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Chopper Bob: Eye in the sky eases metro Jackson commuter stress

Essential Business

He looks down from above, watching over his charges. His will is for all to remain safe and well. Over invisible waves he sends down counsel. And at the same time he seeks to bring smiles and laughter.

No, he’s not some benevolent supreme being. He’s Bob Rall, known by most in Jackson and central Mississippi as “Chopper Bob,” the traffic guy. And no one would guffaw harder at being compared to a deity than Rall himself. The only parallel he allows is age.

“Well, I have been in this thing since Marconi,” Rall quipped with a laugh. Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian physicist, developed wireless telegraphy around the turn of the century.

Rall, a Pittsburgh native who moved to Jackson in 1954, is the familiar voice in radio land doing traffic reports on WTYX-FM (94.7) and WVIV-FM (93.6), and face on WLBT-TV, all in Jackson. While his on-air personae may be described as off-beat, off-color and irreverent, Rall has carved out a serious career in a field he truly enjoys.

Many may remember Rall when he created, along with Al Simmons, the popular “Bob and Al Show,” which was Jackson’s first talk radio program and well before the genre was in vogue.

Still, it’s “Chopper Bob” most people recognize. He broadcasts in the morning on WTYX, “where all the craziness occurs,” and simulcasts on WVIV and WLBT in the evenings.

While the programs are light-hearted, the helicopter itself is serious business. The aircraft is a state-of-the-art news-gathering machine. Not only boasting two-way communication and three cameras, it also has microwave transmission capabilities to both the radio and television stations. Thus, Rall and his team are able to bring news live and almost instantly. Though refusing to take himself too seriously, Rall understands when an emergency strikes — a major accident, train derailment, any threat to the public’s well-being — that he and his helicopter team have a serious journalistic responsibility.

“If there is news happening, if there is traffic happening, that takes over everything,” he said. “We’ve helped emergency vehicles get to accidents. We’ve helped with a manhunt. If O.J. hits the freeway again, we are ready.”

Rall has seen a lot of changes in the industry over the years, not all good in his eyes. One of the things he finds troubling is the merger and acquisition climate in radio since the FCC’s change in ownership regulations. Now large conglomerates of stations are owned by entities headquartered elsewhere, and more and more programming is being taken out of the local market and being shifted back to these corporate headquarters. Thus, programming is becoming streamlined and formulated, and local radio people are finding themselves unemployed.

As locally-owned stations, both WTYX and WVIV are looking to fill that void — programming created by the locals, for the locals. More, Rall said he refuses to let go of the thing that he most admires about the medium — spontaneity — which is threatened by “new” radio.

“It’s extremely important for us to keep it local,” he said. “When people listen in, they’ll hear something they can relate to. That is critical to our success. As locally-owned stations, we still have that total local autonomy. When you get these large corporations, by necessity, they’re really run by the chief financial officer, not the programming guy. Here, we’re not influenced by how our stock is trading on Nasdaq.

“What I’ve always liked about radio — unlike print, TV or any other medium — in radio you can pretty much create and do it yourself. It’s always been a real easy medium for the imagination to me. That’s the fun of radio.”

In true “Chopper Bob” style, Rall couldn’t end the interview on a serious note. When asked about Heather — the woman of questionable reputation who rides each morning with Rall and “Captain Coyt” Bailey, and seen only by Rall’s mind’s eye — he said, “Oh, she went down to Crazy Shirley’s House of Fun for coffee. You know, I caught her this morning taking the outdoor temperature with a rectal thermometer.”

About Wally Northway

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