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My Father’s Voice

March 2

My dad would have been 91 today. To me, he will perpetually be a 35-40-something genius whose mind ran wildly fast, whose ideas were ahead of their time, and who seemed to take being a husband and a father of four in stride.

He loved us all. He didn’t try to mold any of us in his own image. He was neither overly proud nor overly critical. In other words, we got away with pretty much anything, but none of our antics landed us on the front page or in a jail cell. We didn’t buy or sell drugs, we didn’t drop out of school, we didn’t kill or hurt anyone. Because when you grow up with Midwest values, you’re just average people living day to day in a white frame house off 36th and College in Indianapolis.

But in hindsight, I know my childhood was a bit more interesting and a lot more privileged than most of the other kids going to Kennedy Jr. High or Shortridge High School in those days. The guy across the street was a U.S. Congressman, the guy across the street from him was a prominent attorney who ran the local Democratic party, and my dad, with the congressman’s encouragement and the attorney’s financial backing, launched an urban radio station at a time when the city had no broadcast urban voice.

Lots of people thought he was crazy.

He was 36.

He'd been a popular disc jockey for years in an era when pop music ruled, when there was no internet, and when radio was king. He could have stayed on that course, but it wasn’t what he wanted. He became aware a radio signal was available after Eli Lilly, the medicine tycoon, passed away. He rounded up some funding, bought that tired old station, and applied for an FCC license to take it in a different direction. This process took some time, and he had no income then. My mom went to work downtown for voter registration to help keep the lights on and food on the table for a family of six. Her stories were interesting. Sometimes she sparred with the republican bureaucrats, but mostly they worked well in a bipartisan fashion, and no one ever concocted any notion that an election could be stolen. But that was in 1967 and 1968.

As the FCC licensing moved along, there were many challenges to launching my dad’s dream. Some were more easily addressed than others. What would he name it? He sat on our living room floor one day playing some of his favorite albums. (You were only as good as your stereo back in those days in Indy; every room in our house had one.) One album was called, “With Tender Loving Care” and the singer was Nancy Wilson. “There it is,” he said. And WTLC was born in early 1968.

Historians have noted it was almost instantly successful, at least in terms of giving voice and reaching its audience. They had news of interest to the urban community. They hired announcers who looked and sounded like their listeners. They played the best music, and that helped to convince promoters to bring the best concerts to town. My friends and I filled up 15 front-row seats when the Jackson Five came “back to Indiana” for a sold-out concert. Privilege.

How would they “sell” it was another challenge. Despite having a large audience, would ad agencies place their clients on 105 FM? Some did; they knew the listeners were consumers with needs. Others needed some convincing.

“Your father is playing the race card,” a TV salesperson told me when I enrolled in a high school Junior Achievement radio station project. “He’s telling his sales team to ask advertisers, ‘what’s the matter, don’t you like Black people?”

“Are you doing that, dad?” I asked at home that night. “Are you playing the race card?”

He looked, at first, a little alarmed that I knew that term, then he smiled. “Who told you that shit?”

“A salesman for one of the TV stations,” I answered.

“Someday we won’t have to, but when all else fails, I don’t mind asking that question,” was his answer.

Like a lot of businesses with stockholders – some of whom are just investors who really don’t know your business – there were too many cooks in the kitchen and dad had a falling out with some of them. He sold his interest and moved to Idaho as I was finishing high school. I followed along after graduation. It was a bit different, but college there was fun, and it helped me launch my own career.

Dad loved visiting me when I lived in Vegas. He’d come every year to the broadcasters’ convention, and we’d visit one hospitality suite after another. He was very impressed when my husband Tim and I settled in Cleveland, a city he loved to tool around in. He was even more excited when we moved to Kansas City, where he’d gone to college. If we were going on vacation and needed a dog sitter, we could always count on dad to come and take care of things.

By the time we moved to Florida, his health was failing to the point where he never visited. Too bad because he’d have loved the mild winters and the beautiful beaches. He’d have found bohemian Portland to be even more eclectic and interesting, but he died before we made the move to Oregon.

I hear his voice nearly every day in my mind. I’ve put one foot in front of the other without him since I was about 17, and I’ve made a multitude of decisions without him for another 17 years now.

Our parents shape who we are, who we want to become, and even what we don’t want to be. My father and I are very different in one way: he accomplished a lot before he was even 40 and that was enough. I was restless for decades, striving to be better, impatient for the next great thing. It wasn’t until the last few years that I actually woke up one day, genuinely at peace. Tim and religion have had a lot to do with that, but so has my father’s voice.

I guess I do still listen.

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