A half-century and then some. Fifty-five years, to be exact. Such is how long Donnie Simpson held court on radio stations in Detroit, Washington, and millions of homes, cars, barbershops and salons across the country. Simpson, who turns 70 on Tuesday, is embarking on the next chapter of a Hall of Fame career, one that doesn’t include radio, at least in the traditional sense.
On Jan. 12, he and longtime friend, co-host and News4 anchor Tony Perkins aired the final episode of the much-heralded The Donnie Simpson Show on MAJIC 102.3 in Maryland. When much of the conversation focused on the end of an era with the departures of NFL coaches Bill Belichick, Nick Saban and Pete Carroll, it was Simpson who gave less than two weeks’ notice over the airwaves. Perkins stressed that neither he nor Simpson were retiring. Simpson will continue working on his podcast and spearheading the reboot of Video Soul on BET+.
Listening to the final episode of Simpson’s show stirred up many emotions. There is, of course, the ever-changing reality of the media landscape. And with MAJIC transitioning to syndicated programming all day (except for its morning show), the decision could have been made for Simpson instead of the other way around.
Simpson’s voice is a staple, particularly for Black folks. Better yet, it’s an irreplaceable orator of Black life. His career began when he was just 15 years old in 1969 at WJLB-AM in Detroit, a year after the assassination of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., just months following the protest led by Olympic track and field medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Mexico City Games, and the inauguration of President Richard Nixon. His show became the No. 1 radio show in his hometown, but because of child labor laws, “The Love Bug” (his nickname then, because of his piercing green eyes) couldn’t work past 10:30 p.m. He moved to Washington in 1977 when he was 18 and became program director for WRC, now WKYS. Six years later, he start hosting Video Soul on BET until 1997. In 1993, he joined WPGC and departed in 2010.
This isn’t a retrospective of each step of Simpson’s career. It’s long, it has many chapters, and thanks to his time on radio and TV, the list of figures he’s interviewed over the decades is unfair even to begin listing. But Simpson’s presence and stature helped make Washington, once known as “Chocolate City,” a destination for artists. There was, and still is, a soothing nature in his voice that elicits Zen-like calm. It’s a voice that’s carried over airwaves for nearly every critical moment in Black life since before many of his listeners were born. He represents a cross-generational connection.
Before he turned off his mic, if drivers cut on the radio shortly before rush hour, they were bound to hear Simpson’s voice. He made sitting in hellacious Washington-area traffic manageable at the least — and, depending on the topic, an escape from reality at best. In his later years, he and Perkins’ chemistry had come to define a part of the day in the nation’s capital. Whether they were discussing serious topics like voting rights, the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol in 2021, or violence in our communities — or, if you were lucky, listen to Simpson and Perkins trade dad jokes for what felt like forever — there was always a sense of home. The show became a sounding board in a city that was used to constant political change. In its own way, The Donnie Simpson Show became a relic of a city that was not just changing — it was desperately clinging to the culture that made it identifiable nationwide as one of America’s premier Black cities. Between 2000 and 2013, more than 20,000 Black Washington residents were displaced. Washington was 61% Black in 2000, Simpson’s seventh year at WPGC, and that number dropped to just 45% by 2022.
In Washington, Black neighborhoods are being gutted for high-rise apartments and expensive grocery stores, so it makes unfortunate sense that a show like The Donnie Simpson Show would eventually meet a similar fate.
The loss of Simpson’s show — and ultimately his transition out of radio — comes on the heels of what’s now seen as a definitive period in Black radio. The Tom Joyner Morning Show ended in December 2019 after 25 years, even as it stood as the No. 1-rated syndicated urban morning show. Last month, Russ Parr announced the end of his nearly 30-year run with the Russ Parr Morning Show. Simpson’s decadeslong tenure feels almost unapproachable in a constantly shifting media world defined more by layoffs and mergers than creative control.
In early 1991, singer Whitney Houston sat down with Simpson for an episode of Video Soul. The segment felt more like a conversation between friends. During the interview, Simpson asked Houston if she had seen an early screening of director John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood. It’s one of those uniquely ’90s moments with the gift of time and the grief — Houston and Singleton have since died — that comes with it.
“I know you’re on the road now, but really, it’s one of the most touching movies I have ever seen,” Simpson said. “And [this] young guy … 23 years old to put together a film like this. He’s brilliant!”
“I’m really proud of him. I don’t even know him and I’m proud of him,” Houston said. “Because he’s young, and he’s Black and he’s doing it.”
These are the sorts of conversations that define Simpson’s career. His catalog is beautiful because so much of it lives online, mostly on YouTube. It’s easily accessible and, for the most part, isn’t behind a paywall. History lessons of who he was and the conversations he generated are a click away. At 70, Simpson’s time creating doesn’t seem to be over. Yet, an irreplaceable void exists now that his voice will no longer be a security blanket on the radio.
Perhaps Simpson’s most valuable contribution was documenting history. He always appeared to live in the moment, which allowed him to define so many of them for the rest of us. Podcasts come a dime a dozen these days. But it’s Simpson who spoke into mics long before shows were uploaded and downloaded.
More than three-quarters of Simpson’s life has been dedicated to public service and making sense of the senseless. The innocence that comes with simply laughing, no matter how cheesy or corny the jokes may have been. The charm in his voice and his eyes symbolizes an American institution that revolutionized even the most universal tasks: talking and listening.
Calling Simpson a living legend, icon, or any title of that magnitude is not an exercise in hyperbole. With more than a half-century in radio, telling the story of American airwaves without him is as impossible.
His radio show may have ended. Yet, Simpson’s show still goes on for generations of Black men and women who have treated him, his voice and his presence like a family heirloom.