It was around 1997 and I was living in Scott Depot, West Virginia. The beautiful upper middle class town I had been raised in since the age of 2 years-old. My life could’ve been extremely easy, but I was determined to make it difficult and interesting as you’ll see in the next few paragraphs.
Despite my young age at the time I was sitting in my recliner drinking cheap beer, and watching Wheel of Fortune. And suddenly my friend Kidd Conley who was couch surfing at my place comes through the front door, “Hey man, I just got offered a job at a radio station in Wichita Falls, Texas, and I told them all about you. And I think they’ll hire you.” He said it with the fervor of a man getting ready to give me a hot stock tip or a winning lottery ticket! I replied, “Where is Wichita Falls, Texas?” As we did back in those days, we pulled out a map, because it would take 20 minutes to connect to the internet through AOL!
Wichita Falls is know for one thing, being the home of Sheppard Air Force Base, which is the largest air force base in the world. And out of about 300 rated radio markets it was 280. I had been working as a psychotherapist, but part-time as a dj around Charleston, West Virginia.
Many don’t know this, but my first on-air radio gig was a call in show called, “Talk to Tony” with my good friend Kidd Conley. However, in the very beginning I started by helping with promotions and setting up for events, and Kidd found out I was a therapist. He came up with this idea to do a call in show on Electric 102.7 (Top 40). The management made sure we emphasized the E, so we were EEEEEElectric! It was mostly teenagers calling in with minor problems, but it was fun.
At this stage of my life I was going through what I would call a quarter life crisis. I got divorced, was driving a sports car, and partying like the rock star I thought I was at the time. To be fully transparent, during the day I was a therapist helping people with their problems, and in the evenings I was a “train wreck.” I was actually a very good therapist for my age and level of experience, but my life was a mess.
After divorcing a beautiful, smart, and amazing young lady from one of the best families I’ve ever known…I chose to begin using drugs, abused alcohol, and eventually had a gambling problem. There is no doubt we’d be married to this day if I hadn’t had the maturity level of a 15 year-old boy. I did not have an affair, but that doesn’t take away from the fact I broke the heart of one of God’s gifts to me. A wife is to be cherished and adored, and I broke my vow. I still carry some guilt.
I can remember going to bed one night feeling completely “out of my mind” as the room was spinning and I could feel myself fading. Before passing out or falling asleep, I prayed “God please don’t give up on me.” And it was during this phase that I was making the biggest decision of my life. A decision that would completely change the trajectory of my life forever. Before we get to Texas, let me tell you how I got my first (solo) radio shift.
It was nearly midnight when myself and a few other staff members walked into the radio station. We had just returned from a bar event, which means it was highly unlikely any of us were sober. And I heard someone say, “Hey, where is Hollywood, he is supposed to be here for his shift?” He was the overnight jock, and it turned out the boss had forgotten he was in Myrtle Beach for the weekend. Well, all the other guys had done their shift or were ready to go home so they called the boss who said, “Ask Tony if he wants to go on?” And the rest is history.
There was something about the radio business that got into my blood like crack cocaine. Maybe it was because a few people in management had told me I would never make it, because of my accent and low energy. Seriously, one of upper management told me that when he heard me on the air it sounded like I was sitting in a recliner, smoking weed, and talking on the radio. I informed him that I was not sitting in a recliner. As a young man, if you told me I couldn’t do something then I was going to die trying! So my answer to my friend Kidd was, “Let’s go to Texas!”
I called my partner in the psychology practice and told him that my 50% was his. I didn’t ask him to buy my share, because I felt like I was abandoning him. The next call would be to my mother, because I did not want to tell my father. Nope, I would tell my mom, ask her not to tell dad, and then wait until she told him! The next day I walked in the front door of his office building braced for the impact. My father owned a highly successful real estate business, and it would’ve been mine had I chosen that path. However, I was never one to make logical, rational, or easy choices. I was the poster child of parodical sons! As my father walked toward me I knew my plan had worked perfectly. There was no doubt my mother had delivered the news.
My father and I were very close, and I’m not sure I ever felt that I had severely disappointed him until that moment. He had a tone that was a mixture of frustration and sadness as he got straight to the point, “So your mom tells me you are moving to Texas?” I simply replied, “Yes sir.” Strangely, he never liked when I called him “Sir” and would always reply, “I’m your father…not your Sir.” On this day, he did not correct me.
He then asked me how much money I was going to make, and I told him $18,000 a year, and he replied, “Well, you know you are going to starve right?” I just looked down while thinking, “Glad I didn’t tell him the truth.” I was actually going to make $15,000, which was well under half what I had been making as a therapist in the mid 1990s. A few nights later we would go out to dinner as a family, and little did I know that I would never live in West Virginia again. A place that is often the butt of many jokes, but the place that my heart will always call home. It was my Mayberry, and I’m very proud of the people and my heritage.
The night before I left I vomited twice, because something told me it was not the right move. However, the next morning I headed west. My friend and I packed my 1992 Green Cougar, and off we went to Texas.
When I arrived to work at 92.9 KNIN the first person I met was my boss Chris Walters. He was a tall thin man with a true radio voice. When he simply said hello you quickly wanted to grab your phone, and try to be the 9th caller! He was a very good man, and helped lay the foundation for the rest of my career. However, he had a couple of big surprises for me upon my arrival.
First, they wanted me to change my name to Tony Shepherd, due to the Air Force base. I should’ve kept that name! The big surprise was that I was going to not only be the cohost of the morning show, but I would be doing afternoon drive, and pre-record the night show! I was about 3 months into the gig when I realized if the ratings for the station came back poorly then I was in big trouble! I was on every shift, except middays, but I loved it! To this day, Fitz and I will say it was the most fun we ever had in radio. Stay with me, Fitz is about to enter stage right, and you won’t miss him.
In less than a year I would find my roommate, and morning partner Kidd hammering NyQuil just to sleep his days away. Then he would drink Guinness until about 10:00 p.m. before switching back to NyQuil! To say he hated being in Wichita Falls would be an understatement. It got to the point that one day while he was gone I hid his gun! The man was seriously depressed, but once he assured me he was safe…I returned the fire arm. Kidd and I are friends to this day, and he is extremely talented. In fact, he taught Fitz and I how to do morning radio. Yes, that brings us to The Fitz…F-I-T with a Z! Before Kidd officially lost his mind and headed back to the hills of West Virginia, he wanted to hire an intern. An intern to go out and do crazy radio stunts, clean the station vehicle, and load the Coke machine.
The radio station was in an extremely old metal building, and basically in the middle of a cow pasture. I was sitting in our office with paneling on the walls and carpet from 1975, and in walks a young man that (little did I know) would be my ticket to the big time! At that moment “my ticket” was a 19 year-old kid who should’ve been on the basketball court, and not in a radio station, but there he was coming through my door at 90 mph.
He looked like he weighed about 150 lbs, but stood 8 feet tall! He was almost vibrating because had so much energy! My first thought was, how in the hell did he get back here, but before I could say one word he was sticking out his hand saying, “Hey man, I love y’alls show…my name is Fitz!” I looked at Kidd and he looked at me, and we really didn’t know what to do. Should we run or call the police? Before we could make a decision he was already making himself at home.
At one point while Fitz was in high school the radio station had let him do an air shift so he had a demo tape with him (yes a cassette tape). His demo tape was actually very good, and we hired him, but remember Kidd was on his way out the door and soon. So after a few weeks of Fitz standing in Speedos in the middle of a busy intersections with a sign that said, “Listen to Kidd and Tony” the management came to me and said, “Since Kidd is leaving how would you feel about making the show, “Tony & Fitz in The Nut House?” I said, “Absolutely not! The kid is nuts, and I love him, but I just don’t think it’ll work.” However, they could see his talent, and were pushing for it.
At this point I silently wondered if I should tell them he purposefully blew up the station vehicle, which had at one time been a bread truck! It was a piece of junk, and we wanted rid of it so Fitz gunned the engine until it exploded. And then I realized, if I tell them that then he may let them know about the time I drove it back to the station from a bar (while pulling a huge trailer shaped like a radio boom box)! And while there is no video proof, I might have backed it into a telephone poll TWICE, which blew out a light on the rear of the roving radio! Well, I was only in the vehicle when it hit the telephone poll the first time. What? I thought it was in park! So, I kept my mouth shut, and Tony and Fitz in The Nut House was born! And when the next ratings were released we were number one with a bullet! Fitz and I split a $250 bonus although he swears I never gave him his half!
I would eventually choose to leave Wichita Falls for Jackson, Mississippi with the lady who would become my wife, and mother of my three beautiful children. On my way out the door of the radio station I said to Fitz, “Whoever makes it first has to get the other one a job.” Meaning, if either one of us finally got to a major market we would try to help the other. And we both did just that, but it didn’t completely work out until I was working in Miami, he was in Dallas, and I believed that God wanted me to be a pastor.
The reason there was a Fitz and Tony together in Seattle and Portland was because I felt God wanted me to be a pastor. However, our big break didn’t come in the Pacific Northwest. No, it started with a show in Dallas, Texas with Fitz, Tony, and Big Gay Steven. Yes, that was how the show was branded. I’ll explain in the next post.
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