By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
He tried it -- and continually found success. Simpson caught on as a "Soul Teen" reporter at WJLB in Detroit, an R&B station, recording 90-second news bits about his high school. A year later, he was working nights at the station. The job also led to lucrative side gigs as an emcee at local dances and concerts.
Simpson chucked all that after attending the University of Detroit. He blew out of his home town at 23, moving to Washington with Pam, his childhood-sweetheart wife, and their infant son. He started as the night man on the old WWRC-FM, but moved to the morning slot within two years. When the station was re-christened WKYS ("Kiss FM"), Simpson became its program director.
Thanks to Simpson's knack for picking hits (a gift honed in his mother's shop, he says), the station went to No. 1 in the ratings with an "urban contemporary" format and stayed there for several years.
Simpson also evolved into a two-media star. In 1983, a cable TV entrepreneur named Robert Johnson hired Simpson to co-host a program called "Video Soul" on his fledgling Washington-based network, Black Entertainment Television. Simpson spent almost 15 years on the program; the camera loved his haunting hazel eyes, and Simpson became internationally recognizable.
But radio remained Simpson's first love. The love was returned when WPGC lured Simpson away from WKYS in 1993. The six-year deal paid Simpson almost $1 million annually, making him the nation's first African American personality to make that much for a local radio show.
Simpson also can take credit for launching the career of another local TV personality: Channel 5's Tony Perkins. Simpson hired Perkins, a former stand-up comic, as his radio producer in 1985, then put him on the air as his sidekick. When Simpson left WKYS, Perkins was hired to doing the morning weather on Channel 5; he then made the leap to network television as "Good Morning America's" weatherman.
"My theory on Donnie is that people who are the most successful in this business, in broadcasting, are the ones who tend to be themselves on the air," says Perkins, who will co-host tonight's tribute along with Chris Paul. "If you meet them off the air, they tend to be the same person. Bill Cosby is like that. Johnny Carson was. Same with Charlie Gibson. And so is Donnie."
Simpson sounds like a contented man on this anniversary, and has no plans to change his game. He says he's been approached repeatedly for syndication -- among the top programs intended for Washington's African American listeners, his show is the only one that is strictly local -- but he's declined. Simpson thinks he'd lose his local flavor if he took his program into other markets, and he's not eager to take direction from multiple station managers. Besides, he doesn't need the money or crave the attention.
"I work four hours a day!" he says animatedly. "I get 10 weeks off a year. I get to kick it with people I love, including my son. And they pay me for it. I can't imagine a better life, but if I could" -- and here Simpson gets a mischievous twinkle in those hazel eyes -- "it would probably involve Shakira."