After interviewing a couple of radio personalities, I started to listen more closely to their different styles. While scanning the AM and FM stations in Chicagoland, I found myself listening to the new talk-radio host on WGN who had just moved to Chicago. There was something about him that made his program and personality a pleasing listening experience in the afternoon. If you aren't a regular listener to John Williams in the early afternoon, this interview will provide you with a good feel for a genuinely nice guy who is making his mark at the radio station of his dreams.

Al: John, you are one of the newest radio personalities in Chicago. Therefore, many of my readers don't know a lot about you or your background. Give me the John Williams life story-in a few words.
John: I was born in Chicago in 1959: I'll be 39 in October. My dad was in the Air Force. So I grew up abroad even though I was born in Chicago. I was in kindergarten in Germany, first grade in Taiwan, and second through fifth grade in Hawaii. My dad retired from the service while we were in Hawaii, and we moved back to Illinois. He finished his master's degree at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville. Then he started his next career as a college counselor at Joliet Junior College, and we moved up to Joliet, IL where my family still lives. I went from seventh grade through junior college there. Then I went to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and graduated with a degree in broadcasting.

Al: How did you get you first job in radio?

John: After graduation, I hit the bricks like everyone else. I had a hundred résumés in my hand, sent them to a hundred radio stations, and got ten responses. Two of which offered minimum-wage jobs. My first job was in Plano, IL, which is south of Aurora. I was there for about a year and went to WMBD Peoria for ten years. Then I moved to Minneapolis for four years at WCCO. After a four-year stint, I came to WGN here in Chicago.

Al: How did you land the WGN job?
John: I had been trying to get on here for years-even while I still was in Peoria. I sent my first demo tape to WGN at least fourteen years ago. While in Peoria, I had two jobs: one was doing my radio show and the other was trying to get a radio show somewhere else. It was a monthly business for me to send out letters, updating résumés, and doing demo tapes. I was happy in Peoria and had a wonderful job. I had everything that I could want-except Peoria wasn't a major market. It was 118th in market size. While there, I almost got onto radio stations in Miami, Dallas, and Kansas City. In retrospect, I was good that I didn't get those other jobs. I think that my show works best in this part of the country. When I came to Chicago, people would say, "Wow, you got a job in Chicago!" However, the big break was getting from Peoria which was 188th to Minneapolis which is 15th.

It's a funny story about getting a job in Minneapolis. I interviewed for a swing-shift kind of job. I'd fill in for the regulars. The general manager and I shook hands on Friday. I had landed a job in a big market. On Monday, the general manager quit. So, the station said let's just wait awhile on my hiring. In a few weeks, they fired the program director. The station no longer employed the two people that hired me. The bottom-line was that I was un-hired and had to stay in Peoria. So, I started all over again.

A secretary at the radio station in Minneapolis remembered my name when the new management finally got its feet on the ground and started to look for personnel. She said that I had been hanging around for a long time and was always writing. It was her suggestion that they give him a listen. They then hired me-the second time. I left the interview thinking that I hope they don't quit or get fired. I moved up to Minneapolis, and in a couple of years, they were all fired. By that time, I had my foot in the door. The next management team fortunately liked me, and I survived. Getting and keeping a job is mostly perseverance.

Al: I keep telling myself that while trying to get my book published and my column syndicated. It's perseverance. I'm in the persevering stage now. This will make a good story in a couple of years when I get to my goals.
John: Then you'll like this story. Yesterday, I talked with Mary Higgins Clark on the show. She has her new book out for which she was paid $12 million. In addition, she has a $36 million deal with her publisher. She likes to tell the story about trying to get her book published. She said that when she had one story out and publishers were rejecting it, she was writing the next book-before the first one was ever accepted. She wasn't discouraged that the first one was being rejected; she kept on writing. I guess that is what you have to do. It's what I did. While I had one job, I kept on working on the next one.

Al: Going back a moment to your family, where were you in the birth order of your family?

John: I'm a middle child and think that explains my personality on the radio and in life itself. I see myself as a middle child trying to appease everybody and make everything all right.

Al: From listening to you, I know that you are married with children.
John: Brenda is my wife. We met down in college at Carbondale. We have two sons: Grant is nine and Griffin is six.

Al: In most of my interviews, I ask the question that Gene Siskel always asks those who he interviews: what is your favorite movie and why?
John: That's a good question. My producer, Matt, likes to disparage me by calling me an art-house fairy. In any week, my wife and I will watch five to ten movies. So, it is hard to pick just one flic. One movie that comes to mind is Diner. It is one of the best-written films when it comes to dialogue. I think that the conversations in the movie are funny, smart, real, and wry. I can't say that I necessarily identify with any of the characters, but I appreciate the engaging conversation.

Al: Talk-radio has been hot for ten years. How do you explain this phenomena?
John: In the last ten or fifteen years talk-radio has come into its own. It has been seen as either entertainment or information for the masses. WGN is a hybrid of the two. We used to call it full-service radio. Nowadays, talk-radio has moved from the old community radio with receipts and lost pets to much more cutting-edge entertainment. We do all sorts of things from a parody of Mr. Clinton to your voice messages segment. Here's a funny story that you will appreciate-living in Valparaiso. There's a college football team in Texas that has the longest losing streak in the nation. They have lost something like seventy-five games in a row. Last fall, we started calling them after each game. The coach after one of the losses said, "Listen, we are trying to get a game going between us and Valparaiso University. Do you think that you could help us raise the money to bring our team up to Valparaiso?" He was serious about playing VU thinking that they could beat them. The audience thought that it would be a good match between the two team because Valpo's football team wasn't that good either. But, no one came up with the money necessary to pull this off. Nonetheless, this was a good story and the audience got involved in it the entire football season. However, I haven't seen any money pouring in to bring the team up here to Indiana.

Al: Aside from the audience not coming up with the bucks for transportation costs, what is the need that talk-radio answers for the listener? What does it say about isolation or estrangement?
John: I think that it has a lot to do with staying connected. Look at that computer over there. I don't think that the computer is about isolation as much as it is our desire to stay connected. We have beepers, pagers, answering machines, cellular phones, and the list goes on. We have created a culture of people who get nervous if things are going around them about which they aren't aware. I think that is where talk-radio comes into play. It is another means to stay connected with what is happening right now. While it is entertaining, it also provides a means to be on top of everything as it is happening.

Al: I have been intrigued by your ability to engage the listeners in a didactic dialogue. Your discussions with your callers seem like they are an educational process. You state a position, they state their opinion, and then the two of you test out new or different ways of looking at the question. Many talk-radio show hosts merely defend their position. Callers either agree or disagree, but the host isn't influenced by the callers' opinions. You want the dialogue and are willing to change your opinion if the caller makes a convincing argument. Is this an intentional style?

John: It is intentional in the sense that I don't consider myself an expert in very much. Therefore, the dialogue is my attempt to understand more fully. In addition, I am terrifically curious. I'm absolutely interested in finding out what the truth is and become very zealous in that pursuit.

Al: You are zealous in that pursuit but not in pushing your opinion.
John: Absolutely, it goes back to my feeling that I don't have all the answers. I am always going to listen to differing opinions because you may be a lot closer to the truth than I am. I am disappointed by the arrogance of some talk-radio hosts who say it is this way, and my way is the only way. I want to ask them, "What makes you so smart-except that you have the microphone? This guy who will get one minute on your show might be correct."

You know who can tell who is correct? The audience. The host may still be pounding the table and restating his opinion long after the caller has hung up. However, the audience knows who is correct.

Al: What's your professional future as a radio host?
John: I never wanted to get into TV and don't necessarily aspire for syndication. I am such a product of this local market. I listened to this station in high school and have always desired to host a talk show here at WGN. I would like to retire in this office twenty years from now. You can come back then, and we can talk about the last twenty years. I don't want to go to New York nor do I want to go back to Peoria. The challenge will be not to get stale.

Al: You have an on-the-air candor that you don't find with many talk-radio hosts. When you first came to town, you talked about being nervous about being the new kid on the block. You readily expressed your feelings of vulnerability.

John: That was true. Those first few weeks were the most insecure time for me. I don't know why is was. Minneapolis was a big city market. Many a time, candor was about all that I had going for me. Maybe the stakes were higher or maybe my dream had come true and had to prove myself all over again. I don't really know, but it wasn't a fun time for me.

Al: Your openness and honesty comes through loud and clear. It is a pleasant change from many of your talk-radio peers. You seem to be able to open yourself emotionally.
John: Well, to some extent that's true, but I was talking with Bob Collins the other day about this very thing. He said that it is easier sometimes to be honest to the radio audience than it is to be honest to friends and family. I agreed with him totally. I often wish that my wife, Brenda were listening when I am saying something to millions. She could glean from my comments something that I couldn't easily say to her. Maybe it is because they aren't sitting in front of you, or maybe it is because I'm putting it into a larger context-it distances me from the emotions and intimacy.

Al: When you retire and leave the mic for the last time, how do you want your epitaph read? How do you want to be remembered?

John: At my age, I don't think much about that. You know, there are two things that the best talk show hosts do well. The person needs to be genuinely curious and interested in a lot of different subjects. In addition, that person should be a skilled listener. We all need to become better at listening as husbands, wives, children, and others.

I would want my epitaph to read: "He listened." You could write of any talk radio host: "He talked." But what I really try to do is to listen. I'll get my time to talk; the hard part is to listen. It is like spouses who say you are hearing me but not listening. I think the best talkers are the best listeners. I think the best parents are the best listeners. So, put on my epitaph: "He listened."

Al: I know that you have to get on the air in just as few moments. Could I get some pictures of you in the studio doing your thing?

John: Sure, let's head down to Studio A-. On the way, we will be going past the WGN Shrine-Wally Phillips' office. He still maintains an office here, but he hasn't been on the air for sometime now. But he built this place. So I think that it is fitting to bow as we pass his office.