Opinion: Remembering “Big John’s” big voice


For the past several years, I had the pleasure of reading my syndicated weekly humor column on WFYI radio. I was listening to some old audio files and realized that, like so many other people, I don’t like the sound of my recorded voice. This reminded me of a dear friend I wrote about five years ago when he passed away, a man who really did have a voice for radio.

John Gillis was as tall as a grizzly bear but as gentle as a teddy bear. The 40-year veteran of Indiana broadcasting was an iconic figure whose loyal followers looked up to him.

“I guess being 6-foot-4 helps,” he joked.

Each word that tumbled off John’s tongue was not only meticulously chosen, but it was savored by listeners for still another nanosecond before he went on to the next.

“His 60-second traffic reports,” said longtime associate Jeff Pigeon at John’s funeral, “lasted about eight minutes.”

John once remarked: “I have 20 seconds to do what I have to do, read a sponsor’s name, and then if I can figure out a way to twist a word or inject my personality into it, that’s it—I’m a disembodied voice, and every 10 minutes I stop what I am doing and talk to my imaginary friends.”

Radio was John’s best friend.

“Everywhere you travel, it’s there. It takes you places immediately. It exercises your imagination,” he said.

John regretted how media was changing.

“We went high-tech and lost the high touch,” he told me. “Radio should be about content, character and personality.”

“Big John” had many opportunities to leave the Indianapolis market and pursue a more lucrative career. That was not in his flight plan. His job was on the air and in the air, but his feet were on the ground. He loved Indianapolis. He was wedded to WIBC. Why break up a happy marriage?

If you still hear his halting, yet mesmerizing, voice in your head, look to the heavens. No, he’s not in the helicopter, but he’s up there. Trust me.