Raised on the radio, the much-loved broadcaster will say her final “I’m Susan Sweeney Crum, 89.3 WFPL News” this month.
Story by Steve Kaufman
Photos by Antonio Pantoja
In a couple of weeks, Susan Sweeney Crum will retire. The well-known local radio and TV newsperson – an afternoon fixture on hundreds of thousands of home and car radios, laptops and cell phones – will say her familiar signature, “I’m Susan Sweeney Crum, 89.3, WFPL News,” for the last time on April 16.
Her career has spanned 32 years, and it’s hard to imagine her doing anything other than what she has done for those 32 years.
Sweeney Crum grew up in a house in Lyndon filled with journalism. Her father, Dick Sweeney, worked at The Courier-Journal (now known as Courier Journal) and then at WHAS-TV. Her mother, Martie Sweeney, was also at Courier Journal until she married Dick and was forced to resign because of nepotism rules. She then freelanced for various publications, including for The Voice-Tribune.
“I remember her working at her little manual typewriter,” Sweeney Crum recalled, “and then riding with her over to The Voice offices, where she put her pages into the overnight mail slot.”
Except for a brief ambition to be “the next Carol Burnett,” Sweeney Crum has spent her professional life in local journalism, just like her folks.
“I went to Western Kentucky University as a theater major,” she said, “but switched after a semester to broadcast journalism. I realized I didn’t have that kind of dedication to travel the country looking for acting jobs.
“I thought I might starve to death as an actress,” she continued, “whereas, in broadcasting, I’d have a steady income – even if it wasn’t much.”
After graduating in 1985, she started at WHAS in the radio news department. “Terry Meiners and I were among the first Clear Channel employees after the Binghams sold their media holdings,” she revealed.
Sweeney Crum remembers WHAS radio as “THE news station in Louisville at the time,” she said. “Working there made me realize that this is what news is supposed to be. These people enjoyed the work, and I wanted to be part of it – doing stuff that was important.”
Radio and TV were in the same building and in 1989, she switched over to TV as a news reporter in pursuit of “a little bit more money.”
One year later, WDRB went on the air, and she was part of a group that went there to launch the new television endeavor. “(It’s) an amazing adventure, starting up an entirely new news department,” she said. Sweeney Crum stayed with WDRB for 15 years.
“TV was a different way of learning to write,” she explained. “Now, I had pictures to help tell the story. I went out every day. Every day was a different story – different places around the city, new people.”
One of those people was University of Louisville basketball coach Denny Crum.
Across a Crowded Room
“I met Denny the way I meet most people: covering stories and events,” she said. “But actually, he likes to tell people he met me when I was 10.”
Her father was directing and producing programming at WHAS when Crum first arrived here in 1971 from UCLA. Eventually, Dick Sweeney worked with Crum on his weekly coach’s TV show.
“I was covering a story at the UofL campus, and Denny was standing there. ‘I think you know my dad,’ I said.”
They were married in 2001, and she recalled, “I began debating whether or not to begin shortening my hours. I went part-time, anchoring an afternoon news show.”
Her decision was made for her when the economy began to nosedive in 2005, and WDRB instituted several cutbacks. “I was vulnerable because I was doing a part-time newscast,” she said. The axe fell in February 2006, and the official explanation given was “a shift in financial resources.”
And Another Door Opens
Almost immediately, she got a call from WFPL’s news director, asking if she would be interested in doing the afternoon news within NPR’s “All Things Considered” programming.
“I was ambivalent and put her off,” said Sweeney Crum. “I played all summer long, doing a lot of work in my yard. Then, she called again in the fall. Winter was coming, and I knew I couldn’t keep working in the yard and I needed something to do.”
She took the WFPL afternoon slot, “and that’s what I did for the next 12 years.”
In announcing her retirement, WFPL said: “While at 89.3 WFPL, Crum . . . helped foster (Louisville Public Media’s) dramatic audience growth for news programming.
“We’re honored she chose to spend the last 12 years . . . working with Louisville Public Media.”
Susan first considered retirement a year ago when Denny turned 80, “and I kind of started thinking about it. His health was good, but I thought maybe I should be around a little more. Maybe we should be doing things together while he still felt well and was up to it.”
A Stroke of Luck
That casual consideration nearly reached crisis mode a year later when they were fly fishing on the Kenai River in Alaska, an annual trip the couple takes.
“Denny was on the boat, and I was upstream a little bit in the water,” she recalled. “The guide said Denny had coughed real hard, and soon he was jabbering but not making any sense. He couldn’t put a sentence together; he was confused and then he became real lethargic.”
With the guide “rowing like crazy,” they got to a landing and called for air-rescue. A helicopter transported them to Anchorage, where physicians diagnosed a stroke and put him on clot-busting medicine.
“Getting him there took about two and a half hours,” Sweeney Crum said. “The doctor later said Denny had had about a three-hour window before it might have been too late.”
She said it took her husband about 24 hours to come around, but when he did, there were no permanent problems, no residual memory issues and no physical impairment at all.
“Denny has atrial fibrillation, and the doctors speculated that might have been responsible for throwing the little clot that it did,” Sweeney Crum said. “They changed his medicines around, and they advised it would be helpful if he’d exercise a little more and change the way he eats.”
It was a relief, she said, but also a wakeup call. “I began thinking even more seriously about retirement, and Denny and I talked it over,” she said. “We decided, ‘It’s time!’”
Like the pro that she is, though, Susan agreed that her last newscast would be not on a Friday afternoon but instead on the following Monday. “I agreed to work through our membership drive,” she said.
What’s next for her? Well, more vegetation will begin sprouting from the grounds of the Crums’ 70-acre spread in Southeast Jefferson County.
“My husband tilled up a 60-by-50 plot of land for me,” she said. “He thought it would be great for me to have a ‘little’ vegetable garden.” He has since cut it back to a more-manageable 36-by-30.
“I’ve always done a lot of flowers and landscaping – tons of mowing and weeding – but I like being outside, and I love seeing things grow and flourish,” she explained. “It’s like, in the spring, seeing all my babies coming to life.”
Vegetable gardening is new for her. “I had always said that when I retired, I’d like to grow some vegetables, and Denny has stepped up.”
There are also her seven great-nieces and nephews to spend free time with (she was one of five Sweeney children).
Then, there is her menagerie – currently four dogs and three cats.
“There’s seven-year-old Luke, a chocolate Lab; Buddy, a seven-year-old black Lab; Little Bitty, a two-year-old Maremma sheepdog; and nine-month-old Zeke, an adorable little mutt – (there’s) probably some cattle dog or Catahoula or something in him.
“Our cats are Rambo and Sammy,” she continued, “the last of kittens and barn cats we rounded up and neutered 15 years ago, and Motor, a ‘working cat’ we brought in from the Humane Society a few years ago,” she said.
The couple will also continue to travel to Alaska and to Henry’s Lake in Idaho, where they have a home.
“Denny grew up in Idaho and has a ton of family there,” she said. “He likes to hunt and always loved to fish. He has made me a fly-fisherperson. I also love floating down those rivers. It’s relaxing and it’s beautiful.”
She said they will finally take some vacations they have always talked about, like a trip to the Tuscany region of Italy planned for next year.
Back here in Louisville, they’ll remain active in the programs they’ve supported like Alley Cat Advocates, which conducts a trap-neuter-and-return treatment for unowned cats; the Christine M. Kleinert Institute, which advances research and techniques on hand microsurgery; and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. They’ll also continue to administer the Denny Crum Scholarship Foundation at the University of Louisville.
Then there are the sports they love. They took their annual trip to the Final Four earlier this month, “because Denny is still involved in the National Association of Basketball Coaches and the Naismith Hall of Fame,” she said.
Next month, they’ll attend the Kentucky Derby. They have never missed one, and Denny – who has successfully raised horses in the past – always goes to Oaks, as well.
Mostly, this high-energy, dual-career couple will put on the brakes and spend quiet time together, taking care of one another. Part of that involves the gardening Susan will do.
“I’ll grow some tomatoes, squash, broccoli, brussel sprouts,” she said. “I have an asparagus bed ready for some crowns. You know, all the things Denny won’t eat. He likes his bread and he likes his ice cream. Now, he’d better like the vegetables I’m growing.” VT