The best radio station I’ve listened to on this road trip is Road Dog Trucking on SiriusXM. It’s a channel dedicated to truckers, with an ample time for call-ins and opinion-and a plethora of regional dialects, a selective sample that seems to indicate that most of the truckers in this country are white men from the south. It’s endlessly fascinating, this window onto an oft-overlooked subculture, and the pinnacle of the station is a show hosted by Dale Sommers, who goes by the name Truckin’ Bozo.
I don’t recall how I found the Bozo’s show, but at number 106 on the dial, it was likely through some desperate channel surfing. He was talking about, well, something and taking calls from truckers. They almost always go by their handles, names like Seatcover Chaser and Grizzly Bear and Kemosabe and Elvis. (Listing the handles heard on the show is a staple of writing stories about the Bozo.)
Working at WLW in Cincinnati in the ’80s, he developed an overnight country music show that caught on by truck stop word of mouth. Jerry Springer called him “a lone but powerful voice crying in the night” in 1991, introducing a WLWT segment on the host. He was snatched from the brink of retirement by satellite radio in 2004, to bring his show from the third shift to afternoon drive time.
The current program meanders through its three hours. An odd cast of frequent guests call in, filling their roles in story lines still inscrutable to me after listening for six weeks. The Bozo goes on political rants, aimed more at “politicians” than any one in particular, unless its President Obama, who gets dinged almost daily. Some bit of news that’s of interest to professional drivers-cross-border trucking, construction projects, new in-cab computer systems-will be dissected and re-dissected. A producer, Ritchie, will talk about Long Island, where it seems he’s from.
The Bozo’s show is, in other words, almost impenetrable for newcomers. And yet listeners keep coming back, jamming the phones to get a chance to greet the host with the phrase everyone uses when they finally get on air: “Hey there, Bozo.” If they’re lucky, callers will be “given a boost,” hung up on with an explosion sound effect. For how little sense it makes, it’s extraordinarily popular.
By inviting everyone to call in and tell their own stories in their own words, the Bozo has created a tight-knit, pan-American trucking community. After watching the final shuttle launch, I decided to join the club. I dialed in, told Ritchie what I planned to talk about, sat on hold for more than an hour and finally got to talk with the host about the experience.
The Bozo opined about the lack of industriousness and imagination in this country-we’re turning our space program over to the Russians, you see!-and then told a story about seeing a night launch’s exhaust trail from Tampa, more than a hundred miles away. I told the Bozo it was my first time calling in. He gave me a boost for the road trip, firing the explosion sound effect and proclaiming “Liftoff!” Now I just need to come up with a handle.