When he began as a part-time disc jockey at WMAY in 1990, and even when he went to work full time for the station in 1995, Jim Leach never thought he would be able to sustain such a long and satisfying career in radio.
The Springfield native left the Riverton-based AM station in late June to become a public information officer for the Illinois Department of Public Health. But that didn't stop Leach, 58, from winning best radio personality in the 2023 Illinois Times Best of Springfield Readers Poll.
It's an honor that Leach has received many times before, but he doesn't take it for granted.
"It is really genuinely a humbling thing to have people in your own community say they like the job you do and do it in such a public way," he said.
Leach said he suspects Illinois Times readers selected him again because he had the benefit "of being something unique on local radio. ... There wasn't a whole lot out there like me.
"Approaching things from a more progressive point of view is something fairly rare on the radio airwaves in most communities," he said, adding that he had "the ability to be live and talk to people in the community every day.
"That sort of interaction, I think, is radio at its best."
Leach said he always wanted to be on the radio, listening to "giants" in the Springfield market such as "Crazy" Bob Murray, "Slim Jim" Palmer, Jim Moore, Lisa Crocker and Rich Styles in the 1970s and 1980s.
"When I set out, I was going to be a DJ," he said. "I was going to get paid to play records all day. The journalism thing happened in college."
Graduating from the former Griffin High School in 1982, he earned a bachelor's degree from Illinois State University in mass communications and English in 1986 and a master's in journalism from the public affairs reporting program in 1987 at Sangamon State University, now the University of Illinois Springfield.
Oddly enough, Leach said he also was influenced early in his career by the late Donald Jackson, the Springfield radio personality known as "One-Eyed Jack," who was a talk show host on WMAY and other stations.
"Although he and I agreed on nothing politically, his style and his ability to interact with callers and to carry on a conversation even when he was just the only one talking, I found that very unique and entertaining," Leach said.
Leach said he left WMAY because of the importance of public health, something he especially identified with during the COVID-19 pandemic, and because the job "afforded the opportunity for maybe a little bit of a better work/life balance."
He found the radio audience changing somewhat in recent years.
"I felt like maybe it got a little bit more combative, which I suppose is typical of politics and discourse in general," he said. "Ultimately, people really are concerned about the things that directly impact them, which is why local talk radio can be such a great thing, because it really gets to people and what impacts them the most – the city council, the local school board, the legislature."