A country fan's farewell to an extended family - Jason A. Smith

I grew up listening to country music. From the time I was 10 years old, I was hooked. Whether that was due to the music itself, or the fact that I related to the format more than other genres, is anyone's guess these days.

At the time my love affair with country music began, I listened mainly to what was then known as Y106 FM. Over the years, the station has gone through various incarnations, to its present identity as Eagle 106.7. Along the way, an untold number of disc jockeys made their way to my house every day, by way of my stereo.

However, one thing remained constant throughout all those years. I could always count on Rhubarb Jones to be heard on the radio from 5:30-10 a.m. His unmistakable voice, the way he introduced a song and, perhaps most of all, the way he connected with his listeners were part of what made him so appealing to generations of country fans in Atlanta. Even as I migrated, over time, to Kicks 101.5, the times I would listen to Jones were like coming home all over again, like revisiting the best parts of my past.

So, imagine my shock Friday evening, when I discovered that Jones, as well as 11 other DJs on sister stations, the Eagle and Kicks 101.5, had been fired, due to a reported cost-cutting measure.

I was dumbfounded. My first thought was that it was, either a colossal joke that wasn't funny, or the biggest mistake that could be made by the Citadel corporation, which owns both stations. Jones enjoyed a deeply loyal following of fans, some of whom were with him throughout his entire 22-year radio career in Atlanta.

If, as has been reported on numerous web sites, 106.7 will change its format to either oldies or talk radio, the quickest way I can think of to alienate an entire segment of potential listeners is to fire someone like Rhubarb Jones.

Lest the other radio personalities who lost their jobs Friday be overlooked, it must be noted that Kristen Gates of the morning show on Kicks 101.5, drive-time DJ Wylie Rose, Kicks newsman, Jim Vann, and veteran Eagle personality, Steve Mitchell, were also among those who were given their pink slips last week.

Gates' dismissal hit my wife particularly hard, as she always knew it was time to wake up in the morning when Kristen Gates told her what time it was. As I write this, my wife has overslept for two straight mornings, a fact she blames on last week's firings.

I've spoken with Wylie Rose on the phone a few times, when I would call Kicks to request a song. It was always like talking to an old friend, even though I never met her.

Jim Vann was one of the few people who could make even a traffic report side-splittingly funny to listen to. Steve Mitchell, in my opinion, had a passion for country music that was evident in the introduction to every song he played.

Don't get me wrong. I understand the need to cut costs while running a business, and I can even sympathize with Citadel's apparent desire to shift course completely, en route to the direction in which they wish to take the company long-term. Unfortunately, Rhubarb, Wylie and the others are the latest casualties of that conflict. I don't have to like it, but I suppose I understand it.

The hardest pill to swallow in all this, for me and apparently quite a few other listeners who have posted comments on various blogs since Friday, is that we never got to say goodbye. It may sound silly, but country fans in Atlanta, like myself, have built a relationship with those radio personalities. As I alluded to earlier, we awoke to the sound of their voices. We dedicated songs to people with their help. We laughed with them, cried with them, met a few of them, and fell in love with them all.

Having that relationship severed, against our will and theirs, is a bit like a close friend moving out of town at a moment's notice, before he has a chance to tell you he's leaving. Sure, it's still the same neighborhood, but things will never be quite like they were when that friend was still here.

I'm sure that, in the coming weeks and months, I'll still listen to Kicks and the Eagle - prior to the latter's format change, anyway. I'm sure the DJs who were let go Friday will find a new radio home, whether in Atlanta or somewhere else. I know the songs on the radio will still sound the same as they ever have.

I just can't help feeling, after last week's firings, like I lost 12 family members at once. The sad thing is, I know I'm not the only one who feels that way.

Jason A. Smith covers crime and courts for the Henry Daily Herald. He can be reached at (770) 957-9161, or via e-mail at jsmith@henryherald.com.