Talkin’ Illini: Jim Turpin
The venerable Jim Turpin ’61 LAS on the other side of the mic
Did you think you’d be in the radio and broadcasting business as long as you have?
I started out wanting to be a radio announcer years and years ago. I explain in [my book, Turpin Times] a little bit, when I was 6 I used to play pitch and catch and bat with my cousin, and I would do the play-by-play as we’re playing. Neighbors thought we were crazy. I’ve always wanted to be in radio-TV, and I came to U of I from Korea, where I was with the Armed Forces Radio [and Television] Service. And so when that was over, [a radio career] was the logical thing.
What have you liked best about your various jobs in broadcasting over the years?
I think the thing I enjoy the most is having something that is different almost every day. You keep up with the news. I do a talk show in addition to the Saturday sports show that I do with Loren Tate ’53 MEDIA. I keep up with the news, I keep up with the sports. It keeps you—particularly when you get a little bit older—it keeps you active. It keeps your mind going all the time, as opposed to sitting in the chair and watching TV or something. I think the diversity of it is one of the main things.
What are some of the big news events that stand out to you during your broadcasting career?
The big events have been with regard to sports. I would say the basketball games we played in 1989 against Louisville and Syracuse on the way to the Final Four was really the highlight. The Final Four is something kind of special, even though we got beat.
There’s a lot in football, too—Thomas Rooks’ ’87 LAS run against Ohio State and those kinds of things.
Tell me about your relationship with former Illinois head basketball coach Lou Henson over the years.
It’s been a professional relationship, and it’s been a terrific friendship as well. He and Mary are just great people. My wife and I have gotten to know them. We’ve traveled all over the world with them, really. Alaska, Hawaii. We went on a trip to Russia with them. We’ve gotten to know them real well. The two of them are two of our closest friends, I would say.
It helped when I was announcing that Lou and I were that close because I was able to talk to him off the record, so to speak. Had some little tidbits I could throw into the broadcast. Came from the coach, and maybe a lot of people didn’t know it.
Do you think such friendships are as common these days between those in the media and coaches?
I think when you’re doing just one team like that, as opposed to being a network announcer or radio guy that jumps around and does one Big Ten game one day and you’re not really associated with one particular team, it’s a lot different. We’re traveling with them, we’re eating with them, we’re staying in the same hotel, we’re on the buses going to the arena. We’re enjoying the victories and crying over the losses with them. You really get to know not only the coaches but the players. People will ask me scores of games or how this team did, and I don’t remember that as much as I do relationships with the kids.
How do you think the culture of Illini fandom has evolved over the years?
I think the fan base is very patient, for one thing, particularly in football. People have paid good money for years and years and years to see what has basically been up and down teams—some mediocre teams, some real good teams. Now we’ve got the situation [at] both [Memorial Stadium] and at the State Farm Center where people will be asked to pay even more money to see teams play, and that tests your loyalty as a fan. I think the Illinois fans are remarkable that they have withstood all of this. They’ve gone to games, they’ve traveled out of town to watch games, and, quite frankly, we haven’t been the top team in football or basketball on a long-term basis ever.
Which Illini sport do you like watching the most?
Basketball probably would still be my No. 1, but I like volleyball a lot. I never miss a volleyball match. That run to the Final Four that [coach] Kevin Hambly ’06 AHS made was just about as exciting as I can remember. Volleyball in Huff, when there’s a good team playing there, the atmosphere is unlike any other. It’s not like Memorial Stadium; it’s not even like [State Farm Center]. It’s loud, and it’s hot and sweaty, and it’s just so much fun. Hambly and his wife, Mary ’00 AHS, are terrific people.
What do you like about Champaign-Urbana?
Everything. I don’t want this to sound like anything other than a fact, but I’ve had multiple opportunities early on in my career to take the next step to the big market. Two or three offers to go to Chicago, not in sports but in other radio business. We just decided some time ago, my wife and I, that we like it here so much that it’s just as good to be a big fish in a little pool as it was the other way around. We like the job, we like our friends, and we love the University of Illinois. We’re at Krannert, and we’re at the museums, and we’re at games. We’ve got everything in this town that you could have in Chicago.
So, no regrets about not taking those bigger job offers?
Some people I know … have gone on and did it the other way. Dennis Swanson ’61 MEDIA, MS ’66 MEDIA, is a very loyal Illini and has been president of ABC Sports, president of NBC, owned and operated television stations. He did exactly the opposite. He and I were in class together, and he went to Chicago and got a job at a station there, but he also worked in L.A. He worked in New York. He was in charge of the Olympics coverage for NBC at one time, the selling of the advertising. He’s in that part of the business. He’s made a lot of money, and sometimes I say, ‘That could have been me,’ but I don’t really have any regrets about it. For one thing, two of my three children live here, and the other one lives in Chicago. Got grandkids here and there. [When you] reach this stage of your life, that becomes a lot more important than some things.
How has the profession of broadcasting evolved over the years?
It’s a lot more high-tech, for one thing. Larry Stewart ’47 MEDIA was my predecessor doing the play-by-play … he was there for some 20, 30 years. I remember his engineer used to bring the equipment in his overcoat pockets. He had a microphone and a couple other pieces of equipment. He’d bring them and set them up. Now we’re on the satellite, we’re on networks, we’re streaming all of our radio broadcasts. We’re getting calls and emails and texts and tweets from all over the world, really. It’s interesting to sit in there on a Saturday morning and be doing the show, and [listeners] could be calling from Denver or Los Angeles. That’s something that I don’t think any of us even thought about years and years ago.
I do a daily talk show, Penny for Your Thoughts. It’s on Monday through Friday from 9 to 11, and I do the Saturday show with Loren Tate, 9 to 11 Saturday morning. If you didn’t keep up, if you didn’t look at Facebook now and then, if you didn’t go to the computer and look at all the different websites that people are talking about or all the message boards, I don’t know how you could do it. You’d be so far out of the loop that you wouldn’t be able to.
Do you generally ask off-the-cuff questions with your interviewees?
For the most part, it’s off the cuff. [UI Athletic Director Mike] Thomas, for example, has so much on his plate that I usually make five or six different topics that we can talk to him about.
In a market this size, you aren’t automatically flooded with calls. You need to be a little bit provocative to get them going. You need to have a lot of the material ready in case nobody is calling. You don’t want to sit in there and act like a dummy.
Tell me about your show, Penny for Your Thoughts.
We don’t ask them what they want to talk about, so I’m sitting there [thinking], ‘What’s the next question going to be?’ It’s invigorating. It keeps you alive, and it keeps you going. We’re a news-talk radio station, and we have people that talk most of the day, and this is the one time, virtually the only time … during the day you can talk back to us—and they do, and you never know what they’re going to say.
I prefer to be [known as] a moderator or a person that gives people on both sides an opportunity to state their opinion, whether I agree with it or not. Unless somebody says something just totally outrageous, I’ll let them say it. The Internet has made this much tougher because people call in with things and say it just matter-of-factly that they just read [something] on the Internet. Where’d that come from? Who originated that? Was this somebody’s blog, or was this just some tweet, or what was this? Sometimes they don’t even know. They just read it, so it must be true.