By JEFFREY BISHKU-AYKUL
“What did you guys do New Years Eve? It’s just a couple of days ago, don’t tell me you don’t remember,” Mario Smith joked with his audience on the Jan. 2 episode of his radio show, “News from the Service Entrance.”
Smith has been hosting the program on WHPK 88.5 FM for 12 years now, and it shows: the rhythm of his storytelling, his intentional pauses and playful attitude are compulsively listenable — and his personality is as clear on the air as it is off it, save for a mischievous grin.
“I have always had an interest in being on the radio. I used to listen to WVON and WLS and WBBM and WIND and WGN. I still listen to the radio more than I watch TV,” Smith said, adding he sleeps to the sound of his FM radio-equipped phone.
Although he now lives in South Shore, Smith spends most of his time in Hyde Park, recording his shows at WHPK every Thursday afternoon, hanging out at the Hyde Park Barber Studio, 1431 E. Hyde Park Blvd., and serving patrons at the Falcon Inn, 1601 E. 53rd St., where he works on occasion as a night-shift bartender. Growing up, he says he used to visit Chances R, a peanut shell-littered tavern at the old Harper Court.
Last month, he appeared as a guest on WBEZ’s Afternoon Shift recording at Sir and Madame, 1504 E. 53rd St., with South East Chicago Commission Executive Director Wendy Walker Williams and Ald. Will Burns (4th).
“Hyde Park is a microcosm of what’s good in Chicago,” Smith said of the neighborhood, praising its focus on community.
Smith’s winding road to WHPK began in west Woodlawn’s Midway Garden Apartments, 727 E. 60th St., where he spent his early life. Smith, born and raised in Chicago, attended Chicago Vocational High School, 2100 E. 87th St., and has also lived in Jeffery Manor and Morgan Park.
Smith says WHPK first caught his attention in the late ‘80s, in his friends’ South Shore basement. “I used to hear jazz on there, but I never really paid attention to it, but JP [Chill] was playing Public Enemy.”
“And it messed me up,” Smith said, “just completely messed me up.”
Smith began to study the craft of radio. After performing character voices on WGCI and being fired after a three-month stint at a Greenville, S.C. radio station, he began showing off his poetry in the early ‘90s, at Another Level at Literary Explosion a.k.a. Lit-Ex, a Wicker Park basement-level bookstore once located at the intersection of Damen and Milwaukee avenues.
Smith, who still writes poetry in a classic composition book, says rapper Common and the Wu Tang Clan would visit. “It was wild.”
“A lot of great poets would come out of there,” Smith said, including avery r. young, who performs on occasion at the Washington Park Arts Incubator.
In 1996, Smith landed a job with Logan Square’s Guild Complex, a nonprofit literary organization. When he was fired in 2001, he was writing essays that he would e-mail to friends — early blogging, he says. His essays took their name from the fact that his computer was located near the building’s back entrance. It would later serve as the title for his radio show.
Around the same time he received a call from WHPK world music DJ Marta Nichols, who invited him to host at the radio station. The rest is history.
Music was a staple of Smith’s show from the beginning. He says he’ll play anything he feels like hearing, ranging from Johnny Cash to a song he hears on a commercial. “I play everything,” Smith said. “And I’m very proud of that.”
Armed with a deck recorder from the U. of C., he would also record television soundbites, from movies and sports programs. “And then I would incorporate them into the show. So it started to sound like a morning show.”
“I didn’t ask for permission to use anything. I just did it,” Smith said. “At the time I didn’t care if it was in the public domain or not, I was going to use it.”
Smith started airing news reports alongside his music, with the help of Herald reporter Jeremy Adragna.
“I wanted to be certain to get the community involved in the show. Because I say a lot of stuff that gets me in a lot of trouble. And I wanted to make sure that I could legitimize what I was saying by adding different people who were legitimate, kind of co-signing me.”
Smith is a troublemaker, and he has made it clear that he wants to touch a nerve. Before his Jan. 2 show began, he shared with the outgoing hosts his two rules: tick people off and don’t get kicked off the radio.
“I don’t think it works for everybody,” Smith said. “For me it works, and where I’m at, it works great, because I’m able to ride that line.”
Although Smith maintains a playful, off-the-cuff attitude, he has been able to attract big names to his show, including DuSable Museum co-founder Margaret Burroughs, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, rappers Talib Kweli and Chuck D, and weatherman Tom Skilling, who he called on air.
WHPK DJ Gary Tyson says an interview with WVON host Herb “The Cool Gent” Kent was one of his most memorable moments co-hosting with Smith.
Tyson, a radio veteran of around 20 years, currently DJs for another program, The Dusties Party. Tyson co-hosted “News from the Service Entrance” with Smith for five years, beginning in 2008, shortly after he heard the program for the first time.
One day, Tyson was listening to an interview with rock saxophonist Angelo Moore. “I was just at home just cracking up laughing,” he said, adding that he discussed the show with Smith the next week and “all of a sudden, I just started coming up there more and more and we just started connecting more.”
Both men realized they shared a July 19 birthday and that they grew up at Midway Garden Apartments. Both are quick to mention that the other is a Cancer.
Tyson says he stopped co-hosting with Smith because of his work schedule. But he still drops in from time to time. “He’s humorous, he’s sensitive, he’s very passionate, he cares a lot about what really goes on, especially in the city of Chicago,” Tyson said.
“Mario is natural,” he added. “What you hear is the exact type of person that he is.”
Chicagoans can catch “News from the Service Entrance” on the radio at WHPK 88.5 FM from 2 to 4 p.m. every Thursday, or online at whpk.org.