Meet Terri, who became Chicago’s first female morning drive on air personality in 1981. For more than 40 years, Terri Hemmert has been playing “Chicago’s Finest Rock” as a disc jockey on WXRT. I recently had the incredible opportunity to interview this broadcasting pioneer who was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 2010.
Amy: What made you want to be a DJ?
Terri: I saw a picture of Ringo Starr being interviewed by Jim Stagg, a DJ. I was in high school, this is 1965. I thought, “Oh my gosh, I’ve got to become a disc jockey so I can meet The Beatles.” Because I didn’t want to chase them down the street and try to pull their hair and stuff like that. I want to hang out with them. They were really cool. I didn’t tell anybody because I knew they’d laugh at me. It’d be like a girl from a small town, Ohio in 1965… It’d be like saying I want to be on the Cubs, girls can’t do that. So anyway, I kept it kind of secret. And then while I was looking for college, I wanted to have a college radio station and found Elmhurst College. My parents were surprisingly supportive. They were really wonderful. Dad just said, have a plan B in case it doesn’t work out because they knew the odds were against me. I graduated four years later and had done a lot of college radio. My first job was being, not a receptionist, but answering the request line for $90 a week with my college degree in hand. And it took a long time for me to get on the air. I finally, slowly but surely, worked my way up.
Amy: What does women’s empowerment look like to you?
Terri: Well, it looks like people empowerment.
I teach at Columbia College and so I’m there to encourage women to follow their dreams and not to take people’s BS when it comes their way, to just plow through that. But at the same time I’m also encouraging my African American students and all kinds of … now my trans students. I’ve been there 40 some years, I’ve seen a lot of changes, it’s just, I think human empowerment is the big thing and women are half of that. And to me, a perfect world is when people are given opportunities to find their true potential and to follow their dreams. So to see where it takes them and not have these artificial obstacles that make no sense. I mean, really. I mean, especially even if you’d be pragmatic and you’re thinking in terms of business, it doesn’t make any sense to exclude all these talented people that happened to be the wrong age, the wrong gender, the wrong racial mix, the wrong ethnicity. That’s just stupid to deny yourself the opportunity of getting those people in there. And I think empowerment is when you walk into a place and it’s a real mixture of people.
Amy: What are the top three inspirational songs that are in your personal playlist?
Terri: For getting through rough times. I think The Beatles – “Hey Jude”. It’s not my favorite Beatles song. It’s a great song. But there’s something about it that’s so comforting. And I think because it was written from that space. It was Paul writing it for John Lennon’s son around the time that John was breaking up his family. And here’s this kid, his dad’s moving out, and hey Jude, take a sad song and make it better.
The second one would be Beatle related and then there won’t be any more Beatle songs on the list: John Lennon’s “Instant Karma”. “We all shine on like the moon and the stars and the sun.” I find that just spiritual. To me, it sounds like a hymn. It’s just beautiful. I just love it.
And another one would be “What’s Going On?” by Marvin Gaye. And that whole album, just the mood of the sound of the music is so emotional, so moving. And then the lyrics are about issues that we’re facing every day about racism, poverty, the environment, soldiers going away and coming back broken or in body bags. And that album came out in 1971 and is still relevant. But that inspires me, that album. I played “Mercy, Mercy Me” the other day and it was like hearing it for the first time. It doesn’t sound dated at all to me. It’s really an incredible piece of music.
*** Please follow along on instagram as well and learn more about Terri. This year for my birthday, I am embarking on a weekly photo essay project highlighting 52 Phenomenal Women. This is week 21 of 52. Participants in this project will be supporting the efforts of Dress for Success Worldwide – Central. We are all stronger together and it is my sincere hope that we will be inspired by each other’s stories. Now is the time to celebrate as well as encourage one another. Tell your story!***