By Lindsay Eckert
Tribune lifestyle editor
Kokomo — And those familiar voices singing back up is Lady Antebellum,” WWKI’s Kevin Burris says as the final notes of Darius Rucker’s “Rock Me Mama” linger off the airwaves.
Moments later: “That’s Montgomery Gentry with ‘Rebels on the Run,’ and that sound spinning in the background is a Hammond B3 organ,” Burris adds.
I always listen to country radio, specifically WWKI, and I never knew those factoids. I’d heard both songs tons of times, in fact, I knew both songs. But, turns out, I didn’t know them like Burris does – few do. The next time I heard them? I paid more attention to the backup voices of “Rock Me Mama” and I listened for the sound born by an organ in “Rebels on the Run.” Burris didn’t create the songs, but he created the context that made me think the next time I heard them.
“I try to know too much [about country radio] because I never want to say the same thing twice,” Burris said about making the notes of songs something noteworthy in the minds of listeners.
Burris isn’t hooked by the idea people know his voice; and it’s not the excitement of a new-found career—Burris has been in the radio business for 34 years, 12 at WWKI – that makes him want to get out of bed at 3 a.m. and commute from Indianapolis for his morning show. Burris never told me what made him want to split his sleep into two different nap times to deliver moments into a microphone. And I never asked, because the answer illuminated the studio that is his home from 4:45 a.m. until 11 a.m. Monday through Friday.
The answer lies in the smile no one sees when Burris interviews a guest: “People can get complacent in this job, but I challenge myself to always be better at something. I told myself, ‘I want to be a really good interviewer.’ I research interviewees [to ask them questions out of the norm], I tell them, ‘Don’t worry about the microphone, it’s just you and me.’ I want them to be comfortable, I want to know different things about them; that’s when the best answers come out.”
The answer lies in the constant wheel of creativity that drives transitions between songs or transitions between Chris Kiefer’s newscasts and Burris’s trivia questions, to a place of relevancy with a personal touch: “7-11 is giving out free slurpees today?” Burris asks me after seeing it on one of his studio TVs – The Weather Channel and local news have a permanent place on the two TVs that provoke moments like this one. “Kiefer loves free stuff! I’ll tell Kiefer about it after he’s finishing up the newscast [for a transition].”
Moments later the idea is crafted into a clever and seemingly off-the-cuff conversation for listeners: “I know you love free stuff, Kiefer, and today all 7-11s are giving out free slurpees.” A conversation ensues. We learn something about Chris Kiefer and we now know where to get free slurpees.
It’s that thought process, that interaction which confirmed the answer to the question I never needed to ask: Passion drives Burris – and maybe a tiny [insert a wink of sarcasm here]love for Indy Car racing; he really, really, like, really loves Indy Car racing. But, it’s passion that answers the question I never had to ask.
“There was one time I was working at a radio station and the air conditioning was out in the lobby, it was the dead of summer and I was in my studio playing records with a working air conditioning. I could see the guy working on the air in that filthy hot heat through my window. He turned around and looked at me through the glass and just had that face like: ‘Dude, I’d love to switch places with you.’ I’ve never forgotten that. I never will. [Radio] is a great way to make a living, we’re not getting rich. But, I never get down about my job. I really love it.”
This is when I realized this column wasn’t going to be about my experience as a DJ for a day. I came up with the idea to take on someone’s job for a day, to throw myself into some unknown waters, then: Sink or swim and write about it. If I drown, I’ll have my notepad to resuscitate me. If I swim, cool. It’s all part of living the story in order to tell it. I have to feel a microphone in your hand to know what it’s like to talk into it, I have to wake while the sun is still in its REM cycle to appreciate what your local DJ does every morning, I have to live the life he does—if only for a day. Sometimes I find out something about myself, sometimes I find out something about others. But, sometimes, someone else becomes the story and those are the moments that make me smile a little more when I write the sentences.
The moment when I know I’m writing about someone who loves what they do as much as I love what I do. That’s truly living, whether it’s living the story or not.
[friday] editor/ Writer by heart, DJ for a day