The stars and the faithful pay tribute to D.C. radio icon Donnie Simpson

Morning-radio personality Donnie Simpson signs off after a falling out with his longtime station, WPGC-FM (95.5).
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 30, 2010

Donnie Simpson didn't want it to end like this. If he'd had his way, he'd still be on the radio come Monday morning, waking up Washington and playing music just as he has been for more than three decades.

Nevertheless, the end came Friday as Simpson signed off his morning program on WPGC-FM (95.5) for the last time, with tearful family members and colleagues packed around him in the station's studio in Prince George's County. The emotional farewell show followed a falling-out between Simpson and his employer, and brought an abrupt, if not permanent, end to his 32-year run on Washington's airwaves. It also spelled the loss of another popular local DJ in an era of increasing national syndication of radio personalities.

Simpson's usual four-hour morning show spilled into a fifth and then a sixth hour on Friday as celebrity well-wishers and civic luminaries lined up like jumbo jets to pay tribute. The phoned-in sendoffs from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Wyclef Jean, LL Cool J, John Legend and Toni Braxton reflected Simpson's status as a musical tastemaker through his morning program and his 14-year stint hosting Black Entertainment Television's "Video Soul" program. The proclamations from District Council member Harry Thomas Jr. and Police Chief Cathy Lanier bespoke Simpson's long involvement as a promoter of community causes.

Simpson, who will be 56 on Saturday, was gracious and warm during his final turn at the microphone, repeatedly thanking his listeners, his family and colleagues. He said throughout the morning that he is not retiring, but gave no hint during or afterward about what he will do next. His severance agreement with WPGC's owner, CBS Radio, prohibits him from taking another job on the radio in Washington until March 2011.

"I feel loved," said a smiling Simpson afterward. Asked how he would feel next week not to be at his regular radio gig for the first time in many years, he said: "I don't know what I'm going to feel. I hope it will be a sense of relief that this period is over. . . . I think it's time to move on."

Despite the cheerful, even celebratory mood on the air on Friday, Simpson's departure is bittersweet. He feuded with WPGC's management over the direction of his program for the past year or so. For decades, Simpson was one of the most popular radio hosts in Washington, but his ratings declined in recent years, a trend accelerated by the introduction of a new electronic ratings system in late 2008. Simpson said he began to feel unwelcome when the station's management decided to chase a younger audience, and insisted that he stick to a limited playlist of hit songs.

Just before Christmas, Simpson said he decided he'd had enough, and that he'd come to work just a few more mornings at WPGC in the new year to complete a personal milestone: To be on the air as a DJ in each of the past six decades. Simpson began his radio career as a 15-year-old in Detroit, his home town, and moved with his high-school-sweetheart wife, Pam, to Washington to become a night DJ on WKYS-FM when he was 23.

In many ways, Simpson was a holdover from an era in which popular local radio personalities commanded large followings and equally large salaries. Simpson reportedly earned $4 million last year, one of the worst in decades for radio companies. To save money, many stations have dropped local personalities for syndicated programs that cost almost nothing to air.

The two most popular morning hosts on "urban contemporary" stations in Washington -- those, like WPGC, that target a largely African-American audience -- are Tom Joyner and Steve Harvey, both of whom are syndicated. Joyner and Harvey attract higher ratings than Simpson in Washington via WMMJ-FM (102.3) and WHUR-FM (96.3), respectively.

"Expensive local hosts" are in trouble, says Tom Taylor, news editor of "Everyone in radio is looking very hard at their budgets these days."

At the same time, Taylor said, the introduction of an electronic audience-rating device known as the Portable People Meter has fostered changes in morning radio programs. The metering devices indicate that younger listeners tend to tune out programs with a slower conversational style -- a hallmark of Simpson's friendly, next-door-neighbor approach to radio.

"I believe in local," Simpson said at one point during his show on Friday. "It saddens me that radio has become this homogenized thing." He also told Wonder: "It's just a different time now. I have to do it the way I do it. It's Donnie Simpson. It's my brand, and I won't compromise it."

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