The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Doug Banks, Chicago radio legend, dead at 57

Radio personality Doug Banks, who died Monday after complications from diabetes at 57, was more than just another pretty voice familiar to those who listened during drive time in America’s third-largest city. From his humble beginnings to the devoted following he found in Chicago to national syndication, he was a man — a black man — whose four-decade career shaped radio as we know it. And, as Ebony pointed out, in a medium often dominated by loud, white, obnoxious shock jocks with particular politics, he was something else: nice.

“His work laid the template for what black radio could be,” Adrienne Samuels Gibbs wrote in Ebony.

Banks’s peers in radio were just a few of those who offered tributes after his death. It’s difficult to imagine another celebrity whose death would be publicly acknowledged by Jesse Jackson, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and comedian Sinbad — among many others.

For Banks, a dream job seemed no work at all.

“It gets a little hectic sometimes, but I love it,” he said in 1994. “This is all I’ve ever wanted to do. It’s what I’ve worked at since I was a kid.”

Banks was born in Philadelphia in 1958. He was raised in Detroit, where he would often put on radio shows for himself in his bedroom — no mic required. Encouraged by a high school teacher, he took his first job on the air for his school’s station at 16 for the princely sum of $5 per hour. The initial low pay didn’t deter him.

“There was a lot of days where it was really, really, really thin,” he said last year. “I’m a person who for a lot of years lived from paycheck to paycheck. … You put in the hours, and you put in the time, and you persevere, you can be a success.”

Although he enrolled at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and made a show of studying law, he ditched college at 18 when he was offered a show in Los Angeles.

“They offered me 50 grand a year to do something I’ve always wanted to do,” he said. “I didn’t even bother hanging up the phone. I was gone. I drove home and told my mother. … She had a fit when she realized I wasn’t joking. She was not happy at all about my decision to quit school and move to L.A. She wanted me to be a lawyer, not some weirdo on the radio. But I went anyway.”

Los Angeles led to a string of jobs and an alphabet soup of call signs that eventually landed Banks in Chicago at WGCI doing the morning drive in 1986.

“I never made career choices based on money,” Banks said. “When I worked in Las Vegas, I made $900 a month, but I loved it because I was learning how to do the morning drive. That was worth more than any amount of money you could have thrown at me.”

Banks was soon ruling the market — and charming the competition.

“In this business, nice guys are hard to find,” WLUP’s Jonathon Brandmeier, No. 2 in the ratings behind Banks, said in 1994. “He is truly a good guy.”

Although Banks had “bad jokes,” as he put it, and characters — including the “805 guy,” a sleazy “lounge lizard guy” who he transformed into each day at 8:05 a.m. — he was best known for being himself.

“The thing that people have to realize about Doug, too, is that he is never on,” engineer Jerry Kuc said. “The person you hear on the radio is exactly who he is in real life. He’s a genuinely sweet guy, and I think that’s why people like him so much.”

Banks, left, with Tom Joyner.

Although Banks relocated to Dallas in 1994 to start a run in syndication in a deal worth millions, he remained on the air in Chicago — and distance only seemed to make the Windy City’s hearts grow fonder. In fact, it didn’t seem much like distance at all.

“He was successful because he came from local radio,” Steve “Silk” Hurley of “The Tom Joyner Morning Show” told Ebony. “Even when he’s on his syndicated show and he’s talking to the listeners, it still sounds local. Not a lot of people know how to do that with the national audience.”

As the show went from station to station, Banks still ruled Chicago’s afternoon drive near the end of his life. But he couldn’t beat the disease that would eventually kill him: diabetes. He lost a toe to the disease, as well as an eye, and was on dialysis. After a few months off the air last year, he returned early this year.

“It’s over! I’m back on Monday,” Banks said in a video posted Jan. 29. “Oooh, do I have a lot of stuff to tell you all about. Can’t wait to talk to you on Monday. Been waiting so long. Thanks for all the prayers, all the good thoughts, all the well wishes. I think it did some good, ’cause I am back!”

Banks is survived by his wife and four children. On the eve of the 2014 midterm elections, first lady Michelle Obama said she grew up listening to Banks in Chicago, and offered perhaps the most memorable tribute to him.

“If Doug said do it, I was doing it,” she said.