I have a confession to make. . . I am a Girlfriend. Part-time to be sure, but a Girlfriend all the same. That’s the proper moniker for anybody who is a fan of Kathy and Judy, an entertaining duo whose show airs every weekday morning between 9 and 12 on WGN radio in Chicago. Almost every morning during the school year, as I’m driving from WGTD to Carthage, I am apt to turn off NPR and listen to WGN – if for no other reason than because it’s just the kind of light- footed, fun banter that shakes me loose from the one world and somehow gets me ready for the next. (I think part of what made it work is that they would so often be talking about such matters as who wore the ugliest gown at the Oscars or who’s the meanest trainer on “Biggest Loser” – and hearing some of that discussion made me feel at least a little more plugged into some of the pop culture stuff that might be on the minds of my voice students. Not that a couple of middle-aged women from Chicago have their finger on the pulse of the typical American college student, but they come closer than you might think. And sad as it is to admit it, most of my voice students at Carthage are more likely to walk into my studio thinking about last night’s American Idol than about Chaucer. But truth be told, I have also listened to Kathy and Judy for a few minutes most weekday mornings because they entertained me almost without fail. (And by the way, the “Girlfriends” that listen to this show come in all shapes and sizes, and there are plenty of guys who call in who are truck drivers and farmers and the like.)
Anyway, with the end of the school year and my morning routine thoroughly interrupted, I am a much spottier listener, and I hadn’t tuned in for several days. So I nearly suffered a stroke last night when I went on WGN’s website (I don’t even remember why I was there) and read the shocking news that this past Friday was Kathy and Judy’s last day at WGN. The announcement said something rather vague and generic about the station needing to go into new directions, given the realities of the current market, blah blah blah. I honestly felt like someone had delivered a sharp kick to my you-know-what’s. It literally took the wind out of me – and unfortunately, my wife was already in bed and it was too late to call Marshall, so I had to just sit in the kitchen in front of the computer and slowly digest this news in solitary sadness.
I’ve heard it said for a long long time now that radio is an intensely personal medium – much more so than television or film – in which you are apt to form incredibly tight bonds with people you’ve never met or even seen. I should know; I’ve been working in radio for well over twenty years and have had the pleasure of hearing that said to me about me by various listeners who listen to the morning show without fail and who come to feel like they know me – or even that we are friends. It must partly be the way in which radio taps into our imaginations in a way that television – because it delivers the pictures – usually does not.
It’s only now that they are off the air that I suddenly – jarringly- realize what sort of an emotional connection I had with Kathy O’Malley and Judy Markee- and I wasn’t even the sort of devoted listener who would listen to them day after day, without fail. For a listener like that, I can’t even imagine how devastating this cancellation must be for them. And maybe it seems excessive to use the term devastating to describe this kind of a blow, when that term tends to be reserved for a moment when you’re told that you have cancer- or that your mom has unexpectedly passed away. But this is a program which created an extraordinary sense of community – in which you felt like you knew the two hosts and thoroughly enjoyed their company as you would the company of any good friend. . . even if they occasionally irritated you. . . and you also felt like you knew and enjoyed all of the callers who were part of the community as well. Part of what I loved about the two hosts and their listeners and callers was that it was just the right mix of saucy fun and profound decency. The people who called in almost always seemed like nice, normal people (not the neighborhood crackpot) but not bland or boring or predictable in the least. And after listening for just a few minutes, I would almost always have this feeling that maybe the world is going to be okay because there are plenty of okay people living in it. And I would be much more likely to feel this way after listening to Kathy and Judy rather than one of Wisconsin Public Radio’s call-in programs, because their / our listeners tend to be a select group of exceptionally thoughtful, well-educated people who all care about the political situation in Biafra and have solar panels on the roof of their homes and couldn’t care less about the latest Hollywood blockbuster. I wish they were more representative of our population as a whole, but I know they are not. . . but Kathy and Judy’s audience is. And I would enjoy their callers almost as much as I enjoyed the two hosts and their unique chemistry and charisma. (I never enjoyed the show nearly as much when one of them was absent- it always worked best when it was the two of them playing off of one another and off of the third person in the studio, newsman Steve Bertrand.)
It’s hard to summarize the program for the sake of anyone who never listened – but let me try to describe a couple of my favorite elements. Once a week (I think on Wednesdays) they had a segment called “Speak Your Peace” in which callers could call up and complain for thirty seconds about anything other than WGN programming itself or any of WGN’s advertisers. Anything else was fair game. (I called once to complain that when you get off a place at O’Hare and retrieve your luggage and are waiting for a taxi or other ground transportation away from the airport, it is impossible to find something to eat or drink – and you can’t even buy a newspaper. They seem to be under the mistaken impression that nobody ever lingers- but if you’re waiting for a particular shuttle or bus, you might be waiting downstairs an hour or more. Kathy and Judy had never stopped to think about that.) Most of the time it was a litany of common complaints like people parking in handicapped parking places or people wearing too much perfume in the office. . . but it was oddly entertaining to listen to the cavalcade of people who would line up for this opportunity to blow off a little bit of steam.
Another famous segment occurred every Thursday morning- Sex Thursday – when you-know-what would be discussed, and always preceded by an on-air advisory that anyone with young children around might want to make sure that they were otherwise occupied for the next few minutes. It wasn’t exactly “Girls Gone Wild” – but that’s exactly what made it compelling and refreshing. (One funny running gag is that basically everyone who would call during this segment would not want their real name used- so every woman wishing to remain anonymous would be “Rhonda.” And if someone named Rhonda wanted to call on Sex Thursday, I guess they were out of luck!)
Maybe the most memorable radio which Kathy and Judy have delivered over the years was their famous Letting Go show which would occur one Friday every late summer / early fall . . . right around the time that many parents would be dropping off their children at college. They would play some heart-rending song in the background about letting go of your kids as various mothers (and a few fathers as well) would call up to talk and cry and grieve this painful but altogether necessary loss in their lives. Occasionally someone would be so emotionally undone that you couldn’t help but think to yourself “get a grip, lady” – and once in awhile you would sort of fear for the person’s emotional well-being – but mostly it was just one loving parent after another offering up their own story of how this moment of transition was giving them such sorrow. I’m obviously not a parent and the closest I’ve ever come to this experience myself is dumping off our golden retrievers at Day Care for a day . . . but I would listen to this with rapt fascination, and would find myself shedding plenty of tears myself. It was Radio at its most Human.
Even as a rather casual fan of the program, I am deeply saddened by this turn of events – and I can’t even imagine how their most devoted fans feel. And as for Kathy and Judy themselves, I can imagine their feelings because I certainly have thought about how awful it would be if Dave Cole were to invite me into his office one day to tell me that I had just done my last Morning Show. It would feel like an amputation. When you work in the world of media, there is this element of brutality that seems to come with the territory. . . I’m just glad that things tend to be a bit more civilized in the world of public radio, although by no means are we at all insulated from the forces that are rocking the rest of the media world.
All I know is, I love what I do – and the first time I turned on the mic this morning at WGTD, I found myself whispering words of thanks – and hoping that sometime soon, Kathy and Judy will experience that pleasure and satisfaction again.