Photos by Alicia from Shotcha Photography
If you’re going to interview a radio personality, why not do it while he’s on the air?
I’d met James once before at a fundraiser we were both working. James was the M.C., and I was playing piano with a jazz quartet. At the time, I couldn’t exactly remember his last name, but I did my best to guess; which, of course, is precisely what you don’t want to do in that circumstance. I knew he was a radio guy. Why couldn’t I remember his name?!?
“Everyone should have the opportunity to be redeemed,” he said at the start of our interview. It had nothing to do with my name botch-job months earlier, but I’d like to think he was offering his forgiveness.
“I live my life out loud,” he said. “There are secrets. We all have secrets, but I do my very best to make the things that are worst about me public knowledge because often they’re the things that people are dealing with too.”
And that’s how we started. We were sitting in the Y105FM studio; a small rectangular room with sound foam, computer, mixer, and microphones situated in the Townsquare media building in downtown Rochester, MN. James serves as producer, engineer, and host of the morning show every weekday from 6 to 10 a.m. That morning, Alicia (the blog’s photographer) and I arrived about halfway through the show.
8 a.m. Kidney talk
“Oh, I forgot to bring Katie in,” James said as he pushed buttons and moved sliders. “I have a kidney....”
“You have a kidney?!?” I assumed he was about to show me a kidney floating in a jar of formaldehyde.
“Well, I have three actually,” he responded with a smile turning back to me.
“Woah. Wait a second...”
“I had a kidney transplant back in 2012, and they don’t take the old kidneys out.”
“Yeah. It just causes more hassle. In medicine, the less docs have to do the better off everyone is.
“So, tell me about this third kidney,” I prompted.
“Well, my kidneys had died. They were on a beach drinking cerveza doing nothin’ for me.”
His sister, Joan, was the first person to be tested as a potential candidate for a kidney transplant. She was a perfect match, so she gave him a kidney.
“I mean we had to take it out of her. She didn’t just give it to me,” James said. “But, don’t be too impressed; it’s the ugly kidney. She had a really nice looking kidney, and the other one was all skrincheled up, and I got the skrincheled up one, so she’s not as great as everyone thinks.”
James speaks about his loved ones the same way I do. With off-putting humor and wit.
“I’m kidding. I love my sister, Joan,” he concluded.
Turns out James’ brother, John, chronicled the transplant on his own radio show as part of Southern California Public Broadcasting.
“How did both of you end up in radio?” I asked with a twist of curiosity.
“A little radio station down the road from our house: WLXX Locks Radio 99.5 Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan,” James said in his best radio voice. “It was literally down the hill from our house. It was a sad little radio station that was willing to hire a 16-year-old to do a lot of shifts. That was 1984.”
“Did you and your brother work together?” Alicia asked.
“There are six kids in our family - 3 girls and 3 boys - and John, and I are very close in age, so we did not get along. Because he’s a horrible person, right?” James smiled. “And it wasn’t until he realized how to be a good person that he could be nice to me.”
But, it wasn’t just that there was a radio station down the road. James’ father, Wilmer Taylor Rabe, better known as W.T. and even better known as Bill, was actively involved with radio, T.V. and newspaper as he served as the public relations director for Lake Superior State College (now University).
“So dad was in the business,” he continued, “and we were always at events with him, we were always at newspapers with him, we were in the radio stations with him. There’s a picture of my parents up there.” James pointed to a 4x6 picture hung high up on a cabinet above my head. I got up to take a look.
“I like to think they’re looking down at me,” he added.
Instead of a picture of two smiling faces, I saw a picture of a grave marker with the names “Bill and Anne Rabe” and below that the tribute “Life is a grave matter.”
I groaned at the pun, but found myself wishing I could have known his parents.
“They passed away in the early ’90s,” James explained. “They were cremated. Thankfully, they weren’t alive.”
Rochester (and Fargo and Idaho)
“How did you end up in Rochester, then?” I asked, laughing as I sat back down.
James explained that when he graduated high school, his parents sold their old Victorian home and moved into a teeny, tiny house and let him live in the attic. It was, perhaps, a sign that it was time to move on. His sister, Joan, had just taken a job at IBM and she invited the young James to come and live with her. It seemed better than the attic.
“So, how long have you been doing this show?” I inquired.
“Just since 2015,” he replied.
James’ earliest stint in radio was doing nights on KROC as “Lord of the Night.” But then in 2007, James left Rochester and moved up to Fargo, ND to work at a station there.
“It was a blast. The pay was phenomenal, and the market is super competitive. It was a blast. A blast!” James was explosive in his enthusiasm. “People don’t think Fargo is fun, but it is a riot.”
“So, why come back to Rochester, then?”
“Well, uh, I got fired,” he said.
“Oh, man,” I sympathized. “What does that do to a person?”
“Oh, it messes up your mojo,” he said absolutely. “I was unemployed for about a year. Drove around a lot looking for work. Finally, I got a job in Twin Falls, Idaho and had a blast there for five years before I moved back here when there was an opening in the Y105 morning show.”
When James came back to Rochester and started at Y105, he was not only on-air but was in a management position and was able to help the station reinvent itself.
“With a lot of guidance and help, we turned it into Y105FM Rochester’s Best Variety, which is super focused on women generally 35-54 years old.”
Which, by the way, perfectly describes Alicia, the blog’s photographer, and myself.
“I’m also on KROC AM 1340 and 96.9 FM for an hour-long local talk show on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays with Andy Brownell.”
A little family history
“Tell me a story, or a memory, from each generation in your family before you,” I said, exiting off the radio highway.
James turned more thoughtful. “The only thing I know about my great grandparents is they moved from Germany to Kentucky and started a flower shop. It’s at that flower shop that my dad’s parents met since my grandmother worked there.”
His grandfather wanted to marry his grandmother, but she told him she wouldn’t until he opened his own flower shop. So, they moved to Detroit, and he started Rabe’s flowers.
“And, that’s the story about how we became Yankees instead of Rebels,” James said satisfactorily.
“My dad was an only child, and he acted kinda like one,” he continued. “My grandparents raised my mom in Detroit, where her father passed away from kidney disease.”
“So, that’s where you got kidney disease?” I assumed.
“Yep. That’s where I got Alport Syndrome. Thanks, Grandpa!”
His grandmother was left to raise three children during The Depression.
W.T. and Anne Rabe
James’ parents, W.T. and Anne, met at the University of Detroit where Anne was working for the Chancellor of the University, and W.T. was serving as the Public Information Director. As the story goes, W.T. found himself making phone calls from Anne’s desk. A newspaper he worked for was sending him to critique a show and he was looking for someone to accompany him. Anne couldn’t help but hear and exclaimed, “Some lucky gal gets to see that show!” Apparently, it was the show to see. W.T. asked if she would like to go with him, and the rest is history.
Anne said she married W.T., in part, because she knew she would never be bored. Then, after W.T. served as a propagandist for the U.S. during the Korean War, the couple settled in Detroit and eventually moved to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.
“When you think of your dad, what memory stands out the most?” I imagined there were many.
“We took a train trip, just he and I, from Detroit to Dallas, TX. The Lake Superior State College catalog was printer there and dad needed to proof it before it was printed. For the trip, dad had fudge from Ryba’s Fudge Shop in Mackinac Island drop shipped to the train station and loaded up in the baggage car. He brought his fudge tasting kit with him and set up shop in the lounge car that had these beautiful, domed ceiling. He’d pick a table and lay out all the fudge. People could come and taste it and have fun. That was one of the ways he’d pay for the trip because Ryba’s Fudge was one of his clients.
“My dad would have his martini, and I would have my 7-up and grenadine (because I refused to call them Shirley Temple’s) while we did the fudge tasting. Of course, I was the one who ended up cleaning up when it was all over. That whole trip was wonderful because it was my dad and me. Some guys are good at saying I love you, and some are not. My dad was good at saying it and showing it. This train trip was the first time I remember having just solid dad time.”
“How old were you on that trip?” I asked.
“Maybe about 12.”
On the train with space at a premium, strangers shared meals, and it was during those meals that James saw first hand how his dad talked with people, how he conversed with people, connected with them in meaningful ways. Even now, James goes on most trips alone and loves to sit at a table with a few people he doesn’t know so that he can get to know them.
From what James told me and from what I can find online, W.T. Rabe was a brilliant marketing and public relations man. He created dozens of catchy, smart, and memorable P.R. bits to promote not only Lake Superior Community College, but other clients, as well. Some of those bits for LSCC include the Unicorn Hunters (err, Questers), Snowman Burning, The Banished Words List, the Stone Skipping Contest, and some others that continue to this day.
As James reminisced about that first trip from Detroit to Dallas with his father, he realized the last trip with his dad served as the matching bookend.
“A few months before he died, we took a train trip to New York as a Christmas gift. That was in January, and by April of that year he’d passed away. He was very cuddly that trip. I think he knew he was passing away.
“There’s also the story of reading to my dad, uh, Sherlock Holmes stories as he was in the hospital in Dallas. I feel asleep, and then he fell asleep. I woke up, and he did not. So, I got to be there when he passed away. Which is weird, awful, and kind of okay.”
As I took it all in, the interviewee became the interviewer as we went live on the air. James spoke wise and learned things while I fumbled around, demonstrating I’m better at writing than speaking. Still, I suffer from a severe lack of nerves, so I jumped right in.
Afterward, we came around to talking about James’ volunteer work, particularly his work as part of the board of the Southeast Minnesota branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
“Talk to me about mental health. How have you been affected by mental illness?”
“Well, everyone has mental health, right? It can be illness or wellness, and I deal with depression and anxiety. The first time I started thinking about it was when a girlfriend said she thought I should see a therapist because she thought I was self-medicating with alcohol.”
“And, you were okay with her pointing this out?” I asked. Because, frankly, most people aren’t happy when someone confronts them with such things.
“Oh, yeah. I mean no one wants to think they have issues, but we’re all just buckets of issues. So, I started talk therapy and then realized it needed to go a little beyond that, so I started taking Wellbutrin. With exercise and the weight loss plan, I was doing at the time things went very well. I wasn’t cured, but I felt much better.”
“You were able to manage the depression,” I added.
“Yeah. I was in recovery. But, I’m not always a good advocate for myself. When I lost my health insurance, I couldn’t afford a therapist, and the Wellbutrin didn’t seem to be doing the trick anymore.”
By the time he moved back to Rochester, depression had reared its ugly head. He had a painful breakup with a girlfriend and was in a relatively vulnerable state.
“I went through a pretty strong two-year depressive cycle. I would come home, take my pants off (because that’s what you do), sit and watch T.V., or go straight to bed. I’d wake up, go to work, and act like every second was great because work was good replacement therapy. Radio is an excellent thing for a person who can only show happiness in 15-second increments. The job kind of saved my life.
“But, I knew I had to break up with my girlfriend. She had tons of positive qualities, but some things were toxic for me. But before I broke up with her, I arrived at this moment when I understood how people could conclude that they’re going to commit suicide.
“She had been dishonest with me about something on the phone, and I hung up and said, ‘Next time she does that I swear to God I’m going to kill myself with her on the phone,’ and I meant every word of it. A few seconds later I was like ‘holy crap, what did I just say?’
“But that’s how it happens. Sometimes it’s a prolonged depression, and you feel like you want to end your life for a long time. For me, just suddenly in that second, I wanted nothing more than to punish her; which, obviously totally not fair to me and not fair to her, and there are other ways to handle it.”
“Well, that’s the nature of the disease,” I interjected.
“Exactly,” he agreed. “For me, depression is a gigantic dark hole. No nice walls. Just dirt. And, it’s pretty big until you feel anxious and then the walls come in on you. When I get better, I start seeing above the hole and can see the sunlight. I can then get out of the hole and walk around. But it was so dark and so awful.”
After he realized he was in a terrible place, friends helped give him the push he needed to call his doctor.
“People need to know it’s okay to see a therapist, and it’s okay to get assistance to help pay for care. It’s okay to get help. And, it might not be mental illness, it may be stress or something else, but it’s important to receive care.”
Yes. Indeed. If you are struggling with mental illness, please reach out to the beautiful people at NAMI. They will provide loving support and point you in the right direction to get the help you need. You can visit their website HERE.
Honestly, I could’ve spent most of the day swapping stories and hearing from James, but the show was coming to a close, and it was time to head out. Alicia and James chatted a bit about photography and dark rooms. Apparently, W.T. concocted a dark room wherever he went, so James knows a thing or two about such things.
There’s a realness to James one most definitely appreciates. What you see seems to be what you get. Under the surface, however, is the hint of an inner something just waiting to disrupt expectations. It nicely rounds out this bright, witty, caring, sincere, and outright fun human being.
Oh, and if you’ve ever heard James on the radio, I bet you read this post in his voice.