I'm listening to one of my favorite DJs, someone I've listened to on and off since 1984, speak about about he spent a few weeks at the end of 2006 gone, preparing to retire from radio. But, after deciding to walk away, he came back.
Don Geronimo of WJFK FM, Washingtion, D.C., has earned my respect and my fondness many times in many ways. After listening to him talk for an hour about what led to him deciding to retire, and what made him decide to come back, reminds me why I admire him.
I first heard him on an afternoon show on WAVA, then a Top 40 station in D.C. I tuned into him (and "Billy the Manslave," his assistant and future producer; no kidding) within a month or two of my family moving to Northern Virginia. Then came December 1985, when he paired up with behind-the-scenes guy Mike O'Meara (who did all sorts of jobs for WAVA, from recording promos to driving the station van) for Washington's Morning Zoo show. And the result was not only funny, it transcended the clichés of those formulaic "Heyyyy! We're wacky!" morning zoos that were sprouting up all over the country, and became something more like what David Letterman does...and what the characters on soap operas do. Really, The Morning Zoo with Don and Mike was my soap opera (even when Guiding Light or, later, L.A. Law and All My Children were my soap operas -- and actually, I got into AMC because Don and Mike were into the show and were talking about it on-air, and I could get home in time to watch it, too). They had recurring characters and continuing storylines, like the on-and-off relationship between assistant Charly Stuangstabalac (the name's a very specific reference to Charly with Cliff Robertson) and beautiful Greek heiress Baklava Souvlaki. (Just typing that name makes me laugh.) And as time went on, Don and Mike's lives took on a soap opera quality: Don dealt on-air with the fallout from learning that his adoptive parents had also adopted an older half-brother of his and had never told him they were related. (They had led him to think the older guy was a family uncle. Strange family dynamic, huh?)
They experienced up-and-down relationships with station management, wacky back-and-forth with everyone from Larry King to Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien (who'd leave them answering machine messages that I still have on tape), a near-riot in Memphis on the anniversary of Elvis's death (long story), a major move to WJFK and the afternoon time slot after WAVA was sold, Mike's short attempt at marriage that at least led to him finally becoming a father (which he was really meant to be), Don & Mike splitting their show for a time between D.C. and New York City and being in New York on 9/11... Yeah, things were dramatic.
Then things were tragic. Freda, Don's wife of 23 years, died in a car accident in July 2005. A fair amount of their marriage had been on-air fodder, with her total cooperation and blessing; they'd often be contentious on-air, then snuggly and lovey off of it, because the contentious stuff made good radio and their lovey stuff made a good life. They were truly "two halves of the same person"...and when she was gone, he had a time in the wilderness. He tried coming back on air too quickly, but then realized that was (his words) "the mistake of mistakes" and took another, longer break. Rebuilding happened -- keeping his family relationships strong, keeping his friendships strong, learning how to live on his own, and, eventually, getting out to date again...and meeting a woman who he is now in love with.
Don's still rebuilding his life. And that led to him, in early November, deciding that he was done with radio. This was followed by Don and Mike spending seven weeks off the air (Mike had plenty of non-show stuff to do, like being a dad and running a restaurant; again, no kidding), and Don doing some major soul-searching. Grief counseling, too.
Don Geronino has been an on-air personality since he was a teenager. He's now close to 50. Radio is a HUGE part of his life...and for a time, he was completely ready to walk away from it, to make his life better. He ultimately decided he didn't want to leave radio, that he instead could make his radio life better and his overall life more balanced, a balance he felt he'd lost after losing Freda. But either decision earns my respect. He's earned my respect: he's tough, funny, and one of the most entertaining complainers I've ever heard (and as I often "complain about complaining," meaning that a little complaining can go a lonnnng way for me, that's saying something). I got surprisingly emotional hearing Don speak tonight about the ups-and-downs of the last year-and-a-half. I can't imagine what he's been through. I also didn't have to deal with the behind-the-scenes politics of station management saying "what can we do to make Don happier?" -- which led to some awkwardness that Don talked about tonight -- or the rumors (which I was totally unaware of) that spread in the absence of any official word about where the hell Don & Mike were, save one message on their web page saying they'd be back today. And they were, and it was a surprising and frank talk. And, yes, after everything, they are still funny, and are still glad to be on-air, and being entertaining.
If that wasn't going to happen anymore, that'd be a loss, but an understandable loss. I'd live with it, and break out my old Morning Zoo tapes, if that'd take care of my Don & Mike fix. But it is going to keep happening.
Godspeed, Don. Thank you for being you. And I hope you find what you're looking for.