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Features

Drive time

When Dale Sommers first used the name Bozo on the radio, it was a joke. Now he's anything but a joke to the truck drivers who rely on his show.

By DAN DEWITT
Published April 23, 2007


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photo
[Times photo: Stephen J. Coddington]
Truckin' Bozo, aka Dale Sommers, does his XM satellite radio show from a studio in his Citrus Springs home.

CITRUS HILLS - So what if Karl Krueger can't get a mention of his presidential campaign in his company newsletter? He's Bozo's best guest in weeks.

He's smart, informed, funny, a Vietnam veteran and a for-real truck driver, doing the show from a hotel room in Illinois while he sits out his mandatory rest hours.

With his help, Dale Sommers' Truckin' Bozo show on XM Satellite Radio becomes a nationwide meeting for truckers that convenes in Sommers' home studio in a Citrus County golf course community.

More than that, it is a rally. Drivers on the road in New York, Arizona and Ohio unite as Krueger supporters, delighted that one of their own is taking on the system. They ask questions, sing his praises, contemplate career changes.

"I'd like to run with the man for vice president if at all possible," a South Carolina driver named Duane tells Sommers an hour into the show.

"You're the second one today," he said.

Sommers ended up on satellite radio, he said, because of his instinct for spotting trends.

"I could always read the writing on the wall," he said."

That is also why he started calling himself Bozo, in 1977. He was in Kansas City at the time, working in what he could sense was a dying format, AM country. Fooling around at the station, he kicked down a wall that construction workers had left unmoored. His producer called him a Bozo and, as an inside joke, Sommers tried out the name on air.

Phone lines lit up. He started playing less music and spending more time with callers. Ratings soared.

He worked as "Afternoon Bozo" in San Diego and "Morning Bozo" in Miami before returning to his hometown of Cincinnati and WLW, a regional powerhouse that had launched the careers of Doris Day and Rosemary Clooney. Its signal could be heard across much of the nation on the after-midnight shift, which Sommers took over in 1984 as "Truckin' Bozo."

Before abandoning country music for conservative talk in the mid 1990s, he played the truckers' renegade heroes like Johnny Paycheck. He let them air their grievances about government regulations. He carried on long-running gags with callers he knew only by their handles. He passed on messages from wives desperate to reach their owner-operator husbands.

"He's an icon for truckers," said Steve Eckhoff, a truck driver from Missouri and a member of the American Trucking Association. "He got a lot of guys through the night over the years."

Right at home

Sommers' wife, Sharon - his foil on and off the air - stepped into the studio a few minutes before this show in early April to comment on his scruffy look: golf shirt, black jeans and lopsided, uncombed pompadour.

"You could have at least shaved," she said, squeezing his cheek.

He had opened a fresh can of cherry Coke Zero by then, and taken a seat behind his mike and the computer screens that let him track news, e-mails and messages from his producer, Nick Leanos, in Washington D.C. The cubicle-sized studio was cluttered with CDs and celebrity photographs; its one window looked out on a neighbor's stucco wall.

Regular callers have a rough idea of these surroundings and the first one kidded him about it.

"You lock that door and sit there in your underwear, probably your pink Speedos," said Lucky Lady. "Good-bye," Sommers said, terminating her call with the sound of an exploding bomb.

Leanos had to remind Sommers that Krueger was up after the first break. Explaining the need for energy independence, Krueger soon veered into dangerously liberal territory - biofuels and battery-powered trucks - before Sommers came to his rescue.

"Then we can tell the Arabs to go to hell," he said.

"Ah," Krueger said, "one of my favorite expressions."

Out of this world

Sommers, 63, started in radio as a 13-year-old, broadcasting sock hops for a tiny FM station in Cincinnati.

"This is my one, first love," he said. "I loved this before I even knew what girls were."

He also loved WLW - "a magic place," he said - and tried to hold on to his show there after moving to Florida in 2003 to escape the Ohio winters. But there was no escaping the severity of his diabetes and Addison's disease, an autoimmune disorder that interferes with hormone production.

"I won't live another 10 years," he said. "I probably won't live another five."

His midnight to 5 a.m. shift left him so exhausted that he often collapsed into a deep sleep on the carpet as soon as he stepped out of his studio. He had to give up his show in 2004.

Five months later, XM Radio offered him a schedule he could maintain - three hours starting at 4 p.m. The network's 7.6-million subscribers are spread over 170 channels of talk, entertainment, sports and news, meaning his audience is probably smaller than it was on conventional radio, or "terrestrial radio" as Sommers now calls it. But the steady, nationwide signal made it a natural for truckers. Sommers saw it as his last chance to stay in touch.

Given his nonexistent commute, it might not seem he has much in common with his listeners. But he was once a nomad, too, having worked for 47 stations before settling down at WLW. Like many truck drivers, he is an individualist, he said, "a program director's worst nightmare. If they try to tell me what to do, then we've got a problem."

Finally, there is his workplace, which is almost as isolated as a trucker's cab.

"To go to work, I walk down the hall and go to the studio," he said. "I'm very disconnected."

A lively conversation

Krueger, who calls himself a conservative Democrat, talked about ending the war in Iraq, universal health care, alternative energy sources and redistributing wealth to workers - serving it all up with enough red meat to appeal to right-leaning listeners, including his host.

"I have never been able to forgive Jimmy Carter for handing over the Panama Canal," Sommers said at one point.

What if, Krueger asked him, Napoleon had retained shipping rights for the Mississippi River when he sold the Louisiana Purchase?

"What if we had to drive across France to get from Iowa to Illinois?"

Sommers nodded thoughtfully and moved on.

"I truly believe that the minute Fidel Castro's heart stops beating, Hugo Chavez will take over the whole area," he said.

The Venezuelan leader would be powerless without U.S. oil revenue, Krueger said: "I want to destroy his economic base."

"I guess that's better than my idea of shooting the SOB," Sommers said.

The calls came in from Sidewinder, Black Night, Hot Flash and Stray Dog. They offered Krueger $50 donations, the most he will accept, and praised him for having the guts to run.

"This is great! Great! Our phone lines have been flooded the whole time," Leanos said during a break.

Krueger, who had been scheduled for a 24-minute block, ended up staying for 2 1/2 hours

"You're the open door to the political process," he told Sommers as the show came to an end. "When I told people I was going on Truckin' Bozo, they asked me if I was going to do a show with a clown. I had to tell them you were one of the most credible guys in the trucking industry."

"Phew," Sommers said, pulling off his headset and heading down the hall to the kitchen. He poured himself another Coke Zero and sagged back against the stainless steel refrigerator, looking dazed but pleased.

"That's the kind of stuff terrestrial radio will never do," he said.

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Dan DeWitt can be reached at (352) 754-6116 or dewitt@sptimes.com.

on the air

Truckin' Bozo

The show can be heard from 4 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday on XM channel 171.

On the Web

www.thebozo.com

[Last modified April 23, 2007, 06:34:57]


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