Top of the Morning
Friday, August 24, 2007
The toughest thing Donnie Simpson ever had to learn in radio was how to be Donnie Simpson. It took years of effort, he says, to figure out how to sound the way he does -- which is to say, effortless.
That is quite a disclosure, because Simpson has long come across as the smoothest, most relaxed and most natural guy on Washington's airwaves. Morning after weekday morning, he's like your friendly next-door neighbor, if your next-door neighbor were able to make pleasant and amusing conversation, along with some music and commercial breaks, for four straight hours during drive time. And in a voice that seems handed down from the Hall of Radio Gods.
Needless to say, Simpson, a fixture on WPGC (95.5 FM), figured it out. So well, in fact, that he's about to hit a milestone few have reached: his 30th anniversary as an on-air personality in Washington.
Tonight at the Warner Theatre, family, friends and a few stars (LL Cool J, the O'Jays, Yolanda Adams) will acknowledge the milestone and pay tribute to the man who has been waking up Washington since the Carter administration. (The event is also a fundraiser for the college scholarship fund that Simpson and his wife, Pam, operate.)
Explaining to those unfamiliar with the show why Simpson, 53, has stayed at the top so long -- he's usually among the region's top-three-rated programs month after month -- can be a little tricky. He's never done "shock" material, never raved or crusaded, and never does canned bits or shtick. But something about Simpson's warm, friendly persona has connected with generations of listeners.
"What you hear every morning is what he is," says Jeff Newman, Simpson's longtime producer. "There's something genuine about him that comes through."
It's morning, a Wednesday, and Simpson is dressed in black, from the ball cap on his head to the loafers that lie beside his feet under his desk at WPGC's studios in Lanham. Newman and another producer of the show -- Simpson's 32-year-old son, Donnie Jr., known as D.J. -- bustle in and out of the studio. Simpson sits in the eye of the storm, bantering with Chris Paul, his on-air sidekick for more than a decade. The conversation bounces around -- from the Phil Spector trial to the death of basketball star Eddie Griffin to news that a paternity test has confirmed that the late James Brown fathered a third child he never acknowledged.
"If it's not interesting to me, it's not going to be interesting to a listener," Simpson says later that morning. "I want people to say, 'Did you hear what they were talking about on Donnie Simpson's show this morning?' " He talks about perfecting the "rhythm" and "flow" of his program, picking the right music, smoothing the transitions.
"Every morning, I say the same prayer: God, make me better today. Make me a better person and a better deejay," he says.
Simpson has been in radio since he was 15, but by his own account he didn't hit his stride until his late 20s. One day while on the air at WKYS (93.9 FM), something clicked for him. Or maybe everything did. A golf nut, Simpson compares the feeling to a swing that is suddenly aligned, efficient and un-self-conscious. "You are you ," he said to himself that day.
"After that, I was comfortable," he says. "I knew what I was doing. It took me 13 years for me to be myself. You come in emulating other people, admiring other people. You want to adopt their style. But I had to find what was me."
Simpson grew up in Detroit admiring a deejay named Ted "Teddy Bear" Richards, who worked at CKLW, an influential pop-and-soul station that broadcast into Motown from across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario. Simpson never thought of going into radio himself (he wanted to be a Baptist minister) until people began praising his voice, The Voice. Simpson worked in his mother's record store, Simpson's Record Shop in Detroit (it's still there), and customers would remark: "You sound like a deejay. You ought to be in radio."