September 1, 2015
After getting his start in radio in 1969, then reigning over the D.C. airwaves from 1977-2010, Donnie Simpson has returned to his on-air roots by taking the afternoon-drive slot at Radio One WMMJ/Washington, D.C., as well as on-screen duties at TV One, the latter beginning next year. AllAccess.com Urban editor Sam Weaver got a chance to talk with Donnie literally the day after he announced his return. Simpson opened up on everything from how his new deal came about and early influences to his unusual hobby of deer watching.
What have you've been doing for the last five years, besides playing golf?
Well, it's funny I played less golf in the five-and-a-half years of retirement than I played when I was working. Because it was part of my routine; I would get up every day do my show 6a til 10, go to the golf course at 10:50 and play until dark, every day. In retirement, I would wait and see how the day would develop; maybe the grandkids would come over or whatever. Whenever people would ask what I was up to, I tell everyone in the last five years I have run a shuttle service, shuttling grandbabies back and forth, which I love. During the summer I'm pool boy, making sure I keep the pool clean for them.
How many grandkids?
I have three grandkids, Nora who is seven, Cooper who is four, and Ellie who is 16 months. So I spend a lot of time with them and I really enjoy it. As a matter of fact, as we were doing this deal, after everything was agreed upon, one of my guys came to me and said, "You know Donnie, Alfred has signed off on everything. The only reason for you not to do this now would be because you don't want to do this. Can you think of a reason not to do this?" I told him, yeah, I can't pick Nora up at 3 o'clock from school. That's the only problem I have, but the trade-off is I get to shout her out on the radio and I bet she'd like that more.
You mentioned the deal ... how did all this come about, how long has it been in the works?
It's been in the works since February. Wow, how do I get to the beginning of this? Let me start here, I had made an appearance with Blair Underwood for AARP and Brad Siegel, the President of TV One, came to watch us. After the event, he came up, introduced himself and said "You were amazing, we have to get you back on television. Would you have dinner with me?" I said absolutely and we had dinner four or five days later and we talked about television and he wanted to do something with me and then asked, "Why aren't you on radio?" I told him about my last year on radio, which was a nightmare for me, and I had no interest in doing radio anymore. He said, "Yeah, but you need to be on the radio, too, I'm going to talk to Alfred about this." In less than 24 hours later I got a call from Alfred Liggins and he said, "I hear you may be interested in doing this." He and I had talked on several occasions trying to make something happen over the last 20 years. Anyway that's how it started and eventually turned to my returning to radio and TV.
It must feel like old home week for you with Michel Wright there?
Yeah, it really is, with her and Jay Stevens here; the guy who ran my board today, Ric Chill, he ran before over there; a lot of sales people, people in traffic; Agnes the receptionist used to be the receptionist over at PGC for years. It was a homecoming of sorts to walk through these doors today. And I just can't tell you what a feeling it was, and not just because of the people I knew, but also because of a lot of new people I have met, too. I mentioned Brad Siegel, Jeff Wilson the market manager who runs Majic 102.3, Kashon Powell the PD, and I've met so many nice people in this company already. I love people and that just gets me really excited about coming to work every day.
What did you learn about radio while you were gone from it?
Nothing, ha ha! No really, in all honesty I didn't listen much. I will be very honest with you. The reason for that, the pain of my last year in radio was so significant to me, that I soured on it completely. It wasn't the radio station I didn't want to listen to; I didn't want to listen to radio behind that. I think part of it was that deep inside, I was afraid that it might make me miss it. I didn't miss doing the show, but I missed the people I talked to everyday, the listeners. Until I got pretty far into the discussions I thought, wow, this is going to be pretty cool again. Alfred reassured me that I was going to have fun and it would not be like my last year. And Brad Siegel told me the same thing about television and I believe him. So in answer to your question, I didn't learn much because I didn't listen much.
What was it about the last year before you retired that put you off?
I have always had total control of what I do on the air and that last year, they were trying to take that away, that was problematic for me. They wanted me to do their version of Donnie Simpson. I had said all my life that if this ever got to the point I wasn't having fun I would leave, and that day finally came and I bounced. There are so many people that are in situations that they are not happy with but stay for financial reasons -- and that wasn't the case for me. God has blessed me in a way that I didn't have to accept anything less than what I wanted to do.
Is your afternoon show going to be similar to what you've always done?
Yeah, well, all I've ever done is me, and the show will be that ... me. I will be playing music and doing interviews. I have always said there are 1,000 people out there waiting to take my job and that 500 of them were just as good as I am and the other 500 were better. The only thing that I could beat them all at was being me.
Who were some of your mentors, the people who helped you become the essential Donnie Simpson?
I would go back to the beginning for me in Detroit where I grew up, when I started in radio at 15, back in 1969. There was a legendary DJ named Ernie D - Ernie Durham, "The King of Cookery" -- cooking on two stoves, one is electric and one is gas ... put them together and they're a sexual blast. It was that kind of high-energy delivery. Ernie was amazing. It wasn't his style of radio that influenced me; it was his style of life. Ernie was a gentleman ... so charismatic. He talked to you and looked you in the eye, so engaging, that's who I wanted to be as a person not necessarily as a DJ. For a DJ for style, there was a guy in Detroit named Jahue Mumphrey, "The Cat" -- Cat Daddio Trackin on your raggedy radio. I loved Cat. In fact, when I started as a teen reporter for WJLB as a high school student, he recorded my first recording ever for radio. His style was very laid back, which is my style. In fact a lot of people were surprised when I started doing morning because I just kind of talked, I'm just me. I like smooth ... I like smooth rappers like Snoop Dog and smooth singers like Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye. I just do my thing ... kind of smooth.
Are there going to be some simulcasting situations involving your radio show on Majic and TV One?
We haven't had any discussions like that. We're planning on developing a show specifically for TV One which we will have on by the last quarter of this year. There have been no discussions of simulcasting my radio show on TV One, but who knows, in today's world there are a lot of different platforms and they play on a lot of them. I intend to take a swing myself on these different platforms.
There is a platform of movies?
Perhaps they didn't prep you properly, but I have three movies under my belt, I did "Krush Groove," "The Five Heart Beats," and I can't remember the last one, but it was with the Fat Boys. You combine my parts in all three and you get about two minutes of tape. Most people don't know this, but back in 1983 I was nominated for Best Actor in an insignificant role, but I didn't win, ha ha. Acting I'm not so good at it. I don't think it's for me.
Is there something about you that would surprise people?
Yes, I did every radio show naked, except for television, where I wore a thong. No seriously, the most exciting part of my day always came at dusk. I would get in my truck and go out to look for deer. They are such great athletes especially if you can catch them running. They looked like wide receivers. When they jumped across the fence, I could see Lynn Swann going up to snag that pass from Terry Bradshaw. I just love deer, I would go out and count them and see how many I could see every night. I kept records in a book, the most I ever saw in one day was 396, that year I saw 23,786 deer. That may surprise you. I know it is really sad, it shows you how sad my life is, but that is the most exciting part of my day. That's what I do every single night.
Let me get this straight, you don't hunt, you just go out and look?
No, I am very serious, I just look, I couldn't kill anything.
Well, you keep on counting and good luck.
I've enjoyed this, it's been great talking to you and thanks for taking the time to do this, God bless you.