Ralph Barbieri tells SF Chronicle he has Parkinson’s

In an interview with Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle, KNBR’s Ralph Barbieri announced a secret he’s kept for a long time: he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2005. Ostler, long known as one of the top sportswriters in the Bay Area if not the best, wrote an excellent feature on Barbieri’s initial symptoms, the treatments he’s gone through over the last five-plus years and the burden of keeping this news to himself. In fact, Barbieri, 65, just recently told his 11-year-old son the news.

For those who see Michael J. Fox and Muhammad Ali as the faces of Parkinson’s, this news initially sounds like a death sentence, almost like when Magic Johnson was diagnosed with HIV a couple decades ago. But according to Barbieri and his doctors that’s hardly the case.

“He’s hardly changed over five years (of treatment),” said Dr. Brian Bouch, medical director of Hill Park Medical Center in Petaluma. Bouch is an integrative-medicine specialist. “The disease has been very, very slow progressing, partly because of his treatment. … As we’ve seen with (former U.S. Attorney General) Janet Reno, people with Parkinson’s who are in public professions can function and do really well.”

Which brings us to his current position as the longest-tenured host at KNBR, and the negotiations that were mentioned in this space a week ago. According to sources, Cumulus wanted Barbieri to take a cut in pay. Whether this news will have any bearing on those discussions wasn’t a focus of Ostler’s article. However, the following passage was interesting to say the least:

The secrecy and paranoia cost Barbieri a girlfriend. She vowed to stay at his side, but “I was too fixated on my disease, and I convinced myself I couldn’t give her the kind of life she deserved. I don’t know if I was honorable or stupid. Probably both, definitely more stupid.”

After all that, why address it now?

“My contract is expiring soon,” Barbieri said, “and if I am to continue at KNBR, I’d like to start with all our cards on the table, face-up. I’ve gotten to know Lew Dickey (CEO of Cumulus Media, parent company of KNBR) a little bit, and my gut feeling was that he could deal with my situation at an honorable level, so I gave him a call and told him everything.

“He let me know that KNBR wants me back. He didn’t say on what terms, but the fact that he didn’t view the Parkinson’s as a red flag, that was a huge relief to me.”

Today’s news has wide-ranging implications for the future of KNBR and its most successful show. One has to imagine in light of his announcement Barbieri will be allowed to continue at “The Sports Leader” as long as he’s willing and able. And with the positive news in Ostler’s article being that Barbieri’s holding up pretty well so far, it sounds like he’ll be in the fold for at least the next few years — if not longer.

In terms of the salary situation, if Barbieri is kept on at his current rate … what does that mean for everyone else at the station? In a story with a lot of moving pieces, today’s article in the Chronicle means Cumulus might have to devise a new game plan if they’re serious about cutting costs.

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