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Jaxon Riley an enduring broadcast personality

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY, Ga. -- With Rodney Rouse -- aka Jaxon Riley -- life's not so much about the twists and turns of a colorful 37-years-and-counting career in broadcasting. It's the stories collected along the way.

Currently a TV/radio technician at Albany State University, the 59-year-old Rouse/Riley has at times been the voice of Albany rock radio, the disco king of the Monkey Palace and the P-2 clubs, local host of the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy telethon and an honest-to-God TV "weatherman" before meteorologists became all the rage.

Though diminutive in stature, Rouse has loomed large among Albany broadcasting pioneers, left standing alongside TV news personality Dawn Hobby and radio DJ Kurt Baker among the last of the enduring local on-air legends.

And while the years have painted flecks of gray in Rouse's trademark beard, that golden voice endures.

"Jaxon Riley has staying power," said Hobby, who worked with Rouse at both the local NBC (WALB) and Fox (WFXL) television affiliates. "He's gained a popularity with the public that has endured. People like him ... they trust him.

"There's just something about that face."

Rouse's face -- and voice -- have hosted thousands of remote broadcasts, introduced tens of thousands of records, volunteered for hundreds of public service events, launched countless ad campaigns and been adored by three generations of Southwest Georgia radio listeners and TV viewers.

"Jaxon was the man when we moved into town; he was on a couple of radio stations and deejaying at the P-2 club," former fellow radio personality and current Lee County High School drama director Dotty Davis said. "He had this huge personality, but there was a side of him that people sometimes forget.

"It's unbelievable the number of community service organizations he's been involved with. People remember him hosting the telethons, but there have been so many other (charitable events) that he's been a part of for no other reason than that's the kind of person he is."

An Army brat who had stop-offs at points all over the globe, Rouse came to Albany when he was 16 and, except for a few brief adventures that called him away, he's been here since. He got into music when he was recruited to play trumpet in the Albany High School band, and that paved the way for what has been an enduring career.

Sort of.

"Actually, I got into radio when my best friend, Bill McInerny, got a job as a DJ and convinced me it was nothing but wine, weed and women," Rouse said. "Of course, I ended up missing out on most of the partying because as soon as I got into radio I met the woman who would become my wife."

Rouse's first radio job was at WBIB in Brent-Centreville, Ala., where he became an engineer trainee as well as an on-air personality. The engineering plans that at first seemed so promising soon were ditched.

"I stepped into the transmitter room one day and saw a skeleton of a raccoon or a cat," Rouse said. "I asked our engineer about it, and he pointed out to me that if you touched the wrong wire, you'd die. I decided I'd stick with deejaying."

A short time later, another revelation brought Rouse back to Albany.

"I lived down this dirt road in Alabama, and I was over at my neighbor's house drinking a cold beer when I saw him slap his wife," Rouse said. "I made the mistake of saying, 'What's wrong with you people in Alabama, y'all don't know how to treat your women here?' Well, I had insulted their state and their manhood ... big mistake.

"My neighbor and his twin brother beat me to a pulp. I called the sheriff to report it the next day, and the guy said, 'You don't sound like you're from around here. My best advice to you is to get out of here.' Two days later I was back at my mama's."

But Rouse wasn't down for long. He caught on locally as a DJ at WALG, and except for brief stints when he played trumpet and toured with a regional rock band and an I-need-a-job-I'll-do-anything gig at WKYX in Sarasota, Fla., that overnight shift started a career in local broadcasting that has lasted to today.

Rouse left radio for a year or so in 1974 to play with the Eden Band -- which also included a sax player named Tommy Chatmon and a drummer named Len Dorminey -- but when he came back to local radio, he came for good. He ended up working on-air at no less than a dozen local stations and even got a new name in the process.

"When I came back to do the 6-to-midnight rock show at WALG, my boss gave me an index card and said 'Here's your new name'," Rouse said. "He said he put the two most popular DJ names in the country together, and I became 'Jackson Riley.' It became 'Jaxon Riley' when three teens brought me a personalized T-shirt one night.

"I told them it was cool the way they spelled 'Jaxon,' but they said, 'Dude, it was 45 cents a letter.' So the name stuck."

Riley's first big move in radio came in 1976 when disco hit. He was enticed to make the jump to WQDE, for which he broadcast live from the Sandtrap Lounge three afternoons a week. That gig merged into a radio/nightclub DJ act that earned Riley perhaps his greatest level of notoriety.

Suddenly he was being asked to attend local events, and his name started turning up in random newspaper articles. He was also asked to co-host the local MDA telethon with WALB's Gil Patrick.

Riley left radio for a period to concentrate on his club deejaying, and he became a fixture when the Palmyra Supper Club, Second Generation -- shortened by patrons to the P-2 Club -- morphed into the area's hottest night spot.

But radio was in Riley's blood, and he continued to traverse the local airwaves like a gun for hire. The call letters changed, but the voice remained the same.

"Radio is a ruthless business," Riley said. "Everyone thinks they're better than you, and everyone below you thinks they should be doing your job. I was fired just after one of my kids was born, and I was fired again when my wife was pregnant.

"My friend Ron Mani came in one morning to tell me that he'd been promoted to program director, and while I was congratulating him, he informed me his first duty in the position was to fire me."

In 1988, when new owners of the local Fox TV affiliate asked around town about a possible personality to join their team, Riley's name kept popping up. He was hired and ended up staying with WFXL for 10 years before the station encountered problems that left Riley unemployed for the entire summer.

"It was one of the best summers of my life; I spent it bicycling and hanging out with my kids," Riley said. "But by the time summer ended, I'd cashed in my life insurance policy and maxed out my credit cards. It was total financial disaster."

But good news arrived when WALB hired Riley as part of its creative services team, and he stayed a decade with the local TV station before accepting his current position at ASU. The Albany State job came about because old music/radio buddy Bill Denson was working as technician for the university's new multimedia department.

"Jaxon and I met in high school when he was in the Albany High band," Denson said. "We played music together, and we ended up working together in radio and at WFXL. I was a department of one here, and when I found out Jaxon was interested in making the move, I convinced my boss to talk with him.

"We really work well together. People tell us we're like an old married couple; we can almost complete each other's sentences. We'll say things to each other that no one else would, and we both know things about each other that we have to shut up about."

Even with a new career that he calls "intellectually stimulating" -- he's interviewed such noted personalities as Shirley Sherrod, Patti LaBelle, Andrew Young, former NFL quarterback Marlin Briscoe -- Riley still does remote broadcasts for the local Cumulus cluster of radio stations, he DJs Friday nights at the Cypress Grill on Lake Blackshear and he's an in-demand wedding/party DJ.

"There are three things I don't do any more: heights, water and animals," Riley said. "I saw (fellow DJ) Steve Preston get stuck on top of the mall in a thunderstorm; I got pink eye from a dunking booth at the Exchange Club Fairgrounds because of animal waste on the ground; and I ended up getting stomped on, thrown down and pinned by a 1,000-pound bear at Banana's nightclub.

"I've had a fun and entertaining career. I have only two regrets: I wish I'd tried to advance to management in radio and TV, and I missed a lot of family time with my kids."

Those introspective words sound like they're coming from someone who's mellowed over the years. Not Jaxon Riley.

"I was playing a party for seventh- and eighth-graders at St. Teresa's (Catholic School), and I played Lil' Jon's 'Get Low'," Riley said. "I played the clean, radio-edit version of the song, but the kids were singing along and doing the unedited version. I saw one of the chaperones ask one of the kids if he'd just said a certain phrase, and the kid said he had.

"I got a call from the school the next week, and they asked me if I knew the words to the song. I reassured them that I'd played the clean version, but they said even those lyrics were not suitable for kids that age. That was five years ago, and I haven't been asked to play another party there since."

One more story to add to the legend.