Jaxon Riley’s familiar voice is recognized by generations of Southwest Georgia music lovers, and he’s still on the air afternoons on NASH FM 104.5 (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)
ALBANY — Rodney Rouse, whose distinct, bigger-than-life voice has introduced Southwest Georgians to their favorite music and offered “at least one weird thing an hour” over the radio airwaves for the past 41 years, laughs as he talks about that career that recently landed him a Georgia Radio Hall of Fame nomination.
“People meet me out in the community, and they say two things,” Rouse, who is best-known by his nom de radio Jaxon Riley, said in between songs during a recent 2 p.m.-7 p.m. Monday-through-Friday airshift at WKAK, NASH FM 104.5. “They say they’re astonished at how old I am (63, as of June 4) and how short I am (5-foot-3).”
Rouse may be diminutive in stature, but his big, big voice has made him one of the region’s most loved and widely known personalities. That, and the charity work that he’s tirelessly promoted and taken part in during his four decades on the air, landed him the GRHOF nomination.
“Jaxon has certainly had a distinguished career and has been involved in a lot of charity work,” Georgia Radio Hall of Fame President John Long, who worked briefly with Rouse in the Albany market during the 1980s, said. “He, along with all the other nominees, is deserving of this recognition.”
Rouse got his start in radio at WBIB in Centreville, Ala., but he soon came back “home” to Albany and became a fixture on Southwest Georgia airwaves. He left the market once, for a job at WKXY in Sarasota, Fla., but has otherwise remained a regional fixture at WQDE, WJAZ and WKAK in Albany; Y-100 in Tifton; WAZE in Dawson … 12 area stations in all.
Rouse also worked with both local television affiliates, WALB and WFXL, and spent almost a decade working in radio and TV at Albany State University before being unceremoniously dumped by the college last year in a conflict that is still under legal review.
“In radio school, one of the things they teach you is the importance of public service,” Rouse said. “I kind of took that to heart early on, and over the years I’ve been involved in just about every walk-a-thon, bike-a-thon. tel-a-thon and charity event in the community.
“It’s like one of my mentors told me when I was first in the business: ‘To think you can sit in a building and talk and play records and expect the public to know who you are is the height of egotism.’ You have to get out in the public.”
One of the things Rouse won’t do, though, is any kind of remote that involves animals.
“I was working at WJAZ-AM Country, and we were doing a promotion about a wrestling bear that was going to be at Bananas Nightclub,” he recalls. “We promoted that show all week, so I started saying on the air that I was going to wrestle a 1,000-pound bear. I got to Bananas and, since I wanted to save face, I told the promoter to to let the bear know I was just going to jump in the ring and out.
“I knew I was in trouble when he said, ‘Son, that’s a bear. I don’t know how to talk to a bear.’”
Rouse was informed that the bear was trained to take down and pin anybody who stepped into a red circle in its cage.
“I thought I was quick enough I could step in the circle, wave my arms around a little and run out,” Rouse laughs. “As soon as I put my foot in the circle, he stepped on it, and I couldn’t move. He threw me down on the mat, pinned me and tapped me with his elbow — I think just to remind me that he was a bear. I told my wife that that was the last animal act for me.”
Rouse says simply being nominated for the hall of fame is honor enough. If he wins, though, he plans to use the opportunity to recognize a pair of deserving local radio veterans.
“It’s hard for me to feel I deserve such an honor when there are radio pioneers in our area like Walter Flint and Doc Suttles,” Rouse said. “Walter has done so much for the local radio industry, and Doc Suttles is the legend of all legends in this area. He invented R&B FM radio. He started doing it in the ’60s, before anyone else. FM urban radio did not take off until the ’70s.
“If I was fortunate enough to be named to the Georgia Radio Hall of Fame, I would use that opportunity to honor Walter and Doc.”
Members of the state hall of fame’s board of directors will vote on the nominees in July, and this year’s class of honorees will be announced at a banquet on Oct. 25.
During his time in local radio, Rouse has rubbed elbows frequently with celebrities whose music he played.
“The guys in the country group Alabama are about the most down-to-earth people I ever met,” he said. “I enjoyed hanging out with them, and I also got a kick out of being backstage at a Hank Williams Jr. concert. He was a true Southern gentleman while we were back there talking, but as soon as he hit the stage he became this rowdy, drunken lunatic. I was amazed at the transformation.”
As he settles into the twilight of his radio career, working the weekday afternoon shift at NASH FM 104.5, Rouse laments changes in the industry that have all but eliminated the need for local on-air personalities.
“With the technology today, local stations like ours have national personalities like John Boy and Billy on in the mornings and Kix Brooks on at midnight,” Rouse says. “At one point, Albany used to have 45-50 full-time, on-air DJs working at local stations. Now, there’s no more than a handful. It makes me feel for young people hoping to break into radio. About the only hope they have now is as a board operator.”
After he left Albany, Long invited Rouse to join him at his new job in Chattanooga, Tenn. When Long eventually moved from there to Philadelphia, Rouse realized he’d probably lost his one last chance to work in a major market.
“When I turned him down, John told me, ‘You’re going to live and die in that town,’” Rouse recalls. “I always wondered how things might have turned out, but another friend in the business who did move on to stations in Boston and Miami later told me, ‘If you work in a major market, you might make $75,000 to $100,000 a year, but at the end of the month, you still have just $3 in your checking account.’”
Rouse said he plans to keep working a few more years in the industry he’s loved pretty much his whole life. Lost opportunities aside, it’s a career that’s given him a level of notoriety and allowed him to “bring the view of the average Joe to the upper echelon to let them know how we feel.”
“I got into radio because my best friend at the time, Bill McInerny, convinced me that it was all about wine, weed and women,” Rouse says. “But the first girl I met when I got into radio (Nancy Lisenbee), I ended up falling in love with and marrying.”
Of such things, hall of fame careers are made.