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The DJ on call

It's the wee hours at the area's top country station, and Hank Shaw is listening.

By EMILY NIPPS
Published December 11, 2006


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photo
[Times photo: Bob Croslin]
Hank Shaw is the overnight host on WQYK in St. Petersburg.

ST. PETERSBURG

A switchboard button lit up at the radio station in the middle of the night. Hank Shaw punched the button. "WQYK," he said.

The guy on the other end was crying. His ex-girlfriend wouldn't let him see his kids, he said. He was thinking about killing himself.

"Well, what do you want me to do?" Shaw remembered telling the guy. It wasn't Shaw's first suicide threat.

The caller said he had tried the suicide prevention hotline but couldn't get through. Shaw offered to call it himself, but the guy balked, worried Shaw would call the police.

"I'm not going to call the cops," Shaw said. He put the sobbing stranger on hold and reached someone from the hotline. But when he tried to reconnect with the caller, the line was silent. The guy had hung up.

"I didn't catch his name," Shaw said, recounting the story later. "Hopefully, he's okay."

Questions, questions

Weeknights from midnight until 6 a.m., Shaw plays songs about cheatin' hearts and gettin' drunk and lovin' life and hatin' life. In between, he takes calls from people who are touched by these themes and want to talk about it. At 3:30 a.m.

These callers are not the same ones you hear yapping about the morning news while you drive to work. They are not the party animals who give drunken shout-outs at 10:30 on a Friday night.

They are the worried, the wondering, the weird, the wired, the people whose body rhythms are all backward. They call Shaw because he takes every call without judgment, as if it were normal to talk to strangers with middle-of-the-night questions.

Who sings that song, Hank?

How's the weather lookin', Hank?

What did I win, Hank?

What do I do, Hank?

"Everybody thinks I know everything," Shaw said. "And they rely on me to have all the answers."

Behind the mike

Shaw, 61, has been the overnight voice of country radio in this market for 17 years. He's not sure why they keep him around. The national trend in radio is to play recorded voice tracks after a certain hour. Shaw is the only human doing the midnight-to-6 a.m. shift at a major radio station in this market.

"It would not be a wise thing to take him off, I know that," said Charlie Ochs, senior vice president of CBS Radio's Tampa Bay market. The company owns WQYK. "Hank is an icon at night."

Sure, it would be cheaper to go to voice-tracking at night, Ochs said, but CBS needs someone in the building in case something breaks. Plus, WQYK, the Tampa Bay area's most popular radio station among adults, has 18,700 loyal midnight-to-6 listeners every week. So Shaw stays.

Few people know him beyond his husky, soothing voice and the few personal details he reveals in his Web bio and on the air. Dedicated fans probably know that he plays the drums, is married to a woman named Donna, loves big band music and is a bit of a jokester. They most likely don't know how few close friends he has or that he lost his 17-year-old daughter, Anita, to a rare and sudden illness in the 1980s. Some might recognize Shaw when he makes a remote appearance at Sticks 'N' Stuff or emcees a local concert; he hears "You don't look like I thought you would" a lot.

Listeners probably don't even know Shaw's real name, Henry Struzik, but they think they know him. They've gotten used to his quips between songs like Fore She Was Mama and Two Pina Coladas. They send him birthday cards and stuffed animals for his 16-year-old daughter, Brittany. They call and share details about their lives, like how they hate their jobs or think they're falling in love.

Some nights, the switchboard lines fill up and Shaw gets questions that make no sense.

Do you listen to Rush Limbaugh? No.

Can you play Free Bird by Lynyrd Skynyrd? (No.)

Will you find out why my power is out? (Sure.)

His favorite type of call: Hey, can you play that one song? I don't remember the guy, but the song was about love. Something about loving a girl.

"Sometimes," Shaw said, "I walk out of here and my brain is tired."

'This is not my job'

The button lit up shortly before 2 a.m. Shaw punched it. "WQYK," he said.

"Hello?" a woman's voice filled the studio. "Who is the guy who sang in the concert at the old Tampa Stadium with Tim McGraw and Faith Hill ..."

"A short, stubby guy," a man's voice interrupted on the line. "Almost looks like Kix Brooks. We saw him years ago. Maybe 1999."

"That doesn't help me," Shaw said. "What did he sing?"

"I would know if you would tell me," the woman said. "I think his name starts with a B."

"A B?" Shaw said.

"Well . . . maybe not," the woman said. "He kind of does funny songs. He came out with a flag and sang a patriotic song. Oh my God, what is his name?"

"With a flag," the man offered. "He carried a flag out."

This went on for a few more minutes.

Shaw and the two callers were stumped. A song playing in the background was about to end.

"Tell you what, let me look this up," Shaw said. "Call me back in 15 minutes."

"Awww . . . all right," the woman said.

Shaw made an announcement on the air, gave a weather update and swiveled around to a laptop on his desk.

"If it'll be on anything, it'll be on this thing," Shaw said. "Thank God for Google."

Six minutes later, the phone rang.

"Hello? Did you find it?" the woman asked.

"Is it Brad Paisley?" Shaw tried.

"No," she said, and sighed.

"Was Asleep at the Wheel there?"

"I'm not asleep at the wheel!"

"Uh . . . that's the name of a band."

"He came out with a patriotic song about the flag, and another song," the woman said. "All I can think of is a log cabin."

"A log cabin?"

"Yeah. . . . How generic is that? He's a short guy, kind of like Kix Brooks. He came out in Bermuda shorts. It might have been 1997."

Shaw was trying. He really was.

"Come on," the woman said, clearly impatient. "This is your job!"

"This is not my job," Shaw said. "You're talking about a concert in 1997!"

Mentally exhausted, the three finally gave up on each other. Shaw had to go but offered to keep looking up the mystery singer in his spare time.

"If you find out, e-mail me at work," said the male caller, who said his name was Steve. "And if you ever need any aluminum wheels on your car, get in touch with me. I can help you out."

Handled with care

Random women pop in and out of Shaw's life, sobbing men confide and run, lost souls come looking for attention, just for one night, just for a minute. Many people call regularly for years, then suddenly stop.

"I don't really have any favorites," Shaw said. "I try to treat them all equally."

That is, with a delicate balance between warmth and indifference. Shaw laughs at their jokes, understands their problems, joins them in a maddening hunt for a stubby singer's name, lends them a limited hand when they're in a crisis. All people want, it seems, is human decency at an indecent hour. And perhaps a little Keith Urban to go with it.

Shaw is convinced that most of his callers are good at heart. They are toll collectors and 911 dispatchers, lonely hearts and insomniacs. They are like him, blinking into the dark while everyone else is sleeping, driving the other way when everyone else is battling rush hour, living against the grain day after day. They're real, and for them, a prerecorded voice won't do.

That's why they call Shaw. That, and one other reason:

"I don't hang up."

Emily Nipps can be reached at (813) 269-5313 or nipps@sptimes.com.

[Last modified December 11, 2006, 06:38:34]


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