Thursday, January 7, 2016

Get well soon, Terri!


     Media personalities come and go, particularly on radio, where DJs land in the Chicago market with a splash and then disappear just as quickly without a ripple. 
     And then there is Terri Hemmert, my fellow Ohioan, always bright, always good-natured, sincere, direct, knowledgable, enthusiastic. And always there. She has been on WXRT 93.1 FM for more than 40 years, and it was worrisome news to hear Thursday that her last program for the time being is Friday. She has cancer, as she announced with her typical candor, is undergoing surgery on Monday, and will need at least a month to recuperate.     
      I am confident that many, many Chicagoans share the deep respect and affection — oh, hell, say it — the love that I have for Terri Hemmert, and join me in wishing her a speedy recovery and quick return to the airwaves, where she belongs. Here is a tribute I wrote to Terri when the city declared her a civic treasure in 2008. 

     A good radio station has a personality, a flavor, almost a smell -- there's an unmistakable fresh-laundry-snapping-on-the-line bleachiness to WGN, for instance, with Judy Markey and Kathy O'Malley chatting over the backyard fence and Orion Samuelson putting the John Deere into neutral, climbing down from the cab, squinting at the horizon and telling us how the soy bean crop is doing as he wipes his big hands on an oily rag.
     Then there is WXRT, which for a generation of Chicagoans is the radio equivalent of Thai takeout -- an essential element of city living, both familiar and exotic, peanuts and limes, nutritious and sinful, an essential luxury that makes up for all the hassles.
     The main course of WXRT is Terri Hemmert -- "Aunt Terri" to her loyal listeners -- who is being celebrated tonight as a "Chicago Treasure" at the Chicago History Museum. Terri just passed her 35th anniversary at the station; she joined as an announcer and public affairs director. In 1981, she became the first female morning radio personality in Chicago, and ever since her calm, soothing voice and musical laugh have been an anchor in a world of flux and madness.
     How did a girl in Piqua, Ohio, get into radio?
I wanted to meet the Beatles," she explained, over lunch at Volare on East Grand. "I saw a picture of Jim Stagg interviewing Ringo Starr." So she sought out the famed disc jockey -- who also ended up in Chicago.
     "He encouraged me," Hemmert remembered. "He said, the first thing, 'Don't let anybody talk you out of it.' So I hung in there."
     Eventually she would meet Ringo ("I hope it was worth the wait," he told her) and Paul McCarthy ("Now it's like we're old friends," she said. "I think that's so cool") and hosts a Sunday "Breakfast With the Beatles" in addition to her weekday duties.
     She also has taught the history of rock 'n' roll for 30 years at Columbia College.
     "I love teaching," she said. "That's my favorite thing; I love those kids."
     I observed that teaching is hard, students often intransigent. Hemmert said that's the part she likes.
     "I love getting slackers and whipping them into shape," she said. "Because I was a slacker."
      She is energized by the station's recent move from Belmont Avenue to NBC Tower.
     "I'm still in awe of this city," she said. "I'm thrilled to be downtown."
     Of course, some believe a certain scrappiness went along with being on Belmont Avenue.

     Has not the corporate behemoth -- the station is owned by CBS -- changed WXRT?
     "People always say that -- that being owned by a corporation affected the station," she began.
     "Well, it isn't as if you play 'Penis Envy' anymore," I added, mentioning a satirical Uncle Banzai ditty that Terri once played daily.
     She smiled.
     "WXRT has always evolved," she said. "We still play new music. We still play R&B, we still play the blues, which is very, very rare. We're a mix of old and new. People sense that we're there, and we have a commitment, and that's great."
     The lovely thing about Terri Hemmert is how excited she still gets about playing music and teaching music and being in this city. She could have moved. She had offers that might have nudged her up the career ladder.
     "I love Chicago so much; what a great city," she said. "I like Chicago more than I like radio. I'll die here."


     In honor of Terri Hemmert (whose favorite song, "In My Life," lent the headline to her item) a Beatles joke:
     Q. How many Beatles does it take to change a light bulb?
     A. Four.
     John to come up with a light bulb. Paul to claim half of the light bulb. George to complain his lights bulbs are never considered. And Ringo, to actually change the light bulb.
                               —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 19, 2008


  1. That WXRT has kept so many of the same DJs together for so long is remarkable. The station is a treasure, and so is Terri, and may all go well with her surgery and recuperation. Her on-air announcement was incredibly moving. Thanks very much for reprinting this column.

  2. Love 'XRT, BWTB and Terri. Good luck to her.

  3. Love Terri and wish her the very best

  4. Love Terri and wish her the very best

  5. Sending good thoughts and my best wishes for a complete recovery to Terri. She is one of Chicago's treasures.


  6. Sweet! We should all wish to be memorialized by Neil.

    And deserve it.

    Tom Evans


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