Ken Jackson, who employed a silky baritone voice on Baltimore radio stations for nearly 60 years while delivering the news or introducing a romantic ballad, died of a brain tumor Monday at his son’s Towson home. He was 91.
Tom Hall, host of WYPR’s “Midday,” said: “Ken was one of the all-time most gracious guys. To listen to him on the air was the same as listening to him in my office.
“He was a real scholar of music and a relatable and accessible storyteller. He put you right in the recording studio with Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra.”
A 2007 Sun article described Mr. Jackson as “a vestige of a kinder time — calm, self-effacing and unfailingly gracious, with upright posture to match.”
Born Kenneth Joseph Desmarais in Lowell, Massachusetts, he was the son of Hector Desmarais, a plumbing firm owner, and Margaret Votour, a homemaker. He later adopted a broadcast name at the request of a radio station manager.
In a 1995 Sun interview, Mr. Jackson recalled that “in the high school yearbook when most kids wrote they wanted to be a brain surgeon or lawyer or a bum, I wrote ‘radio.’”
He earned a degree at Emerson College in Boston and worked at the campus radio station, an FM operation patterned on NBC’s old “Monitor” radio show. He said his broadcast heroes were Walter Cronkite and Alan Jackson.
In a French 101 class, he met his future wife, Anne Campbell.
His first paying radio job came at a small AM station in Milford, Massachusetts. He described it as being “just like Ted Baxter’s [from TV’s “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”]. Our signal went down the street and around the corner of this little shoe factory mill town, and I did everything, including cleaning the latrine.”
He moved on to be news director at a station in Worcester, Massachusetts, then was on the air in Reading and later Wilkes-Barre, both in Pennsylvania.
In 1962 the then-news director at WCBM-AM in Baltimore, with whom he had auditioned in a previous job search, called with an offer.
Mr. Jackson and his wife settled in Northeast Baltimore off Loch Raven Boulevard. He was a past president of the New Northwood Community Association.
“In the space of a few years the neighborhood went from a nearly 100% white population to 95% Black residency,” said his son, Douglas W. Desmarais. “When a white neighbor asked my father if he were leaving, he said, ‘Why should I move? Wouldn’t I give them the same chance I gave you when you moved into the neighborhood?”
He was at WCBM until 1968 and moved to WBAL-AM to handle the midday newscasts — between the morning and evening shifts of Galen Fromme, a fixture on AM radio.
“I burned out on the news,” Mr. Jackson said in relating his 1973 departure from WBAL.
He dropped out of radio for several years, working on educational publications and doing a variety of freelance work.
During that time, he read an article about WAYE-AM, which was launching a big-band music format.
“Just for the hell of it, I just called ‘em, and ended up back on the air reading the news,” he said.
“Eventually, I did a music program at midday,” he said. He later worked at WITH and WWLG.
Mr. Jackson was not a fan of automated radio and digital music.
“In 2002 I offered him our Friday night slot at WYPR. I’d personally been listening to Ken for decades and loved his big-band music. I also promised he’s never be asked to run a computerized radio board,” said Andy Bienstock, then program director at the radio station.
Mr. Jackson drew from the thousands of vintage vinyl and shellac recordings stored in his garage. He parked his car on the street.
The Morning Sun
“I’ve never been a format man. I play the kind of music I like,” Mr. Jackson said in 2007. “I feel in my own little way I’m an entertainer. It’s a casual approach. I hope I make people feel good for a few minutes.”
“I love this music, and I can get lost in it,” Mr. Jackson added. “It’s romantic, glamorous and exciting.”
Said Mr. Bienstock: “Ken developed an audience. It was the kind who still writes letters, instead of firing off emails. Ken loved Glenn Miller and his orchestra’s music, and the entire second hour of the Sept. 8 program will be devoted to the Glenn Miller band.”
“I’m not Mr. Excitement,” Mr. Jackson said of himself. “I’m betting on people still enjoying the music I play. I’m not doing this to be heroic. It’s a labor of pleasure.”
He was last on the air in 2020 when he stopped going into the WYPR studio when COVID-19 arrived.
Services will be held Sept. 18 at The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints at 1400 Dulaney Valley Road. The hour has not been set.
Survivors include his son, Douglas W. Desmarais of Towson; a brother, Richard Desmarais of Searsport, Maine; seven grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. His wife of 66 years, Anne C. Desmarais, a teacher and director at Northwood Appold United Methodist nursery school, died last year. Another son, David Scott Desmarais, died in 2004. A daughter, Suzanne D. Vinyard, died in 2008.