Q&A: Jim Kerr & Shelli Sonstein, Mornings, WAXQ New York.
Jim Kerr and Shelli Sonstein have been together waking up radio’s largest market for 40 years. The pair has been on the air longer than some of their listeners have been alive, outlasting many of their competitors in the high-stakes New York market. The union began in the summer of 1977 at WPLJ (95.5), when it was an ABC Radio rock powerhouse, and continued on a handful of Big Apple signals – including a stint on country “Y107” WYNY. The duo eventually landed at classic rock “Q104.3” WAXQ 14 years ago this October.
On the air during many of the city’s finest moments and its most terrible tragedies, Jim and Shelli continue to produce a show that’s consistently among the most listened to in the market. “The Jim Kerr Rock and Roll Morning Show” ranked fourth in morning drive with a 5.3 (6+) in Nielsen’s August survey.
Inside Radio caught up with the hosts shortly after they marked their 40th anniversary to talk about their longevity as a team, how the show has evolved, their role in the origins of 7:20am contesting, and the highlights – and lowlights – that come with 40 years on the air together. An edited transcript follows.
Jim, tell us about your early career and joining WPLJ at the tender age of 21 in 1974.
Jim Kerr: Before coming to ‘PLJ, I was at the ABC FM station in Chicago, WDAI – I took over the morning show there when I was 19.They transferred me to the AM [WLS], and we had a new program director coming into town, John Gehron. Tommy Edwards was the incumbent PD and was staying with the station but going back on the air, which pretty much eliminated my position. They let me stay at WLS until they placed me somewhere else in the company. So they sent me off at age 21 to New York to take over the morning show at WPLJ. All these years later, 43 and a half years later, I’m still doing mornings in New York and for the past 14 years doing the morning show here at Q104.3.
Shelli, where were you before coming to WPLJ?
Shelli Sonstein: I was in Atlanta in 1977 switching jobs from WZGC (Z-93), which was a top 40 station, to the news/talk station in town. Larry Berger, the PD of PLJ – who I had been in contact with and who almost hired me in Detroit until the woman I was replacing didn’t leave – called and said, “I have an opening at PLJ, would you like to come in for an on-air audition” and so I did. I just showed up in Jim’s studio on August 29th 1977 – he didn’t know I was gonna be there – and the on-air audition worked.
Kerr: She got hired right away, and I was surprised because during the period when we had the opening, we had substitutes come in every morning from the WABC newsroom. I wouldn’t know day-to-day necessarily who was coming in, but of course I knew all of them. On that particular morning the door opened up and in walked a complete stranger and, well, it’s been 40 years.
What was your impression the first day and when did you know that it clicked?
Kerr: It clicked about 6:15 in the morning, right Shelli?
Sonstein: Yeah, it was immediate. I still to this day do not understand how Larry Berger knew that we would have the right chemistry and work well together. Other than we are total opposites - and I mean total opposites in what we love, our politics... basically everything.
Kerr: But, despite our differences there was never any animosity about it. There was always a respect over our differences. As a matter of fact, it brings perspective to our show that I think helps encompass the interest of a very large audience. Because we are so different, we’re not just a show that has a single point of view. We are very different people but we are very alike in our devotion to our audience and to our radio station. We appreciate the fact that so many listeners have been with us for so many years, while at the same time we’re always excited about welcoming new listeners to the station. It’s fun for us to hear from listeners who are in their late teens and their early twenties as it’s just as fun for us to hear people say “My God, I’ve been listening to you all my life.”
Sonstein: What’s strange is recently when I get the line, “I grew up listening to you,” these are people who grew up listening to us at Q. That sounds strange to me because we still feel like we have just been hired.
Kerr: It still feels like it’s our new job, but you gotta remember Shelli, the six year-old, who heard us as they were growing up because mom and dad had the radio on when we started here, is twenty years old now.
What’s the key to a long-term successful on-air relationship?
Sonstein: It really is that mutual respect. You have to genuinely like each other. Remember, we’re in the studio together more hours a day than most husbands and wives see each other every day. I think I have spent more time with Jim than any other person on earth. I have three kids but you think about how many hours a day you spend even with your own children, and then when they’re grown you’re spending less time with them. So how can that be that the person I spent the most time with on earth is Jim Kerr? You better be able to get along with that person. I really don’t know... there’s just some certain magic to it.
Kerr: We’re together four hours a day in a little room with each other for all of these years. You know, she feels like real family to me. She had me officiate at her wedding. That was a great honor.
What’s the focus of ‘The Jim Kerr Rock and Roll Morning Show’?
Kerr: We’re very listener focused. We’re always trying to figure out things that are gonna make our listeners feel good about being with us in the morning.
Sonstein: And especially in the morning, because the morning is worst time of the day. You’re getting the family up, you’re in the car stuck in traffic, chances are you may be going to a job that you hate. The overall goal is to make them smile, to entertain them but also to inform them because all through the years we have been a show that the listener never has to leave to get their news. They don’t have to leave to get their traffic.
Kerr: You don’t see a lot of them on music stations anymore, but it’s a full service show that we have here. One thing I can tell you for sure going back through all the decades is that we have never ever, ever, done mean spirited bits on the air. Ever. We don’t do that. We’re a positive, optimistic upbeat morning show.
Being together for so long, and in such close quarters, has there been an instance where you have had a disagreement?
Kerr: I’m trying to think…
Sonstein: I’ll tell you about one that happens every year. It happens twice a year. I’m a daylight savings person. Jim thinks that we should always be on standard time. This is an argument we have year after year. And of course, it’s a meaningless argument.
Kerr: But, the listeners call and join us and take sides along with us on the topic. More people agree with Shelli, but that often happens.
Sonstein: We tend to avoid, even in personal conversations, areas where we disagree. It’s like a marriage –there’s certain things you never agree on so you don’t even bring them up. You avoid them. Actually we try to do that with the audience too, particularly during these politically-charged times where there is so much animosity and divisiveness. We want to be where people come together in an animosity-free zone... where they’re united by the music and a sense of positivity. I think that’s one of the reasons why are ratings are so high right now. This is one place they can go and not get that. You’re hammered on Facebook, you’re hammered on Twitter, you probably get to work and you argue with people. But you’re not gonna find that here.
What have been some of the biggest moments on air over the four decades together?
Kerr: We have had practically every big star in the world here. We’ve participated in all kinds of civic events going back decades. We did that whole “Hands Across America” thing, we were the national anchors of that whole thing.
Sonstein: The first thing that comes to mind for me is the assassination of John Lennon.
Kerr: Which is not a highlight…
Sonstein: It’s not a highlight, but in a sense it was, because it was the first time that I viewed radio as a community. We reacted as a community. We came together to mourn. It was the first time that I realized that there is this emotional human connection that you can get from radio. So in a sense it was a highlight. It was a low point and a highlight at the same time.
Another highlight, Jim, was how the Dirty Joke of the Day came about.
Kerr: Well, yeah… that’s going way back but that was good.
Sonstein: I was telling Jim a dirty joke off air during a commercial break and I couldn’t get to the punchline in time and so Jim had me tell the joke on air. And the next day, at the same time, 7:20, he asked me for another joke and after that the listeners started to ask for the joke and it went on for years and that’s how 7:20 became the contest time in radio.
Kerr: Because Z-100 put their big contest on at 7:20 to try and blunt the impact of Shelly’s joke and then radio stations all across the country started to do their big contests at 7:20.
The show has been on since before cell phones, before websites, social networks, podcasts. How have you adapted to the changes while staying true to the over-the-air product.
Kerr: Our main focus is always the on-air product because at this particular point in time, regardless of how people are going to react to you on social media, our on-air audience is a million people for our show. We have to find ways to engage them every single day and that’s our main focus. However, as new tools are created that help us communicate in different ways we try to take full advantage of them but never at the expense of what goes on the air. It’s always our number one focus.
Sonstein: But, the more interaction we can have with the audience I think the better the connection and there really is connection. Like Jim said, over the years we have some of the same listeners, not many people can have that over forty years, that’s crazy. It’s also crazy that we’re playing the same music that we broke back in the day. That’s crazy enough. But then between we go country – some of the people followed us from PLJ to country and then back to Q. Again, because we see our listeners as family. I think you get that through having this connection and that starts with being real.
Kerr: Our listeners know that we like them and we respect them. They don’t have any doubt about that. We are spending time in the morning with our friends. And it may make me a crazy person, but I really believe they are my friends and when I have the opportunity to personally interact with our listeners it’s as easy as dealing with any personal friend that I may have.
Sonstein: Just yesterday on air a listener shared a story of his first date with the woman he planned to propose to and when he got to the point of the story when he was planning to propose to her, Jim started crying… on the air.
Kerr: I was emotionally moved by his story.
How do you use your positions to make a positive impact on the community?
Kerr: I have involved myself in community and charitable activities and have for years and years. It’s almost like a second job and I’m lucky that I have enough time in the day that I can participate in a lot of activities that improve the lives of people in our community.
Sonstein: Jim wouldn’t be the person to brag about it but he has done so much work with an organization called Heartshare that a building has been named for him in New York City. A home for developmentally disabled women. How many people have a building named for them? The way I feel is that we have a platform, we have a microphone and most people don’t. If you don’t use that to do some good, shame on you. One of my passions is never forgetting the first responders of September 11th who are now falling ill and dying and I have done all I can to highlight their cause. In recent months I have come to be aware that it’s not just first responders, it’s basically anyone that was in the area at that time that are beginning to fall ill from the toxins from the World Trade Center collapse, sixteen years later. On my Sunday show, “Sonstein Sunday,” and on our daily morning show, I talk about this because it’s an untold epidemic that has to be addressed.