TAMPA — If not for a drunk disc jockey, Jack Harris might be a minister rather than one of the most recognized voices in the Tampa Bay area.
Just out of high school, Harris — who had a trained voice from time spent in a teen thespian group — was reading the news at noon for a radio station in Logan, West Virginia.
It was a summer job, meant to pass the time.
But when the evening host showed up drunk to work, Harris was asked to fill in.
Not long after, the DJ was fired and Harris became evening host for the rest of the summer.
“I had no real interest in radio before that,” Harris, 79, said. “That’s when I fell in love with it.”
Harris is celebrating an anniversary this month: September marks 50 years since he entered the Tampa Bay area’s radio market.
Hundreds of fans have celebrated Harris' achievement on his Facebook page.
“Tremendous Legacy!!” posted Jose Valiente, former chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.
“You’re a legend,” added Mike Calta of 102.5 The Bone.
Harris had side gigs — television host, commercial work, master of ceremonies at events and a few years as the recorded voice of the Tampa International Airport.
But radio has been his calling.
He has spun records, covered sports and hosted zany morning shows. He estimates 45 of his 50 years have been with NewsRadio 970 WFLA, including the last 27 hosting the morning talk program AM Tampa Bay.
“Fifty years doesn’t sound so strange,” Harris said. “But when you say five decades, it is weird. That’s a long time. But I have a lot of good memories.”
His favorite is the one that temporarily sent him away from the Tampa Bay market.
In 1973, Canadian broadcaster Gordan Sinclair’s The Americans (A Canadian’s Opinion) was a popular radio commentary throughout the United States. With the Battle Hymn of the Republic playing in the background, Sinclair read a celebration of the United States' willingness to help other nations while facing crises alone.
“The United States dollar took another pounding on German, French, and British exchanges this morning, hitting the lowest point ever known in West Germany. It has declined there by 41 since 1971, and this Canadian thinks it’s time to speak up for the Americans as the most generous and possibly the least appreciated people in all the world,” Sinclair’s commentary began.
Harris satirized The Americans for WFLA with a version called The Floridians (A Yankee’s Opinion).
“The Florida grapefruit took another pounding in New York, Chicago and Atlanta fruit markets this morning, being squeezed to the lowest point ever known in Waycross, Ga. It has declined there by 41 percent since 1943, and this Yankee thinks it’s time to speak up for the Floridians,” Harris' version began, according to Tampa Bay Times news archives.
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The satire spread nationwide via other radio broadcasts and resulted in Harris receiving more than 20 job offers.
He took one in Washington, D.C. About a year later, he returned to Tampa after the D.C. station asked him to host disco programs.
“That was not my thing,” said Harris, adding with a laugh, “I’m a kid from West Virginia.”
But since taking his first job with WFLA in September 1970, the West Virginia boy has become “a favorite son of Tampa,” Harris' longtime radio partner Tedd Webb said.
“Jack is this city,” said Webb, who for 25 years co-hosted AM Tampa Bay with Harris, bringing the area the news with a conservative lean. Webb retired in 2017. “When you talk about Tampa radio, Jack Harris has to be the first name you say.”
Webb recalled working alongside Harris during 9/11.
“We were on the air when we saw the first plane hit the tower,” Webb said. “Then the second plane hit and we both said, ‘We’re under attack.’”
AM Tampa Bay broadcasts on weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m., but they stayed on the air until noon that day.
Then there was the time Webb threatened to beat up call-in guest Ron Reagan Jr. for the claim that his father was making presidential decisions while battling Alzheimer’s.
“I had to break up a fight and calm it,” Harris laughed.
Still, when looking back on his 50 years, Harris prefers to focus on those antics that earned him the nickname “Wacky Jack.”
His Life Of Love serial soap opera, for instance, detailed a lovebug’s marriage with bad jokes. “Whatever you mother says, I’m behind her all the way.”
In 1978, he held a drawing in which the last pulled entry was declared “the loser” and awarded a February trip to Buffalo.
That contest became national and Canadian news when it started a playful feud with Buffalo DJs who took exception to the stakes.
Eastern Airlines picked up the travel expenses and the losers, Jan and Paul Marks, met with Buffalo dignitaries, went to a Sabres game and visited Niagara Falls.
Harris wants to duplicate the contest when the spread of the coronavirus slows.
Entrants will have to write an email stating where they would least like to visit. The most compelling email “loses.”
“I’ve always just tried to have fun,” Harris said. “I’m not ready to give this up. I’m still loving it.”