Recalling friend who personified Indy radio

By Dick Wolfsie

For the past several years I have had the pleasure of reading this weekly humor column on WFYI radio. In preparation for broadcast on a new station, I was listening to some old audio files and realized that, like so many other people, I don’t like the sound of my recorded voice. This reminded me of a dear friend who I wrote about five years ago when he passed away, a man who really did have a voice for radio.

John Gillis was as tall as a grizzly bear, but as gentle as a teddy bear. The 40-year veteran of Indiana radio was an iconic figure. His loyal listeners looked up to him. “I guess being 6-foot-4 was a big help,” he once told me.

John loved the sound of his own voice. I offer this as high praise, because each word that tumbled off his tongue was not only meticulously chosen, but it was savored by listeners for still another nanosecond before he went on to the next. “His 60 second traffic reports,” longtime associate Jeff Pigeon said during John’s November 2012 funeral, “lasted about eight minutes.”

John once told me: “I have 20 seconds to do what I have to do, read a sponsor’s name, and then if I can figure out a way to twist a word or inject my personality into it, that’s it — I’m a disembodied voice, and every 10 minutes I stop what I am doing and talk to my imaginary friends.”

A disembodied voice? Perhaps. But it still embodied everything that was good about radio in those years. He wasn’t just a person locals recognized on the street, he was a person everyone felt they knew personally. Everyone liked him, but they knew instantly that he liked them, as well.

John loved radio. It was his best friend. “Everywhere you travel, it’s there; it takes you places immediately … it exercises your imagination.” If there was any sadness, any remorse in John, it was that media had changed. “We went high-tech and lost the high touch,” he told me. “Radio should be about content, character and personality.”

John might have thrown in loyalty, an ingredient he added to a recipe that brought him a taste of success, and also fulfilled him. Big John had many opportunities to leave the Indianapolis market and pursue a more lucrative career elsewhere. That was not in his flight plan. His job was on the air and in the air, but his feet were on the ground. He loved Indianapolis; he was wedded to WIBC. Why break up a happy marriage?

“If I have 20 minutes to live and I spend the next 19 with you, having this conversation, I would die happy,” John said to me. “If in that 20 minutes, we come up with an idea and we have 20 years to make it happen, then God has blessed me far beyond my wildest dreams.”

John did not get those 20 years. If you still hear his halting, yet mesmerizing, voice in your head, look to the heavens. No, he’s not in the helicopter, but he’s up there. Trust me.

Television personality Dick Wolfsie writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.