By Mike Kinosian
LOS ANGELES — Talk radio’s tightknit community is reeling as it mourns the passing of one of the format’s genuine iconic stalwarts, Jim Bohannon, who has died at the age of 78.
“Class act” epitomized peerless communicator Bohannon, who – while enjoying the luxury of a national Westwood One platform – possessed a palpably authentic on-air style that enamored him to a huge, loyal following.
Always remarkably accessible, “Jimbo” was unfailing in offering his vast expertise to the industry as a whole and to aspiring broadcasters. Moreover, he exuded a truly unique warmth that will be missed beyond measure.
Portions from several of my numerous TALKERS and Inside Radio interviews with the legendary Jim Bohannon appear below.
Whenever affable Lebanon, Missouri native Bohannon was within 50 miles of an affiliate, it wasn’t unusual for him to drop by for a visit. “I like to sit in with the morning show, meet the staff and cut promos,” he remarked to me in an Inside Radio interview. “I think that’s very important. It doesn’t matter how big or small the station is.”
One reason he didn’t discriminate about market size can easily be traced to his own professional background.
Unlike some radio hosts these days, Bohannon started the old-fashioned way in a small town and managed to work his way to Hall of Fame status.
First stop some 62 years ago (1960) was at hometown station, KLWT. “We used to call it, ‘Keep Listening – We’re Trying,’” recalled Bohannon, whose four years of enlisted service in the Army included a tour of duty during the Vietnam War with the 199th Infantry Brigade. “KLWT is a good station and they carry my shows. It was a chance to learn and make mistakes in an atmosphere where that was tolerated – to a certain extent.”
Minimum wage at the time was a lofty $1 an hour. “As GM Jack Sellers was hiring me, he very seriously said, ‘Jim, we’d pay you what you’re worth, but it’s illegal.’ That pretty much set the tone, but it was a great opportunity. In retrospect, I’m very grateful that I had the chance to make the mistakes and miscues that people do when they first start out. It would’ve been a lot worse to do that in front of a national audience. I regret to say that paying your dues doesn’t seem to be a valued term anymore. I really believe there’s more to this business than just showing up and sitting in front of a microphone.”
Gentle giant of a man, 1962 Lebanon High School grad/1966 Southwest Missouri State University alum Bohannon graciously admitted, “I’d be the first to say that I’ve been lucky along the way. I had many very good breaks and I’m grateful for that. There was certainly nothing pre-ordained; a lot of good things fell into place.”
During the embryonic stage of Bohannon’s career, he had the chance to do a little bit of everything. “I played records in virtually every format; gathered and read news; and even did play-by-play. It was a real schooling and I didn’t pay tuition. They paid me, albeit not very much. The most fun was spinning the ‘stacks of wax’ and ‘picks to click.’”
An especially memorable highlight occurred in Springfield, Missouri when he was able to take three busloads of fans to Kansas City to see a group called … the Beatles.
“Bucks & yucks” for the stud
Never in his wildest imagination though did Bohannon believe he’d be a national radio force. “It was all done back then for ‘a few bucks and a few yucks,’ he joked. “I felt spinning records would increase my ‘stud quotient.’”
Turns out that’s precisely what happened, although the results weren’t exactly immediate.
Approximately 25 years ago, he re-met the woman who’d become his (second) wife. “I was invited to visit my Columbia, Missouri affiliate for their 70th anniversary,” Bohannon noted. “In the receiving line, I saw the lovely Annabelle Arnold. I just worshipped her in high school, but she dated the football captain and I didn’t make any time with her. We [were married in August 1998]; radio finally paid off for me.”
That big booming voice certainly didn’t hurt Bohannon’s chances, but he confessed, “I haven’t always had anywhere near the voice I do today. There are tapes out there somewhere that I’d like to destroy. At the time, though, ignorance was bliss. Had I known how bad I was, I would never have had the nerve to stay with this job long enough to get any better. I was atrocious and fumbled along until finally, over time, I became somewhat better.”
A key turning point in his career came in 1964. It was then while working at his second radio job in Springfield, Missouri that Bohannon considerably elevated his on-air talents. “We were going to do a remote covering [then presidential candidate] Barry Goldwater’s speech. The thing was sold, but Goldwater was delayed. The station didn’t want to go back to playing music because he might show up at any minute.”
Thus, it was up to Bohannon – who’d always taken part in public speaking and debate in high school and college – to vamp. “Goldwater was over an hour late. That night, I called on everything I had in reserve. I was adlibbing and making comments about the campaign. It was like being dumped in the middle of the English Channel and told you needed to learn how to swim. That sticks out as a time I was given a big test; I think I passed it pretty well.”
Mountains of preparation
Major topics on Bohannon’s Mutual Radio/Westwood One shows ran the gamut. “Check the headlines and that’s pretty much what we’re talking about,” he reflected.
Even with his superior skills, Bohannon would hardly just skim headlines before waltzing into the studio. “I might as well [simply] blindfold myself and go stomping through a mind field,” he quipped. “If you’re particularly glib, you might be able to get away [without preparing] for a show or two. Over time though, it will be abundantly clear – especially to the very savvy talk show audience.”
Therefore, Bohannon’s daily routine included checking out the internet; reading front pages of at least four newspapers; looking at Op-Ed pages; watching television news programs; and listening to other talk radio shows. “When I first got into broadcasting, you could say with some degree of assurance that if you read a few newspapers, watched the news and read three newsmagazines, you’d exhausted the information out there,” he commented. “In this internet age with [countless] channels, you aren’t able to read everything [so] you have to find a pattern that works. Sample those things that seem to provide you with a good overview and go from there.”
Pinch-hitting for the King
Monumental national break for Bohannon came when he began substituting for Mutual Radio’s Larry King, who died January 23, 2021. “I spent 11 years filling in for Larry, [who was] on nighttime radio for 15 years,” Bohannon points out. “That was my first connection to the big time.”
On January 29, 1993 – ironically one day short of the fifteenth anniversary of King’s 1978 Mutual Radio debut – “The Jim Bohannon Show” moved to King’s former overnight time slot.
Perhaps it was a hard label to shake, but Bohannon became quite comfortable being known as the person who succeeded King on radio. “That’s fine with me; I enjoy it,” he claimed. “I remember one time I replaced Larry when he had a speech to give to a group of college broadcasters. It was such a last-minute cancellation that many of them showed up with a copy of Larry’s latest book. When I was done with the speech, people came up to me and I signed all of their books: ‘Filling in for Larry King – Jim Bohannon.’ Why not?”
Working the nightshift
While many commiserated with Bohannon about what appeared to be a grueling upside-down schedule, he rather unassumingly countered, “I don’t fight rush hour traffic and there’s no dress code or bosses. My wife and I frequently play tennis on public courts. There’s never anyone there because everyone else is at work. If I take an overseas vacation, there’s no jetlag because I live on overseas time.”
His typical day “ended” at 11:00 am and “started” at 7:00 pm. “That’s when I have a bite to eat, clean up and go to work for last-minute preparation on timely topics,” revealed Bohannon, who did “The Jim Bohannon Show” from 10:00 pm – 1:00 am (Eastern Time).
Following the conclusion of that show, his next four hours were spent writing a daily feature and script for “America In The Morning.” The news program aired 5:00 am – 6:00 am (Eastern Time) with Bohannon elaborating that he “stuck around” for the Pacific re-feed. “There’s a second re-feed from 6:00 am – 7:00 am and a final one from 8:00 am – 9:00 am. When the 8:00 am Pacific feed starts, I’m gone.”
Having hosted “America In The Morning” for roughly three decades, he stepped down from the show in late-2015.
Representing the sensible center
Self-described “militant moderate” Bohannon asserted, “Our political system gives the extremes too much of a say-so. We’re very often given the choice between an off-the-wall, right wing whacko or some left wing idiot. The result is that the sensible center – where things actually get done in this country – winds up having to choose from the ‘evil of two lessers.’”
Emphasizing there’s nothing weak or wimpy about his unique moniker, Bohannon contended that he’s sure, “Many people consider ‘militant moderate’ to be an oxymoron. They think moderates have to be milquetoasts [but] that’s nonsense [and] not the least bit true. It’s only through compromise, which is as American a trait as you can have, that things get done.”
“Let’s get ready to” … well … you know
Any WWE fan asked to name the company’s three other cornerstone pay-per-view events – in addition to “WrestleMania” – will easily spit out alliteration-friendly “Summer Slam,” “Survivor Series,” and “Royal Rumble.”
Thankfully, no one was ever tossed out over the ropes in TALKERS’ New Media Seminar equivalent – simply dubbed “The Talk Rumble.” Similar to its WWE namesake, it was always a classic free-for-all.
Several-time “Talk Rumble” panelist; “Rumble” referee; and multiple-occasion event moderator, Bohannon literally did it all. “Shy, reticent creatures that talk show hosts are delicately and exquisitely examine the issues of the day,” he maintained with tongue firmly planted in cheek. “The usual suspects of network and prominent local hosts have been on the panel in previous years. It’s basically target practice and simply a moderator-led discussion. It’s actually quite entertaining since the people doing it are professionals. They are very good at it and it is a great deal of fun. It is a chance to show off your rhetorical chops a bit and [demonstrate] how fast you are on your feet – even though we are all sitting down.”
Somewhat out-of-place for this exercise was the term “moderator” since there was nothing to moderate and the exceptionally genial Bohannon was completely flexible regarding his particular role from year-to-year. “It really doesn’t matter,” he succinctly disclosed. “I wore a referee shirt and used a whistle to try to keep people in line [but any] attempt to exercise control is really pointless as this is the absence of control. Being on the panel is like taking batting practice in baseball since it’s a chance to tee off against the world.”
Panelists didn’t know for certain what topics would be discussed at “The Rumble” until they arrived, although they could make educated guesses simply by adhering to what they do every day as talk hosts – follow the headlines. “The moderator can always word it in such a way that it may add some nuance; [however], there’s no nuance in ‘The Rumble,’” Bohannon jested. “I will guarantee that we will talk about Bin Laden, Donald Trump, birthers, the war in Libya and how to know where we should go in the Middle East. Invariably, it comes down to a liberal/conservative split and [TALKERS publisher] Michael Harrison selects the panel with that in mind.”
For the most part, this wasn’t a case where eight or nine people of one ideology ganged up on one other person. While cross-line alliances formed, it was nonetheless pretty much liberals versus conservatives. “A hardcore liberal and a hardcore conservative [verbally] duke it out with each other right on stage,” Bohannon explained. “The audience would probably prefer the execution of two or three panelists. Michael has held back on that, but might reconsider it after this year. The audience just enjoys watching a good battle of wits. We had a penalty box situation one year; that concept didn’t really catch on.”
Colorful verbiage and WWE analogies aside, “The Talk Rumble” never became so incendiary that it actually led to physical blows, partially because as Bohannon observed, “You can usually count on some smartass to quickly defuse that by tossing out some off-the-wall – but funny – comment. It helps if you have a chip – or a redwood forest – on your shoulder. That will pretty much guarantee that you will be a participant. We have occasionally had panel members who did not understand what it is all about and took genuine offense at its free-swinging way. For those folks, I say it is best that you be here only if you have a doctor’s prescription.”
Rush to conservatism
Both well-documented and quite obvious is that most talk hosts have a decidedly conservative lean. The source of that, Bohannon confided to me in our Inside Radio interview, can be traced to Rush Limbaugh; the 70-year-old Limbaugh died of lung cancer in February 2021. “You just can’t underestimate his impact. His success prompted stations to look for ‘Rush clones.’ They, of course, were happy to come out of the woodwork to emulate his paycheck. As a result, talk radio became heavily conservative; that was considered to be the winning formula. Actually, however, the winning formula would be to have some of Rush’s talent – not just his ideology.”
Many moderate and liberal talk radio listeners, Bohannon opined, quickly tired of Limbaugh’s “unending tirade” and left for NPR or to read books or newspapers. “The track record in regard to liberal talk radio hasn’t been very good. I know there’s another effort out there to do something along those lines. It remains to be seen whether that will work.”
Regarding Limbaugh’s problems with prescription painkillers, Bohannon insisted, “I hope the treatment is working and that he recovers completely.”
Taking note of the obvious irony of various things Limbaugh said about drug addicts, Bohannon offered this reminder. “[It was Rush’s opinion that] they should all leave the country. It’s been interesting to listen to conservative radio lately – you’ve never found a more compassionate pack of conservatives in your life. For the most part, they’ve done a complete 180. If nothing else, the long-term impact of this is that it’s going to be very hard for many of them to go back to their old stance regarding addiction. If Sean Penn or Tim Robbins were to [announce tomorrow] that they had an addiction, it will be difficult for conservatives] to say, ‘Run the bum out of the country.’ It may have made a serious shift in the national dialogue on that subject.”
Exploring other opportunities
Formal acknowledgment of Bohannon’s illustrious radio career came on November 8, 2003 in Chicago when TALKERS’ 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award winner and perennial entry on our publication’s “Heavy Hundred” (#15 in 2022) was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame.
Appropriately enough, Westwood One broadcast the Larry King-hosted ceremonies. “I’m in august company,” Bohannon stressed with distinct humility in his rich voice. “This is the only time in my life that my name will ever be linked with [fellow inductee, the late ‘Singing Cowboy’] Gene Autry.”
In five of the six previous years, Bohannon served as announcer for the prestigious ceremonies; 2003’s assignment in the Charlie Cook-produced radio event fell to Fred Winston. “I was Fred’s sidekick for a year when I worked at Chicago’s WCFL,” detailed Bohannon, who was introduced by Mancow Mueller. “That will be a contrast, to say the least.”
Also gaining Radio Hall of Fame entry that weekend were Viacom president/chief operating officer Mel Karmazin; longtime Los Angeles (KABC, KNX, KRLA, KLAC) talk show host Michael Jackson (who passed away in January 2022); and WGN, Chicago’s “Voice Of Agriculture” Orion Samuelson. “I’m deeply honored and humbled,” Bohannon beamed. “I’m certainly hoping my remarks will be well-received and that I don’t trip on any words. I’m going to savor every minute of it.”
More honors came Bohannon’s way this past December (2021) when he was announced as an inductee into the NAB’s Broadcasting Hall of Fame.
Over and above being a fill-in on CNBC, Bohannon occasionally did hosting duties on CNN’s “Talkback Live” and was sometimes heard as a booth announcer on CBS-TV’s “Face The Nation,” adding to an extensive radio resume that included Washington, DC tenures (WTOP and WRC) with his first wife, Mary Camille Skora. “I’ve written some newspaper columns in the past and think it would be fun to get my hand back in print, but radio remains my true love. I love the industry – it’s been very good to me.”
Contact TALKERS managing editor Mike Kinosian at Mike.Kinosian@gmail.com