The first victim of Drew Garabo’s cancer was his sleep. It’s tough to doze when your inner monologue keeps asking:
Am I going to die?
We all are, of course. But only those who’ve heard the C-word from a doctor can truly understand the dumb, sweet, daily bliss of the undiagnosed.
Garabo, 52, now savors moments when his mind is quiet. For the past eight months those have come mostly from 2 to 6 in the afternoon, when he hosts “Drew Garabo Live” on 102.5-FM The Bone.
“Since my diagnosis I haven’t been me,” Garabo reflected recently. “I’ve been the cancer version of me.”
But on the air, free of dark thoughts, he is himself. Sardonic and sharp. An irreverent and hip-hop-obsessed geek who can rocket from loving to loathing his callers on a dime and come off charming the whole way. The show has remained, more than anything, funny. You have to laugh, he says.
The second victim of Garabo’s cancer was a testicle. The surgeon removed it through his abdomen, rather than what seemed to Garabo the more anatomically direct route. The jokes wrote themselves.
“Throughout my life, I’ve offered to give my left nut for many things ... a beverage cart to appear on a golf course ... a pint of ice cream to magically appear in my freezer ... traffic to clear up … I don’t think I’ve ever once said, ‘I’d give my right.’”
Garabo went off the air for a couple weeks in April during an unexpected hospital stay. There was a newly discovered tumor, surprise chemotherapy, eight days of body-curling pain. He believed he was dying and, for a moment, welcomed it.
When he made it home, his beard had fallen out and the squares on the calendar filled up fast with follow-ups, chemo dates, yet-untried therapies. But one week remained curiously, perhaps even fatefully, open.
He knew how he needed to spend that week to stay sane. Was it possible? His bosses cautiously gave him a green light.
One week. Five more radio shows. A bit of peace. A taste of normalcy. Then into the hospital for his most intense treatment yet, no knowing when he’d return to the air.
Garabo’s eyes open at 3 a.m. He’s in bed at his rental home on a golf course in the suburbs west of Tampa. It’s Friday. Nine hours to showtime.
He fell asleep with the Lightning losing, certain they’d be eliminated from the playoffs when he woke. He turns on the replay and watches them instead rally to win in overtime, staying alive for at least one more game.
In bed, he meditates and expresses gratitude. He emails his girlfriend, Sarah, so she’ll wake up knowing he was thinking of her.
In those interminable weeks off the air, he had tackled sock mountains and organized Tupperware drawers — anything for distraction.
But today he pulls on one of many Beastie Boys T-shirts and drives to the dentist. He can’t start high-dose chemo until doctors rule out gum infections that might run wild when the treatment body-slams his immune system.
First comes terror: The dentist says there is periodontal disease requiring oral surgery and delaying his treatment schedule.
Am I going to die?
Then a reprieve. His oncologist says a deep cleaning and antibiotics will suffice. Nothing seems to go as planned with cancer, Garabo says. It’s exhausting.
Back home, he sits at a desk in the spare room littered with envelopes and CD cases and plots out a humorous, high-energy radio program for the 18 to 54 demographic.
He combs CNN, Fox News, The Daily Mail. The remnants of a magnesium-packed, coconut-pineapple-greens smoothie linger nearby. Jumbles of cables and a Best of the Bay award rest near his feet. He’s hunting for stories that are the right mix of compelling, relatable and ripe for humor.
Dolly Parton to star in a musical about Taco Bell’s Mexican pizza, says the Daily Beast. Could be funny. Moffitt Cancer Center is running low on donated blood and platelets, says News Channel 8. Highly relatable. By mid-morning the show is mostly mapped out.
He sends an email to his producer outlining eight segments, plus a reminder not to forget the Bone Bonus Words of the Day. He voices three 30-second ads for GenerX Generators into a worn recorder. He can still get paid if they air while he’s on leave.
Garabo walked into his first real station 27 years ago. He saw gleaming towers of gear, paid consultants, talent coaches. There were enough staffers that the on-air personalities didn’t have to pull double duty as “Danny” in Tampa and “Alex” in Memphis.
Radio careers are rarely measured in decades, Garabo says. “But those of us who have a voice and can express it, we survive.”
Garabo dons headphones shortly before 2. He reclines on his worn, black leather couch, flicks on an orange lava lamp and swivels a mic toward his face. He presses the button on the Comrex machine allowing him to broadcast from home, where his immunocompromised body is safe.
Over the cacophonous beat of the Beastie Boys’ “So What’cha Want,” Garabo’s confident, ‘90s slacker voice – imagine Randall from “Clerks” – projects from thousands of speakers across the Tampa Bay area.
“Happy Friday afternoon, and welcome to Drew Garabo Live. Allow me to introduce myself, my name is Hov, h to-the-o-v ...,” he says, casually trailing off into Jay-Z lyrics.
He tells the story of waking up and watching the Lightning win, and in his voice it becomes an inspiring and triumphant epic about sleep, starring Drew Garabo.
He talks about how he’ll make his upcoming 11-day hospital stay bearable through “classic album days,” on which he and his girlfriend will dig into deep cuts. He says the hospital is letting him bring his Xbox.
He calls on listeners to donate blood and platelets — “the life you save could literally be mine” — and pleads with them to get checked if their body tells them something isn’t right. He interviews his mentor, retired Orlando radio legend Jim Philips, about skydiving on ecstasy.
He is not exhausted. He doesn’t notice the neuropathic pain in his feet, doesn’t think about injections to get his stem cells hopping so they can be harvested, doesn’t wonder whether he’s been a good enough dad or boyfriend. The world fades away and there is only what Garabo likens to a drug-induced trance and an electric sensation. He felt it in the basement studio at Rollins College in 1992, and talking to truckers overnight on Real Radio 104.1 and mornings playing alternative tracks on O-Rock 105.9.
On the air, he always knows what to say.
“I know what Michael Jordan felt like when the basket looked 30 feet wide and everything was in slow motion,” is how he’d put it the day before. “It’s incredible.”
Garabo has long found moments between the jokes to express his off-air values. But the show has sounded undeniably more earnest this week. A lifelong impulse toward merciless sarcasm and combativeness is under control. A tad.
He reaches his signature segment, “OK or Not OK.” The topic: Should it be OK for women to go topless on Tampa Bay beaches? Hairy men who look like “escaped zoo animals” are free to do so, he points out.
A caller informs Garabo that such a law just went into effect in Nantucket, Mass. Garabo has already discussed that law at length. He’s based the entire segment on it.
“No way dude, they did not,” Garabo starts in, relentlessly trolling the guy for not paying attention. “People who lie on the radio disgust me. To lie about Nantucket of all things. ... Even chemo doesn’t compare to the bile that rises in my stomach when someone lies on the radio.” This goes on longer. Garabo is on fire.
Radio is a brutal industry. Toxically competitive. Famously unstable. Garabo has been stalked by listeners, and beaten up so badly by a rival host that the contact lenses flew out of his eyes. He’s been fired without warning from a morning slot and waited tables the next day. He’s watched a grown man from another station sabotage his gear during a broadcast from a bowling alley.
“It is an industry that attracts people with a unique combination of egotistical and insecure,” Garabo said. “It’s perfect for Peter Pans who never wanted to grow up and want to feel like teenagers their whole lives.” He doesn’t exclude himself.
But after more than 20,000 hours on air, he is a master of his craft. How many people can say they’ve mastered anything?
Someday he’ll write a book. He’ll call it, “I Had a Ball.”
He wraps his last show for a while by turning to his listeners.
“I will talk to you as soon as I can talk to you. And I’ll be thinking about you.”
He hits the button to disconnect and sits alone, high in the moment. But he knows he’s burned through his last, best distraction.