For almost 30 years, the rich, British-inflected voice of Richard Winham has been a familiar companion to radio listeners in Chattanooga.
In the late 1960s, Winham, now 60, dreamed of following in the footsteps of legendary London radio personality John Peel by connecting with listeners and opening their ears to new and exciting music.
British radio was a highly regulated industry, however, and there were few opportunities for those without degrees, Winham said.
"I thought, 'Geez, if I'm ever going to make a go of this, there's no way I can do it here. I guess I need to come to the states. It's got to be better there,' " he said.
Winham arrived in New York City in 1971, inspired by the writing of Jack Kerouac.
He received his first break in the radio business when he was hired to work weekends at a station in Utica, N.Y. After nine months, the station was sold, and Winham followed a friend's advice to move to Chattanooga, where he worked at WSIM until it, too, was sold in 1980.
After enrolling to study journalism, Winham returned to radio in 1987 as an overnight personality for WUTC-FM. He was the station's first morning show host. He now runs the afternoon music program.
Q: What kind of culture shock did you experience when you moved to Chattanooga?
A: You name it [but] ... what I liked, and still like, is the unbelievable warmth of people here. After a while, you start to take it for granted. Then, I go somewhere else, like back to London, and I think, "Man, it's not like this everywhere."
... I didn't know the culture, other than that I had grown up listening to Southern soul music and loved it. I had that connection with people and I understood the culture, from that point of view."
Q: Why are you fascinated with radio?
A: The passion I have was more for music than for radio. I had to learn the craft of radio. I have been really lucky to work for three radio stations that have, to a greater or lesser extent, privileged the music, inasmuch as I've always been allowed to say, "Look, this is important musically. This is something we need to be playing."
Q: What is the appeal of working in public radio?
A: I think commercial radio has done itself a huge disservice by taking away localism. Radio, in my mind, is totally a local medium. ... Radio will always survive if you are doing something that is unique to the community, reflects the community and is responsive to the community.
However, at the same time, because we're human beings, people don't just want what they want. If they did, they would listen to their iPod. You have to somehow figure out a way to challenge your audience and accommodate your audience, all at the same time.
Q: What guides your decisions of what music you play?
A: I have no idea. I only know what I like. If it excites me, my assumption is that maybe someone else will be excited by it. ... It's a partnership. The beauty of this station is that we have an audience who are remarkably patient. They give us the benefit of the doubt that, "I'm not sure about this, but I'll go along with that."
Q: Who do you model your approach on?
A: John Peel. ... He totally reframed what radio could be for me, that you could have a one-on-one relationship with someone on the air. He was totally different from the guys I was listing to up to that point. He was talking about stuff I'd never heard before, and he was talking to me, not at me.
FACTFILE ABOUT HIM
1974-1975 Volkswagen Fastback.
Van Morrison, The Beatles and Bob Marley.
"On the Road" by Jack Kerouac.
John Lennon, Bob Dylan and the Dalai Lama.
Copenhagen, Rio de Janeiro, Prague or Venice.
Q: Which artists are you proud of having introduced to Chattanooga?
A: There are so many acts. Richard Thompson, for sure. I don't think Richard Thompson's music would have been played on the radio very much if we didn't exist, if at all.
Nick Drake is another one, early on. His music hadn't been played on the radio, as far as I knew, certainly not in Chattanooga. When we started playing his stuff, a lot of people called and asked about him.
Q: What is your interviewing philosophy?
A: All I know is that I invite people in here, and it's as if I've invited them into my living room. They are my guests. ... I say, "Have a seat. How are you doing? What's happening?"
My intention is to make them feel as comfortable as I possibly can and to, as much as I can, draw them out so they can be themselves. I want to create a space where they can ... feel comfortable and not feel like I'm going to trip them up or try to embarrass them or criticize them, although all of those things are possible.
Q: What are your thoughts on the health of public radio, nationally and locally?
A: I think, overall, it's incredibly healthy. Most of our funding comes locally, the lion's share of it. Local stations do well when they heed their audience. They don't do well when they don't.
The beauty of public radio is that, man, you'll know if you're not doing what your audience wants really quickly. Forget popularity polls, twice a year, we go on the air and say, "Tell us what you think, and while you're at it, will you give us some money so we can do it again?"
That is so empowering, that people are willing to give money to this radio station so that we can continue to do what we do. You can win popularity polls all day long, but that's the kind of poll that is so real.
Nobody here ever assumes that the next drive will be successful. It's always like starting over again. That's what's so cool about doing what we do. I've been at this game for 25 years, and it's bloody scary, but at the same time, it keeps you honest.
Q: Radio personalities aren't paid very well, so what gets you up in the morning?
A: It's the thought that I'll hear something I've never heard before. The first time I heard John Lennon's voice ... ah, man. It was like, "I'm alive. Wow." I'm always looking to get that feeling. ... That doesn't happen every day, but it happens often enough.