enter the political zone on the air because he thinks the times are as divisive as he can remember.

"I'm not here to politicize this place, where you can alienate half your audience by talking about anything political," he says of his Annapolis-area listeners. "So I'm staying away from issues."

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He and his wife made a heftier charitable gift several years ago. After his family chose Severna Park as their primary residence in 1999 - "flipping our lives around" from spending most of their time in California - the Sajaks made the donation to AAMC's breast center, now housed at the Sajak Pavilion. The couple was honored at a hospital gala this year in Baltimore.

"I am disarmed by how well-grounded he is a person, how serious he can be with a terrific sense of humor," says Lisa Hillman, executive director of the medical center's foundation. "And the fact he's willing to use his national presence for an institution like ours."

Sajak says, "As members of the community, we were lucky to be able to do it."

Dividing his time between coasts - tilting east - has now become a chosen way of life.

Sajak's travels often take him all over the continent. While his family spends summers in California and the school year here, he says the routine is to make two trips a month to Los Angeles for tapings of the popular game show with Vanna White. He declines to say how much longer he will stay in that position.

Drop-by visits to the Annapolis station are unusual - Sajak usually tapes his radio segments at home - but employees say they enjoy seeing him because he makes it a point to say hello to everyone.

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Sajak projects a breezy manner, but he is also a reader of history, an observer of politics and a product of a working-class Chicago neighborhood who studied broadcasting at the city's Columbia College. In a way, Chicago was a small enclave, not a big city, to the young Sajak.

"I remember looking at downtown Chicago, with the lake and the skyscrapers, like it was the land of Oz," Sajak recalls. "Of course it was a 12-minute drive, but we never went there. Now we stay at the Four Seasons."

Sajak is quick to say the wheel of fortune hit the jackpot for him, his wife, son and daughter.

"Life ain't bad," he says. "I'm not a Pollyanna, but it would be hard to imagine a better life."

In a flash, he is out the door to pick up his son.

jamie.stiehm@baltsun.com


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