IT HAS BEEN more than a year since he left her: the carefree 18-year-old son with the tousled hair and crooked grin.
Zachariah Miguel Rene-Ortega’s ashes are buried under an apple tree in a planting bed shaped like a tear. “Zack’s Grove” also includes Greensleeves dogwoods, two fig trees and a wooden bus shelter with a sign stenciled in white: “Every hour I need Thee.” Scattered about the grove are little talismans left by his friends.
Zack’s mother is Delilah Rene, the most-listened-to woman in American radio. She lives with her large family on a 55-acre Port Orchard farm, along with one zebra, three emus, three dogs, four pigs, five sheep, six cats, 30 goats and dozens of chickens. A remodeled 1907 farmhouse on the property serves as her six-bedroom, 2,500-square-foot home. A multiwindowed turret on the second floor is set aside for prayer. This farm is where Zack grew up and made friends with local kids who still come over.
“Stuff just shows up,” Delilah says, standing in the rain at the grove. “I come out here and find little tokens, mementos, stakes and flags.”
She still dreams of Zack: happy, beautiful, ageless.
When asked how she gets through each day’s mix of regret and sadness, she mentions God. “I know he’s with Him,” she says. “And when my time comes, I’ll be with him.”
MILLIONS OF LISTENERS know Delilah, 59, from the radio show named after her. Although her voice has the smoothness of rich cream with a hint of a Southern drawl, she is a child of the rural Pacific Northwest. Born in Reedsport, Oregon, she is steeped in the values of God, family, frugality and hard work.
Any given day, 55,000 people try to call in to vent, ask advice or dedicate a song to someone they love; her shows are a dialogue between Delilah and the 80 to 100 who actually get through. After listening to callers pour out their problems, Delilah finds a song that matches their situation.
Delilah’s common-sense advice and sympathy during the 34 years “The Delilah Show” has been on the airwaves have won her a huge following: 8.3 million listeners each week.
Her show airs daily from 7 p.m. to midnight on 164 stations (all listed on Delilah.com), stretching from Honolulu and Anchorage to Bangor, Maine. Her syndicator, iHeart Media, runs the show off its app and her website in a continual 24/7 loop. She recently picked up new markets in Buffalo, Philadelphia, Sacramento and Phoenix and, starting in January 2018, began a daytime show with KSWD in Seattle.
Delilah has earned some of the biggest accolades in the business: the Radio Hall of Fame in 2016; the National Association of Broadcasters/Marconi Award Network/Syndicated Personality of the Year, also in 2016; the NAB Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 2017.
She calls herself the “queen of sappy love songs,” and she is an industry in her own right. Her Facebook page and website are peppered with names of celebrity friends, such as actress Roma Downey and singers Christina Aguilera and Jon Bon Jovi. And her website is full of marketing: books, contests, recipes, music, candy.
Delilah most recently chronicled her story in her 2018 book, “One Heart at a Time”: how she cut her teeth on local radio in Oregon as a teen; was disowned by her father for marrying a black man; weathered three divorces (she’s now married to her fourth husband, Paul Warner, who has five children of his own); started the nonprofit organization Point Hope, which advocates for foster care in the United States and for forgotten children in Ghana; and clawed her way to the top of radio stardom after multiple firings and moves around the country.
It’s a story of inspiring success — and almost-unbearable heartbreak.
AFTER HIGH SCHOOL, Delilah worked in Coos Bay and Eugene, then moved to Seattle in 1981 for a job at a rock station. Her flagship nighttime show started in 1984, when she began hosting “Lights Out with Delilah Rene” for KLSY-FM. The program director, Chris Mays, allowed her to add listener phone calls and stories to the songs, and she parlayed the combo into a successful brand that stuck.
She had a natural sympathy for her audience then because of her own ups and downs: The birth of her first child, the collapse of her first marriage, and the death of an older brother and his wife in a plane crash all occurred around that time.
She continued working in Seattle for KLSY and other stations until 1990, when she left for a job in Boston. After several job switches, her career took off in 1996, when she began syndicating her show out of Rochester, N.Y. She returned to Seattle in 1997, after the syndication rights to her program were sold to Seattle-based Broadcast Programming.
She bought a home in West Seattle, where she settled with her third husband, Douglas Ortega, and three biological children: Isaiah Harris, now 34, a Tukwila police officer; Shaylah Rene-Ortega, 24; and Zack. When Zack was born in 1999, Delilah and Douglas had just adopted three siblings from state foster care.
“It was more than we could handle,” Ortega says now.
The couple divorced in 2002. Delilah began looking for a larger place, where she could have a farm similar to what she grew up with, and the bigger family she always wanted. She bought the Port Orchard property in 2001; the farmhouse required several years of remodeling before she moved in, in 2006.
BY THIS TIME, Delilah was airing on almost 180 stations and had been noticed by Kraig Kitchin, co-founder and president of Premiere Radio Networks. Premiere (a subsidiary of iHeart Media) was syndicating the Dr. Laura (Schlessinger) program at the time, and Kitchin saw that same star power in Delilah.
“I knew there was tremendous potential for her personality to shine if new media relationships could be made,” he says. “Within two years, we were doing that.”
The $50 million contract she signed with Premiere in 2004 has been renewed several times. “The business of the program is very lucrative,” Kitchin says. He’s since become her business partner.
Delilah is worth millions but doesn’t flaunt it, preferring to shore up her wardrobe with treasures from the Port Orchard Goodwill — also where she loads up on affordable clothes for the kids of Point Hope. (Goodwill helps sponsor her KSWD show, and in return, she tapes commercials for Goodwill.)
She first became involved in West Africa after a woman in Ghana emailed the show, asking whether Delilah would like to adopt her three starving siblings. She has adopted 11 children over the years, including Sammy, a boy from Ghana, who died of sickle cell anemia in 2012. Recently, Delilah added 3-year-old Paul to the family — her 14th child. Each one, she says, was a call from God to make room for one more.
If there’s one thing that drives Delilah, it’s a compulsion to rescue or help people in dire situations.
ZACK WOULD SHOW UP in the kitchen late at night, after Delilah finished taping her show, and she’d fix his favorite snacks: nachos, chili, beef stew.
She called him her “wild child.” Diagnosed at 18 months with sensory integration disorder, a form of autism, Zack inherited his mom’s mischievousness and propensity for practical jokes. Growing up in Port Orchard, Zack moved to Issaquah in the fall of 2016, his senior year of high school, to live with his father. Zack got into a car accident; a girlfriend dumped him; and he got sick and missed two weeks of school, then learned his absences would make it impossible for him to graduate the following spring. His father recognized something was eating away at his son.
“I got a phone call from his counselor at school, and he told her he wanted to die,” Ortega remembers. “When he got home, the first thing he said was, ‘I come from a divorced household.’ How did we go from wanting to die to talking about divorce? I knew it was hard on Shaylah and Zack; I just didn’t know how hard it was on Zack.”
Ortega found Zack a private counselor and a doctor, who prescribed an antidepressant known as an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor).
Delilah says she noticed Zack’s personality changing. Alarmed, she called his doctor; she says her calls were never returned.
After moving back to Port Orchard, Zack continued to spend weekends with his dad and see his counselor in Issaquah. In September 2017, Zack told his friends and counselor he’d gone off his medicine. Ortega says Zack was smoking marijuana, and over the Sept. 30-Oct. 1 weekend, “We watched our favorite movies together … He was kind of preparing for the whole thing. He fooled me; he fooled the counselor; he fooled Paul [Warner]; he fooled everyone.”
Delilah had business in Ghana, so had flown out a few days before. She was told by Zack’s friends that he seemed upbeat when they picked him up at the ferry near Port Orchard the afternoon of Oct. 2. After spending the evening playing video games with a friend, Zack came downstairs to go outside. When Warner asked where he was going, Zack said he needed to blow off steam. Once outside, he texted his stepdad to apologize for his attitude. Warner figured Zack was spending the night with a friend, but instead he was heading for a spot in the woods on a neighbor’s property.
“Years ago, he’d found a tree, and there was a rope hanging on that tree,” Ortega says. “Delilah said he’d mentioned it when he was a kid. Maybe he was 9 years old. Was he thinking about it all that time? It wasn’t something on a whim he did. He planned it — he planned how he’d do it.”
When Zack didn’t show up for school the next day, his family began to search. In Ghana, Delilah was trying to suppress rising panic. While dining with the U.S. ambassador to Ghana, she kept excusing herself to check her phone.
Zack’s body wasn’t found until Oct. 4, almost two days after he’d left the house.
“I think in his way, he was protecting us,” Ortega says. “He waited for his mom not to be there; he didn’t do it on our property. He tried to separate us from what he was doing.”
It took Delilah a day to get a flight out of Accra, the capital of Ghana, and almost two days before she was home. On Oct. 7, her announcement of his death on social media created a blizzard of news coverage.
“My heart is broken beyond repair, and I cannot fathom how to go on,” she said in part, “but I have to believe he is at peace with the Lord and that God will get us through.”
On Facebook, Ortega wrote, “It was a chemical imbalance that made my son decide to take his precious life. He simply wanted his thoughts and pain to end. I share this, not as his final eulogy, but because the national news covered more about his celebrity mom than about him. It’s not her fault.”
“I couldn’t read; I couldn’t watch anything; I couldn’t process anything,” she says. “I couldn’t read two sentences.”
Before her was the new normal: the missed birthdays, the graduation that would not happen, the wedding Zack would never have, the children he’d never conceive and the holiday gatherings where he would be absent.
The more she researched the possible suicidal side effects of SSRIs on adolescents, “I went insane, angry; oh, my gosh …,” she says — to the point where her husband took away her computer.
She took a few weeks off after the funeral, trying to pull herself together. The worst times were the late nights, when Zack used to be there. Country music star Wynonna Judd would check in with her around that time.
“She would call: ‘Girlfriend, are you OK?’ ” Delilah remembers. “She was a lifeline. She sends me prayers and music and life and love.”
Back on the air, she noted a change in listeners’ questions and calls.
“There’s a quiet desperation and loneliness,” she says. “I’m picking up on it more than before. The fact I’m going through grief right now [permits] more people to talk about that.”
Delilah says she occasionally has attended Newhope South Kitsap, a local congregation, but not since Zack’s death.
“Going to church doesn’t help,” she says. “Social settings are awkward. People don’t know what to say. And not knowing what to say, people say awkward things.” Instead, “I read the Word; I pray; I go for long walks; I talk to people who know my heart.”
BY LATE 2017, the owners of 94.1 FM in Seattle were changing formats to adult contemporary and casting about for talent for the new KSWD station, “The Sound.” (That same year, Delilah’s syndicated evening show turned 21. It had been on local station WARM 106.5 FM since 1998, but was discontinued in 2014.)
“It needed to have a legacy morning host in (local radio veteran) John Fisher, and it had to bring back Delilah,” says Dave Richards, vice president of programming. “She’d been off the radio in Seattle for three, four years; we are her hometown, and people wondered why she’s not on radio here.”
It took some negotiating to get Delilah to the table. Zack hadn’t been dead two months, and she still had four children at home. Richards didn’t specify what sweetened the deal but says, “We made it work. In the end, it was about bringing something to the audience.”
It also helped that Delilah could tape shows from her basement studio at her farm when her children are in school or in bed. She now airs on KSWD from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays; her syndicated show airs there from 7 p.m. to midnight on weekends.
“We’re launching a familiar voice that is purely positive,” says Richards. “With adult women, she’s doing very, very well. She is a true personality that people will follow from city to city and station to station.”
Smokey Rivers, the late-afternoon host on KSWD, credits Delilah’s success to her talking about “matters of the heart.”
“She creates a space people feel safe in, and people love her,” he says. “She’s so apolitical. She doesn’t talk about who God is or what God is. She doesn’t define who your God is. She is faith-driven but not faith-based.”
Even mentioning God can be a mixed blessing.
“I’m attacked by people who are left-wing who think I’m too religious,” Delilah says. “And then there are others who attack me for playing songs for gay couples. I used to catch hell by playing dedications for people who were living together. I thought, ‘Wow; you have enough time on your hands to judge people you’ve never talked with.’ ”
ON HER FARM, life appears to have reverted back to family and friends. When her brood showed up for Thanksgiving last fall, there were 47 people to feed. For Christmas, she supplied 20 Nerf guns for the family and created a scavenger hunt with rhyming clues scattered about the property.
Privately, she remains in agony, using art as an outlet. Last summer, she painted a mixed-media collage of three ravens. A green bird on the left, representing Zack, holds a padlock in his beak. The purple bird in the middle is Shaylah, decorated with quotes from the Book of Job.
A blue bird on the right is Isaiah. Quotes from the biblical book of Isaiah are shellacked on underlying white feathers. Behind him are white clouds and a dove representing heaven and the Holy Spirit.
A key in the right-hand corner is glued next to a biblical promise of salvation. A golden cord, representing her, curls around Isaiah and Shaylah’s feet, but not Zack’s. Various knots in it represent Delilah’s marriages and kids.
“There’s a whole lot of secrets we don’t understand about eternity,” she says. “But the key is in God’s Word. And Zack now understands them because he is now there.”