Radio Rebel: An Interview with Gabby Parsons
Last year, Gabby Parsons said goodbye to radio broadcasting after 47 years in the business with only minor gaps. There was no hoopla, no big celebratory farewell, no big splash in the press. Her last stint was at 105.5 FM, WMMM or Triple M as it is known. She arrived there in 2000 and, for a time, served as Music Director. She transformed a Sunday night spot into a local music showcase and became a radio hero to many area musicians, most of whom had all but given up on any hope of commercial radio exposure.
This year she will become the 16th annual recipient of the Madison Area Music Awards Lifetime Achievement Award, joining the esteemed company of Clyde Stubblefield, Jan Wheaton, Ben Sidran, Jonathan Little, Richard Davis, Marvin Rabin, Jim Fleming, Pro Arte Quartet, Doc DeHaven, Michael Leckrone, Leotha Stanley, Butch Vig, Susan and Jonathan Lipp, Herb Frank and Randy Green.
Glancing at a printout of her employment and education history from her Facebook profile, she commented, “Oh, I see you printed that off; show me on the list where it says I had to grow up.” And that’s Gabby: feisty, spirited, enthusiastic and she loves music. She’s also tickled pink to receive the Lifetime Award. “I’m so excited! To even be considered with the likes of Ben Sidran and radio giants like Jonathan Little and Jim Fleming is truly an honor.”
LSM: You recently retired but there didn’t seem to be much notice in the local press.
GP: Well, I faded away, like rust, that’s why. I was actually going to retire sooner but they asked me if expanding the Local Show to an hour would keep me there longer. I didn’t even have to think twice about that because that is the only thing that made me feel bad about leaving. So I stayed another three years.
LSM: Is the Local Show going to continue?
GP: Well, Kitty Dunn is hosting it now and it seems to be getting a little more promotion lately.
LSM: What’s your career been like?
GP: If there’s one thing I learned in my career in radio it’s that if you don’t roll with the changes, the changes will roll right over you. In 2009, after the economy went to hell, I lost my job. Entercom nationally got rid of music directors and the Afternoon Drive. That was me; I was both of them. I was 59 – I didn’t want to be unemployed; I knew I might not ever get another job. So I shifted to being the receptionist thinking it would be temporary. I was in that position for more than seven years. It could have been more demeaning but I took it seriously. I was answering the telephones a lot but I was also the one interfacing with everyone who came in.
LSM: Sorta like how they say the receptionist is the most important person in a record company and if you can charm that person your likelihood of actually getting to see someone improves greatly.
GP: Exactly, and I was getting a lot of music handed off to me. I was still making suggestions about what should get attention from the programming aspect but it was starting to become more and more standardized throughout the company. But that’s when they gave me the Night Shift spot and when I decided that after ten o’clock I was going to play whatever I wanted and said “We’re calling it Professor Gabby’s Night School and I’ll continue to play the currents if you want, but I’m going to give it my own stamp and make it my own thing.” I could have walked away at that point but it became the best part of my career; those last few years when I was doing whatever I wanted. So, rolling with the changes. That was also when I started to win MAMA Awards, after I started doing what I thought was good radio.
LSM: Can you clarify the trajectory of your local programming?
GP: So, shortly after I started Professor Professor Gabby’s Night School, I decided to go with Homegrown Wednesday and start playing some local music. I think I began with Aaron Williams and the blues guys. I started with the bands that I knew. Management perked up at that and decided to call it Listen Local, they thought that rolled off the tongue a little easier. So I started doing it officially. Then they gave me a half-hour on Sunday nights after the Studio M program. The Studio M show often ran over and I’d be left with only twenty minutes. I got frustrated and was going to leave and then they offered to make it an hour. I loved it. I put all my energy into it, wanting to make every show have a theme and play something new each week. It was the most rewarding thing I’d done in my career. I call it that a “Giving them that thing you do” moment, where you’re so excited about hearing your music on the radio for the first time. I was more excited about giving them that gift. Then I would hear from people and they would just thank me. There was real love back-and-forth, I felt.
LSM: There are a couple other outlets for local music airplay but Triple M, as a commercial station, seemed to have the most breadth in terms of what could get played.
GP: Yeah, I stretched it out but I got in trouble a couple times. Once, I played a metal song that I hadn’t listened to closely enough and apparently it had the phrase “High as a mother—er” in it about fourteen times! I played jazz, too. I once did a whole program on just Ben Sidran. Ben Sidran – now these are the kinds of people that win awards, not the Gabby Parsons of the world! But I want to talk about what constitutes success. A couple of my best friends both went into very high-profile radio jobs after we all majored in theater together in college. I was jealous of them for a long time; they were making a lot of money. I realized they were more famous but were putting up with a lot of the same kind of crap I was only more high-pressure. So once I got over that striving and just focused on what I was doing I did okay; I was making a living at it. I was doing what I wanted to be doing. I didn’t ever have to get another kind of job. And that’s success. I equate that with the local people. You know, why are they getting all the gigs and I’m not? I wanted to help them.
Parsons hails from Woodridge, New York a small town in the Catskill Mountains. She started her broadcasting career as an unpaid jock at WWUH, a non-commercial radio station licensed to the University of Hartford in West Hartford, Connecticut where she studied theater. She then went on to get a Master’s Degree in Radio and Television at Syracuse. Her first paid gig came in 1973 (WAAF in Worcester, MA). From there she became a veritable radio gypsy moving to Hartford, then to Harrisburg, PA, Oklahoma City, and a short stint in Seattle. She arrived in Madison in 1979 at 30 years of age taking a job at WMAD. In 1980 she moved to WWQM-FM (Q106), and was there when the format changed to Country in 1981. That sent her back to WMAD but in 1983 she felt disillusioned and quit radio forever, “for the first time”, as she put it. In 1988 she became Production Director at WIBA-AM/FM. She then moved east again in 1992, to Albany, NY to be closer to family, and was an instructor at the New School of Radio and Television, her second time quitting radio forever. She then took a midday announcer position at WRVE in Schenectady, NY from 1994-97, until the loss of both her mother and her brother in an 18-month period .This brought her back to Madison where she worked for Midwest Family Radio, selling advertising, a job she says she was not good at. Then she worked for Dr. Chris Kammer (Madison’s rock ‘n’ roll dentist) her third and final time quitting radio forever until it lured her back in 2000, when she took her place at 105.5 Triple M and where she would spend the rest her career. Parsons has done just about every job that could be done in radio and worked in a variety of formats: country, adult contemporary, classic rock, adult album rock, talk shows, news. Of course, she met many personalities along the way and her fondest memory is making Frank Zappa laugh while in graduate school. Interviewing Ray Davies was another highlight. “Most people, it’s the Beatles and the Stones. That wasn’t me. I was the Kinks and the Zombies.”
But what’s her biggest accomplishment? Here, she takes a pause and then says, “Surviving 45 years in broadcasting. That and my ability to recognize new and upcoming talent. Even when I was relegated to receptionist I was still asked my opinion about what would catch on. Gnarles Barkley, Amy Whitehouse, Adele come to mind. And Train’s “Soul Sister. ‘No-one wants to listen to Train anymore’ I was told. That was my job, to be able to tell people ‘This is new and I think you’re going to like it.’ When I left Triple M I was asked to turn in my fob. ‘OK’, I said, ‘But I’m taking that gold record of “Soul Sister” with me!’
Parsons championed local artists, too. Particularly Gabe Burdulis who is currently in Nashville and thinks of Parsons as a second mother. He’s planning on being at the MAMA Awards on June 9th, presenting her with the Lifetime Award. Parsons also promoted the People Brothers Band, the Lower 5th and the late Luke Jorgensen, the Mascot Theory, Bob Manor and the Getaway Drivers and many more.
“I’ve spent forty years in Madison now,” Parsons says. “I don’t count the time I went back to be with my family in New York. It was kismet, my coming here. I lost my job in Seattle only three months after going there. I was making a list of places I might want to go and Madison was one. On my birthday I saw an ad for WMAD and the Program Director was someone I knew from Connecticut. I’d also been reading about the Pail & Shovel Party and all the fun things they had been doing with the flamingos and I thought this would be a fun place to live.”
Parsons won a National Music Director Award in 2013 and she won six straight MAMA Awards for Local Music Radio Personality of the Year, from 2011-2016. Parsons has no qualms about turning the reins over to others now. “I was so thrilled when Cooper (Talbot – WORT) won. Keep it with a woman, you know? An aggressive, smart-ass woman! That worked for me! She gets out there – along with Teri Barr (WOLX). I know the local scene is in very good hands with both of those women. They’re also starting to get asked to host the things I used to get asked to host. I did a Charity Jamboree for many years, which started out at the Essen House. I’m not asked to do that anymore; it’s time to go away!”
Sadly, going away is exactly what she and her husband plan to do. “We’re moving to Bennington, Vermont in the fall. It has a thriving arts and theater scene that I’m sure we’ll enjoy. I will miss the diversity that Madison has, however. It’s been so long since I came here but Vermont is beautiful. I have an idea to get involved with the community theater in Bennington and get my creative outlet there. I also might start a music podcast.”
Still growing up, still rolling with the changes…