Busta’s Person of the Week: Starr behind where Oprah started

James “Jim Starr” Spates, on air at WTOB

Busta’s Person of the Week: Starr behind where Oprah started
September 19
00:30 2019

By Busta Brown

When Oprah’s in the building, no one shines brighter. Well, unless you’re Jim Starr. “I took WVOL, The Mighty 147, to Number 1, and I got a big award right here in my apartment.”

Why is that a bigger-than-life story? “It’s the same radio station where Oprah got her start in the business,” said Jim Starr.

In all fairness, the television icon was only 16 years old when she landed the gig at WVOL in Nashville, Tenn. Even so, not many people can say that they shined in the same space as Oprah. There must be something magical about the Nashville radio station because Jim Starr is also a legend. On Sept. 30 in Atlanta, Georgia, he’ll be inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame.

Starr is no stranger to greatness. He was born in Lake City, South Carolina, the same town as another legend, American NASA astronaut and physicist Ron McNair. McNair and the people of Lake City, S.C., knew him by his birth name, James Spates.

The radio legend took me down memory lane. “Lake City’s population was only 7,000.” It may have been a small town, but just like Oprah and McNair, Jim Starr had big dreams as well. “When I was a child, my mother asked me what do I want from Santa. I said a radio. Busta, I had over 30 radios. I’m taking you way back, Busta. I’m talking about transistor radios with the little batteries in it. I would keep them in the bed with me and listen to them all night long,” Jim said, as we both laughed out loud.

It was in his teens when the magic began. “One day I was on the porch listening to a radio station and I said, ‘I’m going to find that station,’” but he didn’t have transportation. The bus stop was miles and miles away, but he was determined. “I walked all the way to that station, and it was a walk! I was out of breath and breathing heavy, but I had just enough energy to ring the doorbell. A gentleman came to the door. I told him my name and that I wanted to see the radio station. We talked for a bit, and then he let me read the weather. That’s when I caught the radio bug!”

Most people say the golf course is the best place to make connections, but not for Jim. While working at a factory in New Jersey, he made a connection with a well-known TV anchor named Mal Goode. Goode was the first African American network TV reporter and a very good friend of Starr’s supervisor at the factory. The Radio Hall of Famer said Goode made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. “If you graduate from college, I promise to get you a job in radio.

“He kept his promise, Busta. He made a call to a station in D.C. and the rest is history.”

Jim went on to work for several radio stations as both program director and announcer. He was always a “shining Starr,” both in the studio and in the community. With the help of his good friend, blues singer Roy Roberts, Jim Starr made his way into the radio world in the Triad on WTOB 980 AM and 96.3 FM in Winston-Salem. For two years he was the warm and friendly voice that took us to work each morning, playing those golden oldies that will last in our hearts forever. His guests included some of our favorite musical groups from the 60s and 70s. Members of Archie Bell and the Drells frequently hung out with Jim. He did more than just play the music, he would give us the history behind the songs and the artists. I’m still a big fan!

Along his magical ride to the Radio Hall of Fame in Atlanta, there were some challenges. “I dealt with racism at one station. This guy harassed me every day with racist comments, but I never let it get to me.” When his co-worker went low, Jim went high. Because of his humble spirt, the co-worker followed Starr’s example and the two became the best of friends. The most fascinating part of this story, the radio station played country music. “I didn’t know anything about the music,” Jim said as he laughed. Yet, that didn’t stop him from becoming their brightest star, winning the best announcer award on 1240 AM in Cambridge, Maryland.

Radio superstars like him are rare in this business these days. I asked: what was his most memorable moment during his magical 35-year journey? “Meeting Dick Gregory. Every time he would come to Nashville, my girlfriend and I met up with him at his favorite restaurant. I learned a lot from Mr. Gregory, especially about diet,” as he begins laughing. “Gregory would jokingly yell, ‘Jim Starr, you need to stop eating that red meat. That red meat is not good for you,’ as I’m eating a steak dinner.” I laughed and enjoyed myself along with Jim.

I’m also a fan of Dick Gregory, so it was easy to imagine the two of them having a blast together. He went on to say that Gregory was one of the coolest guys he’s ever met. Starr said being inducted in the Radio Hall of Fame on Sept. 30 will be the pinnacle of his career. It’s well deserved. He’s one of the coolest and most humble guys I’ve interviewed.

After he returns from his big day, he has something big planned for our Twin City. “I’m working on the National Black Radio Hall of Fame, which will be right here in Winston-Salem. It will recognize the folks that worked in this market and their contributions to the industry to give them the recognition they deserve and make sure they’re never forgotten. So people will say, ‘Wow, I remember Daddio on the Patio.’ I’m also going to open a museum that will go back 90 years into black radio culture and legacy. I want to give Winston-Salem and the world something that will last for generations.”

The Radio Hall of Fame is blessed to have the name of Jim Starr as a part of their prestigious roster.

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