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John Hancock is retiring from WBT. But is this the last Charlotte will hear from him?

Mike Collins chuckles as he remembers the day in 1990 when John Hancock arrived to be interviewed for the key job of hosting a music-and-talk show during middays for Charlotte’s WBT-AM (1110), one of the oldest and most powerful radio stations in the country.

The station was coming off of a decade, recalls Collins (who was WBT’s program director at the time), during which “we still wore coats and ties on the air, even though you never really saw us. I mean, it was radio. And in comes this guy with long hair — we hadn’t anticipated that — and this real rock-and-roll (vibe). Just very loosey-goosey. You could picture him walking in with a joint in his hand.

“He was so not WBT at the time.”

Now 29 years later, it’s difficult for many to imagine WBT without Hancock, who Rick Jackson (another former boss) argues helped fend off WBT’s demise in the ’90s; who was inducted into the station’s Hall of Fame in 2017; whose current boss, Matt Hanlon, says “is synonymous with WBT.”

Beginning this fall, though, WBT listeners will have to get used to not having Hancock around to argue with anymore in the afternoons: After doing one final show on Thursday, Oct. 17, the 67-year-old broadcaster will step away from his popular, long-running, 3-to-6-p.m. talk show and toward something he’ll prefer his name to be synonymous with moving forward: retirement.

That’s certainly not to say you’ve heard the last of him — by his own admission, he hopes WBT eventually will take him back in a much more limited on-air role.

But at the outset, Hancock plans to be something of a ghost to the general public.

“I just want three to six months essentially to wake up in the morning and not have to do anything,” he says. “That just sounds so great to me I can’t hardly stand it.”

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“I had to figure out a way to survive in this business,” Hancock says. “And boy, it was touch and go for a long, long time.” John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

‘Chicks and free records’

Just for the record, Hancock did not walk into the offices of WBT that day in 1990 to meet Collins with a joint in his hand.

That said, marijuana may actually have been what set him on the path that ultimately led him to a broadcasting career to begin with, in a roundabout sort of way.

As a teenager, while growing up in the northern Colorado town of Estes Park outside of Denver, the discovery of three joints in his possession was the last straw for parents he’d given fits for much of his childhood; so for his junior year, they sent him to St. John’s Military School in Salina, Kan.

Hancock wound up making up so much ground during his one-year stint at St. John’s that he only needed two credits to graduate with the Class of ’71 after returning to Estes Park High School as a senior.

“So my guidance counselor needed to find something for me to do four or five hours a day,” Hancock recalls, “and I think he figured if he could get me out of the building, then the rest of those kids could get an education and they wouldn’t have to put up with my class-clowning.”

The solution? Hancock was assigned to help out at KKEP — a 500-watt daytime radio station in Estes Park — where his supervisor started out teaching him how to cue records and how to open up the mic to say “KKEP Estes Park” in a broadcaster-y voice at the top of every hour ... and eventually was leaving the 18-year-old kid in charge on weekends.

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Hancock at his first-ever radio job, as a teenager in Estes Park, Colo. Courtesy of John Hancock

Between that experience, fond boyhood memories of listening to Harry Caray call baseball games, and a time he vividly remembers a radio-personality friend of his dad’s making a promise to play a song for him at dinner one night and then delivering on it on the air the next day, Hancock settled on his dream job.

The key factors:

1. “Chicks and free records,” he says now.

2. “It was either that or roof houses,” he quips, “and I’m way too lazy to roof houses.”

But after the high school gig ended, it wasn’t until he was 28 and a veteran of “a thousand little small-time jobs” that Hancock finally convinced another radio station to put him to work.

And it wasn’t until that first real radio job that John Hancock became John Hancock.

‘I was gonna be Shannon Stevens’

Hancock’s real name isn’t John — he wasn’t named for the American patriot who was the first to sign the Declaration of Independence.

He was actually born David Robert Hancock, and he went by David up until he landed in 1979 at KADE, a little AM radio station in Boulder, Colo. But when Hancock was hired to spin records in the time slot right after a morning-drive show hosted by David Hartley, the new guy was told he’d need to come up with an air name so the station wouldn’t have a pair of Davids on the air back-to-back.

“I went home and thought about every sickening air name you’ve ever heard of,” Hancock recalls. “And I think I decided when I went to bed on the night before I was to start that I was gonna be Shannon Stevens. I have no idea where that came from.”

But he woke up in the middle of the night with the nagging feeling that he should hold onto the Hancock name. If he couldn’t be David, he thought, John had a nice ring to it — thanks to elementary-school history lessons.

“Anyway, I don’t think I made the decision until I got on the air and said, ‘I’m —’ and at that point, I either had to be Shannon Stevens or John Hancock. I chose John Hancock.”

He wound up spending almost seven years at the rock-music station in Boulder, recalling it as the “greatest job I ever had,” in the sense that it provided the foundation for everything he knows about the radio business.

But he also felt hamstrung by the format, as if his personality was locked in handcuffs every time he went on the air to announce what songs he’d just played and what song was coming up next.

So in 1986, he moved East to take a job as the program director and afternoon-drive show host at WARM, an AM station in Scranton, Pa., and the show — though still music-focused — gave him a little more room to flex his personality.

One day toward the end of his two-year stint there, he came into work to find a mountain of messages from listeners irate about a chauvinist comment his sports guy had made about how a woman shouldn’t be reporting from the Winter Olympics. That afternoon, Hancock says he went on the air and told his audience: “‘OK, we’re trashing the format. You people are mad. I’m the program director; here’s my phone number.’ And people called in all day long bitching about him. That was the first time I had done a talk show.”

In fact, a couple years later — after having moved on from Scranton and after a brief stint at WIVY-FM in Jacksonville, Fla. — Hancock used snippets from that recording in a tape he sent to various stations seeking work as a talk-show host.

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Hancock was fired from WIVY-FM in Jacksonville, Fla., after co-hosting its morning show for two years. “The owner, for some reason or another, he didn’t like me,” he says. Courtesy of John Hancock

Though WBT wasn’t one of them, the tape somehow wound up in front of then-program director Mike Collins, who was looking for a replacement for popular longtime music-and-talk host H.A. Thompson.

WBT was falling well behind the curve in shifting to the talk-radio trend that was sweeping across the country, and after meeting and hearing more about the loosey-goosey, long-haired 38-year-old who looked like he should have a joint in his hand, they decided John Hancock was the future.

‘This is our future. So get used to it.’

At first, however, Charlotte overwhelmingly seemed to prefer the past.

Collins says Thompson was like “a comfortable old shoe” to listeners then, while Hancock — who started off in December 1990 by filling the 10 a.m.-1 p.m. time slot — was ... “different.” So they’d phone in and tell him how much they hated him, and tell him to stop talking about Colorado and instead just go back to it.

He tried not to take it personally.

“I could have been Mother Theresa, I think, and they still would have hated me,” Hancock says. But he didn’t always do himself any favors, either. He could be ornery and obnoxious, confrontational and combative. “And it was great for WBT because that’s exactly what the powers that be wanted — for people to recognize that damn radio station again.”

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This photograph of Hancock was taken not long after he was hired by WBT in 1990. Courtesy of John Hancock

In short order, his bosses phased out the music component of the show, leaving Hancock to riff for three straight hours on a wide range of news topics but also just to turn complaining into a sport; eight months after he was hired, he was moved up an hour (from 9 a.m.-noon) when WBT added Rush Limbaugh’s syndicated show to the afternoon lineup.

The station’s transition to news-talk radio was complete.

“He was the first local Charlotte big-time personality that understood how that worked and how to do it,” says Rick Jackson, who was general manager at WBT from 1992-2009. “And he had an outlaw side to him. It was like, ‘Look, this is what we’re gonna feed you, and if you’re not gonna eat, go away. But if you like what you’re hearing from Rush, and you like what you’re hearing from me, well, this is our future. So get used to it.’”

There was a softer side to Hancock, though, too — and that’s what ultimately won Charlotte over.

He famously broke down in tears on the air in the early ’90s while talking about his cat Grins, who was dying of leukemia.

(“People said, ‘Well, I still think he’s a jackass, but he cried about his cat. Maybe he’s not as big a jackass as I thought.”)

On March 16, 1994, he even more famously devoted an entire show to letting listeners call in to talk about their fathers; at the end of it, he revealed that his own father had died earlier that morning of a brain aneurysm, after being in a coma for 10 days.

(Since then, every March around the anniversary of his dad’s death, Hancock has done a “Father’s Day” show that revolves around listeners sharing humorous and heartfelt stories about their dads. It’s enormously popular.)

Around the same time, Hancock also learned about and started rallying behind Kids First of the Carolinas, which helps needy children and their families year-round but really goes all-out at Christmas.

(Today, thanks in large part to Hancock’s support, Kids First provides for more than 2,000 children every Christmas and raises about $80,000 per year. Before his involvement, the organization was raising just a few thousand dollars annually.)

And Hancock cried, Jackson says, when he explained over lunch at uptown’s Alexander Michael’s restaurant in April 1999 that he was done at WBT. Jackson had seen it coming — Hancock had spent the past few years butting heads with a program director who had moved him to the 4-to-6-p.m. time slot — and it was emotional for both of them, in fact.

“I remember that well, because I ran into the same heart that he shows listeners,” Jackson says. “He said, ‘Look, I can’t do this anymore.’”

Later that week, John Hancock resigned from WBT.

‘I’ve proved my point’

But he couldn’t stay away.

After spending a few months shy of two years as morning host at WEND-FM (106.5), the alternative-music station known as The End — and then a few months in the unemployment line — Hancock was re-hired at WBT in August 2001 to host a talk show weeknights from 8 p.m. to midnight.

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Hancock, photographed in his WBT studio in 2003. T. Ortega Gaines Charlotte Observer

It wasn’t his dream time slot, but...

Less than a year later, he moved up to 6 to 10 p.m., where he remained for several years before giving up that last hour in 2007 to another show. It still wasn’t his dream time slot, but...

Six years later, in 2013, he’d had enough. He gave his bosses an ultimatum: Move him to a better shift, or lose him. They moved him, to 3 to 6 in the afternoon, where he’s been now for six years — following a period where WBT went through a series of shows in that slot that only lasted for a year. “As far as I’m concerned,” Hancock says, “I’ve proved my point.”

At the time of his shift to afternoons, Hancock was the longest-serving full-time personality at the station, and easily its most unique talent.

Former Observer TV and radio writer Mark Washburn may have summed it up best, in a column written to recognize his promotion back to afternoons: “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 be told, it still isn’t his dream time slot.

“To this day, I hate waiting to go on the air,” Hancock says. “It’s not that I hate doing 3 to 6 o’clock, but I would so much more rather be doing 9 to noon. And being done at noon was great. I love doing radio... I also love getting it out of the way.”

But...

‘Most thankful person on the planet’

That’s just John Hancock for you. Acerbic, whether he’s talking to thousands of listeners or talking to you one-on-one.

He’s also extremely proud of what he’s accomplished in his career, too. The Father’s Day tradition, which he’s carried on for 25 years. All the money and support that he’s directly and indirectly drummed up for Kids First. His stick-to-itiveness. His longevity.

And he knows things could have gone much differently.

“If I hadn’t gotten into talk when I came here in 1990, my career would have been over 20 years ago,” he says. “Because nobody would be looking for a 67-year-old morning guy. ... So I’m the most thankful person on the planet, because I get to leave on my terms.”

His run’s not over quite yet, though. And over the next two months, he’s hopeful his show won’t simply become a parade of listeners calling in to tell him how sorry they are that he’s leaving. “It’s great for my ego, but it’s boring radio,” he says.

The only specific farewell-related plans he’ll try to work on between now and Oct. 17 is a special final-week lineup of guests, people who have meant a lot to him during his time in Charlotte.

When asked who that might include, he whips out a wish list he’s already made up that includes Concord musical act The Avett Brothers, Carolina Panthers GM Marty Hurney and Coach Ron Rivera, WCNC weather guy Larry Sprinkle, and Dave Scott, who co-hosted the morning show with him in Jacksonville and now lives in Tega Cay, S.C.

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Scott and Seth Avett of the Avett Brothers with Hancock, on the night of his induction into the WBT Hall of Fame in 2017. Daniel Coston

Rivera, for one, hasn’t gotten the call yet. “But I look forward to it,” says the longtime, devoted listener. “I just think the world of him.”

‘I may be an idiot, but I’m their idiot’

There are a couple of big questions that loom over all of this retirement stuff, though.

1. What’s Hancock going to do with all of his free time?

2. How long can he stay away from the microphone?

He and his wife Susan live in a four-bedroom, two-bath house they built in Belmont just three years ago after 23 years in south Charlotte; Susan’s two grown sons — who Hancock helped raise — are still in Charlotte, and the older one has a daughter who’s about to turn 2 — so she’s ripe for some spoiling. (He also has two grandchildren, one in high school and one in college, via a 43-year-old son of his own out in Colorado.)

But asked if he has any hobbies, he says, “No, not really,” then mentions he was an only child, then boasts, “I can sit on a rock in the middle of a stream, watch the water go by and be pretty content.”

Susan, meanwhile, isn’t so sure.

“He thinks he’s ready to not be John Hancock... the on-air version of it. But the limelight, I think that’s a big deal,” says Susan, who — as a longtime employee at WBTV, where she’s currently the administrative assistant to the news director — knows the media business pretty well herself. “When he’s sitting on Friday on the couch, the day after he’s retired and he doesn’t have a show to go to anymore... I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong.”

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“It was different back in the ’90s, when I first started doing this,” Hancock says. “It wasn’t personal. ... Now, it has gotten personal. And now everybody’s so damn dug in to their side, that conversation — the art of conversation — is slowly but surely leaving. I think one of the reasons I’m ready to leave is because I really don’t want to go through another election. I don’t want to be here for the RNC. I want to sit back on that front porch and read about it.” John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

She’s probably not, to be honest.

In the same breath that he talks about wanting to spend months waking up and not having to do anything, her husband is talking about how he’ll continue to be a pitchman for longtime local advertisers he’s worked with — and how he wouldn’t be surprised if sometime next year he returned to the WBT airwaves to do, say, an hourlong commentary show.

(For the record, his boss at WBT, Matt Hanlon, says the door is open to him.)

And whatever happens with Hancock, it’ll almost certainly be in Charlotte.

“One lesson I’ve learned is that, if you find your market, quit looking. And Charlotte’s my market. For better or for worse, or mispronounced words, or stupid statements, or all the stuff I’ve done for 29 years here — I may be an idiot, but I’m their idiot,” he says, chuckling.

“Besides, I can’t afford to move back to Colorado. I mean, this house in Denver or Estes Park would cost $800,000. Stern makes that kind of money. John Boy and Billy make that kind of money. I don’t make that kind of money. So we’re staying here. I’m gonna sit on that front porch and tell people to get out of my front yard. That’s my dream.”

Théoden Janes has spent 12 years covering entertainment and pop culture for the Observer. He also thrives on telling emotive long-form stories about extraordinary Charlotteans and — as a veteran of 20-plus marathons and two Ironman triathlons — occasionally writes about endurance and other sports.
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