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The beat goes on for WDVE rock jock Michaels

| Saturday, April 6, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
WDVE-FM DJ Michele Michaels, one of the longest running radio hosts in the Pittsburgh market, poses for a portrait in the WDVE studios in Greentree.

Michele Michaels was 23 and understandably a bit nervous at the prospect of her first in-studio star interview. She half anticipated a maniacal figure to burst into the Syracuse radio station where she worked.

It was the early '80s and Ozzy Osbourne, who had just exploded as a solo performer and reportedly just bitten the head off a bat, was on his way to chat with her.

The disc jockey was quickly put at ease at the arrival of a somewhat-shy, plodding, English guy with his head down, who reached out, kissed her hand and asked, “Eh, love, do you have any tea?”

“Ozzy couldn't have been nicer,” recalls Michaels, who's been on the air at WDVE-FM (102.5), Pittsburgh, since 1984.

It's those kind of surprises that have contributed to Michaels' own long, sometimes strange, but always interesting, trip through radio.

Sean Connery sang “Michele, my belle” to her while waiting to be interviewed. Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant asked to be invited in on her on-air conversation with Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, and Peter Frampton strolled to her microphone with an acoustic guitar and began playing, “Baby, I Love Your Way.”

“Radio and the connection to the listeners who, whether they know it or not have become my friends, has been fantastic,” says the Penn Hills native. “It's funny that the thing that got me in trouble as a kid, annoying the teachers with incessant talking and class ‘clownmanship' at St. Joe's in Verona and in (Penn Hills) high school, would fuel my success in radio!”

Though she now is the longest-tenured woman in rock radio in the Pittsburgh market (it will be 29 years at WDVE this fall) and one of the longest of either gender at one station in the same time slot, Michaels is just hitting her stride.

“She'll never talk about herself or her place in radio, the great ones rarely do,” says Scott Paulsen, another WDVE veteran. “I don't know if she's aware of her reputation nationally. I certainly am and consider it a privilege on those days when I'm asked to sub for her. She is one of the greatest radio personalities in America.”

Her 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. “Michele Michaels Show” consistently gets high ratings, and her signature all-request “Electric Lunch” from noon to 1 p.m. remains one of the highest-rated hours in Pittsburgh radio.

Former WDVE program director Gene Romano, now executive vice president for programming of its parent Clear Channel Media, says there has not been a midday program or rock station that has had the consecutive No. 1 quarterly ratings wins in the 25-to-54 age category as Michaels or WDVE in general.

“It's an incredible streak of over 20 years,” he says.

Michaels is the ultimate professional who is always prepared, says John Moschitta, program director of WDVE and its affiliate WXDX.

“Her ability to relate to and communicate on a very human level with the audience is one of her greatest strengths,” he says. “That, and she knows how to have fun on the air and off.”

Romano says Michaels works as hard today in preparing for her show as she did when she was just starting and trying to prove herself. Though she does not go on the air until 10 a.m., it is not uncommon for her to be up at 6 a.m. in her Robinson home researching material on hot topics of conversation for her program.

“She's a big part of the 'DVE brand,” Romano says.

Paulsen says Michaels is the rare combination of a radio personality who is also a fan of the music. “And, more than anyone I've ever met in this business, she loves her listeners,” he says.

She actually knows many of their names, adds DJ Sean McDowell, who follows Michaels with his 3 to 7 p.m. drive-time show.

“She connects so well with Pittsburghers because she is one of them,” he says. “Michele has seen a whole lot of DJs come and go over the past almost 30 years. She, however, is still here. That's pretty amazing, considering how brutal this business can be.”

Michaels credits her longevity to being part of “a strong, phenomenal station with so many good players,” combined with the faith of those in positions of power who have chosen to keep her and the loyalty of her listeners.

“That bond is just about unheard of in other cities,” she says. “I was just so thrilled to get a spot on the radio station I idolized as a teenager after working on the air in other cities.”

She deflects any suggestion that she may be a pioneer for women in radio.

“I just keep showing up and hanging out with my listeners,” she says. “It's such a gift to have this bond between me and the 'DVE listeners that's been forged for so long. We just hang out together in this city we love so much. It's a blast!”

One of the most memorable interviews of Michaels' career took place in September 2011 at Children's Hospital when parent Marc Scott talked on the air of his 17-year-old daughter Olivia's four-month long, arduous battle with cancer, and how Children's facilitated Olivia speaking from her hospital bed to Sidney Crosby and then-Penguin Max Talbot the day before she died.

“I can't explain how the room went from busy and loud to quiet to tears as this man told us a story we will never forget about his brave daughter,” she says. “How lucky was I to be able to help out.”

Another memorable conversation of a decidedly different nature came during the Christmas season a few years ago when, with the cooperation of the Army, she was able to present an all-request “Electric Lunch” hour that featured her stepson Daren Wooten's unit in Iraq, all Western Pennsylvania soldiers calling in their song choices via satellite phone, plus shout-outs to their friends and family in Western Pennsylvania.

“It was a really great time for the soldiers and for me,” she says, “and the listeners were so moved by it, too. Guys in trucks were pulling over teary-eyed.”

“She brings listeners together as if they were sitting down as a family for dinner,” says Chris McCloskey of McMurray, who has listened since Michaels first came to the station.

Charlotte Mlynar, a fan for 25 years, is impressed with her “tremendous recall” of listeners' names. “She makes you feel like a friend of hers, gives you her undivided attention and is very down to earth,” she says.

No matter how bad the day may be going, she makes it better, says George Winkler of Connoquenessing, Butler County, a listener for many years. “She is a fun, genuine person, and it just comes through every day,” he says.

With social media, there are no walls between the DJs and the listeners anymore, Michaels says.

“They call, email, text and tweet us as they would their friends, their buds, their peeps,” she says. “The switch from just being a radio station to being whatever and wherever you want 'DVE to be, in terms of listeners reaching us online and through their favorite social media, is one of the most dramatic changes in radio. You're on Facebook and Twitter; so are we! The days of just playing Led Zeppelin songs on the FM radio band are long gone.”

What hasn't changed, despite all the new technology, she says is that people want to hear a human voice talk to them about the things that matter.

She believes there will always be a need to have local voices in each market. “A syndicated voice in another town can't go nuts with you when the Steelers win the Super Bowl, or the Fort Pitt Tunnels are closed, or they blow up Three Rivers Stadium,” she says.

“The Electric Lunch” gives the listeners a regular platform for connection. “I throw on whatever song, obscure or not, that someone's craving,” she says. “I think it's pretty cool for people, when their boss is after them and their kids are making them crazy and their significant other is making them nuts to just have someone say ‘Yes' to them when they ask for a tune. It's not winning the Powerball, but it can change somebody's day.”

That's what Michele Michaels says she hopes she can continue to do, one day at a time.

“I'm there to make their day better, to lighten it up, to play a tune that'll kick start their attitude even on the worst of days for them,” she says, “and to hang with them on the phone or online when bad things, or good things, are happening to them. I care what's going on with my listeners.”

Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or rrutkoski@tribweb.com.

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