One In A Million... a million people live, work and play in upstate New York's Catskills region. These are their life stories... in their own words.
Series produced by Kent Garrett
Photo editing and website design by Ed Kirstein
Big Chuck D'Imperio :
Radio in his DNA
Big Chuck D'Imperio Transcript:
If you’ve been coming to or living in the Catskills over the last 20 years, chances are you have listened to, read a book by, or heard a talk by Big Chuck D’Imperio. He says he has radio in his DNA.
Here is his story in his own words:
It’s funny because 35 years ago—I’m 63 years old—when I was living in California I had dreams of being a DJ, and I went to the Columbia School of Broadcasting at Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles in 1977. I went in and I did my test for them and everything else, and they said, “Forget it.”
Q – Why?
They said, “Forget it.” They said, “For a guy your size, your voice is too high-pitched. You’ll never make it on radio until you can find the bottom of your voice.” That’s exactly what the guy said to me. So I left and came here with my family many, many years later. I’ve always been kind of leaning towards entertainment somehow. I remember opening up the newspaper one day, and it said that the—this was 1989—news director at WDOS had quit. I was in a position then where I owned my own business. I worked a lot in the morning and a lot at night, but I had my afternoons free. So I said, I’m going to go do that.
So I went down to the radio station at 10 Market Street, and I walked in. I met with the owner, whose name was Gordon Hastings at the time. I said, I want to be your news director, and he said, “No, you don’t.” He said, “No, you don’t.” He said, “It’s too time-consuming.” So we had a nice chat for about a half an hour, and I said, well, I guess I really don’t then, but I thought I’d give it a shot. He said, “I like you.” He said, “Let me find you something,” you know. He said, “Let’s get you on the radio,” and he did.
He found me a slot on Sundays, Sundays from 10:00 to 2:00. He said, “Go ahead and do it. Nobody listens.” He said, “Do whatever you want,” and so I did. I created this little thing called the Sunday Show, and it was a hit. Then pretty soon other people started to leave the radio station, and I moved, I moved, I moved into various positions. Then I ended up doing the mornings 23 years ago, 21 years ago, something like that, and I’ve been there ever since.
Q –What is the kick for it with you? I mean, why do you like it?
People always ask me about a philosophy or something, and I look at it this way. My mother and father owned a grocery store in Sidney in Delaware County, and for 25, 30 years, whatever, I grew up there in the ’50s. I remember my dad always saying that, you know, if you treat the customers right, they will keep coming back into our store. He used to tell us children that. He had eight children. I have seven siblings, and we all worked at the store. I kind of look at my radio life, my radio show, as my store, as Big Chuck’s store. My listeners, even though I don’t know a lot of them, are my customers. I really look at it that way, and I want them to keep shopping at my show; so I always keep that in the forefront of my mind, and it’s worked.
Q – How about the name Big Chuck; how’d you get that?
It’s funny because Big Chuck—when I first started, we were not a country station. It was what they used to call MOR, middle of the road station. There was a new owner that took over in 1992, and country was very hot then. She said, “We’re going to be a country station.” She came to me, basically, on a Friday and said, “Do you know country music?” I said, no. She said, “Learn it this weekend.”
Q – So, what’d you do?
Yeah, you are going to be Big Chuck on Monday. So Monday morning I signed on as Big Chuck with country music, and I’ve done it ever since.
Q – So, what did you do? How did you find out about it then?
I went over to the Southside Mall, and I bought three record albums. I bought a Barbara Mandrell album, an Alabama album, and an Anne Murray album. I came home, and I listened to them. They were all three on the charts at the time. I listened to it, and I, you know, went to work. We went out, and we did some music buying. I did a lot of reading. I ended up being a reviewer for the newspapers, for Bantam paper, Albany paper, writing reviews of country acts.
I mean, I really got into it because it was my life. You know, if it was opera, I would’ve gone out and bought three opera albums. I didn’t like the music. I didn’t like the music when I started. I really did not like it when I started, but now—
Q – See, I didn’t like it until I got up here and started milking cows. I love to listen to it in the barn.
Yeah, I’m very big into barns. People tell me they get better milk listening to me in the barns, you know. But it’s funny because I remember the very first concert I went to. I went to the Broome County Arena, and I saw Conway Twitty. I thought, what a silly name. But I have to go see him, so I experience it. It was like going to see Frank Sinatra. It really was. There was a very, very short line between Conway Twitty and Frank Sinatra. Eight thousand people, sold out, screaming. He comes out, people tearing at him, security at the stage. I couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t believe it.
Then over the years I’ve met them all, and once you meet somebody you love their music. I mean, I went on so many buses. Like Loretta Lynn, I mean I can’t tell you how many times—for example, I go on her bus. She’s the first lady of American country music. Do I like her music? I would have to say no. Spend 45 minutes with her, just you and her on the bus. You come out of there, and you are her biggest fan, you know.
Q – Wow, wow, wow. Well now, tell me about your book career. What’s all that about?
Well, what happened with that is I, like most people in radio, have a double-edged sword. As I get older it’s a little bit harder getting up at 5:00 in the morning, but still, it’s great being done at noon. I started writing memoirs, newspaper articles. I did my first book about eight years ago. I just picked a topic and wrote about it, about famous people buried in upstate New York.
Q – What was the name of it?
Right here, Great Graves of Upstate New York. I did a lot of research, drove around, went to 250 cemeteries. I just liked it. It was fun, you know, and I did biographies of them. Pretty soon that caught on, and I did a lot of magazine articles, newspaper articles. Now I’m still, I guess, kind of known as Big Chuck around here, but I do speak a lot around the state. I have six books out now. My most recent one was published by Syracuse University Press, so it’s a nice University Press label on it. I only write about upstate New York, so I’m kind of like known as Mr. Upstate.
Q – Last question: In 10 years you’ll be 73. What do you want to be doing?
Well, I’ll always write. See, I’m a lucky guy because I give walking tours of Cooperstown, radio, writing. None of that is lifting cement. So unless I drop dead on the turntables, I really, as long as they’ll have me, I can do what I’m doing. I’m so lucky because I like everything. I love to write. I love to talk. I love radio broadcasting. I love to walk around on my walking tours and tell stories. So unless health intervenes, I really do hope to be doing exactly what I’m doing. Whether I’m doing it here or not, I don’t know, but I certainly always want to—I mean, radio is in my DNA now.