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Jim Bohannon, fixture of late-night radio, dies at 78

“The Jim Bohannon Show” provided amiable companionship to millions of night owls during its decades in national syndication

Jim Bohannon appears at an induction ceremony at the Radio Hall of Fame in 2019. He was inducted in 2003. (Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Radio Hall of Fame)
7 min

Jim Bohannon, a fixture of talk radio who provided amiable companionship to millions of night owls, chatting up celebrity guests and callers of all stripes during his decades in national syndication, died Nov. 12 at a hospice facility in Seneca, S.C. He was 78.

The cause was esophageal cancer, said his wife, Annabelle Bohannon.

Mr. Bohannon got his start more than half a century ago as a local radio host in Washington. But he was best known for “The Jim Bohannon Show,” a late-night program that aired the past 29 years on more than 500 radio stations across the country.

He was by all accounts an outlier in the talk-radio genre, a self-described “militant moderate” who offered audiences a respite from the frothing political commentary that increasingly seemed to dominate the airwaves.

“If there is a big story in the news, I will talk about it,” Mr. Bohannon once told a reporter for the Rolla Daily News in his home state of Missouri. “But I am not going to beat it to death and scream at you. I am not a political fireball like Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity. I can’t get that angry all the time.”

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Mr. Bohannon’s show, which was distributed by Westwood One, aired Monday through Friday from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. Eastern time. The show was so popular that it drew politicians, athletes, entertainers and other celebrities willing to forgo sleep for the chance to reach Mr. Bohannon’s audience.

The show was a mix of current affairs, pop culture and human-interest stories. An inveterate raconteur, Mr. Bohannon noted with pride that he once filled an hour discussing whether toilet paper should hang over the front of the roll or from the back. He devoted large portions of his program to calls from listeners, who knew “Jimbo” as a patient, unjudging companion in the loneliness of the night.

“He was a master storyteller,” said Tom Taylor, a journalist who covered the radio industry for 30 years, including as editor of the newsletter Inside Radio. “In contrast to some other people on the air … he didn’t want to raise your blood pressure. He wanted to make you smile and laugh.”

Mr. Bohannon did not fully embrace the conspiracy theories and mysteries that other all-night talkers explored as they committed endless hours to the intricacies of the debates surrounding the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy or eyewitness accounts of UFO travel. Mr. Bohannon was more of a skeptic on such matters.

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But neither was he a straight-ahead celebrity interviewer like Larry King, whose late-night time slot he inherited in 1993 when King shifted his attention from radio to his television talk show on CNN. Rather, Mr. Bohannon’s program was about giving voice to the great wash of Americans, all taken on air, unscreened and uncensored.

Their comments — whether fringe views about the military-industrial complex or rants about why women’s restrooms don’t have urinals — reached national audiences, with only Mr. Bohannon’s finger on the kill button standing between a caller and the ears of many thousands of listeners.

“A lot of uninhibited expression occurred in the wee hours of the night, and he responded extremely well to all perspectives, which I think was his great talent,” said Michael C. Keith, the author of the book “Sounds in the Dark: All-Night Radio in American Life.”

“He didn’t ride any political track as the majority of radio talkmeisters did and do,” Keith continued. “People knew they were not going to hear political proselytizing.”

In his interactions with guests and callers, Mr. Bohannon cultivated a tone that he described as “somewhere between NPR and verbal mud wrestling.”

“There are far too many in this business for whom confrontation is the only idea,” Mr. Bohannon told Newsday in 1995. “They’d get into a nose-to-nose screaming match with Mother Teresa. … Confrontation is not my first choice, ever. Of course, sometimes you’ll have a guest who relies on obfuscation. And a few have tried to bully me on my own show; in that case, you have to abdicate control or knock a head or two.”

In the latter years of his career, Mr. Bohannon moved rightward in his politics and expressed support for President Donald Trump, whom he credited with creating “the hottest economy we’ve ever had” and other accomplishments that Mr. Bohannon said should have guaranteed Trump a landslide reelection victory in 2020.

But he faulted Trump for his “undisciplined mouth” and said that while he opposed the president’s impeachment, he considered Trump’s rhetoric partially responsible for precipitating the attack on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob on Jan. 6, 2021.

“Were Trump’s words inflammatory? Yes,” Mr. Bohannon told the (Seneca) Journal shortly after the attack. “It would be as if you walked up to your teenage son and you said, ‘Here’s a bottle of whiskey and the car keys. Please drive carefully.’ ”

“I am not sorry he’s leaving,” Mr. Bohannon added. “He’s not an indispensable man. Others can pick up the banner.”

James Everett Bohannon was born in Corvallis, Ore., on Jan. 7, 1944. His father was a salesman, and his mother was a hospital laboratory technician.

Mr. Bohannon grew up in Lebanon, Mo., where he got his first radio job in high school, working for a dollar an hour as what he described as an “all-purpose announcer.” He gained more radio experience as a student at what is now Missouri State University in Springfield but left before graduating for Army service in Vietnam.

Upon his return, he was assigned to Vint Hill Farms Station, a base in Fauquier County, Va., not far from Washington, where his career took off.

Mr. Bohannon was heard on Washington-area channels including WGAY, WTOP and WRC, sometimes broadcasting with his then-wife, Camille Bohannon, who went by Laura Walters on air at WTOP.

He was a morning news anchor at WTOP and was at the mic when an armed group of Hanafi Muslims laid siege to several buildings in Washington in March 1977, taking 149 hostages, killing a reporter and wounding then-D.C. Council member Marion Barry Jr. A security guard died days later after a heart attack. Mr. Bohannon anchored for 21 consecutive hours during the ordeal.

At one point, he “made reference to [the assailants] as ‘apparently a Black Muslim group,’ not realizing that the term ‘Black Muslims’ referred to the main body of Black Muslims who were in literal war with the Hanafi Muslim sect,” Mr. Bohannon recounted to WTOP years later. Mr. Bohannon apologized after a leader of the gunmen phoned the station and threatened to, “as he put it, start cutting off heads, putting them in paper bags, and tossing them out the window,” Mr. Bohannon said, if the radio host did not express remorse.

Mr. Bohannon did a stint in the early 1980s as a morning anchor in Chicago, also working as a freelance reporter for CNN, before he returned to the Washington area in 1983 to join Mutual Network, which later became Westwood One. He was a regular fill-in host on King’s late-night radio show before taking over the time slot.

In addition to his late-night show, Mr. Bohannon hosted the radio news magazine “America in the Morning.”

Mr. Bohannon was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 2003 and the National Association of Broadcasters’ Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 2022. He retired from his hosting duties last month and was succeeded on air by Rich Valdes.

Mr. Bohannon’s marriage to the former Camille Skora ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 24 years, the former Annabelle Arnold of Westminster, S.C., and a stepdaughter, Elizabeth Smith of Janesville, Wis.

For all his love of the talk-radio format, Mr. Bohannon expressed sadness over the diminishment of in-person connection, for which he said radio at times seemed to serve as a substitute.

“One thing I’ve learned,” he once told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “is that there are a lot of lonely people out there craving the opportunity to communicate with other humans.”