A great voice is stilled. James “Jimbo” Bohannon died of cancer of the esophagus on Nov. 12. Only weeks earlier, he had to resign from his “Jim Bohannon Show,” the overnight broadcast that aired on 500 radio stations, largely AM, weeknights from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. ET.
Jim was a big man with a big voice, a big curiosity and a big heart. Over most of the 29 years that his show was on the air, I had the pleasure of being a guest from time to time.
At first, my wife, Linda Gasparello — a writer, broadcaster and an occasional guest on the show — and I would journey to a studio in suburban northern Virginia — the building always looked forbidding in the dark of night. Later, the show moved to the CBS studios on M Street in Washington. But in recent years, Bohannon broadcast from his home in Westminster, S.C.
As with most of us in the trade, I believe “in studio” trumps virtual. But one of the pleasures of radio is that it is portable and can be done with a phone anywhere. Before Jim took over the show, it was the springboard for Larry King, who once interviewed me in a bedroom in the Algonquin Hotel in New York. That was odd, but I was used to guesting on the radio from odd spots, like sitting in a parked car in a hotel lot overlooking the River Moy in Ballina, Ireland.
Jim’s show was a mixture of guests, whom he interviewed with genuine curiosity and gruff respect for views other than his own, and call-ins. He also was kind. I asked him to interview a friend, Ryan Prior, who was establishing a charity to support Chronic Fatigue Syndrome research and medical education. Bohannon asked informed and perceptive questions and elicited an interesting hour of broadcasting with his skill as an interviewer.
He was less indulgent of crazy folks. If you do call-in radio, you get crazies. When their rants began, Jim simply cut them off. No apology, but no indulgence either. Some were regulars and went to lengths to circumvent the security provisions of Westwood One, the show’s syndicator.
One technique was to use a different phone for each attempt, say a wife’s or a neighbor’s phone. I once said, “George, in St. Louis, did you take your medicine today?” Jim chuckled, but I doubt he would have addressed a caller that way. Jim had a superficial toughness — he was a Vietnam veteran — but his kindness always broke through.
Unlike many in the star business, Jim didn’t yearn, that I could discern, to emulate his predecessor, Larry King, becoming a television star. Like many, if not most, broadcasters, he loved radio. It is flexible, mobile and not slaved to technology and big crews.
That isn’t to say Jim didn’t enjoy doing television, but he was a radio man, having started in it, like many, when he was in high school — in his case, in his native Missouri. He found his footing in Washington, where he did some television and a lot of radio before taking over the late-night slot that uniquely fitted him.
Jim seemed supremely happy in the wee hours. So were his listeners from coast to coast who enjoyed his camaraderie, humor, wisdom and masterful interviewing.
The one talent that great commercial broadcasters must have is the skill in “hitting time” to accommodate syndicated radio advertising. Jim seamlessly guided his interviews to a full stop without the interviewees knowing they had been diverted to silence. It takes skill to do that. It also takes skill — and the love of craft — to be fresh night after night; and skill to elicit gems of truth and wisdom from reluctant subjects.
Jim had those talents, but I shall remember especially his talent for friendship. He has signed off but won’t be forgotten by those who knew him and shared the time of stars in the sky with a true star of the microphone.
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of "White House Chronicle" on PBS. On Twitter: @llewellynking2