This article was written for a journalism class by Jon Elllis, based on an interview conducted February 4, 1997 at KUWS radio. It was published on page two of UW-Superior's Promethean newspaper on February 26, 1997.
Roger Johnson, 49, began college in the 1960s but didn't graduate until May 1996 after a heart attack forced him to look at life differently.
"I am nowhere near the person I used to be before 1994," Johnson said. "It's a terrible thing that you have to learn that with something that nearly takes your life." What exactly "that" is Johnson doesn't know.
"You start dealing with what really matters," he said.
1994 was plagued with medical problems for Johnson. First, he was diagnosed as a diabetic. The required exercise aggravated his back, leading to back surgery in May. On June 24, he had a near fatal heart attack. He then had heart bypass surgery.
"I have been told that my odds of coming out of that were below 50-50," Johnson said. "I was a very sick man. I didn't know this. My wife convinced the doctors to lie to me and tell me I was going to be fine, and I believed them, and here I am."
Johnson is best known to Northlanders as RJ of the "RJ and Dave [Strandberg] Show," which aired on WAKX-FM from the early 1980s until September 1992. Johnson said he played the role of a funny newsman.
Johnson said the cancellation of the show was the most stressful event in his radio career. The station was mulling over what kind of music to play, and RJ and Dave were accused of being stale, Johnson said. Still, he said, the firing came as a surprise.
He says that people still remember the show today, and he finds this very gratifying.
Now the father of two and grandfather of four, Johnson began college as a 17-year-old at the university now known as UW-Superior in the fall of 1965. His major was mathematics, and his minor was physics. He was named Best Freshman Physics Student.
When WSSU(FM), now known as KUWS, signed on from Old Main in early 1966, Johnson participated as a volunteer. He became interested in broadcasting, took courses in it, and soon, he got a job at WWJC(AM) and -FM in Duluth.
Recent conglomeration of radio stations and the increased use of automation bothers Johnson because it limits the number of part-time jobs available to young announcers. Part-timers can improve themselves and eventually move on to full time positions, he said. He began his career this way.
Johnson said he continued as a full-time student for about two and a half years and then got involved in the Air Force ROTC. "There was a war on," Johnson said, "and [I] came to a cataclysmic decision that I didn't want to do that. ...
"To disqualify myself from it and avoid an investigation and possible mandatory military service, I dropped school for a semester."
Johnson later moved to Ashland and West Bend, Wis., but returned to Superior in 1970. He worked at WAKX through the 1970s, and left in 1979 to become manager of a Superior-based advertising agency.
A few years later, he returned to WAKX and became RJ. He also gained recognition as a talk show host on WAKX(AM), later called KXTP(AM). "The open mike talk show that I hosted was No. 1 in its time period and I was an antagonistic liberal," Johnson said.
After leaving WAKX, Johnson found work at WEBC(AM). In September 1995, Johnson said, the company declared that his position didn't exist anymore.
"At the time of my heart attack I had considered coming back to finish my long delayed bachelor's degree," Johnson said, "that I had quit as a student in good standing, with a 3.3 GPA or something - I just never got around to doing it."
The elimination of his position at WEBC gave him the opportunity to finish school. He returned as an extended degree student at UWS in November 1995, and began taking classes on campus in Spring 1996. He then received his bachelor's degree in May.
Johnson is the graduate assistant assigned to radio and the intern instructor for Broadcast Programming and Marketing this semester. He is scheduled to receive his master's in mass communications and theater this May. After that, he said he will either go into teaching or public radio management. He may also pursue a doctorate in the near future.
"It'd take me probably until my mid-50s to do it, but, as my wife said, in five years I'll be in my mid-50s whether I do it or not," Johnson said.
Johnson has also become involved in activities he wouldn't have participated in before his heart attack.
He was one of the original 50 members of Men as Peacemakers. He is also on the board of the Northland chapter of the American Heart Association. He has also begun to sing.
"Since my heart attack I have begun singing - a thing I had never done, I wasn't even in my high school choir - but I always sang along with the records and that sort of thing," said Johnson. "As luck would have it, the lovely Mrs. Johnson sings, and I got roped into all sorts of things."
In 1996, Johnson participated in four musicals. Two were by Gilbert and Sullivan, one was a rock musical and the fourth was "Babes in Arms." Johnson said he is in rehearsals for non-musical dinner theater at Fitger's. The show, "The View From Here," will be performed at Augustino's Change of Pace Dinner Theatre March 7 through 23. Seating begins at 6:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and at 12:30 p.m. on Sundays.
At the time this article was written, RJ was working on this masters thesis, "A Technological History of WEBC Radio." Follow the link to read it.