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John Hancock takes another turn at WBT

By Mark Washburn
Mark Washburn
Mark Washburn writes television and radio commentary for The Charlotte Observer.

Grins, a little black cat destined to play a role in Charlotte radio history, pulled into town in 1990 in the back seat of an old, white Honda Prelude bearing the Florida vanity tag ON AIR.

She was in her usual spot – in a kitty crate surrounded by all the worldly possessions of John Hancock.

Grins had accompanied Hancock for nearly two decades on his nomadic radio career, Colorado to Texas to Colorado again to Arizona (that job lasted six weeks) to California (six months) to Pennsylvania to Florida to Charlotte.

Now Hancock had landed a morning spot at WBT-AM (1110), among the nation’s oldest and most prominent stations, and the question was: How long would this gig last?

“I was not received well when I got here, not at all,” says Hancock.

“It was pretty brutal for the first nine months. We didn’t have phone screeners then, and people would call in and say, ‘I hate you, go back where you came from.’ ”

It was Grins who turned things around, Hancock says. When he had to put her to sleep because of feline leukemia, he told his listeners how he felt about her loss.

“My voice got shaky. For some reason, that turned the corner here. I think people were saying, ‘He’s still a jackass, but he cried about his cat.’ ”

Hancock is now 60 and the Charlotte gig goes on. Aside from an ill-fated morning stint at WEND-FM (“End” 106.5), he’s been at WBT in one time slot or another for more than 20 years, the longest-serving full-timer at the station.

He started doing evenings a week before the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. This week general manager Rick Feinblatt announced that on July 16, Hancock would be returning to afternoon drive-time, a slot he occupied in the late ’90s.

“I’m pretty stunned,” says Hancock. “I never thought my opportunity was going to come back around again.”

Few would. Hancock is not one of those smooth-talking personalities with great pipes you’d associate with a station in a top-25 market.

If his show weren’t named after him, it would be called “Quite Frankly,” a phrase Hancock habitually inserts into conversation while pausing to complete a thought. Listeners raft along his stream-of-consciousness shows and have come to know him as a one-of-a-kind host. Corporate radio and John Hancock are tough to stuff into the same sentence.

Hancock is like the dotty uncle you like to visit as a kid because he’s fun to argue with, then starts talking about music and can tell you more about your favorite group, whatever the genre, than you ever knew. He’s a long-haired geezer whose philosophy appears filtered through the eternal prism of a 19-year-old from Colorado.

Truth is, Hancock had grown weary of the evening shift, a time when listeners drift away. His contract was to expire in October and he was toying with the idea of moving to the mountains and maybe consulting for college radio stations. Getting back to a prime air shift has put that off.

“To be able to stick around at a radio station I absolutely love and respect and hang around a few more years and be pertinent again is absolutely great,” he says.

Jason Furst, WBT’s new program director, says afternoon ratings have been generally flat for some years. He says he thinks Hancock might just be the magic.

“John’s a superstar over here. He’s the most dynamic, most recognized name on the station. John’s real,” Furst says.

“He takes the most obvious question and makes it into a great conversation. It sounds easy, but it’s not. That’s what makes him one of the best talk show hosts in the country.”

Afternoon drive-time is really two shows in one, says Furst. From 3 to 4:30 p.m. it’s a conversation. Then emphasis shifts to information for homeward-bound commuters – traffic, stock market, news.

WBT has struggled to find the right formula for afternoons since the 2006 departure of Jason Lewis, who set performance and ratings standards that have been hard to match. They’ve tried Jeff Katz, Tara Servatius and Vince Coakley before Brad Krantz and Britt Whitmire launched “Brad and Britt” last July. They’ll be moving to Hancock’s old evening shift.

“Like I told one of the former 3 p.m. shows this week – I feel like maybe I’ve just gotten my 12-month notice,” Hancock says.

“I really have it in pretty good perspective. If it works, that’ll be great. If it doesn’t, quite frankly, I’ll go to the mountains and shut up.”

Media Movers

Todd Baker signed off Wednesday as morning host on WKQC-FM (“K” 104.7). He’s returning to his home state of California for a radio job in Sacramento. He’ll be replaced beginning July 1 by Phil Harris, former midday host on the old “Lite.” … Brittany Begley departs as morning traffic reporter on WCNC (Channel 36). She’s moving to Columbus, Ohio, where her husband has taken a job. …

WEND-FM (“End” 106.5) adds a 10 p.m. Sunday show called “Road Signs” with First Methodist Church pastor Jonathan Coppedge-Henley analyzing meaning in music with various artists. … Luquire George Andrews wins a prestigious Silver Anvil Award of Excellence from the Public Relations Society of America for its international media relations campaign, led by public relations vice president Stacey McCray, to raise Charlotte’s profile to attract jobs and investment. …

News 14 Carolina anchor Cheryn Stone will host the Miss North Carolina Scholarship Pageant airing 8 p.m. Saturday on Time Warner Cable channel 520. … Dale Walksler, curator of the Wheels Through Time museum in Maggie Valley that has a collection of 300 rare, classic motorcycles, is host of the “What’s In the Barn?” debuting 10 p.m. Tuesday on Velocity. It’s an “American Pickers”-style show focusing on motorcycles. …

“Talk of the Nation,” which is ending on July 1, will be replaced at 2 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays on WFAE-FM (NPR, 90.7) with “The Takeaway,” a midday news program with host John Hockenberry. “I believe Hockenberry continues to be one of the best interviewers in public radio,” says WFAE program director Dale Spear. “Science Friday” will continue to occupy the time slot on Fridays. … UNC-TV will rebroadcast the funeral of former Gov. James Holshouser from Southern Pines at 1 p.m. Sunday.

Washburn: 704-358-5007
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