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The Sitdown: Richard Steele

Recently retired after nearly a half-century on the airwaves, 27 of them at WBEZ (91.5-FM), longtime Chicago broadcaster Richard Steele, 72, will continue to host his program “The Barber Shop Show” as he acclimates to a life that’s no longer ruled by radio. Chicago-bred, he returned to the city of his youth in the spring of 1970 and began a career spinning tunes at WGRT-AM. Seventeen years and several other stations later, he made the leap to talk radio at WBEZ and before long became known more for his probing interviews of pop-culture icons and newsmakers (on Eight Forty-Eight, The Afternoon Shift and elsewhere) than his snappy disc-jockey dialogue and concert intros of pop acts. Along the way, he developed solid relationships with many of Chicago’s most powerful black leaders and became an influential presence in the black community.

I sort of had two lives. I was totally involved in doing the show on music radio and emceeing the concerts of Earth, Wind & Fire and all the major acts during that period.

I always had an interest in politics. And even when I was doing music radio, I’d sneak in some stuff.

Now you can talk about anything doing morning radio and music radio. [Back] then it was mainly “talk about the music and the artists.” But I would try to get some other stuff in, because I felt a real strong connection to the black community.

In the black community at that point, there was sort of a cross-fertilization of people who were media personalities, like myself as a disc jockey. And if I mentioned something on the radio that sounded supportive and wasn’t too far over the line, you could kind of get away with it.

In Chicago, black disc jockeys were like a fraternity. We competed against each other on the air, but we were all connected when we were off the air.

When Harold Washington was elected mayor, the black press used to have access to him, like, once a month. So somewhere along the way, I established some sort of one-on-one relationship with Harold to the degree that I was able to set up a once-a-month with just me.

I was doing overnight talk from 11 [p.m.] to three in the morning, and he’d come in at 11 o’clock. It was called “Chat with the Chief.” It was just Harold Washington and me, and we’d take phone calls.

I was always gone. I was always out. I don’t claim to place myself in the category of people who’ve been incredibly successful and busy, but it is a reality that the family sort of shares you with the rest of the public. It’s not that I didn’t like being gone a lot. When I was doing music radio, I was always making an appearance somewhere or another. There was a lot of involvement, a lot of promotional stuff.

My wife is a really great woman and she put up with a lot in terms of me being gone and doing things and being shared with the public. I guess there was some friction because of the amount of time that I didn’t have to spend with my [two] children.

It’s nice being in the public and [getting] the adoration and getting paid, so there’s a down side and an up side.

I was a big jazz fan from early on in high school. I thought the greatest achievement in my life would be to be on the radio in the evening, being cool, playing Miles Davis.

When I listen to jazz, I always feel like I want to share that feeling with other people. That was the whole idea of being on the radio and being able to play it, so other people could [enjoy] it as I enjoy it.

There are very few people who come out of commercial radio as a music person and go into public radio. That usually doesn’t happen.

I’d just come off the radio [at the music station] and I’d come ’BEZ and have to ramp it down. The problem, in my own head, was I really wanted to emphasize the change, so I overdid it. I found a happy medium at some point, but I’d go all the way from doing the music thing and pumpin’ out the hits [to] [sedate voice] “WBEZ, public radio.” It was stupid.

I had a producer who told me, “This publisher keeps calling about this book a guy named Barack Obama has.” And I said, “OK, who is he?” She said, “They say he has an interesting story because his mother’s white and his father’s African and he went to Harvard.” And I said, “OK, we’ll talk about it.”

They called back again and they were pretty persistent about trying to get him on, and I said, “OK, well, book him.”

So he came in. Very congenial guy. And we sat down and talked about his community involvement. One thing I do remember him saying to me is that he wanted to do something bigger than what he was doing, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to go into elective politics. Because working as a community organizer, he had an opportunity to see how politics really works at the ground level and it wasn’t very attractive. He wasn’t sure he had the stomach for that.

My producer says that I said to her after he left, “That guy was very impressive. He could be president.” She’s straight up and there’s no reason for her to say that if it’s not true.

Eartha Kitt came in one time. First of all, somebody was supposed to pick her up at the airport and they were late getting there. She’s our first guest on the live show and we’ve got about 15 minutes left before we go on the air. And [my producer] said, “She is really pissed.” So I brought her into the studio with about 10 minutes to go till airtime. And I’m trying to find a way to get in. To this day, I cannot remember what I said that made her laugh. We had about three minutes to go till airtime and I’m sweating and saying, “This is going to be a tough 20 minutes.” And it turned the tide.

If you can find something that the person connects with on a personal level in addition to the meaty stuff that you’re asking and somehow work that in so you feel like, “This is just you and I having a conversation,” that has been very helpful.