If the name Bobby Skafish rings a bell, there’s a good reason for that. He’s been on the air in Chicago now for 37 years. Skafish currently holds down The Drive‘s afternoon slot (3 to 8 p.m.) on WDRV-FM (97.1), but his start in the radio business was slightly less glamorous. After graduating with a radio/television degree from Indiana University, Skafish was having a hard time getting his foot in the door.
“I was living in Hammond working at Carson Pirie Scott,” he recalls. “A local record store called S&J Stereo brokered a 10 to midnight show on a Crown Point radio station. On the strength of my college tape, I got the job to host it. It was a one-man operation. I sold some spots, recorded commercials, picked my own music, and was the only disc jockey.”
Though the job only lasted a few months, it gave him the kind of experience he needed to capture the attention of WXRT-FM (93.1).
“They hired me in November of 1976 to do all nights on Saturday, and I gradually moved up the food chain to better slots.”
His calling card has always been his flair for language – an almost beatnik jazz approach – but it’s never been an act. The Bobby Skafish you hear on the air is the same man you’ll meet off the air.
“Yes,” he says with a laugh. “I really do talk that way in real life. Daddy-O, for instance, became a big savior for me when I couldn’t remember someone’s name. I’m not that good with names, so I started calling people Daddy-O.”
Of all the FM disc jockeys in Chicago, few Daddy-Os have had the kind of storied career enjoyed by Skafish since he first arrived in ’76. He established himself at ‘XRT, moved down the dial and rode the wave of The Loop’s meteoric rise in the 1980s and early ’90s, returned for another successful run at ‘XRT, and has been an important part of The Drive’s success since he arrived there in 2007.
All of those iconic rock “n” roll stations that employed Skafish over the years have had one thing in common: The disc jockeys were not an afterthought. They were integral to the sound of the station.
“A DJ gives a format flesh and blood,” Skafish points out. “Pandora isn’t a format, it’s a playlist. I’m not knocking that, but a good disc jockey can enhance the pleasure of the music. We’re a diversion – someone to make you laugh and think, someone that entertains you.”
At The Drive, that entertainment often comes in the form of information about the music. When your audience has been listening to your music for many decades, finding new information is no easy task. Yet Skafish and the other on-air personalities at The Drive manage to do it every day.
“The specials and the artist portraits – you can credit [Hubbard senior vice president of programming and format creator] Greg Solk for that,” Skafish explains. “This is the way he envisioned the format. It’s important to respect the music, and these things enhance the experience.”
The music just happens to be the preferred choice of the advertiser’s dream – the demo with money to spend. That’s why no fewer than four other stations in Chicago are playing the same or similar artists. The Drive routinely beats them in the ratings, and Skafish claims to know why.
“I think it’s a complete package. From the imaging to the jocks, who legitimately care about the music, to the respectful presentation and the specials we do. We give a sense of history about the music without doing it in a dry scholarly way. We paint a picture that accompanies the music and put it in context.”
And The Drive is also very active in social media. Skafish admits that he and his colleagues were gently nudged in that direction by station management, but any trepidation he might have had is long gone.
“Being on Facebook during the show has enhanced the experience for me. It’s a great way to link with listeners. It’s immediate. It’s interactive. I do quizzes and teases and start discussions about songs. These things have really grown organically. It’s great to have it going alongside the radio show. I no longer have to say everything on the air – I have this other outlet for doing it. It means I can be more concise on the air, but I can still solicit opinions from the listeners. I really like that.”
After close to four decades in Chicago radio, Skafish has been around long enough to know there’s something very special going on at his current home. He considers it his happiest experience yet, both professionally and personally.
“One thing I love about The Drive on a personal level – no one’s on an ego trip. Everyone treats each other with respect. There aren’t any teacher’s pets. It’s a great work experience in that regard. Any criticism I receive from Greg Solk or [program director] Patty Martin, I know there isn’t a hidden agenda there. They have a vision for how they want the station to sound, and if they feel you’re besmirching it or not doing it justice, they will let you know. They have an idea of what sounds good and what doesn’t.”
Judging by the ratings figures over the last decade, it’s hard to argue with that.
— Rick Kaempfer