A legend in broadcasting, Donnie Simpson discusses his career at the Club
December 6, 2018 | By Irv Chapman | email@example.com
Donnie Simpson became a radio disc jockey at age 15 in his hometown of Detroit. A dozen years later, he moved to Washington and realized he didn’t have to channel the style of radio personalities he admired — he could just be Donnie Simpson, and people were increasingly tuning in.
They still are; his afternoon show on WMMJ-FM 102.3 is No. 1 one in the ratings, he said.
After years of morning drive time, he said during a Legends of Broadcasting dinner sponsored by the National Press Club’s Broadcast/Podcast Team on Dec. 4 that he liked his current afternoon hours just fine.
The early stint allowed him to head for the golf course at 10 a.m. (playing with the likes of Michael Jordan), but the broadcast was structured, cluttered with news and weather and commercials with not enough music. Now, he said he can talk about what he wants to, what he sees happening in the world, and introduce the music that appeals to him.
Simpson’s mother still owns a record store, Simpson’s Music, “except she sells more candy than records these days,” Simpson said.
He said he had no thought of going into radio — his ambition was to be a Baptist preacher — until his mother hosted a local disc jockey,Al Perkins. While watching him do his show from the store, Simpson said he thought, “I can do that!”
Three months later, he was on the local airwaves.. His program was on until midnight, but as a school kid, he was not allowed to work that late, so he recorded the last hour and a half before he went on live so he could get a night’s sleep.
After years of radio success, Simpson insisted on a clause in his contract that said he couldn't be told by management what to talk about or what music to play.
He cited Elton John as an example. A favorite disc jockey in Detroit, he recalled, "turned me on to his Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album with ‘Bennie and the Jets.' I'm loving this song!”
But playing it for a black audience? Simpson waited a couple of days before he went ahead with it. "The phones were jumping off the hook--it was like wildfire," he said.
John got the word and phoned Simpson from London. Simpson said he was amazed that the song "was breaking black. Out of Detroit. Motown. Six months later, Elton came to Detroit. He held a press conference and presented me with a gold record. It was the biggest thing that ever happened in my radio career!"
That encouraged Simpson, when the spirit moved him, to play John Lennon, and then Garth Brooks.
"He sold 67 million records," Simpson said. "I gotta know who this guy is." He said he listened to a few tracks, decided he "loved this dude" and played his music. When thre station manager objected, and Simpson had to remind him that he had the freedom to be Donnie. By contract.
Along the way, Simpson did a show for Black Entertainment Television called “Video Soul” in the heyday of music videos. He also interviewed the artists. “I talked to Smokey Robinson—that’s still freaking me out!” And how about Aretha Franklin?
The program went off the air in 2000, but “I’m bringing it back! And I own it this time!” Simpson said. He said he booked a TV studio in Atlanta, hired 60 talented production people to put some shows together, and is deciding how to market it. After 45 years in broadcasting, he said, “I’m so excited!”