Talk jock Ian Punnett just finished one of his last radio shows, and he’s on his iPhone trying to re-create the most annoying sound in the world.
“You hear that?” he asks as we wait for our eggs at a diner across the street from Hubbard Broadcasting on University Avenue, where for the last 10 years he’s built a steady following as the morning show host of myTalk 107.1. He holds his phone six inches from my ear. It sounds like a cricket being executed in a tiny electric chair, then run through Ke$ha’s vocoder, pitched up a few notches, and played on a loop.
“I hear that noise more than any other noise,” he says. “All the time, from the moment I get up in the morning.” The app that replicates Punnett’s headache sound is called Get High Now and is billed in the app stores as “a mind-blowing magic carpet ride of more than 40 ways to alter human perception and consciousness without drugs or alcohol.” (To follow along at home, download the app, go to the Binaural Beats menu, and play Roommate Annihilator.)
“Most of the time it’s like this”—Punnett holds the phone a foot away from my head—“but when it gets really bad, it’s like this”—back to six inches away.
Punnett suffers from a form of tinnitus that goes beyond simple ear ringing.
It would be enough to drive anyone bonkers. And it’s driving Punnett off the air, ending his 38-year radio career. Punnett suffers from a form of tinnitus that goes beyond simple ear ringing. His head buzzes from debilitating cervicogenic headaches. He’s in constant pain. He can’t sleep. He spends hours recovering from each broadcast. He doesn’t smile as easily as he used to. He can’t do radio full-time anymore.
Not that you would know it from listening to his show or sitting across from him at breakfast.
Until December, Punnett performed alongside his real-life spouse/work spouse, Margery. On The Ian and Margery Show, Ian, Margery, young producer Emma, and engineer Schmeff broke down the day’s gossip and reality TV developments the way another radio crew might break down a Vikings game or Obama’s debt-ceiling deal. Four hours every weekday.
On one of their last broadcasts together, they stretched out an analysis of Johnny Depp’s ex-rebound, Amber Heard, being in a lesbian relationship with Marie de Villepin, daughter of former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin. Margery theorized that it’s all a PR conspiracy, and the four expressed sincere concern about what this might be doing to Depp’s sense of self. After squeezing as much as they could out of the Depp-Heard-de-Villepin non-love triangle, they moved on to bashing the ridiculously irrelevant yet unfortunately snobby social customs of England’s royal family.
It’s terrible, not because the world is losing a pop-culture pundit, but because Punnett is really good at conversation.
This is the show Punnett is walking away from, and the subject matter feels so light, so disproportionate to the funeral-like undertones of the day. Here’s a guy who has to quit talking about Princess Kate because the terrible dead nerve sound in his head is slowly swallowing the rest of his concentration. And it’s terrible, not because the world is losing a pop-culture pundit, but because Punnett is really good, really, really good, at conversation. He’s good at listening and processing on the fly, and making a quick joke, and proffering little in-agreement sounds, and telling a relatable anecdote, and asking questions, and laughing at himself, and finding the wisdom in anything.
This is his exit interview:
You’ve been retired for two weeks. How does it feel?
Exile. I feel like I’ve been exiled. (Dry laugh.) It feels OK. It’s weird when I’ve got something that comes to me as an idea that would be awesome to do on the show, but I have no show to do it on.
What do you miss the most?
The collaboration. I love being around other people. I love being on a team.
How did the germ of radio get planted in the first place?
When I was 11 years old growing up in a suburb of Chicago, I did a series of radio commercials with some other neighborhood kids for Catherine Clark Bread.
A dad of somebody in the neighborhood was producing these radio commercials, and he needed boisterous kids who could talk spontaneously about bread.
And later you went to a famous performing arts high school—the same one Ann-Margret went to. Who were your broadcast heroes?
I always thought I’d be a writer. But radio kept coming up, and every time I did it I had fun. It was a large township high school that offered everything when it came to media. I hadn’t grown big enough to continue to play football, so I knew I couldn’t play sports. I tried a little bit of theater, but I struggled fitting in. And when you’re in a high school that big you need to find something that’s yours. So I thought my only way of meeting girls was to get a radio show.
You had a show?
We called it Funbunny Theater. It was very Monty Python–influenced. We were upside-down for Monty Python.
You were on the air in college, too.
Yes. My parents didn’t have a lot of money, so I was told at an early age that I had to work my way through school.
What did they do?
My mother was a teacher and my father worked in the church. The whole ugly truth of it was that my grandmother was very wealthy, but she selected those grandchildren to whom she would grant a college education. She paid for my brother’s education, but when it came to me, she said no.
Presbyterians can be harsh!
Yeah. Downton Abbey. (Laughs.) So I worked my way through high school. By the time I graduated I got my first job in radio. And I worked at nighttime as a disc jockey for a suburban Chicago radio station. I went to school during the day and jocked at night. Who was calling in to a Top 40 station in the ’70s? High school girls. Or lonely housewives.
Why did they call?
To flirt with me enough until I played their record.
You had a stage name.
That was forced upon me. That’s one of those radio things. A program manager says, “Punnett is a stupid name. Nobody knows what that means. So what’s your middle name?” I said, “Case.” He says, “You’re Ian Case.” So starting from high school I was Ian Case.
Where was your next job?
From Champaign I went out to a large Jersey Shore station. There were a bunch of radio stations there that catered to the summer crowd. There are a million people in these counties outside of New York. Margie came with me.
What was the reason for your early success? The tone of your voice?
(Laughs.) The tone of my voice. No. I used to try to sound like I should be on the radio. I remember a program director pulled me aside and said, “Look, if you’re going to try to make a living in radio on your voice, you’ll starve. But I’m interested in what you have to say. So just say it. Say it in the same way that you would say it to me if we were talking on the phone or standing in the hallway.” That was a good moment.
He doesn’t dwell on the hearing damage caused
by 38 years of having headphones clamped
over his ears.
You met Margery at college.
When I first met Margery, I was writing a lot. Writing for the Daily Illini and writing feature pieces for other papers. But it wasn’t totally working. I liked the collaboration, but I hated people coming in and big-footing the piece. I would write something that was funny, and the copy editor would take the funny line as the headline. I was talking to a friend about careers, and she was in radio. She said, “You should focus on getting a job in morning radio. Morning radio is awesome. You start the day really early, but you’re done at like 9 or 10. And you have the rest of the day in front of you. You can write after that. You can do whatever you feel like doing as long as you pull the ratings and you do the prep you need to do for the next show. The pay is so much better. It’s the way to go. It’s your future.”
I had that in my mind when I met Margery. I met her in the newsroom at the Daily Illini. She was a beat reporter. I was sitting across the table, and here’s what she said to me: we were talking about our futures, and she said, “I want to be the first female president of the United States.” And I looked at her and I said, “Marry me. I would make a great first gentleman. And in the meantime I’m going to go into morning radio. So you can have any career you want and I’ll be home in time to take care of the kids.”
At the time, she was dating another guy. And she kept dating that other guy for nine months. She didn’t exactly snap into action. But there was a breaking point with that other guy (kind of a frat guy), but she broke it off with him, and this was during the summer. She called me and said, “Hey, I’m coming down to Champaign this weekend. Do you want to go out to dinner?” And I said sure.
We had been very friendly. And we had even sent letters. Well, at least I had sent her letters. I don’t think I ever got one back, but that’s another model for the future. So she came down and we went out to dinner. Long story short, we kissed that night.
We were engaged three weeks later. We were married within the year after that.
Meanwhile, you’re doing hard rock radio in the Quad Cities. What’s your haircut?
I had shoulder-length hair. But I did it my way. I had it with penny loafers. So I wasn’t terribly different from how I am now. I was in a band, a thrash metal band called Bütt Lynt. And we put the umlauts over the u for Bütt Lynt. I was the lead singer.
Did you keep an intellectual distance from rock culture?
No. I had had an epiphany in New Jersey. Everything I was doing was fun and it was good morning radio, but it was a little highbrow. And I thought, I’m missing an opportunity. I was actually in church when the thought occurred to me: I’m missing an opportunity to be what other people need me to be. What greater calling can any of us have than to help somebody else have a better day? So when we moved to the Quad Cities, I had decided I was going to find the things that made them laugh and the things they thought were interesting. And to live that life and do everything I could to put a smile on their face before they went to work.
You became a servant of the people of the Quad Cities.
That’s how I thought of it. And I know I’m still a morning guy at a rock station, but I had a mission: I’m going to make you laugh on your terms and not on mine.
Then where did you go?
WGN in Chicago. They too were looking for something edgier; their talk-radio format needed an infusion of youth. Of all the places I’ve ever worked, that was the hardest place.
(Sighs.) How do I say this? It was a hard place to do something true. The filter there was always, “Don’t offend anybody.” So you would start with, “Hey, we need talk going again and we need to attract younger people . . . BUT DON’T OFFEND ANYBODY.” That became the battle and the curse for the next three years.
Then Atlanta. At what kind of station?
I replaced Sean Hannity.
Wow. Conservative talk?
The station was. I wasn’t. Not in the way that Sean is. What I am is interested in having the conversation. I was having it much more from a pop-culture standpoint. I was really interested in the culture, not can this candidate win over this other candidate.
1996. I showed up right after the election.
Rush Limbaugh was a big thing.
Totally. So it’s a morning news format. And then me. And then Rush. And then an afternoon drive host that was super conservative. I was sort of the opinion bridge.
Are your politics conservative?
I’m a very traditional guy.
Well, you are a deacon.
I wasn’t trying to win one for the party. I was trying to have interesting conversations on things that matter.
How long did you last in conservative talk radio?
As long as I wanted. There was no pressure on me. Nobody ever came to me and said, “You’re not conservative enough” or “You’re too liberal.” It all gets measured on ratings.
You were working on local conservative talk AM-1500 when Ginny Hubbard proposed what became the FM-107 all-female format to you.
Let’s establish some vocabulary. The idea from the very beginning wasn’t to create what you just said casually, “an all-female format.” But was to create a spoken-word radio station that would attract women in the percentages that traditional talk radio was attracting men. We didn’t go into it with that mindset of OK, we’re going to create a woman’s format. We wanted to get a feel for what it was that non-traditional talk-radio listeners would be interested in, and we were hoping they were going to be women.
When did Margery come on the air with you?
I would call her when I was on AM-1500, bugging her on topics and fooling around a little bit. I did it more when I moved over exclusively to FM-107. And then I called her very frequently and she started to have some regular segments that were done on the phone.
So shades of David Letterman or Howard Stern, making somebody from your personal life a character?
Sure. And in this case, it was because we would carry on a conversation that we had the night before. So unlike using her as a bit, it would be: This is what we were talking about last night. Tell everybody what you said about X. Frequently they were marital disputes. You explain your position and I’ll explain mine, and then we’ll take calls on it.
Give me an example.
Margery was very against the kids playing video games. She tended to feel strongly that there was a connection between violence and video games. I felt differently about it. We eventually found common ground.
Did your habits of consuming pop culture change when you went to FM-107?
I want to be reading and watching the things that the audience is. I’m there as a service. I’m there to help them. I’m there to help them have a better day. I’m there to make them smile. You have to play to the room.
What did you read?
I probably picked up The National Enquirer a lot more often than I used to. Because it’s funny. National Enquirer, Examiner, they are great pieces because they’re such cartoons. They take the nugget of the truth of something and they blow it up or distort something to give it a great headline.
What about TMZ and Perez?
I was not a big fan of Perez. I thought he was guilty of doing the thing he seemed to stand against. He was always talking about bullying and people who were homophobic. And then he would draw these horrible pictures on celebrities’ faces. I didn’t think he knew who he was. TMZ, on the other hand, that’s a scream. Especially the TV show—I just love it. I think it’s a good model for what we do, because it’s carefree. It’s just: This is our topic, these are our people, this is what we have to say about it, NEXT. It doesn’t worry about whether or not it’s smart. It’s just fun. And if you’re in the mood for fun, here it is.
PUNNETT AND I TALKED for hours—on the phone, in person, and after his last shows. He didn’t dwell on the hearing damage caused by 38 years of having headphones clamped over his ears. Or his pain. Or his career ending. He was positive, matter-of-fact, at peace. Perhaps it was this low-volume stoicism, this stubborn friendliness, this insistence on reasonableness that made so many different people want to start their day with him over the years. I called his wife, the person he has talked to, both on air and off, more than any other person, and asked her what made him so good at it.
Punnett has a book coming out called How to Pray When You’re Pissed at God, which he says was in no way inspired by his condition.
“He’s a natural teacher,” she said. “His mom’s the same way—if she has information, she wants to share it. And radio actually lends itself to that better than any medium, better than print and better than television, certainly. Because it’s immediate: ‘I have this nugget of information and I can give it right to ya.’”
Punnett is not done being a teacher. He has a master’s of divinity degree from Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta. He’s an Episcopal deacon at St. Clement’s in St. Paul. And he has a book coming out this spring called How to Pray When You’re Pissed at God, which he says was in no way inspired by his condition. He’s looking at going into a PhD program to study the mass media he’s spent his lifetime performing. He’s written two children’s books. “This is what I do when I can’t sleep,” he says, referring to the head-splitting pain that keeps him up at night: “I write.”
By spending a quieter life away from the megahertz and the headphones, Punnett hopes to control the buzzing in his head. And although he’s not a complainer, Margery says it’s taken a toll. “You get an appreciation for ‘chronic,’” she says, and then she breaks down. “The thing about Ian is that he’s an optimistic soul. He just is. But you used to see it on his face, like you could see that he’s happy.” She takes a moment to recover. “And when he got really sick, when it was just getting too much, you could see it on his face. It was so hard.”
Right before the holidays, the couple sold their house in St. Paul and moved into an apartment in Edina. Their two boys are off at college now, and although Punnett’s condition will have to be dealt with, there is hope that now that he’s off the air, things will get better.
“When I was younger,” Margery remembers, “I was in TV and he was in radio. They’re such weird businesses, and I used to be fearful about what’s our path and are we going to make it. And he always used to say to me, when we were young and we were so broke, ‘God doesn’t take us halfway. Everything is going to be fine.’ I would get so frustrated. ‘How can you know that? You can’t know that.’ It took years,” she says. “We had difficulties, but everything would be fine. Now he says God won’t take us halfway, and I believe him.”