For a kid from Piqua, Ohio, Terri Hemmert was surprisingly unimpressed when she moved to the Chicago area to attend Elmhurst College in the late '60s. She saw Chicago as a bigger Dayton, Ohio.
"Then I discovered all that it had to offer: the music, the museums, the places to eat, the neighborhoods," Hemmert said.
She never found a reason to leave, of course. Hemmert has been that friendly voice at WXRT-FM radio for 40 years now, a milestone that was noted by no less than Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel when he paid a surprise visit to the XRT studios in December to proclaim Terri Hemmert Day.
Her radio work includes a midday show Mondays through Fridays, a public service program on Sundays and "Breakfast with the Beatles," also on Sundays. (A Beatles authority, she also has hosted the annual Fest for Beatles Fans for nearly 30 years.)
But Hemmert, 65, is also an educator. She has taught radio courses at Columbia College Chicago for almost as long as she has been on WXRT, and she gives her time and talent to numerous charitable causes.
Hemmert recently sat down at the WXRT studios to discuss her life and the last 40 years on the air in Chicago. This is an edited version of the conversation.
Q: Forty years is a long time in any profession, let alone radio. And unheard-of with one station. How did this happen?
A: I just keep coming to work every day. The years catch up with you. I have that loyalty gene that my parents instilled in me. I love XRT, I love the music we play, I love the listeners — except for maybe three or four, and we have the cease-and-desists on them.
Q: Does it ever get to be a grind, going on the air almost every day for 40 years?
A: Some of it is discipline. There are days I'd much rather stay in. The hard part is going on the air every day and having to be happy, no matter how you feel. I'm a person of faith, too, and that sustains me a lot. Why do I get up? There's got to be a bigger reason than force of habit or I've got nothing else to do.
Q: Do you have a favorite radio story you've never told?
A: DJ nightmares. My good friend (and fellow WXRT personality) Lin Brehmer and I were talking about this recently. DJs have work nightmares. I remember one I had when we were still playing vinyl. I had a dream that every record in our library was a Fiestaware dinner plate, with a little hole in the middle. And I'd put them on the turntable and nothing was playing. DJ nightmares, something people don't think of.
Q: There's a side of you that's not as obvious as the person with the daily radio show. That's your work with charities. Which ones are you focusing on these days?
A: I've worked with the Peace Museum, the Inner-City Teaching Corps, the AIDS Pastoral Care Network. My main commitments now are to Columbia College and the Chicago Symphony, where I do the Classic Encounter series. I do a lot with art. But justice issues and AIDS, I feel drawn to those kinds of things. Right now I'm drawn to Let's See Action (a program she started that gets listeners involved in helping others). I'm trying to get people to find existing arts organizations and get involved. You don't have to be a musician or artist to get involved. Be a tutor, raise money.
Q: Music and art always seem the first that the bean-counters ax. But they make a difference.
A: I've met a lot of these kids who tell me how much the arts mean to them. "I wouldn't have graduated high school if not for the choir, or the gymnastics team." It gives them a reason to go to school.
Q: In your career, what drives you?
A: The music is huge. I consider it a privilege to do what I do, turn people on to music and tell them about issues. I'm (WXRT's) public affairs director, so I get to do that as well. I love that aspect. And I love that 'XRT plays old and new music.
Q: Do you have a biggest thrill in your career?
A: Meeting Paul McCartney multiple times is pretty cool. But it's not so much about one big electric moment; it's more about the intimate meetings with listeners. When done right, there's an intimacy there.
When I'm on the phone with a listener or I meet someone one-on-one, and they're on the lowest rung of hell and they open up, I realize, hey, this isn't about being a DJ anymore. When you're with people who are going through a difficult part of life, that's sacred space. That's better than any trophy or meeting a rock star.
One day I played "Don't Give Up" by Peter Gabriel. And a listener called. He said he was going to get tested for HIV that day. He said he'd heard that song many times, and this time it meant something very special to him. It was helping him cope with what he faced. I'm thinking I played it because I needed to fill 6 minutes. I didn't think it would change someone's life. That is the mystery of radio. It never gets old.
Q: If we hit the play button on your iPod, what song would pop up?
A: Probably something by Bach. "St. Matthew Passion." I like classical music. Old R&B. I've also gotten into old country, from the '40s and '50s.
Q: What did you listen to as a kid?
A: I grew up listening to soul music. When they came along, I doubted I'd like the Beatles. I thought they'd be a white band, you know, Pat Boone. But it was those old school soul hits that got me through puberty.
Q: Is there any band you've never been able to catch in concert that you want to see?
A: The only one I like I haven't seen is Arcade Fire, and they're coming this summer.
Q: The radio business, like so many industries, has changed tremendously, and it will continue to do so. What do you tell your students about the challenges they will face?
A: I like to tell the students it's like surfing. You get knocked off your board by a wave, you get back up, stabilize, regain your balance and keep going. One thing I can guarantee them is that everything will change. You have to be ready for it. But that's life. Life constantly changes.
Q: What other advice do you impart?
A: I tell them they'll work with some really creepy people, I tell them to take that down so when it happens to them, they'll remember I told them. I also feed them. We'll go to Dairy Queen or someplace. I remember every adult who bought me a meal when I was in college, and I hope they'll remember me.
Q: Do you worry about putting the kids on a path that might not end well, the way radio is going? If you were 20 and just starting out, would you do it again?
A: I don't know. I might be scared to death. When I started, I was scared. Could a woman get on the radio? You didn't see that back then. I had some discussions about that on my college campus with my peer group. ... I want to give the kids some skills so they can go in a lot of directions.
Q: You seem to relate well to young people.
A: I had 20-year-old kids coming up to me at Lollapalooza, "Can I have my picture taken with you?" I love them.
Q: Are kids underrated?
A: Kids today are doing really hard work. (Years ago) they were involved in anti-apartheid protests. Now there's the whole Occupy movement. Kids are studying to work with handicapped children and so many other things.
Q: What responsibility do adults have to young people?
A: We have a tremendous responsibility. When I hear, "Kids these days …" I ask that person, "How many do you know?" Studs (Terkel) and I used to argue. He'd say, "Kids today, they should be taking over (their university) library." Kids today, kids today. I had him come to my class and talk to the kids. And they won him over. He told me, "You know, you're right about them."
Q: You teach, you're active in Let's See Action and other causes. How do people make that step?
A: I'd say get involved as a tutor. Get outside your comfort zone, even if it's mentoring. There are all kinds of programs out there. It will be an eye-opener. Just like I remember every adult who ever bought me a meal, I remember every adult who mentored me. That was so liberating and exciting. Any adult who does this will get much more out of it than the young person does.
Asked what inspires her, Terri Hemmert replies, "Music is huge. But again, my whole thing, being that Catholic girl, is that faith is important. It's like, you read this stuff. Now, how do you live it? That's the challenge. It all has to do with love. The Gospel according to the Beatles. All you need is love."