YAKIMA, Wash. -- Lou Bartelli, a constant on Yakima radio for more than four decades, is known for striking a conversational tone that treats listeners as friends and for his encyclopedic knowledge of pop-music history.
But the most remarkable thing about him is his staying power. Commercial radio is a nomadic business, especially since local control gave way to corporate consolidation following the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Stations are bought and sold and bought again, with format changes and layoffs meaning on-air talent in a given market is fluid. Most disc jockeys and other radio talkers move around, following the jobs wherever they can find them.
Bartelli, on the other hand, has never left. He’s worked for Yakima stations since starting his career at KIT in 1973, including the past 20 years at KARY, Cherry FM 100.9, from which he will retire in September. That kind of tenure in a single market isn’t just rare, said Dewey Boynton, who retired as KARY operations manager this summer after 20 years as Bartelli’s boss.
“It’s almost unheard of, especially nowadays,” he said.
Bartelli, known as “The Professor” for his uncanny ability to name decades-old pop hits after hearing less than a half-second of them, has been able to stick for a few reasons. First, nobody knows the Top 40 from the ’50s through the ’80s as well as he does.
“People would say, ‘Hey, he’s cheating,’ ” said Brian Stephenson, who spent 13 years as the funny man to Bartelli’s straight man on Cherry FM’s morning show, “Brian and Lou, The Waking Crew.”
Second, his understated affability comes across as genuine over the air.
“The longevity, I think, is an extension of his personality,” said Stephenson, who moved to Seattle in April but can still be heard on Cherry FM in the afternoons. “If you know Lou on the radio, you know him in person. It’s the same guy.”
Bartelli credits his mentors in the industry with instilling that value in him. Though he grew up listening to “The Real Don Steele,” the high-energy disc jockey who started in Central Washington before rising to prominence in Los Angeles, and Dave Hood, who “owned the nighttime around here” before moving on to Portland, Bartelli didn’t try to emulate them. Instead he followed the advice of a local radio and television personality Jack Webb, an instructor of his at the J.M. Perry Institute’s broadcasting school.
“Jack Webb said, ‘Just be yourself; be Lou Bartelli on the radio,’” Bartelli said. “That’s what I did.”
And Lou Bartelli was a natural for Yakima, a local boy born and raised — Highland High School, class of 1970 — who joined the Navy during Vietnam and came back to make a life for himself. He returned home in 1974 after serving on the USS White Plains, a combat stores ship that had supported the U.S. fleet in the waters of South Vietnam and the Philippines. He was hired that December to cover the midnight to 6 a.m. shift on KIT, playing Johnny Mathis and Frank Sinatra tunes to insomniacs and early-risers.
He was better suited to the oldies they played at his next stop, KMWX, where he stayed from 1976 to 1996. It was there on the 7 p.m. to midnight shift that his breadth of knowledge, born of an obsession with buying the Top 40 singles as teenager in the ’60s, first came to public attention, earning him the nickname “Super Lou.” It’s also where he worked with Art Fulton, the man who had the greatest impact on his broadcasting style.
“He was another guy who didn’t try to be somebody he wasn’t,” Bartelli said. “Real easygoing. He was well-known and liked in the community. Our bond went beyond the radio station. He was like a second dad to me.”
They worked directly together on the KMWX morning show when Bartelli was made news director in 1983. That’s where Fulton came up with “Stump the Newsman,” the first incarnation of what would become Bartelli’s signature bit, “Stump the Professor.”
Fulton died young at 57.
“May 25, 1990,” Bartelli said.
But his influence lived on in Bartelli’s on-air style and in “Stump the Professor.” That bit, which rose to new popularity when Stephenson and Bartelli teamed up as The Waking Crew, still draws accusations of cheating. People just can’t believe Bartelli actually knows all those songs, and not just the songs but the artists and frequently the years they were released and their chart performance.
Stephenson himself didn’t believe it until he saw it. The way it works, Bartelli leaves the room so he can’t see what Stephenson is going to play, Stephenson hits play on a tiny fragment of a song’s beginning and Bartelli names the song.
“He surprised me a lot with ‘Stump the Professor,’” Stephenson said. “People would say, ‘You’re giving him a hint.’ But Lou’s synapses were firing at a rapid pace. He hears a fraction of a second, and he can tell you the title and the artist.”
To have the kind of longevity Bartelli has had in Yakima, a broadcaster needs a unique niche that offers listeners value and he needs to be versatile, able to work with different people in different circumstances.
“And Lou strikes gold in both of those categories,” Stephenson said.
There are only about a third of the on-air jobs in Yakima that there were before deregulation in 1996, he said. But Bartelli has always found work. That’s because he offers clear value and because he’s a team player who doesn’t rock the company boat, said Boynton, who worked in markets as far-flung as Houston and San Diego before spending the past two decades in Yakima. It doesn’t hurt that he’s an established, well-received personality with deep roots here.
“It’s a business now and most of the people who own stations are business people, not radio people,” Boynton said. “As a result of that, radio develops fewer real personalities than it did when we started. But Lou found his niche and he capitalized on it.”
Bartelli, who is more sanguine about the industry changes he’s seen during his career and who never had aspirations beyond Yakima, has a simpler explanation.
“I’m just Lou, you know?”