- Luke Awtry
- Ginny McGehee
Ginny McGehee stood at her microphone in the tiny, cluttered studio at WJOY-AM and searched her computer screen for the next song to play for her Friday morning listeners. The time counter showed less than 10 seconds until the end of Gale Garnett's 1964 hit "We'll Sing in the Sunshine," but McGehee looked unworried.
A red bulb above the control board lit up.
"That was by request for Carolyn in Richmond this morning," McGehee cooed in a singsong voice into the mic, one hand still scrolling through her digital music library. "I talked to Paula earlier," she continued, referring to another regular listener. "Her cats are already lying in the sun coming in the window. It does make everybody a little brighter and a little happier."
After announcing the local temperatures in a voice as sunny as the bluebird morning outside, McGehee gave the obligatory station identification — "AM 1230, WJOY Burlington" — and seamlessly transitioned to Ray Charles' 1962 hit "Hey, Good Lookin'."
"I do cut it close sometimes," McGehee remarked off the air to her visitors in the studio. "But I've been at this a while."
In fact, longer than virtually anyone else in Vermont. Since 1993, the 66-year-old Philadelphia native has hosted WJOY's "The Breakfast Table," a mix of oldies, news, sports, weather, call-in games and neighborly chitchat, which airs every weekday from 6 to 10 a.m.
Once, McGehee's style of folksy, hometown broadcasting was the norm. Now, she's an outlier in a radio world dominated by the FM band, satellite and digital radio. Nationally, many stations are owned by a few media conglomerates; distant computers determine what music is played, down to the minute, on many local stations. Much of the AM band has become a place of sports chatter, Christian programming and vitriolic talk shows.
McGehee appeals to none of those niche interests. She still chooses her own music, recognizes many of her 3,000 daily listeners by their voices alone and often provides advertising spots in the form of off-the-cuff phone conversations with local businesspeople. That style has helped her assemble a loyal cadre of sponsors who keep her broadcasts on the air despite the tiny size of her audience.
Local music historian Joel Najman, who has been on the air himself since 1963, describes McGehee's show as "full-service radio," a holdover from the era when AM ruled the airwaves.
"This is the same WJOY that went on the air in 1946, except we're doing it in 2022," Najman said. "I love that approach, and I think that her older audience feels that it's pretty special, too."
Don't Touch That Dial
- Luke Awtry
- Ginny McGehee in the studio
If "The Breakfast Table" were a car, it'd be a 1972 Chrysler Town & Country station wagon; if it were a photograph, it'd be a black-and-white Polaroid. It's neither fancy nor high fidelity, but that's not why listeners tune in. They pull up a chair each morning at "The Breakfast Table" because McGehee starts their day with musical nostalgia and light, cheerful conversation.
"My whole philosophy is just to wake people up without slapping them in the face," McGehee said.
Longtime listeners often tell McGehee when they meet her that she doesn't look the way they imagined her. Radio personalities probably hear that a lot, but it would be hard to pinpoint a "look" for McGehee based on her voice, which is neither high-pitched nor husky. Off the air, she doesn't speak with that timeless AM-radio announcer voice, but she's as chatty as ever.
She's thinner than she once was, with shoulder-length silver hair and a pronounced jawline. On this Friday morning in March, she's wearing a blue turtleneck, pink jeans and yellow socks with cats on them.
"The nice thing about radio: You don't have to look good or anything," she says during a commercial break. "You can be scratching where you shouldn't be scratching, and no one will know."
Off the air, McGehee is saltier and more opinionated than her on-air personality would suggest. She also has a temper.
Station general manager Dan Dubonnet, who's known McGehee for 35 years, said he and McGehee often butted heads over trivial matters, such as a particular song selection.
"We would go at it. I mean, loud," Dubonnet said. "And then, five minutes later, she'd come up to my office or I'd go to the studio, and she'd go, 'I love you, Dan.' And I'd go, 'I love you, Ginny.'"
McGehee and Dubonnet both said it's been years since they've fought like cats and dogs. "You get to be 66 years old," she said, "and you're not quite as fiery as you used to be."
It's McGehee's cheery disposition that first appealed to listener Susan Bowles two decades ago. Stop by Main Street Barbers in downtown Burlington first thing in the morning and if co-owner Bowles is working, you're guaranteed to hear "The Breakfast Table." Bowles, who's been cutting hair for 48 years, grew up on "American Bandstand" and "The Ed Sullivan Show," and she loves the music McGehee plays.
But Bowles said she also tunes in because she loves the playful banter between McGehee and gardening guru Charlie Nardozzi, who hosts a one-hour call-in program during the last hour of "The Breakfast Table" every Thursday. (Off the air, McGehee admits she has "a black thumb" and hasn't planted her own garden in years.)
"After 10 o'clock and Ginny's off the air, they can do whatever they want with the radio," Bowles said of her coworkers. "But until 10 o'clock, it's mine."
- Luke Awtry
- Ginny McGehee on her porch in Fort Ethan Allen
The same goes at Replays thrift shop in South Burlington's Blue Mall, where each morning manager Gail Premo, 59, sets the dial to WJOY. Premo's 91-year-old mother is also a faithful listener, she said, because McGehee "plays the music she grew up on."
Premo said her shoppers often comment on the music and ask whether it's from her own record collection.
"No, it's WJOY," Premo tells them. "Not everybody knows what AM is."
McGehee is the first to point out that AM radio is "a dinosaur." In 1962, there were 16 radio stations in Vermont, all of them on the AM dial. Today there are 96, only 18 of which are AM.
Though the AM frequencies themselves haven't disappeared, their relevance is greatly diminished. For decades, Najman said, AM radio was an essential vehicle for Vermont politicians to reach their far-flung electorate. It was also how many Vermonters got breaking news and learned about new music.
However, with its inferior sound quality and greater susceptibility to weather and other interferences, by the 1960s and '70s AM had trouble competing with the more reliable, high-fidelity FM.
But as Wendy Mays, executive director of the Vermont Association of Broadcasters, notes, Vermont's radio landscape is unique in that none of its stations is owned by the country's largest media corporations. Hall Communications, which owns WJOY-AM and four other Burlington FM stations, is the state's largest radio chain but is small by national standards.
McGehee has few competitors for the audience to which she appeals. WVMT-AM Burlington airs "The Morning Drive" with Kurt Wright and Anthony Neri, but their program is more focused on current issues and politics. The same is true of the programming on WDEV-AM Waterbury. McGehee's show deliberately sidesteps controversial subjects such as the noise made by the Vermont Air National Guard's F-35 fighter planes.
"I don't get political," she said, "because you can't win."
It's understandable if many Vermonters have never heard "The Breakfast Table." WJOY broadcasts from its South Burlington studio with just a 1,000-watt AM signal. By comparison, WVPS-FM Burlington, which carries Vermont Public Radio, broadcasts at 48,800 watts.
Unlike many AM stations, WJOY has neither an FM simulcast nor an online streaming option; McGehee's show isn't even recorded. The station's signal reaches as far as Plattsburgh, N.Y., and occasionally Swanton, if the weather is right. But the majority of McGehee's audience lives in Chittenden and Addison counties.
While it's small by broadcasting standards and is composed mostly of listeners 60 and older, according to station manager Dubonnet, her listenership is an exceptionally loyal one.
Last September, when WJOY celebrated its 75th year with a party in a downtown Burlington hotel, dozens of McGehee's fans and sponsors showed up to meet her. For many, the party was their first major outing since the pandemic began, Dubonnet said.
"When Ginny walked into the room, it was almost like a rock star thing," recalled Nardozzi, who has done his "In the Garden" program on WJOY for 30 years, with McGehee as cohost for the last 25. "She just worked the crowd the whole night long. And whoever was left at the end, she was going to be talking to them."
Dubonnet, who was hired a few months after McGehee, is also executive vice president of Hall Communications, the Florida-based, family-owned company that owns 21 stations in five states. When asked whether he, or anyone else in management, gives McGehee directions or guidance on how to do her show, he guffawed.
"Outside of telling her to clean her studio, what's the point?" he said. "She's a great AM jock ... who is well loved by her audience. I just let her have her fun, because I'm just fortunate to have her this many years."
'It's the perfect job for you'
- Jim Condon and Ginny McGehee at Fenway Park in 1992
"We're rocking with the Dixie Chicks and Michael Bublé at WJOY," McGehee said in between sips of coffee as she announced the last two songs she had played. "We'll check that weekend weather and see what's what and, hopefully, the sun will stick around for a little while. I'm seeing a few clouds out there." McGehee's last comment is a bluff, as she can't see much sky through her window, which opens onto a hallway.
But the view inside the studio is as revealing as an archaeological dig. Aside from her two computer screens, McGehee's work space hasn't changed much since she arrived at the station in August 1983. Though the turntables and eight-track players are gone, McGehee still works the same control board that was installed in the 1970s.
"It's terrible how much crud I have in here," she said, off the mic, casually scanning the closet-size room. Along one wall were stacks of CDs — yes, she occasionally uses the outdated music format — and on the floor were piled books about Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Tony Bennett.
Boston Red Sox paraphernalia hung on the wall behind her chair, along with a team photo of the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies, a hometown favorite. McGehee and her late husband, Jim Condon, the booming-voiced broadcaster and state lawmaker, often went to ball games together at Fenway Park. He proposed to her at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.
"The only thing we ever fought about was the designated hitter," she said.
A black-and-white poster of '70s heartthrob Bobby Sherman rested against another wall and, beside it, a 45 RPM single for the 1975 song "Ginny Go Softly" by Herman's Hermits. A bulletin board was covered with photos and notes from listeners, many yellowed or curled with age.
Though food and beverages are normally verboten around radio equipment, evidently that rule doesn't apply to McGehee. Listeners regularly stop by with homemade cookies, cakes and muffins, and Nardozzi remembers one listener, an older Italian man, who would bring her trays of lasagna.
"It wasn't even anyone's birthday," he said. "Listeners are always bringing her something."
"I have the greatest listeners, I have to say. They spoil me rotten," McGehee said off the mic. "Some are old and alone, and others are more vibrant than most people you'll ever know ... I try not to harp on the negative, but this has been a pretty shitty couple of years."
This day, like most mornings, she was keeping things playful and fun. It was time for "Definition Friday," one of her daily listener call-in games — "That's News to Me Monday," "Trivial Trials Tuesday" and so on — that are well-loved Breakfast Table traditions.
Each day's winner gets to pick a number on McGehee's weekly lottery ticket. If she wins, McGehee shares the loot. It's not exactly "The Price Is Right." Her biggest haul has been $250.
By 9:25, no one had successfully guessed the "Definition Friday" word of the day, so McGehee read the clue again: "To throw oneself down heavily, clumsily or in a relaxed manner."
Moments later, the switchboard lit up with a call from a listener whose voice McGehee immediately recognized.
"Hi, Mary. What's your phone number?" McGehee asked. Long pause. "Why aren't you at the senior center beating somebody in a card game? ... Ah, got it. Don't we all have some damn doctor's appointment! I hope this is just a regular thing ... Yeah, 'routine' is a good word."
After Buddy Holly's "That'll Be the Day" ended, McGehee introduced Mary on the air. The two women chatted about Mary's recent trip to a casino.
"I do like a card game myself. But my husband always liked the ponies, and he was good at that," McGehee said.
"So, 'to throw oneself down heavily, clumsily or in a relaxed manner.' Whatcha thinking, Mary?" McGehee asked. "Flop! That's exactly right." Another pause, then, "We might all need a little nap later on. Who knows?"
McGehee's folksy banter may not be everyone's cup of tea, but there's no denying the breadth of her musical knowledge. Every Saturday from 7 to 10 a.m., McGehee hosts "The Big Band Show," featuring jazz and dance orchestra music from the 1930s, '40s and early '50s.
"I've never heard her play something that she doesn't know something about," said Najman, who is no musical slouch himself. He hosts the long-running rock and roll history show "My Place," Saturday nights on VPR, and has been a fixture on Vermont airwaves for 59 years.
If a caller requests, say, a particular song by Count Basie, he said, McGehee might mention that he recorded it on the V-Discs sent to U.S. military personnel during World War II. (McGehee's cats are named Duke, after Duke Ellington, and Basie.)
Every day, McGehee does her four-hour show solo, with no engineer or support staff. Nevertheless, she repeatedly downplayed her technological acumen. She joked that, as a night owl, she finds the hardest part of her job is getting out of bed every morning at 4:30 to make it to the studio by 5:30.
But it's more than just a pot of strong coffee that gets her going.
"Being a DJ ... is like a drug," she explained. "I love what I get to do. One of my college roommates said, 'It's the perfect job for you, Ginny. You can keep talking, and no one can get a word in edgewise.'"
Learning from the 'boss jocks'
- Ginny McGehee (third from left) with Q99 staff in 1985
"I was raised in a house full of music," McGehee said of her childhood in Chestnut Hill, an affluent section of Philadelphia, where her father was a physician. Her mother, a professional singer, performed for American soldiers deploying to World War II and later was a regular soloist at the largest synagogue in Philadelphia, as well as at the city's First Presbyterian Church.
As a teenager, McGehee was a regular listener to the '60s DJs she calls "the boss jocks of AM radio." When she was in middle school, her father took her to visit one of her favorite stations, WIBG, where the DJs gave her a stack of free 45s and LPs. She credits AM radio for her deep knowledge of music.
McGehee attended Ripon College, a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin where "I partied my ass off," she said. She also had her first hands-on broadcast experience volunteering at the campus radio station, though she says she mostly recalls doing bong hits in the studio.
Midway through her senior year, she was kicked out for her failing grades. "The '70s were really brutal," she joked.
She returned to Philadelphia and worked for a time conducting telephone surveys about everything from paper towels to politics. "I was pretty good at keeping people on the phone," she said. And, because a sorority sister had once remarked on her great voice, McGehee enrolled in the American Academy of Broadcasting.
"I always loved music and radio, and my parents were supportive," she said. "They really wanted to see whether I could get my ass up in the morning at 6 a.m. and get on the train on time."
On weekends, McGehee played field hockey against other women her age. One day, a teammate mentioned that she knew someone who owned a radio station in the Adirondacks. She offered to put in a good word for her friend.
In 1980, McGehee got her first paid radio gig at WNBZ, then a small AM station in Saranac Lake, N.Y. She worked a split shift: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., then 7 p.m. until 10:15 p.m., when the station signed off for the night. McGehee's broadcasts were a mix of country music, big band numbers, sports, and state and local news. Later, she took over the play-by-play sportscasts of local high school football games broadcast live from the stadium tower.
"That's what's fun about small stations. We did everything — fire calls, obituaries, you name it," she said.
By 1983, though, she was ready to move up. Najman, who was then WJOY's program director, said McGehee memorably showed up for her job interview in a short-sleeve blouse, her entire left arm sunburned "bright red like a lobster" from driving with her arm out the window.
Plenty of young people wanted to work in commercial radio, Najman said, but most were not deeply familiar with the adult contemporary music WJOY played in those days — the music of Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett and the like.
"Enter Ginny McGehee," he said. "She came with that knowledge, and she was a gift from heaven, as far as I'm concerned ... She was one of the best hires I ever made."
- McGehee's son, Tom, in the studio at 4 years old
Less than a year after McGehee's arrival at WJOY, the station hired Condon as its news director from a station in Norwich, Conn. Because the Burlington news department already had four reporters, McGehee recalled, the staff was immediately suspicious that Condon was just there to spy on them for management.
"Jim got here and, in a week, he had more friends than anybody," McGehee said. "They all loved him ... That's the kind of guy he was."
McGehee and Condon's relationship took years to blossom, partly because they worked opposite schedules. By the early 1990s, though, their friendship had become a love affair. They married in 1993 and moved to Colchester, which Condon represented as a Democrat for 14 years in the Vermont House of Representatives. The couple's son, Tom, now works in the entertainment industry in Hollywood.
Condon was a local radio legend in his own right. In 1986, he teamed up with lifelong friend Louie Manno to launch the "Manno and Condon Show," which aired on WKDR-AM from 1990 to 2000. The duo recorded musical parodies, occasionally with McGehee reading voice-overs and Najman impersonating then-Burlington mayor Bernie Sanders.
In an interview, Manno called McGehee "a living state treasure" and likened her show to his childhood Brooklyn neighborhood, when people would stick their heads out of their apartment windows and talk to each other across the alley.
"The Breakfast Table," he said, is "a throwback to a time when radio was really important in people's lives," not only for getting information but for gauging the vibe of the community.
McGehee, he added, "preserves a connection with the audience for decades, an unbroken connection ... That is what broadcasting is supposed to be."
McGehee's relationship with her current audience began in 1993, when she was asked to cohost a WJOY morning show with Steve Pelkey, a veteran broadcaster who'd worked in several larger radio markets, including Boston. "The Breakfast Table" was born.
"Steve put the cornball in it. He's a better joke-teller than I am," McGehee said. "I can't tell a joke to save my life."
The duo cohosted the show until 2000, when Pelkey moved on to another gig. McGehee has flown solo ever since.
Though she doesn't describe herself as a radio journalist, over the years she's been on the air when major news stories broke. In 1998 she reported on a devastating ice storm, which briefly knocked the station off the air because it didn't have a backup generator.
Because the power was still on at her Colchester home, McGehee interviewed then-governor Howard Dean by phone with a remote feed. In the middle of the interview, she recalled, Dean suddenly shouted, "Cut that out!" then asked McGehee if they were live.
"Yes, we are, governor," she told him. Evidently, Dean's cat was drinking water out of the Christmas tree stand because its water bowl was frozen solid.
McGehee was also on the air the morning of September 11, 2001, when the first jet hit the north tower of the World Trade Center. Though her show was scheduled to end at 9 a.m., McGehee worked with the station's news team to gather what little local information was available, such as the scrambling of Vermont Air National Guard jets to New York City.
"You gotta admit, when something big is breaking," she said, "radio is the place to be."
Radio was also the place to be during the pandemic. While radio advertising revenue shrank, many sponsors of "The Breakfast Table" either continued their support or returned as soon as possible because they consider McGehee to be family.
Chris Conant, 63, is owner of Claussen's Florist, Greenhouse & Perennial Farm in Colchester. Claussen's has been a sponsor of "The Breakfast Table" for more than 25 years, and Conant said he can't imagine spending his money anywhere else.
- Luke Awtry
- Ginny McGehee in the studio
Every Tuesday at precisely 8:20 a.m., he said, McGehee calls his cellphone. No matter what he's doing or where in the country he's traveling, Conant will stop to spend five to 10 minutes chatting with her on the air. Often they talk about their families, their respective charitable events or goings-on in Colchester.
"Ginny has this following that is remarkable," he said. Every week, customers mention that they heard their conversation, he added, which are less like ads than mealtime banter.
"It's pretty remarkable the conversations we have. We've been through a lot together," he said, noting that both are empty nesters and have lost spouses. In fact, after founder Bill Claussen, Conant's business partner of 44 years, died on March 19, Conant was back on the air with McGehee the following Tuesday.
"Ginny and I have this special relationship that is second to none, in my eyes," he said.
Ginny's audience and sponsors were there for her, as well, in her own time of crisis and loss. After months of battling esophageal cancer, Condon died on August 23, 2018, at the age of 60. McGehee immediately turned to her radio family for solace.
"Jim passed away overnight, and she came to work the next morning and did the show," Dubonnet said, noting that it wasn't out of a sense of professional obligation.
"It's because the studio is her safety zone, and we are her family," he said. "Her audience is her family. For her to do that was really something."
Major life events, happy and sad, are an inevitable part of McGehee's work. Sometimes, she said, she'll play an old song that holds special meaning to a listener, and they'll call her off the air and talk about a departed spouse.
"That's one thing about having an older audience," she said. "I've lost a lot of good friends out there over the years."
At 66, McGehee said she has begun pondering "the R word."
"I would retire just so I don't have to get up at 4:30 in the morning," she said. "But is it coming soon? I don't plan on it anytime right away. I still love what I do."
As McGehee wrapped up her Friday morning broadcast, she ended it with her signature Roy Rogers and Dale Evans tune.
"Hey, ladies and gents, it's time to say so long, farewell, and get our latest [news] from ABC," she said. "Do remember, every day is a gift. Open yours today, and we'll catch you back here on Monday. Happy trails."
Jeff Baron contributed reporting.
Joy Ride: A Longtime Listener's On-Air Friendship with Ginny McGehee
- Diane Sullivan ©️ Seven Days
- Ginny McGehee and Jeff Baron
I first discovered Ginny McGehee on the AM dial in 2013, while I was helping manage circulation at Seven Days and practically living in my car. I've always loved AM radio. Its soothing soft rock and easy-listening style takes the edge off my otherwise anxiety-ridden life. Nothing relaxes me more than driving leisurely around Vermont, listening to Paul Williams, Rita Coolidge, Hoyt Axton, the Cowsills, Carpenters and Glen Campbell ... without irony. Maybe I'm desperately trying to relive 1976 in the backseat of my grandparent's Plymouth Duster.
I was raised on the AM stations broadcasting out of Pittsburgh and later worked in the industry. But all of my favorite radio heroes — "Chilly Billy" Cardille, "Porky" Chedwick, Ron Lundy, "Cousin" Brucie — had either died or retired. And, sadly, most of my favorite AM stations had abandoned their classic, syrupy formats for hyper-partisan, aggressive, shock-jock drivel.
Gone were the days — or so I thought — when AM DJs created an authentic, entertaining and reliable environment that made listeners feel like the host was speaking to them personally. When DJs knew their music. That's a dying art form.
The moment I heard her voice, I knew that Ginny McGehee was the real deal. She had just played a three-second clue for one of her on-air games, "Spin-Out Wednesday," a "Name That Tune"-type quiz that happens to be my bailiwick. I quickly became a regular, winning often. And listeners who win get to talk with Ginny live on the air.
My first time talking with her was brief. I identified the song, made some chitchat and then a request: "Snowbird" by Anne Murray. After a few weeks of this, Ginny asked me where I worked. "You work for Seven Days?" she replied. "That's a heck of a newspaper!"
I returned the compliment, and our on-air friendship began. We bonded over our shared Pennsylvania roots; concerts we'd seen; my time working for her late husband, Jim Condon, at WKDR; and whether Michael Bublé's feet are big enough to fill Frank Sinatra's shoes. And, because I was driving all over the state, I often reported on where I was, describing the landscape and even providing impromptu traffic reports. Every time we spoke, she wished her "buddy Jeff" safe travels.
Late last year, I asked our editors if we could do a story on Ginny. Ken Picard and I visited her studio in March, and we all naturally hit it off. But one exchange left me rather crestfallen.
Ginny suggested I choose a few tunes to play on-air. My mind suddenly went blank: Where to start? This was like finding a turntable needle in a haystack. My brain scrambled to choose the most sappy, melody-soaked tearjerker from the jukebox in my head. Terry Jacks? Ray Price? Linda Ronstadt? Wait, I had it! "Please Come to Boston'' by Dave Loggins.
McGehee wrinkled her nose. "Oh, God, you're kidding me, right?" she protested off mic. "What a piece of shit. It's just a dirge! I don't want to depress my audience on a Friday morning!"
Ouch. She had a point and, alas, taste is subjective.
The other morning as I drove in the rain to buy cat food, Jimmy Buffet's "Come Monday" came on WJOY. Its lovely, tidy verses tumbled around as I left the Winooski rotary, crossed the river and glided toward Patchen Road: "I've got my Hush Puppies on, I guess I never was meant for glitter rock 'n' roll."
I'm no Parrot Head but I do love that song, and it made me want to call Ginny.
— Jeff Baron