It's not easy being #1 in the radio ratings in a town like Chicago. Especially when competing against some 60 other stations.
Yet the Doug Banks Show in the afternoons on WVAZ-FM, gets it done with a mix of rhythm and blues, dusties, soul, slow and sassy, hip and old school, interspersed with hard news and Hollywood gossip.
In the final days leading up to the 2014 midterm elections, Doug Banks, who by the way is featured at historymakers.com, scored an exclusive live interview with President Obama, grilling him about the handling of Ebola cases in the U.S., asking questions rivaling those posed by top television news anchors.
Then on election eve, the president's better half, First Lady Michelle Obama, on-air at WVAZ-FM to get out the vote, revealed she grew up listening to Doug Banks on the radio here in Chicago. "If Doug said do it, I was doing it."
He's been doing it a long time. I first met Doug Banks, shortly after the election of Harold Washington as Chicago's first African-American mayor, taking office on the heels of Chicago's first and only female mayor Jane Byrne, who passed away last Friday at age 81.
When Harold Washington took office, it was at a time when Chicago's City Council was very polarized on race matters with the new mayor at its vortex. Many made a living out of lampooning this political divide. Unforgettable was Chicago standup comic Aaron Freeman's career-making Council Wars, a takeoff on the space opera film franchise of Star Wars creator, George Lucas.
I had been hired to anchor weekend news at WBMX-FM, now WVAZ-FM. Doug was working a 6-day week, including Saturday mornings. I also anchored news on Rev. Jesse Jackson's Sunday Morning Live call-in show. Took two elevated trains and a bus to get to the Oak Park studios from downtown Chicago where I lived, leaving at 6 AM Saturdays and Sundays. Not great for nightlife, when you're young and single. I had met what turned out to be my longtime boyfriend at an after-work cocktail hour for recent grads of the Seven Sisters and Ivy League. He thought it was cool I worked weekends at WBMX, but really, really didn't like my hours. Of course, his hours weren't so great either, working pro bono as Chicago's youngest-ever school board president, appointed by newly-elected Mayor Washington in addition to his law practice.
As the first on-air Caucasian at urban WBMX-FM during a racially challenging time in Chicago's history, I had a tense luncheon interview with a rival news director, who approached me about switching stations. His first interview question was, "Do you date black guys?" Asked by a white news director in the Reagan 80's. I was shell-shocked. I didn't answer his question, and I didn't get the job which would have paid a lot more money than I was making at the time. Doubt he would have asked a male job candidate that question. My Chicago lawyer/politician boyfriend, happened to be of Mexican-American heritage.
Soon after, Doug Banks' morning drive show on WBMX-FM, reached a pinnacle #2 ranking, right behind market leader, WGN-AM. Doug left for Gannett-owned urban WGCI-FM where "fly jock" Tom Joyner flew back-and-forth, doing a Dallas morning show and an afternoon show in Chicago.
I had graduated from doing the news with Doug Saturday mornings at WBMX-FM to representing on-air talent, including four of the six music jocks at WGCI-FM, Chicago's First Lady of Radio Yvonne Daniels (daughter of singer Billy Daniels), Irene Mojica, Chili Chiles and Marco Spoon. I remember telling WGCI-FM General Manager Marv Dyson, if he added my client, WBMX's Marco Spoon to WGCI's lineup, WGCI would beat WGN. Marv made the hire, and WGCI became #1 in Chicagoland, toppling WGN, a feat at one time deemed impossible.
Fast forward, it's great being #1 time and again with Banks back at WVAZ, where it all started for him in Chicago with the call letters WBMX, over 30 years ago. How Doug must have felt to hear Chicago born-and-bred, First Lady Michelle Obama sing his praises election eve for all the world to hear. I felt so blessed to have turned on my radio at just the right time. I'm sure my dear mother, Lillian, was smiling in heaven. She and Doug share a June 9th birthday.
Often times, we don't realize when young people are watching us and emulating what we do. I am so proud of my niece, Jacqueline Ann, for following in my footsteps, when I wasn't looking. I got a call from Jackie asking for help in getting a keynote speaker for Bryn Mawr College's Black History Month. My niece had volunteered to co-chair. I suggested civil rights activist/comedian Dick Gregory. He graciously accepted. Eighty-year-old Gregory did three hours of standup without a bathroom break, bookended by two standing ovations. My interview with Dick Gregory , titled "What I'm Running From", took place a few days before his February 28, 2013 appearance at the all-women Seven Sister school.
As my teen niece Jackie followed in my footsteps when I wasn't looking, Doug Banks gets an on-air recommendation from someone who listened to him as a teen, our First Lady herself.
May I second our First Lady's recommendation?
Doug Banks, a great role model for teens and young adults.
Parents, are you listening?
Lonna Saunders may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.