Daredevil Bill Shirk retires after 50 years in the radio business
By Mark Ambrogi
Bill Shirk has been buried alive 10 times, run with the bulls in a straitjacket in Pamplona, stood in front of locomotive going 40 mph before dropping down between the tracks and hung upside down from a helicopter in a straitjacket.
The longtime Zionsville resident rose to become the No. 1 escape artist in the nation. However, he never had a favorite stunt – or one he enjoyed doing.
“I never liked doing any of them,” he said. “If you ask me if I could go back and do it again, the answer would be no. I value life too much.”
Shirk said he never did it for the rush. He did it for his real love, broadcasting, and the attention it brought his numerous radio stations and the TV station he owned.
“I noticed these stunts seem to get a lot of newspaper and television and international coverage so there might be something to it,” he said.
Shirk retired from his 50-year broadcasting career with his final radio broadcast on 91.1 RadioMom (WIRE) in Lebanon on Feb. 28. The following day the sale of Shirk’s RadioMom to Community Radio Partners became official.
“I’ve tried to retire five times and it didn’t work. But this time I think I’m ready, I really do,” said Shirk, who turns 70 in May.
Shirk, who uses his middle name (mother’s maiden name) as his broadcasting surname, started his radio career in 1965 when his parents, Bob and Betty Poorman, bought WERK in Muncie. At one point, Shirk put then-Ball State student David Letterman on the air.
In 1972, Shirk left Muncie to become the general manager and disc jockey at WXLW (950 AM) in Indianapolis.
“I’ve bought and sold about 20 radio stations in my lifetime,” Shirk said. “I’ve been a sales man. I’ve been a janitor, a musical director and disc jockey. The thing I love most is programming a station, making it the format you want.”
Shirk began his escape escapades in June 1976. A charity circus promoter came to Shirk with an idea to promote a daredevil stunt on his radio show, then chicken out and have someone else do the stunt. The stunt called for escaping from a straitjacket while hanging from a crane.
“If I said I was going to do something on radio, I’ve always done it,” Shirk said. “I secretly learned how to get out of a straitjacket. I went to the crane operator and gave him 50 bucks to take me up and not bring me down until I yell Houdini.”
Shirk got out of the straitjacket in about a minute-and-a-half and the crowd went crazy.
“I came down and said I was going to be the No. 1 escape artist in the world,” Shirk said. “Five years later, I had eight world records.”
Shirk has his first burial in October 1976 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of famous illusionist Harry Houdini’s death.
“I was dug up exactly to the hour that he died of a ruptured appendix,” Shirk said. “I went in the grave to communicate with him and you know what, he never communicated with me.”
In 1983, Shirk played a fictionalized version of himself in “The Escapist.” Shirk wrote, acted in and produced the movie. Shirk later made a documentary called “Modern Day Houdini.” That’s also the title of a book he co-authored with Dick Wolfsie in 2003. Shirk was not doing many stunts then but decided to do one to promote the book signing.
“So he hung from the West Pavilion (at the Indiana State Fairgrounds) in a straitjacket with a python around his neck,” Wolfsie said. “Apparently the python was really strangling him. Everyone at first thought he was being dramatic. But he had a sign to indicate he was not kidding around and he was in trouble. Everyone in his entourage came to pry the python loose. That was my only first-hand experience with his actual stunts. He is an amazing person.”
Shirk also performed numerous stunts as part of legendary Indianapolis pro wrestler Dick the Bruiser’s act.
“My most successful stunt was my biggest failure,” Shirk said.
In 1992, Shirk was handcuffed and chained and put in a Plexiglas coffin and buried in a six-foot grave. Seven tons of dirt was dumped, followed by cement.
“A guy had done the stunt two years before me and died,” Shirk said. “It caved in on me, too. But the operator dug me up and I survived. That stunt was played on every network, every action station in the world. I didn’t complete the stunt, but I didn’t die, thank you.”
MEET BILL SHIRK
Personal: Wife Liz and daughter Maxine, 23, who is nearing graduation from Indiana University with a major in computer science. Shirk graduated from Ball State University with a teaching degree in math and science. He spent one year as a teacher in Selma, Ind., before determining broadcasting was his calling.
Favorite Band: The Beatles
Favorite TV shows: Law and Order, CSI, Chicago PD.
Favorite restaurants: “I like the Olive Garden and Famous Dave’s (Barbecue).”
Favorite food: KFC, original recipe.
Learn more at www.BillShirk.com.