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.