At dusk, after bowls of squash soup, slices of dry-aged steak, and forkfuls of pickled onions, peppers, and garlic, after an hour of talk at the kitchen table about a radio career that spans four decades, after touring her 55-acre homestead in evergreen woodlands along an inlet of Puget Sound west of Seattle, after visiting her stable of horses, her hundreds of chickens, dozens of goats, three sheep, two emus, and a zebra named Zena, after coming back in from a damp chill to her dormer-windowed, cedar-shingled house, Delilah Rene Luke is ready to go to work.

“I’ve got to go down and take some calls,” she announces to the kitchen, where 4 of her 12 children are buzzing about with friends and the nanny and her two kids. She asks Bridget, her 18-year-old daughter, to make her a cup of tea and then retreats down a spiral staircase to her basement studio, where Sophie the schnauzer waits on an upholstered footstool under the desk. “She keeps my feet warm,” says the woman known to her listeners simply as Delilah. “I don’t know if you have noticed, but I have to be touching somebody or something I love at all times.”

Dressed in a red turtleneck, black vest, skirt, and tights, Delilah sits down to a microphone with her name in red cursive on the flag, pulls a pair of white headphones over her long blond hair, and starts taking calls. They come from across the country—50,000 attempts a day over eight lines—from the lonely, the lovesick, and people who just want to talk and hear Delilah’s buttery voice answer back. On this Wednesday in January, a woman named Alisha calls to say she still has feelings for a former flame who “kinda cheated” on her.

“You can’t move into a new house or a new apartment if somebody is still living there, huh?” Delilah says.

“That’s right,” Alisha says.

“And no man can come and move into your heart and be good to you so long as you are still renting that space out to the cheater-cheater-where’d-you-meet-her Cameron.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

When the call airs later that evening on Delilah’s eponymous radio show, it’s followed by Like I’m Gonna Lose You by Meghan Trainor.

Delilah is the queen of FM radio. She’s carried nightly on 171 radio stations in North America, usually from 7 p.m. to midnight. Her syndicator, IHeartMedia, also streams the show online in a loop. Eight million people listen at least once a week, according to IHeart. At any given moment, hundreds of thousands are tuned in. There’s nothing else like it in radio: a nationwide evening call-in that mixes talk and music. In February, Delilah celebrated her 56th birthday and 20 years in syndication. “A lot of other shows have come on to challenge her,” says Gary Berkowitz, a longtime broadcast consultant specializing in adult contemporary radio. “I don’t want to say she knocks them out, but they go away, and she stays.”

Yet for all her success beating back rivals, and no woman counts more listeners, Delilah is fighting to hold her place. Trends in radio have turned sharply against her. Adult contemporary, the format for almost all of her carriers, has gone into decline, with programmers preferring newer, more up-tempo music—less Fleetwood Mac and more Katy Perry. From 2007 to last year, the number of adult contemporary stations fell from 660 to 600, according to Soft adult contemporary, the even milder variant, lost more than half its stations, dropping from 242 to 115. Many of the remaining AC stations have cut back on DJ talk, filling the time with music and, in some cases, abandoning Delilah’s show. Between format changes and drops, she’s lost more than 50 carriers from her peak of 225 in 2008.

Delilah has little doubt why. She blames the Portable People Meter, a wireless device roughly the size of an old-fashioned cell phone and worn like a pager, that Nielsen uses to measure radio audiences. The meter, known as PPM, began replacing listener diaries in 2007. Over the next three years, they became the method for tracking ratings in 48 of the largest markets in the country. (Arbitron, then the leader in radio ratings, managed the rollout. Nielsen bought Arbitron in 2013.) The meters were controversial from the start.

The Portable People Meter ("PPM"), a wireless device Nielsen uses to measure radio audiences.
SOURCE: ArbitronPanelMember/Wikipedia

When they came to Philadelphia in 2007, the ratings for R&B, soul, and hip-hop plummeted. The pattern repeated in other markets, where Spanish-language stations also took a hit. Five states eventually sued Arbitron for discrimination, accusing the company of failing to represent minorities in its sample groups. In settlements, Arbitron paid several hundred thousand dollars in fines, promised to improve its sampling, and added a disclaimer to its PPM ratings saying they “should not be relied upon for precise accuracy.” Other formats also suffered. Smooth jazz all but disappeared. Ratings for many talk shows dipped.

For Delilah, it was a disaster. Often, when a city moved to PPM, thousands of her listeners seemed to vanish. Relaxed conversations and mellow songs—the things that make her show—suddenly fell out of favor with programmers. “The damage is horrendous,” she says, her famously warm voice turning hot. “It’s destroying radio in general, and especially shows that don’t play for the meter.”

Delilah got her first radio job in seventh grade, after she won a speech contest at her school in the tiny coastal town of Reedsport, Ore. The judges, who owned a local radio station, offered to make her a correspondent for her school and its sports teams, the Reedsport Braves. She learned to edit reel-to-reel tapes and filed three-minute dispatches called “Delilah Luke on the Warpath.”

The second of four children, she left home the day she graduated high school. She’d arrived home late after a graduation party and found her luggage packed and waiting at the door. She moved 30 miles south to Coos Bay and got a job hosting the afternoon drive on an FM rock station. “It was fun,” she says at the kitchen table, “Fun, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun.” From Coos Bay, she moved to Eugene and, in 1981, at the age of 21, to Seattle. Two years later, the rock station where she was working changed formats to soft adult contemporary in an effort to attract women. The new station, KLSY, put Delilah on at night, pushing buttons and reading the time and temperature. Listeners would call her to make requests and, sometimes, just for company. Delilah recorded some of those calls and brought them to management with a pitch for an evening call-in-dedication show.

“I wanted to do something that nobody else was doing,” she says. “I didn’t have a mentor. There were no other women on the radio.”

The station decided to let her try it during the final two hours of her 7 p.m.-to-midnight shift, when there wasn’t much to lose. “We weren’t going to scare off a whole bunch of listeners,” says Dana Horner, then general manager at KLSY. The first episode of Lights Out With Delilah Rene (she’d dropped “Luke”) aired in October 1984. KLSY’s ratings improved right away. “It took off,” Horner says. The station quickly moved to the top of the Seattle market in evenings and, more important, to No. 1—day and night—for women.

Four years later, KLSY fired Delilah. New management felt she was dominating the station’s identity. “They paid this asshole $10,000 to write a report,” she recalls. “He concluded that I was the tail wagging the dog … that they needed to get rid of me so that the rest of the station could shine.” It was the first of many testaments to the power of Delilah’s brand. She’s usually the best-known personality on any station she’s on and often in an entire market, according to consultant Berkowitz. “When I’m doing a focus group, I’ll say, ‘Let’s talk about the DJs,’ ” he says. The first response is usually, “Oh, how about Delilah?” Not everybody likes her, Berkowitz says, but they all know her.

In 1988, though, she was still a long way from national celebrity. Jobless, with a 4-year-old son and two broken marriages, she went to an oldies station across town and did a midday show without callers. Then KLSY changed management (again) and wooed her back. Her evening show was a hit (again), but Delilah left (again), this time over a pay dispute. In 1990 she took an offer to bring the show to Boston, where it was called The Quiet Storm. Over the next six years, she ricocheted from Boston to Philadelphia and back to Boston, where she was let go, yet again, when her station changed formats.

At the start of 1996, Delilah was out of a job, married for a third time, with a 1-year-old daughter by her new husband, and, for the moment, separated from him. There was no particular reason to think she would be anything other than another FM DJ who followed work from station to station before giving up and settling into a more stable, anonymous life. In February she moved with her two kids and closest friend, who was also her producer, to Rochester, N.Y., where her friend knew someone willing to help them try to launch a syndicated show.

Pictures hang on the wall of Delilah's studio.
Molly Matalon for Bloomberg Businessweek

For much of the 1990s, while Delilah was struggling to find a foothold, Ron Kolessar was sitting in a sealed acoustic lab at Arbitron’s offices in Columbia, Md., trying to perfect a new way to count radio listeners. Early in 1992, Kolessar’s bosses asked him to come up with something better than paper diaries. Arbitron had used the surveys for decades, relying on panelists to write down what they heard over the course of a week and mail it in. People tended to misremember or self-edit. Sometimes, says Kolessar, then the company’s director of technology, a diarist would claim to have listened to the same station 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He and a team of about 20 engineers began sifting ideas for a more “passive” method, something that would automate the record keeping.

The answer, they decided, was encoding. They would bury sonic codes in broadcasts and then program portable receivers to decipher them and transmit logs back to Arbitron. The trick was to keep human ears from noticing. To be picked up by the meter’s microphone—and not drive dogs crazy—code had to be added at frequencies audible to people and then masked inside whatever else was on the air. The Arbitron engineers listened to a handful of songs over and over during testing, including Billy Ray Cyrus’s 1992 hit Achy Breaky Heart. “I don’t think I could ever listen to it again,” says Kolessar, now happily retired.

It took 13 years and about $40 million, by his estimate, to come up with a prototype. Arbitron then had to persuade stations to install encoders and to pay about 40 percent more for ratings, advertisers to use the data in contracts, and panelists to wear meters. By 2010 the company had cracked 48 markets. The rollout stalled there. Recruiting panelists became prohibitively expensive, even after cutting sample sizes by about two-thirds from the diary system, says industry analyst Richard Harker, whose company, Harker Research, consults with programmers and advertisers. Nielsen paid $1.3 billion to acquire Arbitron in 2013. It now has about 60,000 meters running at any given time, ranging from about 4,500 in New York City to fewer than a thousand in places such as Memphis and Hartford. It still uses paper diaries in 224 smaller markets.

“I didn’t have a mentor. There were no other women on the radio.”

Delilah After Dark went on the air in February 1996 in Rochester, Pittsburgh, and West Palm Beach, Fla. By the end of the year, it was on 12 stations. Ken Spitzer, who’d persuaded Delilah to come to Rochester and sponsored the show, sold the rights to Broadcast Programming in Seattle. At the start of 1997, Delilah moved back west, and the show boomed. By the summer of 1999, when Jones International bought Broadcast for $21 million, based in large part on the strength of her show, Delilah was on almost 200 stations.

Listeners across the country, especially women, began making her a nightly companion. Between songs, she told them about her stormy childhood, failed marriages, and past struggles with alcoholism and eating disorders. She talked about the time she tried to introduce her first husband, a black man, to her father and he came to the door with a shotgun. “It’s a very personal show,” says Harker, who’s surveyed Delilah listeners dozens of times. “People who listen to her regularly know a great deal about her and her travails.” To them, Delilah’s messy past is only more reason to trust her. She’s been there.

Over the years her anecdotes have veered toward the more mundane concerns of a middle-aged mom. In 1999, Delilah adopted three children from foster care just before discovering she was pregnant with another son. The next year she broke up with her third husband, this time for good, and bought the farmhouse on Puget Sound, in Port Orchard, Wash. She later adopted an infant boy and an adult woman into the family. In 2008, after several trips to West Africa, she began taking in refugee children from there. Of her 12 dependents, 9 are adopted, including 4 from Ghana. (A fifth adoptee from Ghana died of sickle cell anemia in 2012.) Six of them still live with her.

“Stray kids, stray dogs, stray horses, stray zebras, the emu!” she says, ticking through her menagerie of orphans during a tour of the farm. “A stray pig showed up Saturday.” Unless someone claims it, the pig will stay. In the mornings, Delilah cooks, rides her horse Shadow, gardens, and looks after her children with the help of a live-in nanny and her fourth husband. (She married again in 2013.) In the evenings, she goes downstairs and talks to strangers about her day. “I hope your daughter didn’t get in trouble on the school bus the way my daughter did,” she tells listeners on the day of my visit.

In the hour that I’m with her in the studio, Delilah records nine calls. (Her normal rate is 40 to 50 per night.) She screens them herself, telling callers to speak up and turn off any background noise and that she’ll be back in a few minutes to record. The things they say on the air are raw and spontaneous. Along with Alisha, the jilted girlfriend, there’s Barbara, who worries that her husband won’t be well enough to walk their daughter down the aisle; Lori, whose teenage son is struggling in school; and Derek, who wants to thank his mother for supporting him during cancer treatment.

Delilah gives them self-help talk (“Anything worth having is worth fighting for”), a little religion (“I’m going to say a prayer that God keeps you two close forever”), and sappy love songs. Barbara gets I Hope You Dance by LeAnne Womack; Lori, Just the Way You Are by Bruno Mars; and Derek, I’ll Stand by You by the Pretenders. Delilah or Jane Bulman, her lead producer and roommate from back in Rochester, picks the songs. Delilah says her memory catalogs lyrics even when she’d rather forget them. Bulman and four others work from a studio in Seattle, with an open line back to Delilah’s basement. After each call, Delilah hollers out, “Hey guys, I just took a great call!” or “Awesome call!”

Delilah with one of her horses.
Molly Matalon for Bloomberg Businessweek

For station managers across the country, Delilah’s ability to draw listeners at night was like found money. (Radio consumption works inversely to television’s: It peaks during the morning drive and falls off once commuters get home.) Nighttime ad minutes, until Delilah, were often worthless or close to it. To get her show, stations had to surrender some of that time to the syndicator. “Those are advertising minutes that may have gone unsold, so you’re not really taking cash out of the till,” says Tom Chase, former program director at KSNE, a Delilah station in Las Vegas.

In 2004, Delilah bought back the rights to her show from Jones and then leased them to Premiere Networks, the syndication arm of IHeartMedia. Premiere barters for minutes from each Delilah station, typically three minutes an hour during the show, plus one minute a day from more valuable daytime hours, then bundles and sells the time at wholesale rates to national advertisers such as Home Depot, General Motors, J.C. Penney, and anybody else looking to sell to women age 25 to 54. “If you are Walgreens selling prescriptions,” says her manager, Kraig Kitchin, “you want to use Delilah’s voice.”

Over the course of a year, between national and local time, Delilah supports millions of minutes of ads. Her show is worth about $15 million per year to Premiere, according to Kitchin. “She’s a very valuable piece of the IHeartMedia family,” says Julie Talbott, the company’s president of content and affiliate services, who declined to put a number on that value. Kitchin is the founder of Premiere Networks and Talbott’s former boss. He left in 2007, eight years after the company became a part of IHeart. While still at Premiere, in 2004, he pursued Delilah and pried her away from Jones International. Her first contract with Premiere was worth about $40 million over eight years, plus a $10 million signing bonus. “I didn’t realize the economics that weren’t coming my way until I met you,” Delilah says to Kitchin, who sits at the end of the kitchen table during our interview.

“Some people very strongly believe that people like Delilah are the reason you would still turn on broadcast radio.”

Barbara Bridges, program director at Mix 92.9 in Nashville, carried Delilah for 15 years before she dropped the show in 2013, three years after Portable People Meters came to the market. “We saw ups and downs that we suffered through in diary,” Bridges says of Delilah’s ratings, “but when it got to PPM, there were more downs than ups.” Bridges installed a local host in the evenings and says she has been pleased with the results. Chase, the former program director in Las Vegas, also dropped Delilah, in 2010, after ratings declines under PPM.

For Bridges and Chase, it doesn’t matter whether PPM numbers are valid, as long as advertisers pay based on them. If Delilah can’t boost the value of nighttime ads, it’s no longer worth surrendering a daytime minute to get her. The lost value, says Chase, can be six figures per year in a large market—the equivalent of a “hefty salary” for an on-air personality.

Delilah, however, insists that her listeners never went away. PPM sample sizes, she says, are too small, and the device itself is faulty. She’s not alone in saying this. “She’s collateral damage,” says Harker, a vocal critic of PPM. In many markets, he contends, there aren’t enough meters running to be reliable. For an evening show like Delilah’s, as few as six meters can represent her listeners. “Just one disappearing is 17 percent of your audience,” he says. Nielsen, in an e-mailed statement, said PPM “yield statistical reliability … that is comparable to and in most instances better than the reliability from the former diary.” The Media Rating Council, the industry-funded organization that reviews ratings methods, has accredited PPM in 26 of 48 markets, a fact that both sides of the debate use as ammunition. (The remaining markets, including New York City, are still under review.)

Harker, along with Delilah, her manager, and others in the industry, also believes that meters often fail to register softer types of programming. The encoded signals need sounds in a particular range (1-to-3 kilohertz) to hide behind. Most of the time, it’s not an issue. But if a station’s encoder detects that there isn’t enough energy to cover its beeps, it automatically withholds them. On-air callers, for instance, can be hard to mask. “You’ll be broadcasting just fine, and you take a caller,” Harker says. “Suddenly, as far as the meter is concerned, you stop broadcasting.” Smooth jazz, soft rock, and talk, he says, all tend to drop in and out.

Delilah in the studio.
Molly Matalon for Bloomberg Businessweek

“We did testing of every possible genre and every possible combination and found that encoding was completely adequate,” says Kolessar, who was PPM’s lead engineer at Arbitron. The standard unit of measure in radio ratings is a quarter hour. Since encoded signals usually go out every minute, he says, any normal programming will show up, despite the occasional gap. Nielsen maintains that the PPM provides “consistent and high-quality measurement across all formats and programs” and says it’s working to make the technology better. “The electronics give, I believe, the truth,” says Kolessar, “which is sometimes not what people want to hear.”

It’s impossible to know exactly how many people listen to Delilah. Paper diaries, as even Kitchin allows, might tilt in her favor. Her typical listener, a woman 25 to 54, tends to be more scrupulous about record keeping than, say, a 21-year-old man. Plus, as Nielsen’s earlier switch to set-top meters for TV showed, diaries favor broad-channel entertainment. “People remember the big programs and stations that they watched,” says James Webster, a professor at Northwestern University’s School of Communication who studies media measurement.

Meters aim for accuracy. They pick up sound that a person is exposed to—whether in the car, at home, or in a drugstore—and report back. Diaries are more about significance. What were you paying attention to? What do you want the world to know that you like? Meters reveal fickle listeners, catching bits of eight or nine different stations per week. Diaries reveal loyalists, tuning in to two or three favorites. The radio industry is now split between trying to serve both. “The initial overreaction was that PPM says, ‘Play music and as little else as possible,’ ” says Sean Ross, vice president for music and programming at Edison Research. “Broadcasters are still trying to figure out the balance. Some people very strongly believe that people like Delilah are the reason you would still turn on broadcast radio.”

Delilah is defiant. “I’m going to stand my ground,” she says. “I’m not stupid. I’m not going to blow up my career and break a promise to my listeners because somebody’s having a knee-jerk reaction to a piece of machinery.” Still, she has made concessions. In 2013, Premiere began offering stations a “segmented” version of her show that allowed them to select the songs that weren’t caller dedications. This way they can insert more of the upbeat tunes that PPM rewards. There are now five editions of the show: custom versions for New York and Houston, the primary that most stations get, a Christian version, and the segmented shows.

“It was just tweaking the show so that it could have the maximum success within the PPM methodology and yet retain that magic that it’s always had”

At KSNE in Las Vegas, Chase brought Delilah back once he could pick more of the music. The station is one of about 40 that use the segmented version. Chase says that Delilah’s producers also started trimming calls more. “It was just tweaking the show so that it could have the maximum success within the PPM methodology and yet retain that magic that it’s always had,” he says. “As soon as we brought her back, ratings went right through the roof.” (Kitchin says the shorter calls are just a natural evolution of the show’s editing process.)

In January, Delilah signed a new multiyear deal with Premiere. IHeartMedia’s Talbott declined to say for how much or how long. “I could drive myself crazy trying to analyze that,” she says of the PPM controversy, “but the most important thing for us is we know the power of the Delilah brand.” Premiere markets Delilah as an influencer beyond what the meters show. Her listeners, according to the syndicator, trust her more than the average DJ. To leverage that power, Delilah has begun integrating brands into her chatter. She talks, for instance, about the gardening tools she gets from Home Depot. Delilah sits in on meetings with the retailer, says Talbott, and peppers them with product suggestions: “She takes a deep interest in her advertisers and strategizing on what she knows that her listeners would like.”

Talbott remains confident that she’s not buying past performance. She says the show is beginning to draw a second generation of listeners, young women who grew up hearing it with their mothers and are seeking it out themselves: “We call that the come-home-to-Delilah moment.”

In the basement in Port Orchard, I get to hear one: “My mom has been listening to you for as long as I can remember, probably back when I was in a car seat,” says a caller named Becca, now a college student who hears the show on trips to and from campus with her mom. “We’ll be listening to you, and my mom will just say, ‘One of these days I really hope your dad or maybe you or your sister or brother will call in for me and ask for a song.’ And you know, I was baking some apple pie that my mom makes, and I’m listening to you, and I’m like, ‘You know what, why not try?’ So I’m actually here, and I am telling you how great my mom is.”

Cue Thank You by Dido, and pray the meters are listening.

Editor: Bryant Urstadt
Photography: Molly Matalon for Bloomberg Businessweek
Design: Steph Davidson