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Jimmy Roach: 40 years as the voice of FM radio

| Monday, Nov. 22, 2010

A few days after Jimmy Roach moved to Pittsburgh in 1972, Roberto Clemente, en route from his native Puerto Rico to Nicaragua on a humanitarian mission, died in the infamous New Year's Eve plane crash.

Not a good time for the new disc jockey from Ohio to get noticed, especially because he had no idea how much the late Pirates outfielder was revered in Western Pennsylvania.

"My family wasn't even here yet, there's that plane crash, and the town's draped in black," Roach says. "I didn't realize the depth of emotion. Living in Columbus, there was one game on per week on Saturdays, and it was always the Yankees."

Roach quickly caught on in an industry and a town that holds outsiders and unproven performers at arm's length. In doing so, he set a standard for other DJs in the then-nascent world of FM radio.

"Jimmy was one of the most unique voices in the country," says Steve Hansen, who would later team up with Roach for the WDVE-FM (102.5) morning team starting in 1980. "He created this personality, this super-hip, super-cool, laidback guy. Everybody was trying to do what he did, speaking in this low, rumbling voice. But nobody had the pipes do it."

Those pipes, that voice, have served Roach well in his four decades in radio.

Roach, who currently helms the morning drive time slot with Wendy Green on Froggy Radio's trio of country stations in the tri-state area, is circumspect about his age because "you get fired for being too old in this business. Can't you just tell people I'm a prodigy and have been in the business for 40 years?"

His first job was at a Christian station in Columbus, WCOL-FM, in 1970, "playing Kathryn Kuhlman tapes for $2 an hour." Roach didn't have to be asked twice when the station manager decided to program free-form rock music for half the day. Roach decided to delineate the station's dual nature by using Arthur Brown's "Fire" as his sign-on music.

The segue was striking, from sermons praising the Lord to Brown singing "I am the god of hellfire."

"The first day we changed the format, a guy showed up with a hatchet, coming after me," Roach says. "Luckily, the door was locked."

There was no "Idiot's Guide to Being a Disc Jockey," so Roach tried to entertain himself. Once, when he invited friends to the station, they played nothing but music by the Byrds for six hours.

"We were the first album jocks we ever heard," he says. "There were no prototypes."

By the time Roach arrived Pittsburgh to work the afternoon shift at WDVE, he had refined the role of the disc jockey. He was casual almost to the point of being laconic. But Roach had a keen musical aesthetic, his tastes running from the Beatles to Gilbert O'Sullivan to Frank Zappa.

"Good lord, guys like me were salivating listening to him," says Sean McDowell, a DJ who works Roach's former afternoon shift at WDVE. "What an FM radio voice. I'd never heard a voice like that before."

That voice -- McDowell calls it three octaves below middle C -- meshed seamlessly with the persona Little Jimmy Roach. Listeners sometimes connected "roach" with marijuana use, assuming there was something up in smoke about a guy who sounded mellow and relaxed all the time.

It was a false assumption. Roach drove a station wagon, lived in suburban Bethel Park, didn't drink, smoke or take drugs.

"Jimmy was as straight as an arrow," Hansen says of Roach, who is a happily married father of two and grandfather of four. "He could not have been (that persona) if wanted to. He was a family-oriented guy."

In 1980, Roach was asked to take over the morning drive-time slot at WDVE. He was reluctant to leave his afternoon show, but agreed with one condition: He wanted to team with Hansen, who had left WDVE for a gig in San Francisco.

When Hansen initially refused to return to Pittsburgh, WDVE hired another disc jockey from Phoenix. He lasted two weeks, then quit. Hansen then turned down another offer.

"Then I had a fight with my girlfriend," Hansen says. "I said, 'That's it, I'm leaving,' and drove across the country. I don't know what my thoughts were at that time. I can definitely say there was no paradigm, no script for what a morning show was."

Roach and Hansen created the program on the fly. There were no rules, no one to imitate, so they amused themselves and were themselves: Roach, the easygoing lead and the voice, Hansen, the brilliant alter ego, the guy who came up with skits such as the difference between Camus and Shamu. Roach developed characters such as Wilmer Flemm, the professor who defined words such as molasses ('the last thing you see when moles go down a hole'), super agent Murray "Crash" Berkowitz and Cousin Luke, a redneck naif who answered the question 'What brings you to town?' with "My truck." They also mounted a mock campaign for mayor of Pittsburgh, running against Sophie Masloff with the slogan "two heads are better than none."

WDVE's ratings soared, and the skits and bits from "Jimmy and Steve in the Morning" became water-cooler fodder across the region.

"We were 100 percent us," Roach says. "There was no b.s. ... So the audience really did know you, and that made it comfortable when you met people in public. It was like they were old friends you hadn't met."

They also started to play local music against the advice of management and consultants who thought the audience would prefer to hear the Eagles, Rolling Stones or Fleetwood Mac.

"They opened it up to a lot of the local people," says Donnie Iris, the singer and musician from Beaver County. "There was a lot of music coming from out of here that had never been on the radio before. Jimmy and Steve started that."

Rick Granati of the Granati Brothers, another band from Beaver Country, credits Roach and Hansen with creating the local music scene that increased the audience for his band, Iris, B.E. Taylor, the Iron City Houserockers and other bands from the era.

"Nothing like this had ever happened before," Granati says.

Then, at their ratings peak in October 1986, Roach and Hansen were not offered another contract. In essence, they were fired.

"Our bosses didn't care for us," Roach says. "I think there was some jealousy there. Our boss came in and said your contract's over, and you're not getting another one. ... We never said we were fired in public. We took the high road, and I realized the high road is a lonely one. People thought we abandoned them, that we just moved out of town. But we just tried to find a job and had to leave town."

Roach and Hansen moved to Miami, Fla., where they lasted six months at WSHE-FM before they were asked to leave because they weren't raunchy enough. They returned to Pittsburgh a year later to work at WMYG-FM, Magic 97, where McDowell was then employed.

"I was so glad they were coming back to Pittsburgh to work with me that I drove out to airport, where there was a big party for them," McDowell says. "There were a ton of people at the old Pittsburgh International Airport, waiting for Jimmy and Steve to arrive."

Magic 97 was broadcast from Braddock, in less than ideal conditions. Roach was given a garage door opener and told to drive to a row of warehouses on Braddock Avenue near the former Edgar Thompson Works, and keep pressing the button. When a door opened, he drove in, only to find he'd signed on to broadcast from a rat-infested room that formerly was a car dealership and a trolley repair shop.

"The building was tilted, there were leaks in the roof and plants growing out of the floor," Roach says. "That I got to work with Sean was one of the few pluses."

Roach and Hansen did some television work for Evening Magazine, the news program on KDKA-TV, before going separate ways in 1991. Roach landed at WDSY-FM, Y-108, a country station, before moving to Froggy in 1998. He learned to love country music -- "the best rock 'n' roll out now is country," he insists -- but one gets the feeling that Roach would be happy doing classical, jazz or punk as long as he had a microphone in front of him.

"I've been very lucky," he says. "Every job I've ever had I could go and talk about whatever I wanted to talk about. I've never been tightly controlled. You shut the door and leave the business outside."

His legacy is ostensibly as that guy with the voice. But Hansen thinks Roach is the FM version of Porky Chedwick, the legendary Pittsburgh disc jockey who revolutionized AM radio.

"A lot of radio stations were tightly formatted, and none more so than 'DVE," Hansen says. "Jimmy was the guy who gave it credence, who made it hip and original. Nobody else approached what Jimmy did, not just in Pittsburgh, but across the country. Porky's legend has grown through the years, and justifiably so. Jimmy's rock 'n' roll legacy, because he went country, has not grown. It's lost in time."

What others are saying

What they're saying about Jimmy Roach, the longtime Pittsburgh disc jockey who is celebrating 40 years in radio

B.E. Taylor, musician: "Back in the day when I would listen to WDVE, it was always Jimmy Roach and that deep, beautiful voice of his. ... When we got signed to MCA, Jimmy and Steve (Hansen) were so supportive. The first time I got played on the radio, it was by them. And they've been our friends ever since."

Norman Nardini, musician: "When country music started taking over rock 'n' roll and becoming the voice of our nation, Jimmy got involved and has been involved. It's really cool that he did that, because when we were kids, country was an afterthought. Jimmy has found life in both genres. When rock 'n' roll was hot and now that country is hot, he's involved."

Sean McDowell, disc jockey, WDVE-FM: "To me, he's the FM-rock mainstream pioneer. People come and go in the business, but who else can you name from that period• ... I still get calls for skits he and Steve (Hansen) did, like 'Miami Mice.' "

Donnie Iris, musician: "He's got that great radio voice, that deep resonating beautiful voice. But one of the things I remember about Jimmy is that he's a music aficionado, a guy who knows his stuff ... When Jimmy was on the air with Steve Hansen, they just worked magic in Pittsburgh. They really started (combining music with comedy during morning drivetime) on FM radio.

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