Before I got bitten hard by the reporter bug, my first plan was to be on the radio, growing my hair long and playing Led Zeppelin late into the night – back when radio did that kind of thing.
I worked throughout college on the student station, then for a while out of school at a local commercial station, including a Saturday night gig hosting the town’s only show devoted to the radical new music style know as rap.
One of the peculiar things about being a DJ is the way listeners greet you when they realize who you are.
As print news reporters, we’re modestly famous – we meet someone and they’ll usually say something like “Oh yeah, I know your name.”
With DJs however, they tend to treat you like an old friend, or even a bit of celebrity. People often seem star struck.
It makes a certain amount of sense. Where print reporters may have good name recognition, we tend to be rather remote characters. You don’t hear or see us normally and you wouldn’t normally know a whole lot about us other than our writing style.
People in radio and TV and movies, on the other hand, come right into your homes and lives.
The radio DJ is in your car or in your kitchen. He or she is there when you sleep, when you shower, when you make love or when you clean the house. The person on TV or in a movie is there when you’re on a date, when you cry, when you laugh, or when you fall asleep on the couch at the end of a long day.
In other words, these people have been admitted into the most intimate moments in your life. They may not know you personally, but you feel like you know them.
That’s probably why we all seem to go through the otherwise irrational custom of mourning when celebrities die.
I never watched a single minute of “Beverly Hills 90210,” as best I can remember, but I unexpectedly found myself sad when news broke a few weeks ago that actor Luke Perry died suddenly at age 52. I have never met him – I may not even have seen him act – but he was a familiar face, a guy about my age who seemed like he was trying to succeed in his career without a lot of excessive drama, and who seemed to be having a nice professional second act in middle age.
I could relate and therefore I was sad.
A few days later came the news that “Jeopardy” host Alex Trebek was suffering late-stage pancreatic cancer and might not have long to live.
Again, I’ve never met the guy and don’t know anything at all about his off-screen life. And yet he was a constant and reassuring presence in my living room. I have known his voice for more than three decades – it is as recognizable to me as my own father’s.
So I’m sad about Alex too.
I guess these kinds of celebrities offer a common touchstone in a big, sprawling, complicated and fractured world. Even in a big city, where you’re surrounded constantly by strangers, news of celebrities gives us something to talk about, a way to relate to one another in a way that only small-town gossip can quite replicate.
So farewell Luke Perry, Peter Tork, Karl Lagerfeld, Albert Finney, Carol Channing, Frank Robinson and all the rest who have died in recent months.
I never met any of you, but I am awfully sad you’re gone.