Big John Gillis was as tall as a grizzly bear, but gentle as a teddy bear. The forty-year veteran of Indiana radio, who recently passed away, was an iconic figure. His loyal listeners looked up to him. “I guess being 6’ 4” was a big help,” he once told me.
So ingrained in Indianapolis was the persona of Big John that until his passing, people still thought he spent his mornings in a helicopter reporting for harried commuters making their way to work. Truth is, John hadn’t been in a WIBC chopper for almost 20 years. In a bow to the economy, he had transitioned to a fixed-wing plane and then a mobile unit for his reports. He ended his traffic career broadcasting from a studio where even the sound of barking dogs on the street outside did not convince his fans he was really earthbound.
John loved the sound of his own voice. I offer this as high praise, because you always felt that each word that tumbled effortlessly off his tongue was not only meticulously chosen, but was also savored for still another nanosecond before he went on to the next. “His 60-second traffic reports,” said long-time associate Jeff Pigeon at John’s funeral, “lasted about eight minutes.”
Years ago in an interview at his home, after he left WIBC, John told me, “I have 20 seconds to do what I have to do, read a sponsor’s name, and then if I can figure out a way to twist a word or inject my personality into it, that’s it … I’m a disembodied voice, and every 10 minutes I stop what I am doing and talk to my imaginary friends.”
A disembodied voice? Perhaps. But it still embodied everything that was good about radio in those years. He wasn’t just a person you recognized on the street, he was a person you felt you knew personally. Everyone liked him, of course, but far more importantly, you knew instantly that he liked you, as well.
John loved radio. It was his best friend. He wanted to introduce you to his best friend. But “why radio?” I asked him during our visit in 2007. “Because everywhere you travel, it’s there; it takes you places immediately … it exercises your imagination.” If there was any sadness, any remorse in John, it was that media had changed. “We went to high tech and lost the high touch,” he told me. “Radio should be about content, character and personality.”
John should have thrown in loyalty, an ingredient he added to a recipe that brought him a taste of success, and also fulfilled him. There was no doubt, Big John had many opportunities to leave the market and pursue a more lucrative career elsewhere. That was not in John’s flight plan. His job was on the air and in the air, but his feet were on the ground. He loved Indianapolis; he was wedded to WIBC. Why break up a happy marriage?
“If I have 20 minutes to live and I spend the next 19 with you, having this conversation, I would die happy,” John said to me. “If in that 20 minutes, we come up with an idea and we have 20 years to make it happen, then God has blessed me far beyond my wildest dreams.”
John did not have those 20 years. But if you still hear his halting, yet mesmerizing, voice in your head, look to the heavens. No, he’s not in the helicopter, but he’s up there. Trust me.