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Radio And TV Legend Donnie Simpson On The Key To His Decades-Long Career: "I Don't Have To Be Great––I Just Have To Be Me"
About five years ago, Washington, D.C., DJ Donnie Simpson emerged from retirement after a little coaxing from his wife, Pam.
"She framed it really [nicely]. She said, 'Donnie, everywhere you go, all you hear is how much people love you and they wish you'd do something else. And God has given you a gift that you should be sharing with people,'" Simpson tells GRAMMY.com over a Zoom interview. "That's what she said, but what I heard was, 'Get out.'"
The affable radio and television icon ultimately returned to the airwaves in 2015. Five years later, he received one of the highest accolades in the radio industry: Last October, he was inducted into the Radio Hall Of Fame, an honor recognizing his contributions to the radio medium over the last half-century.
The honor is the culmination of the legend's celebrated, decades-long career in radio, which launched in the '70s when a teenaged Simpson got his start on the Detroit airwaves. At the time, he looked to a handful of local DJs as mentors, including the high-spirited Ernie Durham.
"I did not adopt his on-air style, but I try very much to adopt his off-air style. He always carried it with class," Simpson said of Durham. "And that was the example to me: to always be kind to people, to look people in the eye, no matter who they were."
It wasn't until Simpson left Detroit, in 1977, and logged his first few years at WKYS 93.9 in D.C.––a station he would reformat and lead to No. 1 as program director––that he found his stride on air, he says.
"It's something I always say, and it's so true: I don't have to be great––I just have to be me," Simpson says. "Being you always works because that's the spirit that connects us. That's the thing that makes you real to people; they feel you when you are you. When you're trying to be something else, they know that, too."
Simpson says he's long avoided listening to recordings of himself for fear that the inevitable analysis would disrupt the "magic" of what he'd helped create. That approach also extended to his TV career, which started—not counting a role he now laughs about on a short-lived dance show in Detroit—when he served as backup sports anchor for WRC-TV in the early '80s. Not long after, he began hosting a relatively new show on the then-burgeoning BET network. Simpson had concerns about whether the show was the right fit for him.
"BET, in its infancy, wasn't a very pretty baby. The quality wasn't there. I've always been protective of image, because that's all I have," Simpson says. "But after thinking about it for two days, I decided this: This is our first Black television network. If you have something to offer it, you have to do it."
Jeriel Johnson, executive director of the Recording Academy's Washington, D.C., chapter, remembers watching "Video Soul" as a teen in his Cincinnati home. Simpson, he says, was a "steady presence of Black excellence."
"He was the face of BET," Johnson says. "He was just a staple, and he had such a calming voice and he was super smooth. I just looked up to him as a young, Black kid who loved music ... And I remember seeing him and being like, 'Wow, I could be on TV, too. If he can, I can.'"
On the program, Simpson interviewed artists who were already riding the waves of success or were well on their way: Jodeci, SWV, New Edition, En Vogue, Mariah Carey, Take 6, Whitney Houston. Regardless of the star who graced the couch each night, Simpson took the same approach.
"For every guest I ever had on 'Video Soul,' they would bring me a bio with all this information on the artist … I wouldn't even read it," Simpson remembers. "That's the point of the interview, for me to get to know you."
Elise Perry, a producer and the president of the Recording Academy's Washington, D.C., chapter, worked behind the scenes on "Video Soul" in the '90s, a pivotal decade for both R&B and hip-hop, she notes.
"All of these different subgenres of R&B really started to have an uptick in the '90s, and the fact that BET was present visually at that time, representing Black music in that way—it was a very special time," Perry says. "There were a lot of Black folk there, and it was just like a party. It was where I got my 'master's degree,' I call it. Everybody was family … It was just like a mecca."
Simpson treated the crew like family and has continued to provide unparalleled support for the D.C. community over the years, Perry, a D.C. native, says.
"He's our family. He's our brother. He's our uncle. He's that dude next door. He's our neighbor. He's our friend," she says.
"Family" is also how GRAMMY-nominated producer Chucky Thompson describes Simpson, who had a big impact on him when he was growing up in D.C.
"I've learned so much about people from him, just the way that he's been excited about their careers," he says of Simpson. "It transcends to you. It's like, 'Wait a minute, Donnie's excited? Now I'm excited.'"
"It was almost like another version of what 'Soul Train' meant," Thompson says. "But [Simpson] got even more personal with you because he was able to talk to the artists and give you a little bit of insight on what their journeys were … He gave me a lot of information on how to make it in this business."
"Donnie Simpson is the standard," Joe Clair, comedian, radio personality, on-air veteran and host of "The Joe Clair Morning Show" on WPGC 95.5 FM in Washington, D.C., adds. "My mom and dad loved him, my siblings love him and people from a generation after me love him. That is a testament to who he is as a broadcaster and what he means to us as a voice for our community. I've worked with him throughout the years, and he's given me valuable advice both for career moves and for negotiating my worth. He is a shining example for a life in radio and television on your own terms."
Yet becoming successful in the business, including achieving financial success, wasn't an easy journey for Simpson. The DJ has been vocal about the need for equitable pay for Black DJs. In recalling his own path to multimillion-dollar contracts, Simpson turns to a lyric from Elton John's "I've Seen That Movie Too": "It's a habit I have / I don't get pushed around."
"I've walked out [on deals], because you're not going to get me for half [the] price because I'm Black; those days are over," Simpson says, adding that in Detroit, he made one-fifth of what white DJs were making. "That was a very significant part of my career, to be able to be a part of changing that narrative, to letting them know you have to pay Black talent."
Simpson has also advocated for stations to put more of the DJ back into DJing. In the past few decades, he notes, many DJs have watched their curated playlists and airtime drift away due to technological advances and the consolidation of station ownership.
"So much of its personality has been stripped from it," Simpson says of the art of DJing. "I play whatever I want to play every day, but that's the magic of it to me … I don't want a computer programming music for me, because every day feels different. And I like to be tapped into that feeling."
In 1974, Simpson played Elton John's "Bennie And The Jets" on his show in Detroit, a decision he says he fretted about because "Black folks didn't know Elton John." He played the song twice that evening and got an overwhelming response from callers. John himself was soon on the phone with Simpson to discuss the record's success in Detroit; he handed Simpson a gold record for the single six months later.
"It's music that you wouldn't traditionally associate with Black radio; it's Elton. But that was a lesson to me," Simpson says. "It's all music to me; I don't care who made it. I just care what it sounds like [and] if it fits what I'm doing."
The fact that most DJs no longer have the latitude to craft their own playlists is a big loss for radio, Simpson says.
"You have young people out here with great ears that will never get the chance to express themselves musically because it's all programmed for them," he says. "I used to love it when wheels would touch down in Atlanta or New Orleans [or] L.A.—wherever it was. I couldn't wait to pull out my little transistor radio and hear what they were doing in that city, because it was always different."
After Simpson learned he'd be inducted into the Radio Hall Of Fame this year, he took a look at its roster of honorees over the past three decades. When he didn't see New York DJ and “Chief Rocker" Frankie Crocker and other Black radio icons on the list, the announcement gave him pause.
"These are voices that you should know about, some great talents through the years ... legends that have gone largely ignored," he says. "But I also, in my acceptance speech, acknowledged that the [Radio Hall Of Fame] is trying to correct that. You look at the list of inductees this year, with Angie Martinez, The Breakfast Club, Sway Calloway and me––man, it's like #OscarsTooBlack. It's a lot of people of color that went in this year. So they have recognized that, and I applaud them for that."
At a time when systemic racism and police brutality against Black people have come to the forefront of the national dialogue, Simpson says he feels compelled to speak out.
"If I were not on the radio, if I didn't have a microphone, I think I would still feel that responsibility to whatever people I encounter that I could talk to, to tell them how important this moment in history is for us," Simpson says. "I am so honored that I have had a platform for, now, 51 years to allow these voices to come on the radio or on TV and talk about these matters that make a difference to our community."
In 2010, Simpson retired from WPGC, where he'd hosted a morning show for nearly two decades, after contending with a "toxic" environment. But five years later, he was back at the other end of the dial on D.C.'s WMMJ Majic 102.3. Now, another retirement seems like the furthest thing from his mind.
"What's there not to love about it? I sit there kicking it with people I love. We have all the fun we can stand," Simpson says.
As praise continues to roll in from industry A-listers for his Radio Hall Of Fame induction, Simpson has advice for the many artists and listeners who now look to him for guidance as he once looked to his own mentors: "Be kind."
Each morning, Simpson takes a walk or run beside the Potomac River. While he says there's a health benefit to the ritual, he's got an additional reason to step out of his door.
"What I'm really doing is collecting smiles," Simpson says. "That's kind of my purpose: to bring warmth and joy."
Tune in for a special Up Close & Personal conversation discussing Donnie Simpson's career and life in broadcasting. Moderated by Jimmy Jam, the event premieres Tuesday, Feb. 9, at 4:30 p.m. PST/7:30 p.m. EST via the Recording Academy's official Facebook page.