Jim Leach leaving WMAY

Veteran radio host reflects on his career, what's next

Jim Leach is leaving his longtime role at WMAY to take a position as public information officer with the Illinois Department of Public Health. His last day at WMAY is June 28 and he starts at IDPH on July 5.

Leach started at WMAY as a part-time disc jockey in 1983, while he was in college. Back then, the station format was country music, and Leach played vinyl records. Sometimes they got recordings of live music shows and played them for 15 minutes at a time, then a station break.

Later, while studying at Illinois State University, Leach followed an instructor’s recommendation and tried his hand at newswriting and on-air reporting for Channel 20 WICS. After finishing a master’s degree in public affairs reporting at Sangamon State University, Leach went to work at the Attorney General’s office.

But the lure of being on the air was more than Leach could resist. His then-fiancee saw a newspaper ad seeking an announcer at his old radio station. He got the job, and his second stint at WMAY began in 1990 and lasted until now.

In 1990, WMAY was evolving from a country music station to what Leach describes as a “news-Intensive oldies format,” and by 1995 it had changed to almost exclusively news and talk. These were the days when the talk radio space was dominated by Rush Limbaugh and other conservative voices. In fact, Leach’s show eventually filled a time slot formally occupied by Oliver North. Leach is not a conservative ideologue, and listeners quickly noticed. He defended Bill Clinton and supported gay marriage on his show. Leach said that management sometimes got angry feedback from listeners, but the station stood by him.

“My show was stylistically similar to right-wing talk radio, if a bit less strident,” said Leach. He said that it really hit him how connected the station was with its listeners when O.J. Simpson was acquitted. “People called all day long; they needed to be heard,” he said. “What we do here is engage in dialogue with the community about issues that matter to them.”

According to Leach, ideology is secondary to being engaged. “One of the things we prided ourselves on was a wide range of views,” said Leach. “Consultants thought we needed to have one political viewpoint or the other, but a lot of important local issues like what the city government is doing or how the school district is performing aren’t necessarily ideological.”

Leach laments the coarseness of some of the talk heard on radio programs, both from hosts and listeners. “In the past eight years or so, more people have become emboldened to lash out in ways that aren’t constructive. They’ve seen politicians embrace that style, but I don’t think it’s effective in the long run,” he said.

Other events that stand out during his long career is the collective grief expressed by his listeners after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the tornadoes that struck Springfield in 2006. “I was on the air 14 hours straight,” he said.  Without power, transistor radios were one of the few reliable sources of information in those tense hours after the disaster.

Leach also said that a career in radio can be strange and wonderful, sometimes both at the same time. “I have had the privilege of interviewing both Barack Obama and Weird Al Yankovic, my two favorite interviews ever.” He’s also allowed himself to be tased live on air and broadcast while undergoing a colonoscopy in order to raise awareness about cancer screening.

Leach has won awards from the Associated Press, the Illinois Press Association, and is consistently recognized by Illinois Times’ annual Best of Springfield. “Awards from my peers mean a lot to me, but not as much as the outpouring of sympathy and affection I received from listeners when my wife passed away unexpectedly in 2015,” he said. “Those messages and cards and expressions of condolence literally saved my life.”

Leach said that the gratitude that he feels to the company that gave him a platform to do something he loves and treasures at one place is impossible to measure. “Most people who work in radio have to bounce around a lot,” he said. “I’ve been so lucky to be able to practice my craft in the community I grew up in and love.

When asked what advice he would give to someone wanting to start a career behind the mike, Leach didn’t hesitate. “Learn your community, learn what interests people. Be local, immediate and relevant. It doesn’t matter whether you are talking about something immediate and urgent or long-term. Take your role as a member of the community seriously.”

While Leach won’t be on the radio much longer, you can catch him at The Muni this summer performing the role of Maurice in Beauty and the Beast.

Don Howard is an intern at Illinois Times while completing his master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting at University of Illinois Springfield. He has gotten to know Jim Leach while also working part-time at WMAY.

Don Howard

Don Howard is an intern with University of Illinois Springfield's Public Affairs Reporting master's degree program. He is a former lawyer and Spanish speaker who has lived in both Mexico and Spain, and most recently relocated to Illinois from Georgia.

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