Hart break for Eric & Kathy co-star stirs up radio’s top morning show
For months Kathy Hart suffered in quiet agony. Even as the top-rated morning show she co-hosts with Eric Ferguson was having its most successful year ever, her personal life was in turmoil while she struggled with the prospect of leaving her husband after 14 years.
“I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t sleeping, I was really sick over this decision, but I still had to go on the air and be ‘Happy Kathy',” she recalled the other day. “There were times when I literally had tears in my eyes when we were going on the air.”
As much as she hates the term “soccer mom,” it's a label that was hard to shake for the 46-year-old Hart, whose husband, three children — ages 11, 9 and 3 — and house in the suburbs fixed an idyllic image in the minds of listeners. It also made Hart the perfect counterpoint to the 43-year-old man-about-town Ferguson. As on-air partners since 1996, the two gamely explore all manner of interpersonal relationships with their vast audience each morning on WTMX-FM (101.9), the Bonneville International hot adult-contemporary station.
The chemistry they created — and the trust they earned from their audience — have made “The Eric & Kathy Show” one of the most popular and lucrative Chicago radio programs of all time. Their unassailed dominance among listeners in the prized 25-to-54-year-old demo is the envy of the industry. So how would fans react if Hart became suddenly single?
In her first interview since going public about her breakup with husband Bert Witte, Hart said she’d been contemplating the decision for more than two years. Counseling, while helpful, proved to be too little, too late. “I had pretty much started the morning show with Eric around the same time I started my relationship with Bert, and sadly I worked harder at my relationship at work,” she said. “I definitely put more focus on succeeding in my job, and just assumed my marriage would always be there. That was obviously a big mistake.” The toughest part, she recalled, came over the summer:
“For months I struggled with what to do while hiding it from everyone. There were certain songs that we played that got me emotional. I had to just take a deep breath and suck it up and, you know, the show must go on, as they say. Then I’d get off the air and go in my office and close the door and just cry.
“I realized that this decision had to be made one way or the other, but I’m one of those people who can’t eat when they’re stressed. As much as I love food, it was torture for me not to have an appetite. But I was nauseous for a month straight. So I probably lost 15 pounds. The bathroom was like my best friend at that time. That may be TMI [too much information], but my stomach didn’t handle it very well.”
In October, Hart finally made up her mind and disclosed her breakup on the air and in her blog. Describing it as “a classic case of two people growing apart” she spoke of “finding the courage to realize that it was the best decision for my family, for myself, for my kids and for Bert.” She urged others not to take their own spouses for granted and to focus on each other every day. Though sensitive about her children’s privacy, keeping the matter to herself was never an option, she said, “because my job is pretty much talking about my personal life. I’ve never been one to hold back on any of my private life because my private life is public life.
“Once I announced it on the air there was such a huge burden that was lifted because in my heart I knew it was the right decision, and it wasn’t something I had to hide anymore. It was something that I could put out there and talk about. And it was such a relief.”
Today Hart is living on her own not far from the house she shared with her husband and their kids. Hearing her talk about her new life — including a new relationship with a friend she first met 15 years ago when he was her brother’s roommate — could bring a whole new dynamic to “The Eric & Kathy Show.” “I think it’s going to be great for the show, actually,” Hart said. “There are certain things that I’m going to struggle with as far as talking about past relationships. I still love and respect Bert, and I don’t want to hurt his feelings and put anything out there of our personal life that would bother him. But as far as putting myself out there, I’ll go full force.”
Ferguson, who faced his own traumas last year when a health scare nearly killed him (and sent him into surgery twice for cardiac arrhythmia), views the ordeals that he and Hart confronted — along with traffic reporter Melissa McGurren’s surprise pregnancy and news anchor Mark Suppelsa’s decision to quit the show — in practical terms. “It was quite a year for us,” he said.
“It seemed like every time I looked up, someone was coming in my office and closing the door with an announcement. First it was Melissa saying she was pregnant. Then it was Mark coming in to tell me that he was heading back to television full time. Then Kathy coming in to reveal she was getting a divorce. I’ve decided for 2011 to put a lock on the door and not answer it when someone knocks.
“While our challenges have definitely taken a personal toll, they seem to have added a new and interesting creative element to the show. And let’s face it: It’s all about the show, right? Right!”