Hey, You're That Guy!
Waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store this afternoon, I noticed that the guy in front of me was Matt Lepay, play-by-play voice of Wisconsin Badgers football and basketball. Since I didn't hear him do anything other than thank the cashier, I probably wouldn't have been able to identify him by voice alone. His face is familiar, however--Lepay used to be a TV sportscaster up here, he still hosts a Badger sports show on cable, and he does a few TV commercials too.
To somebody like Lepay, getting recognized in public is probably no big deal, but to smaller fish in the broadcasting pond, it can be a treat. My first radio job was at KDTH in Dubuque, Iowa. Some of our listeners claimed they hadn't touched their tuners since the 1940s, and we believed them. Once you became a part of that family, you were public property. And so it was that one night, The Mrs. and I were having dinner in a little restaurant in Dubuque, the kind of place where you paid for dinner at the bar register. I asked the bartender if she'd take a personal check, and she said yes. A barfly two stools down spoke up: "If it's no good, we know where to find him." "And where would that be?" I asked. He said, "You work at the radio station, right?"
(That's not as good a story as the old radio friend of mine who got a check cashed at a small-town bar in northern Wisconsin with no identification other than the sound of his voice.)
Shortly after The Mrs. became The Mrs., she wrote a check at a store in Dubuque, then apologized to the clerk for the low check number, saying she had just changed her name and gotten new checks. The woman behind her in line had clearly peeked over my wife's shoulder and gotten her name, because she piped up with, "Oh, you must be Jim's wife! It sounds like you had such a lovely honeymoon!" (I'm not sure it's true anymore, what with most jocks being limited to talking in 15-second bits, but back in the day, the wives of radio guys tended to suffer from chronic low-level paranoia regarding what their husbands were saying about them on the air.)
A corollary to this is that listeners inevitably form a mental picture of you based on the sound of your voice. (Even radio people themselves do this. Not long ago, I had occasion to actually see a local radio reporter I'd heard on the air for several years, and was surprised to find that rather than being the large black woman I expected, she was actually a petite white woman.) So when a jock goes out to broadcast from a store or some community event, listeners are often quite interested in matching a face to a voice. Once in Dubuque, a woman who had to be 80 walked up to me, put her face in mine, and croaked, "Are you Don Hess?" (Don was the station's morning host.) When she determined I wasn't, she didn't want anything more to do with me. Several years later in another town, I was doing an appearance when a listener came up and began to visit with me. "Which one are you?" he finally asked. When I told him, he said, "I know you. I thought you'd be shorter."
Because people feel as though they know you, they can occasionally be rude without meaning to be. One afternoon at the local summer festival, a listener came up to me and began to visit. At one point he asked, "How much money do you make?" Rather than answering, I asked him, "How much do you think I make?" He thought it over for a bit. "Oh, 30 or 40 thousand a year?" I just laughed, and that was answer enough. At the time, I was making less than half that. Half of the low end.
I have fewer stories of this sort from later in my career. I'm pretty sure I wasn't getting recognized any less, but it just didn't impress me as much. Even now, it still happens, however, albeit in a backward way. Now and again I'll be talking with someone and mention that I used to be in radio, and they'll inevitably say, "I'm not surprised; you have that radio voice."