His day starts at 3:30 a.m., no matter how late he was at work the night before. He drives his Buick Enclave from his Short Pump home to the offices off West Broad Street and, coffee cup and breakfast sandwich in hand, starts preparing for the day’s work, scrolling through news sites local and national.
He’s looking for “A’s,” “B’s” and “L’s” — topics and articles of major, secondary and local interest. It’s a Monday, which makes things hard. “Monday is always the hardest day to prep for,” he says — not many strong news stories over the weekend. But he’s been doing this a while. Today, for example, he picks a few Republican-primary-themed subjects as an A topic, a piece on the price of pistachios (“More per pound than steak!” he marvels) and one about a middle-schooler who was arrested for trying to kiss a girl for his B’s, and one tweaking NBC-12 for its incessant hyping of its new set for the news for an L. By now it’s almost 5:30 a.m. Most of his audience is barely waking up, if they’re awake at all. He goes into a little production studio, as cramped as a toll booth, and pulls up the microphone. Show time. “Good morning, it’s Jimmy Barrett,” he says, his gravelly baritone as friendly and commanding as it has been since he first arrived at WRVA-AM, all the way back in March 2001, when he was the new guy at the venerable radio station that dominated the region’s airwaves for the better part of the century.
He sounds like he knows what he’s doing. Like somebody you can trust. Like someone you wouldn’t mind riding to work with. It’s an old-school radio voice, a bit of a throwback, as Barrett is aware; it’s not an unusual voice like that of newer hosts, whose stock in trade is their personalities — like Ira Glass of “This American Life,” whose eccentric delivery has made him an NPR star. In old-school fashion Barrett calls this sonorous quality “the pipes,” as in: “I’ve always had the pipes.” Which he has. His voice carries a touch of Michigan in it, which makes sense. He grew up there, literally and professionally. But it’s as smooth and professional as that of Tim Timberlake, the guy he replaced in WRVA’s morning slot all those years ago.
“Good morning,” he says, as he has day in and day out, sounding as friendly as a guy buying rounds at the neighborhood bar, as soothing as you wish your father had been, as supportive as the best coach in Little League. “Good morning, it’s Jimmy Barrett.”
Jimmy Barrett is 61 now. He is thinking about what he wants to do with what he calls the last phase of his career. “I want to make a difference,” he says. “Focus on things that matter.”
He has no plans to move on. He’s doing well here. Unlike when he arrived, WRVA is on solid financial footing — “pretty much the cash cow,” Barrett says, and one of the top-billing stations of the company that owns it, I Heart Media (formerly I Heart Radio, formerly Clear Channel Communications), which is based in San Antonio, Texas, and owns 850 stations nationwide.
His medium is fragmenting, like they all are, from newspaper to television to radio. These days, ratings do not automatically equate to income. These days, businesses shy away from shows that can draw negative attention, even though they can also draw large audiences — shows like Rush Limbaugh’s, for example — because boycotts and online scoldings come so easily and can have such strong effects.
In this fragmented, fractious media world local voices, the ones people trust, matter more than ever. And no one has more local trust than Jimmy Barrett. He’s got the governor on as a guest every month, for his “Ask the Governor” segment, for goodness sake.
In fact, if you’re willing to cough up a few bucks, you can hire him as your spokesman. Barrett says he follows “the Paul Harvey Rule,” meaning he only endorses products he’s tried and feels confident about. (You probably know who Paul Harvey was. A lot of younger people do not. Those are not the people WRVA and Jimmy Barrett expect to reach.)
That said, Barrett gamely applies the new tools of media to the old. At the top and bottom of every hour he gets five minutes to hit the bathroom, grab a cup of coffee and update his show’s Facebook page, which links to its Twitter account. He shrugs. “Things change and you have to change and keep up with the times.”
When he arrived in Richmond, the times were just starting to catch up with WRVA. The station was long past its glory days. It had been founded in 1925, and all through the 1940s, ‘50s, ‘60s and ’70s had dominated Richmond’s airwaves. For years, its “Old Dominion Barn Dance,” featuring country and western music, was heard around the world on Armed Forces Radio. Alden Aaroe, who hosted a morning show for 40 years, was beloved for his personality and his shoe drives.
But by the late 1990s, WRVA was one of the last of a dying breed of what had become known as “hybrid” stations: Stations that had talk shows sometimes, played music other times, almost all of it locally produced. The city was proud of WRVA. But ratings were low. Aaroe had died in 1993, and no one had taken his place in the city’s affections, though his co-host and inheritor for 30 years, Timberlake, did his best.
Clear Channel had bought the station and left it alone for a little while. But that time changed. A new manager arrived and started shaking things up. People left. Then more people. National programming began taking over — Rush Limbaugh, most notably. Timberlake left the morning show, uncomfortable with the harder-news format the new management wanted. That left a void in prime morning drive time.
Barrett had been in radio since he was a teenager. Growing up in Michigan in the 1970s, he recalls, he’d listen to disc jockeys on top 40 radio and think he could do better. At age 17 he talked his way into working on a 5,000-watt AM station in Ann Arbor - he had the pipes even then — and by the mid-1970s was making $1,500 a week as a teenager. He married at 18, became a father at 22, got divorced and remarried (he’s been married for 18 years now; his kids are grown).
A couple of decades later, Barrett was working as midday host at one of the top stations in Detroit, WJR. He was buying a new car every year or so — always American-built, he notes — and living well. He was well-known and well-liked in Detroit radio.
Then the station’s morning host died unexpectedly, and management asked Barrett to fill in until they found a replacement.
He took over the morning show. Good morning, I’m Jimmy Barrett. He found it suited him.
Finding a permanent morning host took more than a year; by then Barrett’s show was No. 1. Barrett wanted to stay on, figuring he’d earned it. Nonetheless, the station managers took him off the morning show.
He left and joined WXYT, also in Detroit. He worked there for five years and hosted the midday show. Things changed, as they do in radio. He wanted to do something newsier. Barrett started looking for other options.
Two came up — one in Tampa Bay, Florida, the other in Richmond. The Tampa Bay job went to “some guy named Glenn Beck,” Barrett says. The Richmond job went to Barrett. He’s been here ever since.
At first, during what he wryly calls “the whole blowing-up-WRVA phase,” Barrett’s goal was simply to assimilate, much as he had done when filling in for the Detroit host who had died. He largely kept his opinions to himself, letting his guests do the arguing. He ran his show like that for a few years. As he became part of the Richmond landscape, he gradually let his own views be known. While much of the talk-show programing on WRVA, like that on most talk radio, is sharply conservative, Barrett evinces a less-pugnacious form of talk on his show. He’s respectful of his guests and friendly to callers, even when they might not always deserve it.
After 14 years as Richmond’s main morning show on the air, Barrett says he’s ready for another step. He’s always worked two jobs; his latest moonlighting gig is as announcer for the Richmond Squirrels, the minor-league team. That can mean some late nights for Barrett, he acknowledges, to go with the 3:30 a.m. wake time. His solution: “Naps.”
The Squirrels, a popular minor-league team, want a new stadium; Richmond’s mayor fought a losing battle to build one in historic Shockoe Bottom. Now, Barrett says, he’ll be focusing on projects that “mean something to people” — projects like a new home for the Richmond Squirrels. (He shrugs off any suggestions of a conflict of interest.) He plans to stay on the air as long as possible. Good morning, I’m Jimmy Barrett. “I’m in the fourth quarter of my career,” he says, sounding like a play-by-play man. “Maybe I’ll make it into overtime. I hope so. Because I have no plans to retire.”