Bohannon has stories to tell
There are perks to the overnight shift, as Jim Bohannon sees it.
"No bosses, no dress code, no meetings," says Bohannon, a voice of late-night talk radio for more than two decades. "I park for free in downtown Washington. I never fight rush hour. What's not to like?"
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Bohannon, who will host his syndicated radio show from Champaign's WDWS studios Tuesday night, is a 35-year broadcast veteran, and he has plenty of stories to tell. Interviews with prize fighters, presidents, nuclear physicists and entertainers, to name a few.
There was the short on-air phone call with President Clinton (he can't remember what they talked about). The interview with Loretta Lynn that ended with a hug. A fun session with George Foreman, and the not-so-fun exchange with boxer Hector "Macho" Camacho, who threatened to whip opponents Aaron Pryor and Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini — and Bohannon — on the same night.
"I said, 'I'll give you one out of three,'" Bohannon said. "I was a little braver with him because I was on the phone."
Bohannon, 70, began his career in 1960 at his hometown station, KLWT-AM, in Lebanon, Mo. After college at Southwest Missouri State University and service in the U.S. Army, he moved to Washington and worked at both AM and FM stations.
In 1980, he moved to Chicago, where he worked as a morning anchor at WCFL-FM Radio and as a freelance reporter for CNN.
Bohannon hosted his own Saturday night phone-in program and was the principal back-up for Larry King on The Larry King Show. In February of 1993, Bohannon took over King's prestigious nighttime talk show slot.
The two were not "bosom buddies," Bohannon said. "Larry hangs out with the rich and famous."
But he liked King and said he learned some things from him — like the value of having guests with a point of view and a "slight edge to their delivery and attitude."
He also learned what not to do: "I certainly never followed Larry's rule of never reading the book or that sort of thing. It seemed to work for Larry. I think most of the rest of us should do our homework."
Bohannon joined Westwood One (formerly Dial Global) in 1983 and has anchored newscasts, political conventions and election night coverage in addition to his weekday programs.
His schedule would be daunting for someone 20 years younger. His "day" starts around 9 p.m. Eastern time (where his show airs from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m.). He wants to review that night's guests and whatever's happening in the news.
After that show, he starts preparing for his "America in the Morning" news show, which airs from 5 to 6 a.m. Eastern. It's rebroadcast at 5 a.m. Central and 5 a.m. Pacific, so he refreshes it with any news developments. Then he can go home.
Bohannon, who describes himself as a "militant moderate," said radio has become a little more partisan and "a lot more specialized" during his career.
"I'm politicized, too, I just don't happen to believe all the answers are down at the extremes of the political spectrum. I often find that the sensible center is where many answers lie."
Consolidation has led fewer companies owning more stations and networks, he said.
"I think the proliferation of outlets, the infinite number of websites and all the different cable channels probably has contributed to the splintering of the electorate. We're a lot more divided than we used to be.
"Today, there isn't a viewpoint out there that doesn't have its own website and talk shows and validation for people who feel that particular way. In the past, there were forces that tended to push people together more into a few different schools of thought."
Most people just talk to others who share their viewpoints, he said, and that's not good for the country.
"Each of us would be better served if we at least read what people say who disagree with us. Best of all would be to know some and talk to some."
Spin control has also become more sophisticated, he said. "Everybody has consultants, everybody is media-savvy."
Not long ago, he had a religious leader on the program who started by asking, "How long do you want the answers?" and "Do you want a voice level?"
"These days, everybody is on message. The message has been tested on focus groups. They know exactly what they want to say, and they're going to say it over and over and over again, exactly the way they want it."
Bohannon and his small staff try to schedule guests for the first two hours of the show, but they'll change everything to respond to breaking news, as with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He was in Washington at the time, and was sent to the White House to cover the story.
He remembers seeing the fighter jets roar over the restricted air space above the White House.
"From where I was standing, I could see the smoke pouring off the Pentagon," he said.
That night on his talk show, his first words were, "Now it's our turn." He was flooded with callers.
One of his favorite interviews was with the late civil rights leader James Farmer, who took Bohannon's audience on a "tour" of the segregated South in the 1950s. Bohannon asked Farmer to describe what it would have been like to drive his family from Baltimore to Birmingham, Ala. Farmer said he'd have to take pillows, blankets and food in the car because they couldn't count on finding a motel or restaurant that would accept them.
Edward Teller, who invented the hydrogen bomb, was a bigger challenge. Bohannon simply wanted Teller to explain, in layman's terms, what was involved in making an H bomb. He got nowhere for about 10 minutes and knew he had to get Teller's attention. He'd been told that Teller hated being referred to as "father of the hydrogen bomb." So Bohannon said, "Is it true that every June the H Bomb sends you a Father's Day card?"
Teller sputtered, but "once we cleared the air he actually began to explain how you make an H bomb, why we hate to take physics when we're in school because they teach it wrong," he said. "He became a tremendous interview."
How long will Bohannon keep going? "Until I suppose they kick in my epitaph, which will be 'We'll be right back,'" he said. "I see no reason to quit. I'm honored to still have a chance to get to talk to people of all types. It's a great job."
Bohannon here for broadcasters association; group to honor Turpin
Jim Bohannon is traveling to Champaign to be keynote speaker at the annual Illinois Broadcasters Association luncheon.
Bohannon will also host his nationally syndicated radio talk show from WDWS from 9 p.m. to midnight (Central time) Tuesday. On Wednesday, he will visit with the morning crew at WDWS, then head to the broadcasters meeting at the I Hotel in Champaign.
Longtime WDWS employee Jim Turpin will be honored by the IBA at a breakfast Wednesday. The "Penny for Your Thoughts" host has been named as recipient of the prestigious "Broadcast Pioneer Award."