CHICAGO, Ill. — Beloved Chicago radio personality and self-proclaimed “kid from Piqua” Terri Hemmert recently entered into “semi-retirement” as she stepped down from her popular midday shift at WXRT-FM after 27 years in the position.
Hemmert, 71, who was born and raised in Piqua, has worked at the Chicago station in various capacities for 45 years.
For Hemmert, being a disc jockey was something she had always wanted to do. Her love for music began early, and included playing with a Clarabelle the Clown record player as early as 4 years old. But it was at the age of 15 when Hemmert remembers making a conscious decision to delve into the world of DJing, by any means necessary.
“I know exactly when it was; I remember the moment,” she said.
Hemmert, who is now known for her love of The Beatles, said it was this same love that helped spark her interest in radio. She saw a photograph of Cleveland DJ Jim Stagg interviewing Ringo Starr, which prompted the thought, “If I could become a disc jockey, I could meet The Beatles.”
“I had no interest in chasing (The Beatles) down the street or grabbing their hair; I wanted to hang out with them,” Hemmert said.
This epiphany was perfectly paired with Hemmert’s already innate sense and knowledge of popular music.
“I listened to the radio all the time,” she said. “I knew from week to week what songs were going to go up and down on the charts; I was a real nerd. I listened to B-sides of records and I was really immersed in it.”
So, it had been decided. Hemmert’s goal from then on was to become a DJ, a tall and many times daunting task, as the world of radio was all but completely male-dominated at the time. For awhile, Hemmert hadn’t told anyone — not even her best friends — about her aspirations.
“It’s like saying, ‘I want to play second base for the Cubs’ — you know girls can’t do that,” Hemmert said. “I heard that a lot, ‘Girls can’t do that.’”
Though her friends didn’t know her aim to become a DJ, several of them were in attendance during her first time on-air.
As young girls, Hemmert and her friends once hosted a birthday party for English pop singer Dusty Springfield, of whom Hemmert was a huge fan.
“We were having a good time celebrating her birthday, and I don’t know how it came up, but somebody suggested we call WING (Dayton’s hit music radio station) to request a song by Dusty,” Hemmert said. “Someone said, ‘Terri, you do it!’”
“I thought I was going to get some secretary or something, give the request, and hang up without even giving my name,” she continued. “Well, the DJ answered and it terrified me because it was too close to my childhood dream. I said, ‘Uh, we’re having a birthday party for Dusty Springfield here in Piqua, can you play I Only Want To Be With You?’”
As it turned out, the DJ was much more interested in the call than Hemmert had anticipated and he immediately asked her to go on the air to share what she and her friends were doing.
“He said, ‘We’ve got a caller from Piqua; who is this?’ and I said, ‘Terri Hemmert.’”
And just like that, Hemmert hesitantly made her radio debut. She continued by skittishly sharing about the birthday party and asked to hear the song by Springfield. The whole interaction elicited screams of excitement from her friends who were listening intently.
Hemmert’s love of music and interest in radio continued throughout her adolescence, along with several experiences and relationships which, looking back, she believes to have been significant with regard to future successes and achievements within her career.
“Growing up in Piqua was really good,” she said. “Grade school was rough; I went to parochial school and I did not have a good experience. I always say I’m Catholic in spite of my Catholic education, not because of it. When I transferred to Wilder (Intermediate Elementary School), it was like in the Wizard of Oz where it goes from black and white to color.”
Hemmert said she dealt with bullying during much of her early education, and even beyond. While switching schools eased the torment she received from peers, Hemmert said she would often be heckled even while simply walking down the street.
“I was too tall,” she said. “People would yell out of their car windows really obnoxious things like, ‘Jolly Green Giant!’ I mean, I was a kid; how can a grown up do that to a kid?
“But being bullied was actually an education experience,” Hemmert continued. “So, I was always looking out for people who were being pushed down and I realized how hard that is on your psyche, especially when you’re a kid and you don’t have anything to compare it to.”
Though Hemmert was subjected to these negative experiences, she was also able to gain valuable insight through other meaningful relationships.
During grade school, Hemmert volunteered regularly to help out with the re-elections of Congressman William McCulloch.
“I learned so much and got to meet all of these fantastic women who had college educations, but didn’t have careers, and who were married to the sons of industry,” Hemmert said. “They were very altruistic and did a lot of charity work and raising of money for scholarships. I really learned a lot from them and they were so nurturing; it was a wonderful environment for me because I was still being bullied at that time.
“(McCulloch) took an interest in me then because I kept showing up every two years,” she continued. “He taught me a lot of really good stuff, including that you don’t have to agree with people to respect them and work with them, and he said, ‘Don’t ever demonize your opponent, and don’t just read things you agree with — check out and see what the other side thinks.’”
Hemmert also had good friends through the years, many of whom indulged in the same love of music, and specifically, The Beatles. At one point, Hemmert and three of her friends formed a band in honor of the Fab Four.
“It was kind of weird because we didn’t play instruments,” Hemmert said. “Girls didn’t play electric guitars then — that was before Chrissie Hynde. So, we started out just for our amusement, and we each had our own Beatle — I was John — and we would spend hours singing with the parts and doing air guitar and drums.”
The honorary band even brought their air-playing talents to gigs at the local Y’s “teen drop-ins,”
“Somebody wrote to me like 30 years ago and said, ‘I spent hours of my youth watching you guys at the YWCA and it sounds ridiculous when I tell people, but it was so fascinating and compelling because you guys were so into it and you really could sing.’
“We were totally into it,” Hemmert admitted.
The year was 1966 when Hemmert left Piqua to attend Chicago’s Elmhurst College, where she majored in speech while also working at the campus radio station.
“I fell in love with Chicago then,” she said. “Chicago is so unique — the ethnic mix, the culture scene, the architecture; it’s just a vibrant city. It’s very metropolitan, but also very midwest and very friendly.”
Hemmert’s first job after college was at her favorite radio station at the time — WGLD in Oak Park.
“They had a woman on in the afternoons, so when I applied they said, ‘We already have a woman, we can’t have two, be reasonable!’ So, I said, ‘Well, just give me a job; I’ll sweep floors or do whatever.’ Finally after a few months of badgering them, they gave me a job just so I would stop asking.”
Hemmert’s official radio career began with answering the request line in a “walk-in closet” for $90 per week. After working her way up for two years, Hemmert said she was finally given opportunities to fill-in during vacations, weekends, and the occasional overnight segment. In 1972, she was given the opportunity to work as an all-night DJ at WCMF in Rochester, New York, where she stayed for two years.
Though her hard work was seeming to pay off, Hemmert said she faced criticism and doubt along the way, including from her boss at WGLD.
“I was working my tail off and the boss, who was this bully, came down and he was just watching me, bored, and then goes, ‘You think you’re going to make it on the air don’t you?’ I said, ‘That’s my goal,’ and he goes, ‘You’re never going to make it; you don’t have what it takes.’”
The harsh words were almost enough to make Hemmert throw in the towel — almost.
Yet, the show went on, and in 1973, Hemmert began her career at Chicago’s WXRT, where she’s been ever since.
Hemmert began on the overnight shift, doubling as the public affairs director, before moving into the afternoon slot. In 1981, she became Chicago’s first female morning drive personality, and in 1992, Hemmert moved into the midday slot, from which she is now retiring.
It was at WXRT where Hemmert made her love for the Beatles known, hosting the station’s annual day-long “Rampant Beatlemania” show for years. In 2002, she became host of the popular “Breakfast with The Beatles,” which she will continue to host.
It was in 1975, however, that it finally happened — Hemmert interviewed a Beatle for the first time, backstage at Paul McCartney’s Wings Over America Tour. Admittedly, the interview — which was limited to two minutes — was not her favorite, but it’s one Hemmert will never forget.
While all Beatles fans have probably thought at one time or another how they would love to be able to express their gratitude for the band directly to one, or all, of the Fab Four, Hemmert was able to do just that.
“I told Paul, ‘I just wanna say thank you because you influenced my life so much, and I have a million things I could tell you, but the thing that really sticks in my mind is the first night of college — we were all nervous and homesick and scared to death, we didn’t know each other, and I brought my guitar out,’” she said. “‘We sat up until 2 in the morning singing Beatles songs and the next day we saw each other and said, ‘Oh, we know each other, we bonded over The Beatles.’ That’s happened so many times in my life and I just want to say thank you.’”
“Paul said, ‘That’s what it was all about wasn’t it? Bringing people together like that.’”
Hemmert went on to interview McCartney on several occasions, and was also able to personally share with Ringo Starr the story of how she first became interested in a radio career as a teen.
“I told Ringo about the photograph I saw of him and Jim Stagg, and how I made it a goal to interview The Beatles, and he said, ‘I hope it was worth the wait.’”
Throughout the years, Hemmert has interviewed numerous music greats, including Buddy Guy, Bob Marley, Tom Petty, Koko Taylor, and Muddy Waters, among so many others. She was the first DJ to interview Talking Heads when no other radio station would.
Alongside her work as a radio personality, Hemmert has taught History of Rock and Soul at Columbia College for over 40 years.
“I love teaching, and I love the kids,” Hemmert said. “Coming from Piqua, our values were a very strong part of our education and whether it’s faith-based or civics-based, I want the kids to know it’s not just about getting a paycheck or being successful; there’s gotta be something deeper there or it’s not going to satisfy you — and you’ve gotta figure out ways to give back — these kids are hungry for that and really appreciate it.”
Hemmert is also a humanitarian and activist, having served on the Board of Directors for the Peace Museum, volunteered on behalf of the AIDS Pastoral Care Network, and worked with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to create music education programs.
Hemmert serves on the advisory board of her alma mater’s radio station, and in May of 2017, received an Honorary Doctorate from Elmhurst. In 2010, she was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame, and was one of seven Chicago radio figures to be included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “Rock and Radio” exhibit.
To list all the accomplishments of Hemmert would be to write a book, a task which she has no desire to complete.
“My mom always said I’m really good at documenting The Beatles career, but not too good on my own because I’m too busy doing it,” she said.
In her retirement from the midday shift, Hemmert said she is looking forward to having more time to focus on issues dear to her, which include giving voice to those who feel they have none.
“I’m always amazed at the intimacy of radio,” she said. “I love that part of my job where I can draw people out and also give them a platform. What I want to do in my semi-retirement is to make the radio available to people who don’t have a voice and also give people an opportunity to support local issues because people have good will, they just don’t know what they can do and they feel helpless.”
Hemmert announced her retirement in June, and as of July 17, has been replaced during the midday shift. She will, however, continue to fill in for vacationing hosts.
Hemmert recently made a visit back to Piqua, which she does as often as she can, during which she was able to reunite with many close friends. She also had the opportunity to meet with several members of the Piqua High School band, and gave an impromptu speech.
“I told them, ‘If you have a dream, don’t ignore it,’” she said. “‘Get up and follow it; see where it takes you. I grew up in this town and went to this high school — look what happened to me.’”
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.