Prospect Magazine: Alumni Stories

Voice of Authority

Terri Hemmert ’70 rose to the top of rock radio with a well-informed, personal style.

When we wrote this profile of the beloved radio deejay and trailblazer Terri Hemmert a few years ago, we included a brief list of some of her many achievements. Since then the list has only grown. Terri was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2010, and last year Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel surprised her at WXRT studios to help her celebrate Terri Hemmert Day in Chicago. The honor marked her 40th anniversary at the station. One of the world’s foremost authorities on the Beatles, she was a special guest at a 2010 White House reception for Sir Paul McCartney on the occasion of his Gershwin Prize for Popular Song from the Library of Congress. And this year, the Chicago Tribune profiled her as one of the city's most remarkable women. 

The profile, which appears below, was originally published in Prospect magazine in the winter of 2002.

When she was four years old, Terri Hemmert had a Bozo the Clown record player. In retrospect, this explains a lot. It seems perfectly right that four-year-old Terri should have liked nothing better than to sit herself down in front of her Bozo the Clown record player, with her neat piles of records arrayed around her, and spend all day spinning tunes. It also makes sense that four-year-old Terri mastered the art of programming to a varied audience—first a tune for Mom, then a tune for Dad, then a tune for baby brother.

It all makes sense because a half-century or so later, Terri Hemmert, ’70, still spends a good portion of her day spinning records—though she has graduated from her Bozo the Clown record player to more advanced equipment. What’s more, her audience has expanded. Now thousands of people listen to her radio show every day on WXRT in Chicago. Some have been listening to Terri Hemmert for most of her twenty-eight-year run on the air.

Hemmert has another, smaller but important audience, made up of people throughout the radio and music businesses who have noticed how long she has been spinning records, and how well. This audience includes the people at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, who recognized Hemmert in their “Rock and Radio” exhibit; and the people at the Chicago chapter of the Recording Academy, the group that gives out Grammies. Last year they gave Hemmert a Lifetime Achievement Award.

It’s a long way from a Bozo the Clown record player to a lifetime achievement award. For Hemmert, however, the basic idea has stayed the same. Spinning records remains a family affair, just as it was when she was programming for Mom, Dad, and baby brother. Her audience is a kind of extended family—an unconventional family, true, but a family nonetheless.

Why do you think her fans call her Aunt Terri?

Like a lot of deejays, Terri Hemmert got her start on the overnight shift. This was at WCMF in Rochester, New York, in the early 1970s. In Rochester and elsewhere, the overnight shift is one of radio’s thankless jobs. The audience is smaller than in the daytime. You broadcast to an assortment of night watchmen, insomniacs, cabbies, and bakery deliverymen, with the occasional oddball and angry loner thrown in. Sometimes it’s hard to avoid the feeling that you are broadcasting into the darkness, your voice drifting off into the void. Not even the station managers are listening to you; they’re at home and fast asleep.

On the other hand, the overnight deejay and her audience form a special bond. It’s intense. You learn about it when the phone rings in the studio.

Often the calls are routine: a listener with a request, or one who just wants to let you know that he really likes the music you’re playing and listens to you every night. But you also get calls for help. Overdoses. Suicide threats. People in the middle of drunken binges. People in trouble. They don’t know whom else to call, so they call the overnight deejay.

Terri Hemmert was not ready for this aspect of the business. She was a rookie deejay; she was supposed to play records; no one had told her about crisis calls. “I was getting so many calls like that and they were so disturbing,” she says. “I wanted to help somehow, but I didn’t know how.”

Faced with the same situation, some deejays stop answering the phone. Others stick resolutely to the business at hand, spinning records. Hemmert, in contrast, sought out a local crisis center and signed up for training in crisis intervention. She worked the phones, fielding the same kinds of calls she was getting at the radio station, only more of them. She tried to help.

“Some people on the phone would recognize my voice from the radio,” she recalled. “Then, instead of talking about their problems, all they wanted to talk about was music. I went to the director of the center and told him that I thought I had to quit, because I wasn’t helping these people. They weren’t telling me what was wrong; they were asking me what bands were coming to town. But he told me that sometimes that was all they needed: someone to talk to.”

The experience expanded Hemmert’s understanding of her work. “The thing I’ve learned about radio is that—without really meaning to—you’re affecting someone. Just this morning, someone called and asked me to play Hey Jude in memory of his mother, who had just died. His mother had always told him how she was listening to Hey Jude in their VW bus when she drove him home from the hospital right after his birth. And now he needed to hear it on the radio, for his mother.

“So maybe it’s a song you play that touches someone, or something you say offhand. It’s not like I think I’m changing the world on the air. But some of those listeners are going through some intense times. And sometimes, you can help them through it without even knowing it.”

Terri Hemmert remembers the moment her life changed.

It was during The Ed Sullivan Show.

At the time, it probably seemed like just another Sunday night in the living room in Piqua, Ohio: Mom, Dad, baby brother, and the TV.

Except seventy-three million other people were watching that night. It was February 9, 1964—the night the Beatles hit America.

Hemmert has thought a lot about that night. She’s gone back and looked at the old films of the performance, trying to make sense of how four guys from Liverpool managed to change music and society and, oh yes, Hemmert herself. After viewing the films over and over, she believes she can pinpoint the exact, life-changing instant.

“There is a moment when George and John, in the middle of a song, glance at each other and simultaneously break into these enormous grins,” she says. “That was the moment. I’d never seen anything like that before. Everything in show business had been choreographed up to then, but this was spontaneous. This was just guys with guitars having a great time.

“That’s what did it for me. It was above and beyond the music, above and beyond even the cuteness. It was the camaraderie. They just drove my bus from then on.”

The odd thing is, Hemmert had been determined to dislike the Beatles. She had been suspicious of the Beatles from the start, though not for the reasons that made her parents’ generation suspicious: not because their hair was too long or their pants too tight or their boots too pointy-toed. Hemmert’s suspicions came from another direction altogether.

At 15, she already was the foremost rhythm-and-blues aficionado in Piqua, Ohio. Terri was into the Coasters and the Ronnetes and Irma Thomas. She spent every penny of her babysitting earnings on R&B records. When she wasn’t listening to those, she was dipping into her dad’s record collection, checking out Duke Ellington. Now the Beatles were a lot of things, but they were not R&B.

In 1964, a passion for R&B was an idiosyncratic taste for a teenager. It can be explained by the fact that Hemmert was the product of a household with a remarkably wide-ranging love of music. It seemed that some kind of music was always being played at the 150-year-old Hemmert house. As the oldest of five kids, Terri was usually at the leading edge of the musical exploration. Her father, a plumber, liked to come home to the Mills Brothers. Her mother, a music teacher, introduced her to everything from Harry Belafonte to Baroque. Terri sang with her mother’s community chorus; on Saturdays she sang Requiem Masses at Saint Mary’s Catholic Church. On the radio she liked Del Shannon, Little Eva, Three O’Clock Thrill, and Gene “By Golly” Barry on WING, the king of deejays in Dayton, Ohio.

It was into this musical world that the Beatles came crashing in February 1964. Terri’s musical instincts led her to consider them overhyped pretenders, a bunch of British kids ripping off her American R&B heroes.

Then came that appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. They played five songs that night: All My Loving, Till There Was You, She Loves You, I Saw Her Standing There, and I Want To Hold Your Hand. All told it was little more than fifteen minutes of music—but it utterly wiped away the doubts Hemmert had about the Beatles. She came late to Beatlemania but she came to stay. She watched the performance with her little sister on her lap, and nearly forty years later, both remember the night clearly.

“It was like an enormous energy burst in my life,” Hemmert recalled, and it stirred her to action. She started a band. It was Terri and three other high school girls. They called themselves the Mersey Birds, after the Mersey River in Liverpool. The Mersey Birds were not deterred by the fact that none of them could play a musical instrument. The Mersey Birds sang along with Beatle records and played air guitar, mimicking the moves of their heroes. Hemmert sang John Lennon’s parts. It was proto-Karaoke. Soon Mersey Bird Mania was sweeping Piqua. The group started playing drop-ins, slumber parties, even the YWCA.

“We had all the moves,” says Terri.

Eventually, the Mersey Birds disbanded. The cause, apparently, was creative differences, an eerie foreshadowing of the breakup that would hit the Beatles six years later, though nowhere near as ugly.

By that time Hemmert’s love for the Beatles had inspired a second plan. One day she ran across a newspaper photograph of a Cleveland deejay named Jim Stagg interviewing Ringo Starr. Maybe most Beatle fans would have focused on Ringo. Hemmert concentrated on Stagg. “It hit me then that if you become a deejay, you get to play records and you get to interview Ringo Starr,” she says. “I thought maybe this would be a good way for me to meet the Beatles.”

When the teenaged Terri announced one day that she intended to pursue a career as a rock-and-roll deejay, her parents weren’t exactly surprised. It’s true, in the 1960s there weren’t a lot of role models for Catholic girls in Piqua seeking to become rock-and-roll deejays. But the Hemmerts knew how their daughter loved her music, and sensed that she needed to give her dream a shot. They told her to go for it—but first, go to college. That way, if this deejay business doesn’t work out, you can always become a teacher.

Terri’s mother helped her to find a college. It was 326 miles from Piqua, but it was faith-based, it taught ethics, and it encouraged students to make a difference in the world—all of which were important to Terri. It also had a really good student radio station.

That’s how, in her senior year in high school, Hemmert found herself at Elmhurst College on Senior Weekend. She met Donald Lowe, the head of the speech department and the faculty adviser for WRSE, the radio station. At the station she met Tom Teuber, ’68, the student programming director. Years later, Teuber told Hemmert that after she’d left campus that weekend, he told a friend, “She’ll be back.”

“I fell in love with Elmhurst that weekend,” she says. “How do you explain falling in love? Everything just seemed perfect.”

Later, in the fall of 1966, Terri spent her first night as a resident student at Elmhurst. She was a little homesick, and discovered that a few of her residence hall mates were feeling the same way. Someone put a Beatles record on; someone else produced a guitar, and soon the residents of Schick Hall were singing along with just about every Beatles song in the catalog.

“Years later, when I got to meet Paul McCartney, I started searching my soul for some way to communicate to him just how much the Beatles’ music had meant to me,” says Hemmert. “I wanted to say something beyond, ‘Thanks for the memories,’ but I didn’t want to go on forever. So I told him about my first night at college and the sing-along, and how it brought us together. Paul said, ‘Well, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Bringing people together.’”

By the time she arrived at Elmhurst, Hemmert had taken up guitar and begun writing songs. She formed a new band called the Buckets. They were into vocal harmonies and soul hand-clapping. Hemmert calls it a “psychedelic barbershop.” Some of their original songs drew their inspiration directly from the Elmhurst campus—like Wilder Park Blues and Give My Regards to Dean Clark. The Buckets also did protest songs, including one railing against the College’s women’s curfew, to the tune of Handel’s Messiah.

Hemmert also wrote record reviews for the old campus newspaper, The Elm Bark. In 1969, she was recommending Laura Nyro, Dusty Springfield, and the Rotary Connection. At WRSE, she made her debut reading campus and community news. Then she landed a plum job: the Tuesday night eleven-to-midnight shift. According to The Elm Bark, she was the station’s first female rock deejay.

If radio styles are a barometer of social change, a historian could learn a lot from listening to tapes of Hemmert on WRSE. Not long after she made her on-air debut, she had perfected a rapid-fire, rhyming patter, modeled on the delivery of early-rock icons like Gene “By Golly” Barry, back in Dayton. Her theme song was Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!, a gospel tune by the Alan Reynolds Singers. Her on-air nickname was Jolly Green.

By the 1970s, college deejays were playing nine-minute-long progressive-rock album tracks and trying hard to sound laid-back and mellow. Some sounded barely conscious. Of course, Hemmert’s Elmhurst career coincided with a period of accelerated change unlike any other ever seen on American college campuses. The evolving style of rock radio was hardly the most profound manifestation of those changes.

“My mother once told me that she was sorry that I’d had to grow up during such a difficult time,” Hemmert says. “I didn’t see it that way at all. It was a great time to be in college. I came from a conservative background, and I didn’t know what to make of some of what I saw. But I liked that you could learn so much just from being with kids in the residence halls. I was living side-by-side with kids from inner-city Memphis, and that was good for a kid from Ohio.”

Hemmert liked the way assumptions were challenged in those days, on campus and elsewhere. She even used her radio program to air debates on campus issues. When an African-American student group protested a student government election by burning a ballot box on the Mall, Hemmert saw a chance for a dialogue. “I was a little terrified by the scene,” she acknowledges, “but I went to them and asked them if they wanted to discuss the issues on the radio. We went back to the studio, preempted whatever was on the air, and talked.

“That’s dialogue. That’s what education is all about.”

In 1981, Marty Lennartz, now a fellow deejay of Hemmert’s on WXRT, was running a car-rental office and trying to break into radio. He heard that Hemmert was bringing in some of her deejay friends to speak to her evening class in radio at Columbia College in Chicago. Lennartz figured that if he enrolled in the class, he would have a chance to do a little networking with all of those guest speakers, and he wouldn’t have to work very hard.

He was both right and wrong. “The first thing Terri told us was that we would have to work in that class,” Lennartz remembers. “We’d have to spend our time at the library, do our research, write our papers. She was hard. I always thought that if she hadn’t been a deejay, she would have made a great teacher. She is a teacher. Not just in the classroom, either. She’s been teaching a lot of people on the radio every day for a long time.”

By the time Lennartz took her class, Hemmert had been at WXRT for eight years, establishing herself as a fan favorite. She also had been teaching classes in radio and popular music at Columbia for several years. The classes had names like “The History of Rock and Soul,” but any student like Lennartz who signed up thinking the class would be a breeze were in for a surprise. Remembering her Elmhurst speech teacher, Hemmert says, “No former student of Dr. Lowe’s is going to be an easy grader.”

Marty Lennartz dutifully did his homework and wrote a term paper on soul dance crazes, like the Hully Gully and the Cool Jerk. Hemmert gave him an A. She also asked him if he would like to be a radio producer. WXRT was trying out a series of deejays in the morning drive-time slot; Hemmert was getting her own shot at the high-profile job and needed a producer who would get up at 4:00 a.m. As part of the deal, she offered Lennartz a lift to the studio each morning. It was quintessential Hemmert—decent enough to give a kid a ride to work, smart enough to know that this might be the only way she would be sure he would show up on time.

Their pairing was a success. “She was supposed to do that show for a month,” Lennartz says, “but they just kept adding weeks to it.

“I think I realized how popular she was when we were at ChicagoFest”—the huge but short-lived music festival at Navy Pier. “People were flocking to the booth and shouting for Aunt Terri.”

She got the nickname after she started airing a tape of Rachel, her toddler niece, touting her Aunt Terri as “the world’s top deejay.” Hemmert’s listeners began calling her Aunt Terri, too. “They really meant it, like she was part of the family,” Lennartz says. “I think that’s when people at the station started saying, ‘Maybe we should keep her doing this.’”

WXRT did keep Hemmert in the morning slot for eleven years. She was the first female in Chicago radio to host a morning drive-time program on a rock station. In fact, everywhere her career has taken her—from WRSE to WGLD in Oak Park to WCMF in Rochester to WXRT—Hemmert has broken boundaries for women. She built an enviable career in radio when it was still a man’s business.

“I had bosses tell me, ‘I’d love to let you do that job, but the last time we tried a woman it didn’t work out,’” Hemmert says. “Now they’re smarter about it. They’ll still discriminate against you but they know better than to say so. “It’s a good feeling to know you might have helped open some doors—and to hear from women who have done well.”

All the while Hemmert was blazing trails in rock radio, she also kept busy at the more traditional pursuit of teaching. As a Columbia instructor, she always has had immodest goals for her students. “A lot of the students who take my class think they’re just going to learn music history—who recorded what,” she says. The instructor works to give them a larger perspective, one they might be able to put to productive use on a larger stage. “These are the people who are going to be running things in the future. I hope these will be the people who can change things for the better.”

Hemmert works for change herself with organizations such as the Peace Museum, the AIDS Pastoral Care Network, and Saint Clement’s Catholic Church in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. She tells her students that she still believes in the power of radio itself to do good—as she believed back when she aired campus debates at Elmhurst, or used the medium to reach troubled people in Rochester.

She’s been around long enough, though, to know that the power of radio can be misused. She has little respect for shock jocks. “They remind me of the guys back in Piqua who used to drive around with the window down, insulting everyone. It’s about as funny and takes as much skill.” She also is uncomfortable with the medium’s sometimes counterproductive commercialism. “I’ve seen too many stupid decisions made for a fast buck. I know you have to compete in the marketplace, but too often it’s about money and nothing else.

“I hope my students will have a blend of pragmatism and idealism,” she says. “I want to give them a broader education, like I received at Elmhurst. I want to prepare them not just to be successful, but to know what to do with that success.”

Her parents urged Terri to prepare to be a teacher, in case she didn’t make it as a deejay. It turns out they needn’t have worried. For all these years, their daughter has found ways to be both.

Terri Hemmert with Smashing Pumpkins’ frontman Billy Corgan, who once said, “Terri is simply one of the best in the world at what she does because she remains a believer in art and the ability of rock and roll to change the world.” (Donald Pointer Photography)

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