Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Adios, Joe Wade Formicola: The Country Will Never Be the Same

Joe Wade Formicola, 1949-2017
On June 21, the legends of country music radio and several of the artists they helped make into stars gathered at the Nashville Marriott at Vanderbilt for the 2017 Country Radio Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Among this year’s honorees was legendary air personality Joe Wade Formicola, who as far as I’m concerned made country cool in Detroit as the morning-drive host for WWWW-FM (W4 Country) and later WYCD-FM in the 1980s and ‘90s.

That era was my heyday (if I had one) as the radio beat reporter and columnist for The Detroit News, then “the largest evening circulation newspaper in America.” I wrote about Joe Wade frequently in those days and talked to him whenever I was fortunate enough to cross his path. 

I was no country music fan by any stretch, but it was almost impossible not to like Joe. He was funny, loud, outspoken, the kind of shot-and-a-beer guy you’d enjoy sitting next to in a bar. His personality meshed seamlessly with listeners in his hometown of Detroit. I always thought Formicola was an odd name for a country DJ, but Joe Wade wasn’t about to change it. That had been his name since he grew up on the East Side, and he wanted his people to know he was one of them.

Being in, on and around radio most of my life has made me something of a student of voices, and Joe had one of the greatest: resonant, mesmerizing, slightly conspiratorial. He was a round mound of sound, breaking any stereotyped image of a country music disc jockey. Joe Wade Formicola was an on-air personality, a masterful communicator, who happened to play country music. 

After years as a typical radio nomad, working at stations from Flint to Houston, in 1987 he finally landed back in the Motor City where he knew the backstory and how to pronounce the names of the streets. As he once said, “Detroit loves Detroit,”and he made the most of the relationship: by 1988 he was the CMA (Country Music Association) Personality of the Year.

Joe Wade, dashing Urban-ite (CMR Nashville)

I was able to play up his award fairly large in the paper. It wasn’t difficult: he was a native Detroiter who had captured a major national award, and I had some say over the broadcast coverage back then. So naturally, this year when Joe Wade achieved the pinnacle of his profession, the most prestigious honor in country radio, he reached out to me from Raleigh-Durham, N.C., where he was on the air at WPTF-AM and nationally syndicated on the Dial-Global network, to see if I could whip up a similar media blast for him back in the D.

This time, it wasn't so easy. Many years had passed since I held any sway in getting a news item into the News – or any other media outlet, for that matter. I don't even live in the city any longer. Joe was a legitimate Big Local Personality in Detroit for quite some time, but he wasn't on the air there anymore, fresh-faced new editors didn't know his name, radio isn't as sexy as TV or movies.... 

Even though Joe was a native son, try as I might I could not generate any interest for his HOF achievement in his hometown publications – and that's the one place he wanted the recognition most dearly, to show the high school buddies and extended family how far he had come. 

So for weeks after learning of his induction, Joe would send me a text message every few days. 

"Did you get the press releases?" he asked. "Any takers?" "Any news?"

The last message I received from Joe simply read: "No interest, I guess." 

I felt terrible. I had totally failed him. I could feel the heartbreak and disappointment between his keystrokes.

Then he died.

And I bet he still couldn't get a decent spread in the Detroit dailies.

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So this is part appreciation, part apology. Suddenly, tragically, unexpectedly, Joseph Wade Formicola passed away Tuesday night, May 30, 2017 – just three weeks before he was scheduled to walk across the stage at the Nashville Marriott and bathe in the glow of his Hall of Fame enshrinement. (A memorial service was held for him Saturday, May 8, 2017 in Raleigh.) 

At least Joe got to know about his induction before the end arrived. But, man....

Anna Formicola, Joe's youngest sister, has been extraordinarily open and gracious with this total stranger as we tempered our grief by sharing memories of Joe Wade. 

"He was the glue of our family, and he was just hilarious," recalls Anna, a veteran investment advisor in the San Francisco area. "And he was the historian of our family. He knew everything about every relative. It's such a great loss to our family...and to the radio world, too."
Joe Wade in Younger Days, and in His Element.
Anna says the last time she spoke with Joe, a week before his death, they were busily coordinating travel schedules to get their mother and three siblings to Nashville for the ceremonies. "He had all these plans, you know?" she reflects. "He just wasn't expecting this."

Do any of us? 

About a month prior, Anna says, Joe contracted a severe case of bronchitis – so much coughing and wheezing that a visit to his doctor was inescapable. After running a battery of tests, the doctor detected something he hadn't been looking for: Joe had an irregular heartbeat.

"The doctor said they could treat it with medication, but he needed to lose weight. He needed to do his part," Anna relates. Joe and his wife, Ellen, dutifully went on a diet. They even visited a sleep clinic to see if that might help. On May 30, the couple had a followup appointment with a cardiologist.

They took an EKG. "The cardiologist said, 'Your heart is extremely erratic. I am calling an ambulance. You need to get to the emergency room,'" Anna says. As they rolled his gurney onto the ambulance, Joe caught Ellen's eye, smiled and gave her a thumb's-up.

"I'll see you at the hospital," he said.

He never made it there. Joe died en route.

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I told Anna that Joe Wade frequently invited me as a call-in guest on his weekend talk show in Raleigh to answer listener questions about movies and TV. With his typical flair for hype and hyperbole, he would introduce me by declaring, "NOBODY knows more about movies, television and media than Jim McFarlin! He's the best! Ask him anything you want!"

That wasn't true when I was covering entertainment on a daily basis for more than 20 years, and it sure as heck isn't true now that I only do a half-hour weekly segment on Detroit's 910amSuperstation. So whenever I did Joe's show, I tried to sound calm over the phone but he never knew I was flailing around my office like a toddler trying to escape a bath. My computer, iPad and phone all were set on different web pages while my desk was stacked high with reference materials, trying to anticipate any question that could possibly be asked! 

But that was Joe: always building others up, never jealous of sharing the spotlight, loyal to a fault. He appreciated what few things I did to promote his on-air career in Detroit, when he and I both were in our prime, and he never forgot them.

Now we need to help ensure that he will never be forgotten. Anna is spearheading a GoFundMe campaign to establish the "Joe Wade Formicola Broadcasting Scholarship Fund" at Specs Howard School of Media Arts, the renowned trade school in Southfield, Mich., that Joe credited with launching his radio career. Anna hopes his legacy can help other aspiring radio talents launch theirs. 

You can make a contribution to fund the scholarship by clicking here. And you know I wouldn't ask you to do anything I haven't already done myself.

A memorial service for Joe is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday, July 8, at Hope Community Church, 821 Buck Jones Rd., in Raleigh. (Church phone: (919) 532-0620.) I predict there will be hundreds of attendees from the world of radio and all walks of Joe Wade Formicola's life. And they will be "attendees," not "mourners." I also predict it will be a joyful, upbeat occasion with a lot of laughs.

Joe wouldn't have it any other way.