For Donnie Simpson, radio still in the rear view

October 10, 2013

Donnie Simpson at Ben’s Chili Bowl Thursday in D.C. – Clinton Yates/The Washington Post

Don’t expect Donnie Simpson on the airwaves in D.C. anytime soon. Although the iconic broadcast figure hinted at a possible return some months back, he squashed those rumors at Ben’s Chili Bowl Thursday. He was there to lend a hand to the restaurant’s foundation, which supports the efforts of local community groups.

“I got to tell you this is weird for me, speaking in front of people,” he joked at the presentation.

Talking to Donnie at Ben’s is a strange experience. His face is not only on the wall inside, it’s also on the wall outside, alongside Bill Cosby, President Obama and Chuck Brown. Even though the Rev. Jesse Jackson was in earlier just eating lunch (the two shared a hug as Jackson left), it seemed more people recognized Simpson.

We sat down and chatted over a couple sodas. Wearing an all-black outfit with a big, blue-faced wristwatch, he said a return to the radio business is extremely unlikely. His exit from the life was not a happy one, a feeling that still sticks with him. Simpson left his morning show job at WPGC-FM in January of 2010 following what The Post’s Paul Farhi described as “internal friction between Simpson and WPGC’s management.”

“For me, it was just bad for me down the stretch. The 40 year run I had, the last year, I hated it,” Simpson said. “For 40 years I couldn’t wait for Monday morning at 6. The last year, I couldn’t wait for Friday at 10. Because of that, the last year was so bad, it keeps me from missing it. … Radio is so formulaic now. And that was the fight for me. I’m incapable of doing someone’s version of Donnie Simpson. I can only do me.”

Also, he’s got a new job, he says. “I’m a pool boy,” he claimed proudly. As a grandfather now, he makes sure the water is clean for his grands. Otherwise, life is pretty tame. He might catch a movie with his wife (of 40 years, whom he’s celebrating an anniversary with Sunday) or play a round of golf, but doesn’t spend a lot of time listening to the radio. He’s retired and he’s chilling.

“I’ve always been very simple,” Simpson, 59, said.

It’s hard to believe that it’s only been 3 1/2 years since he went off the air. His major absence has made it seem much longer, frankly. These days, all we can really get from Donnie are his Facebook updates, in which he shares his extended thoughts on topics like public affairs, pop culture and his family life. But that’s it.

“It kind of goes back to what radio was for me. Just sitting there, you go through the course of your day and things happen. It’s almost like being a comedian, where you are an observer of culture,” Simpson said. “Things happen and I think about it and go, ‘Wow. That’s funny, or that’s interesting or that’s tragic’. Other days, I’m writing about my granddaughter using the bidet as sink. … That’s the only connection I have with my people now.”

When asked to describe his life now in one word, he said  plainly:  “happy.” And as the ‘Green-Eyed Bandit’ made his way up from the table, a man sitting nearby yelled out. “Hey, Donnie! You got a card, man?,’ the guy said, presumably trying to get in contact with him on an official matter. Donnie chuckled before letting him down easy.

“Nah man, I don’t have a card,” Simpson said. “I don’t have any business now!”

UPDATE: In what he referred to as an incredible coincidence, upon getting home from the event at Ben’s, Simpson says he got a call from a person he referred to as a “manager type.” Simpson added wryly, referring to the headline of this story, “sometimes images in your mirror are closer than they appear.”

Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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