It’s fair to say that a lot has happened during Bernie Eagan’s 37 years on radio. A longtime voice on stations such as B105.7 and WENS, the charismatic radio personality has experienced the digitization of media firsthand, while also maybe living through a few too many unfortunate seasons from his Pacers. Throughout this time, however, you likely haven’t seen Eagan, and he has not seen you.
Blind from birth, Eagan is not shy about sharing the obstacles he’s overcome to be where he is today. From adjusting to new technologies to simply being told radio was not a job for blind people, he’s gone through a lot in order to reach this point in his career. Now after a successful decades-long run, Eagan will sign off for the final time on Friday, July 20.
Also open about being visually impaired, our Seth Johnson caught up with Eagan for an exclusive interview discussing the DJ’s undying love for radio.
NUVO: Being that you have been blind since birth, did you attend the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired growing up?
BERNIE EAGAN: Yeah, I went to the School for the Blind here in Indianapolis. I went all 12 years. Actually, when I started there, they didn’t have a kindergarten, so I just started in first grade.
NUVO: When did you graduate?
EAGAN: I graduated in ’75. Then I went to Ball State and graduated [from there] in ’79.
NUVO: Did you go to Ball State for radio?
EAGAN: Yeah, I did the radio/TV thing.
NUVO: Was that something you were really passionate about before going to Ball State?
EAGAN: Oh my god. I always say it was since I was 10 years old, but [it was] probably even before that. In fact, there was this 10-watt station. It’s WICR, which is now no longer 10 watts. It’s huge. But at that time, it was just a student-run radio station, and I used to call them and bother them all the time as a 10-year-old kid. Finally, this young lady says, “Does your mother know you’re using the phone like this all the time?” Because they were on Friday nights, and I’d call every Friday night. I gave the phone to my mom so she could explain, and the young lady invited me to the station. So I actually got to be on a little radio station when I was 10 years old, just saying hi and stuff. All the lame stuff a 10-year-old would do.
NUVO: Was there a certain radio personality that you really liked growing up?
EAGAN: I just liked the business. I liked the industry. There were some great people on the radio all over the country, and I had this passion. It was like, “This is what I have to do with my life.” It was all I knew. I put all my eggs in one basket, [even though] that’s what they say you’re not supposed to do.
So yeah. There were a lot of people I listened to. Anytime we went anywhere around the country, I would listen to all the guys on the radio. In fact, I was such a geek that when we would go on vacation, I would take a huge reel-to-reel machine and a radio. We’d be in a motor home, and I’d be out at a picnic table with this thing plugged into this reel-to-reel so I could record whoever was on the radio [in other cities].
There were guys on WLS in Chicago and WCFL and WABC in New York. There were some local people here. And then, in 1968, WNAP came on the air, and they were huge. There were some great people there. Cris Conner was one of them. Buster Bodine was one of them, and Bruce Munson. All these great people were on the radio. They weren’t the reason I got into it, but they sure didn’t hurt.
NUVO: Ball State is pretty well known for their media program now. What was it like back when you attended the school?
EAGAN: Ball State was great. I didn’t really want to go to college. But I knew that if I was going to make it in the radio industry as a blind person, I really needed to say, “Hey, ya’ know what? I can do this college thing. If I can do that, I can do your radio station.” I didn’t enjoy college a lot, but I knew I had to do it, so that was kind of the way it was. I got good grades and all that. But it just wasn’t something I really loved. Because I wanted to be on the radio.
There were people discouraging me in high school at School for the Blind saying, “Bernie, ya’ know, radio is not really a good field for blind people.” And I was like, “It’s the best field for blind people! It’s total theater of the mind.” But they hadn’t seen a lot of blind people have success. So even the principal at school tried to talk me out of it. I saw him a few months ago, and I said, “Hey. I hope you know that I really appreciated your guidance and everything, but I just had to do this.” And he goes, “Bernie, I am really proud of you.” It’s like, “Of course you are. Because I was a success.” This is just really what I wanted to do.
NUVO: I would imagine the equipment when you first got into radio was totally different than it is now. Tell me about that older equipment. Was it difficult for you to get acquainted with using it as a blind man?
EAGAN: For me, it was very easy. Four years after the young lady let me play on the radio when I was 10 years old, I went back down there [to WICR], and there was a guy on the radio. I was 14, and I kept telling him how to do his show. If I had to do it over again, I would not do such a rude, inconsiderate thing. But I was a radio guy, and nothing was going to get in my way. Finally, he turned around, and he said, “You wanna take over the show?” I said, “Sure.” So we put on a 13-minute album cut by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young from their 4 Way Street album. The song is called “Southern Man,” but this was the really long version of it. During that song, he showed me how to run the board. And I did it. I took over his show. He had no choice. It was very cool, and it was so much fun.
I think there were a lot of people concerned about a blind person in radio, my parents included. I think they were concerned I wouldn’t do well at something. When you’re blind, your parents worry about you.
NUVO: Definitely. I know how that is. Over the years then, has it been difficult to adapt to new equipment as it has come along?
EAGAN: When I first got into radio, nothing was computer based. Most of the songs and commercials were on something called carts, which look like 8-track tapes. The nice thing about carts was that I could put Braille labels on all of them. Every single one of them had a Braille label on it.
In 1998, we went to computer. Then, a few years ago, we switched to a new system. It was like, “Just when I had it, they switched to a new system.” The new system does not work with a keyboard. They said, “Well, Bernie. This is kind of a problem because it’s touch screen.” There was this engineer down in Texas who came up with a system. It’s a Plexiglas-type board, and they put holes in it. Where those holes are is where I can reach through and touch the different things I need to use [on the touch screen]. So it’s like high-tech meets low-tech. It’s amazing that somebody came up with this. It’s just a phenomenal thing. And what a gift because I didn’t know what I was going to do.
NUVO: Give me a rundown of where you’ve been over the years.
EAGAN: Bill Shirk, who is a legend, ran a radio station [WXLW], and they were a Top 40 station back when I was in high school. They were just a crazy bunch of people. I called over there one day, and I said, “Hey. I need to come over there and do some stuff for you.” He was like, “Why?” And I was like, “Because you need me.” I don’t know why I said that! But I said, “I can do imitations, and I know you would like it.” So he goes, “All right, just do some on the phone for me.” Fortunately for me, the phone line they used had a hum in it [laughs]. So he goes, “OK, Bernie. We’re going to need you to come over to the station.” So I came over to WXLW and hung out, and Bill Shirk was very nice to me. He never paid me a dime. One day, I said, “Bill, do you think I’ll ever get paid here?” And he goes, “Bernie. There’s a lot of bread to be made in this business, and you’re gonna make your share.” And he walked out of the room. So he was basically saying he’s not going to pay me, but he was going to pump me up. That was a lot of fun.
Then I went to Ball State. There was a dorm station at LaFollette Complex, which they’ve just torn down. It just covered like 16 different halls, and it was very, very primitive. But it was a lot of fun. In the meantime, I always worked at a little station in Hartford City in college. My roommate worked up there, so he would invite me up sometimes. I got some good experience there. Then I worked at WERK. In those days, WERK was an AM station, and they were what was called a daytimer. In other words, they were on sunup to sunset. In the summer, that’s great. In the winter, it’s not [laughs]. So they had a real struggle, but it was a great experience.
And then, I heard about this station WENS. This guy named Jeff Smulyan was putting it on. I didn’t know Jeff Smulyan at all, but these other guys up in Muncie were like, “Ah, we’ve gotta get on the air down there.” They were going to be coming on July 4, 1981. I woke up that day, and I turned on the station up in Muncie. I thought, “This station has the brightest sound. I would love to work there.” So I started bothering the program director, Rick Cummings. He’s a legend and is still working with the company out in Los Angeles. I bothered him, and about seven or eight calls later, he called me back. He said, “Bernie, we don’t have anything.” I said, “I hope it’s not because I’m blind that you’re saying that.” And he goes, “No, Bernie. I didn’t even know you were blind until someone told me, actually.” I said, “Come up to Muncie. I’ll take you to lunch. I’ll show you what I do. Whatever you need.” He goes, “Well, no, we just don’t have anything.” He called me the next day and said, “Hey, Bernie. You still wanna work here? We’ve got something.”
So I started doing weekends July 11, 1981. I went full-time in October. I did all kinds of different shifts. I got to be music director, assistant program director. I did late nights. My first full-time shift there was 10 to 2 at night. I [eventually] went to afternoons and even did mornings for a while there. Then, I came to B105.7 in 2005, and I did mornings here until 2010. And then, they moved me to afternoons, which is where I am now.
NUVO: What have you specifically liked about being on B105.7?
EAGAN: Well, I like the fact that I can stay employed [laughs]. And I just love this company. You’ve got Jeff Smulyan at the top. He’s like the greatest guy in the world. You have Rick Cummings. You’ve had some legendary people come through these halls. It’s just been a great place to be. When I started here in ’81 at WENS, back then, radio people usually worked at a place for a couple years and left. They were like gypsies. They’d go from place to place all over the country. So by about 1985, I thought, “I think this is where I’m supposed to start looking for another job.” I did, and finally, I thought, “No, wait. Why would I do that when this is the greatest place?” So I stayed and stayed and stayed, and all of a sudden, it’s 37 years.
Finally, I said, “I think it might be time to retire.” I love radio. I’ve lived my dream. I don’t want to overstay to the point where it’s not fun anymore. So I got in touch with Jeff Smulyan, and I said, “Jeff, I need to thank you because you have allowed me to live my dream, and I think it’s time for me to retire.” He was like, “Bernie, is everything OK? Is there something wrong? Do you wanna talk about something?” I said, “No, Jeff. Everything is just fine.” And that’s the kind of guy he is. He wasn’t going to go, “OK. See ya! Bye.” When you’re blind, it can sometimes be tricky. People act weird. But I said, “No, everything is fine. It’s just one of those things you know. It’s time.” That was the only way I could really explain it. I think I can afford to retire. It’ll be fun to do things with my wife. It’ll be fun not to have a schedule. It’ll be fun to stay up too late. It’ll be fun to drink one too many beers on my back porch, which I would never do but I’ve heard about such things.
I’m a radio geek, even to this day. It’s totally in my blood. I got into the business, I think, the right way. I started in small towns and worked my way up. It’s getting harder and harder for people to do that, but I got real lucky. I landed in great places. I’ve been so fortunate. I’ve tried to work hard. I tell other blind people, “If you want to do something in any industry, you’ve got to be better than your competition.” That upsets some blind people. I’m not saying it in a negative way. It’s just that…if all credentials are the same, and an employer has an option of hiring the guy or girl who can see versus the guy or girl who’s blind, they might just hire the person who can see. Because people are very uneducated about blind people. They just are.
NUVO: I agree with you, and I’ve personally come across that plenty of times in my own life.
EAGAN: Oh yeah, you would have to. Absolutely.
NUVO: Being someone who regularly interacts with the Indianapolis population by means of your job, what do you specifically like about being on the air in this city?
EAGAN: I love the connection. I mean, I talk to people, and they think they know me. They think we’re friends. Most of the time, that’s not a bad thing. This is a great city. Thirty-seven years is enough time for people to be born, go to school, get married, get divorced, get married again, have kids. Thirty-seven years is a long time. It will be hard to leave. Even though it’s my choice, that last day will still be difficult.
NUVO: When is your last day?
EAGAN: July 20. I’ll be on that Friday, and that’s gonna be it. This whole thing is my idea. But at the end of the show, I’m going to be like, “Oh my gosh. I’ve really done this.”
NUVO: When you look back at all that you’ve done over the course of your career, what has been the most surreal part to you?
EAGAN: First of all, when I went from Muncie to Indianapolis, I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “Oh my god. This is so great.” It’s also been fun meeting a few celebrities here and there. I met Mellencamp, and he was not particularly nice at the time. But then, in 2001 maybe, we did an interview with him. He was in New York, and we were here. But we had it set up on a thing where it sounded like he was in the studio with us. We talked to him for an hour, and he was just wonderful! Meeting him was fun. Meeting Don Henley was fun. Don Henley was in a good mood. Sometimes he’s not. It’s been fun to know that throughout this career, you can actually meet people because you’re on the radio. That’s crazy, but it’s true.
As I said to Jeff [Smulyan], it’s just been a great ride. I’ve been able to live my dream, and I’ve been so lucky to do it. When I walk in this studio, I always know that somebody would love to take my place. But for now, it’s my place. I come in here, this is my studio while I’m on the air, and they’re not going to take my place. But somebody will. They’ll be great, and that’ll be fine.