March 18 2015 12:00 AM

Lansing DJ/community advocate to launch web-based, Michigan-centric talk show

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Radio DJs seldom know when it’s their last day behind the mic. Even the most popular personality in town could have the plug pulled at any time and for no reason. In the broadcasting industry, this guillotine method of firing staff is standard operating procedure. It sounds harsh, but it makes sense.

“It prevents unhappy, soon-to-be-ex-employees from spouting off live on the air,” explains longtime talk radio host Tim Barron. “The boss waits until you’re done for the day, then he’ll ask you to step into his office to sign some paperwork. And that’s all the notice you usually get.”

After 40 years in radio — the last 30 of which were here in Lansing — Barron was given that rarest of chances Friday morning when he was allowed to say goodbye to his listeners. The host of WLMI-FM’s “Tim Barron Morning Show” didn’t deviate much from the format he’d had on that station for the last five years. The Capital Area Humane Society’s director of operations brought in Cody, a black Chihuahua mix. Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero popped in for some mutual appreciation. WLNS meteorologist Emily Wahls called in every half hour to say it was going to be a nice day. If Barron hadn’t kept plugging TimBarronsMichiganRadio.com, the Internet-based radio station he’ll soon launch, you’d have never known anything was amiss.

“It was purely business, not personal,” Barron said about his amicable dismissal. “Even though it affects me, I agree with the decision. I got surprised, but not by much — I thought I had another year. The station is trying to appeal more to the typical 40-year-old housewife with three and a half kids. I’m a bit too abrasive, too realistic for that. I say words like penis and vagina.”

When he moves to the Web this spring, he can use all the titillating terms he wants, from clinical to base slang. Not that he will (probably) — he still wants to be an atwork/in-the-car type of station — but at least he doesn’t have to worry about FCC restrictions and pearl clutching.

“My next revenue stream will involve no one but myself controlling my destiny,” said Barron, 55, from an Okemos office building where he’s building his studio. “Radio has been a cruel mistress, but I was no victim. I was a proactive volunteer. I worked hard for 30 years to establish myself, and I have every intention of succeeding. I’ll be the same guy, but more unbridled. I have no one to report to but myself.”

TimBarronsRadioMichigan.com is already active, but for now it’s just streaming his personal music collection, a 27,000-song mixed-bag catalogue that includes N.W.A., Florence the Machine and Grand Funk Railroad. By late next month, Barron will debut his new talk show, a 7-10 a.m. mix of talk and music. It’s similar to what he’s been doing in Lansing for the last 30 years, but in this iteration, he will widen his scope from focusing on Lansing to include the entire state.

“It will be the local morning show of Michigan, with an obvious bias toward its capital city,” Barron said. “If it’s in Michigan, we’ll cover it, and I plan on making a lot of personal appearances across the state. Mackinac Island. ArtPrize in Grand Rapids. The Detroit Jazz Festival. But it will still maintain a Lansing flavor. I’ll continue to invite charities on the show. They count on me to help them.”

Indeed, if any one thing sets Barron apart from his commercial radio peers, it was this emphasis on local nonprofits and charity groups, not to mention civic leaders from nearby municipalities such as Eaton Rapids and Mason. Regular guests included representatives from the Women’s Center of Greater Lansing, Habitat for Humanity and the Lansing Area AIDS Network.

“Tim’s a huge supporter of HIV awareness, and being on his show definitely helped us promote our events,” said Dwayne Riley, prevention manager for LAAN. “Last year two people who got tested for National Testing Day said they were there because they heard about it on the show. I didn’t know how effective my appearances were, but I can see that they did make a difference.”

“His passion for preparedness is so obvious and so strong, and for him to (dedicate) air time to that for that once a month has really helped us grow,” said Erika Mahoney, executive director of Do1Thing.com, a website that gives home emergency preparation tips. “He believes in the program, and he asks genuine questions that help people better understand a wide range of subjects.”

“He’s very aware of how important nonprofits are to the community,” said Julia Willson, president and CEO of the Capital Area Humane Society. “Our (on-air) conversations were always thoughtful, and sometimes challenging. He liked to talk about pit bulls with me — and we didn’t always see eye to eye. But he was always respectful and made hard topics easier to talk about.”

That theme of “we don’t always agree, but he’s willing to have the conversation” theme increasingly pops up the more people you talk to who have been guests on Barron’s show.

“That’s what’s wrong with modern politics,” said Bernero on Barron’s show Friday.

“Democrats and Republicans don’t talk to each other anymore. They forget they’re Americans first and (party affiliation) comes second. If I have a hope for your new show, Tim, it’s that you start a dialogue in this state that could lead to a real conversation. One of the reasons we get along is you’re politically incorrect. I’m often politically incorrect. And it’s OK to make a mistake from time to time.”

Though Bernero is a Democrat and Barron a Republican (he emceed GOP candidate Mitt Romney’s visit to Ingham County), Bernero still appointed him to chair the board of the Lansing Entertainment and Public Facilities Authority.

Though not a shock jock (“Those guys are always trying to one-up themselves — that’s not me"), he does address topics that can veer from risqué to all-out inflammatory. Particularly, his bluntness about issues of race.

“Being a middle-aged white guy, there are some things that he is just not going to be aware of,” said Bernie Lucas, a fan who maintains a steady communication with Barron. (He calls her his “Female Black Conscience.”) “He’s not aware of some of his own biases. I try to get him to see things from a different point of view.”

In 1994, when he was working at WJXQ- FM (Q106), he aired a segment on Cinco de Mayo that offended some members of Lansing’s Latino community.

“We were disgusted and we expressed our displeasure,” said Guillermo Lopez, trustee for the Lansing School District’s Board of Education and an active member of mid-Michigan’s Latino community. “Tim felt it was just a joke, but we felt it was uncalled for.”

Lopez said a committee was formed that sought non-legal action, but there were no repercussions. (Barron declined to comment, saying it would “only open old wounds.”) “Neither of us approached the other, and it went away,” Lopez said. “When I see him around town, we say hello and shake hands. He does a lot of good things, serves on a lot of nonprofits, but many Latinos hold some negative sentiment. People talk about it still.”

“Most times when I email him it’s because I want him to think about what he’s just said,” Lucas said. “And I appreciate that he’s open to what I have to say. He’ll always respond, and I’ve gotten him to change his mind a couple times. It’s funny — as time goes by I find myself more in agreement with him. I don’t now if he’s mellowed, or I’ve gotten more conservative.”

If Barron is mellowing, he’s not slowing down. Besides his radio work, he sits on a wide range of boards, including LEPFA, the Ingham County Community Corrections Advisory, Child and Family Charities, Lansing Area Safety Council and the 100 Club, which takes care of families of fallen police officers. He’s the unofficial voice of Lansing, lending his pipes to gigs at Common Ground (15 years), Silver Bells in the City (24 years) and even the public announcements at Lansing ´s airport. And he’s a founding member of BWL Chili Cook-Off, Downtown Lansing Inc. and Be A Tourist in Your Own Town.

“Before I moved to Lansing, I was in Indianapolis where they had just begun to turn things around,” Barron said. “I believed the publicity I could provide on my show and my experience seeing what (Indianapolis) had done would help here.”

“He is the perennial community guy — you look at the landscape, he’s everywhere,” Bernero said. “He’s a community resource. When you hear about community assets, you don’t think of people, but Tim Barron is a community asset "And I hope his attempt at something statewide recognition goes better than mine, “ Bernero said, referring to his unsuccessful run for governor in 2010.

Barron said that the radio’s cutthroat machinations almost drove him to leave the industry in 2010, but he credits Peter Tanz from Midwest Communications, owner of WLMI-FM, for keeping him in broadcasting.

“The emphasis has shifted from local to national, and shows like mine were few and far between,” Barron said. “Peter recognized the necessity of it and he convinced me to stay on. And we created this show that was hyper-local, very involved and irreverent.”

He said he had the idea for starting an Internet radio station three years ago. After two years of research and planning, he spent the last year collecting equipment and tracking down resources. Six months ago he started work on his headquarters inside the Grewal Building in Okemos; he’s dubbed it North Town Construction Studios.

“This studio is state of the art, with all new equipment that trumps any broadcasting equipment in the city,” he said. “I have better editing equipment than I left.”

He’s also assembled an engineer, a station manager, a show producer, “an IT guy” and two salespeople. As he grows, he plans to create a full roster of full-time employees, including additional talent for the afternoon hours. But despite the massive broadband installation he’s working on with Comcast, being an Internet radio station is inherently limiting. Finding his show won’t be a matter of simply turning on the radio, even if you have XM. This is the Internet.

“I’m not concerned at all about that,” Barron said. “There are a million ways to listen to the radio. I already have a large number of listeners (outside the Lansing market) listening to me on the Internet. They’re just going to change where they hear me from. And more cars are coming equipped with Smart Dash and Bluetooth pairing technology. Soon I think everyone will be listening to Internet radio. And I will have been one of the first.”

Still, some listeners feel abandoned, such as Rita Clee of Lansing, who said she cannot afford the Internet. She’ll miss the politics. “Even though he is of a different political bent, I like to hear both sides.”

Barron said Internet radio is a sustainable model that will keep him broadcasting as long as his voice holds out. He pulls out his phone and reads a message from a fan after he announced he was leaving.

“’You have been the soundtrack of my life,’” he reads. “’Your voice has seen me through thick and thin. It’s always comforted me and made me know I’m home.’ I don’t know what more I could ask for as a goodbye message. I’m excited about making people think.

“We were together for Magic Johnson’s AIDS announcement, for 9/11, for the ice storm. I’ve had guys shake my hand in a garage and say, ‘Dude, I never voted until I listened to your show.’ That’s the kind of thing that makes a career.”

BARRON

CIVIC ENGAGEMENT

Lansing Entertainment and Public Facilities Authority, chairman

Ingham County Community Corrections Advisory, board member

TRIAD, board member

Child and Family Charities, board member

Mayor’s Camp at Mystic Lake, board member/supporter

HOPE Promise Scholars, volunteer

Downtown Lansing Inc. (formerly Principal Shopping District), founding member

Be a Tourist in Your Own Town, founding member

BWL Chili Cook-Off, founding member

Lansing Area Safety Council, board member

March of Dimes, board member 100 Club, board member

Capital City Riverfest, director

Screen Actors Guild, member (speaking role in two episodes of “Babylon 5”)

BARRON

BY THE NUMBERS

Years in radio: 42

Years in Lansing: 30

General managers worked under: 18

Stations worked for: 12 (some of which he worked for twice)

Producers worked with: 7

Times alerted to impending dismissal: 1

HOSTING GIGS

Silver Bells in the City, 26 years

Costume Contest for Dogs, 24 years

Common Ground, 15 years

Home Guilders Association of Greater Lansing’s Toys of Tots

Tri-County Office on Aging Annual Dinner