By: Mimi Walker
Lisa Donovan is a fairly popular figure here in Massachusetts, as part of a popular radio trifecta along with Matt Siegel and Billy Costa. “Matty in the Morning” plays from 6-10 am every weekday; the colorful banter between the three players fills the airwaves of many cars on their daily commute. Against Matty, the sardonic “leader of the pack” with caustic celebrity commentary, and Billy, the slaphappy sidekick, Lisa offers strongly endearing sound bites. She’s sweet, polite, idealistic, optimistic, upbeat, full of gossip and womanly advice, and she always defends the underdog. Plus, you can always guarantee hearty peals of laughter at the sheer weirdness that the show can cook up, whether it’s Billy’s bizarre dating mishaps or Matt branding rambling callers creeps on the air, right in their ear.
Now, radio personalities are very much like celebrities on a more level stratosphere. You hear them, laugh at them, admire them, yet you have no idea who they are in real life. Things like mannerisms, dress, and eye contact are all hidden behind the smoke and mirrors of a magical audio transit that, perhaps, allows for a greater illusion than seeing someone in one simple setting. In a way, it’s a bit more intimidating than meeting a well-known public figure based on image (i.e. Jennifer Lawrence, Ryan Gosling, etc.) because at least you have a template to play with in your head. I was just going on vocal personality before I met dear Lisa. While my expectations of how she would act face-to-face were uniquely different from the truth, I discovered that who she is in real-life is just as interesting, and in that there is great value.
I waltzed into the wide-open KISS 108 headquarters in Medford, MA on one spring break Monday morning. Initially, it felt quite commonplace and stiff on the barren ground level, but then I traipsed into the old-fashioned elevator and headed up to the third floor. Sitting in the waiting office in a small-sized cubicle, I could hear and see the soundwaves of the show being transmitted through a television screen, propped up in the corner, as it was airing. As I waited, I chatted with a friendly female intern my age working at the front desk. She asked me about my interest in radio as she sporadically took calls. Suddenly, two workers from 94.5 burst into the room, full of zest and zeal. “You’re interviewing Lisa? Dude, tell her we hate her. You should’ve come with us, girlfriend.” All in good nature, of course, though I was still curious. Would I get that buddy-buddy vibe from Lisa?
Two seconds later, Lisa drifted in through the open door with a subdued sigh. “Hi Mimi”, she said softly through a serene smile. “I’m so glad you came by. Let’s go on in.” My nerves at this point had taken on a different shape; they were alleviated in an unexpected sense. She was so composed and demure, it suddenly didn’t seem like such a big task to be interviewing this noble voice.
Lisa was petite and refined, at least somewhat how I expected her to be. Her eyes were wide and expressive in a dark, oak brown, contrasting against bright, California bottle-blonde hair. She was simply stylish: a black, chic jumpsuit with a grey shawl and clicking black stilettos. She accented her large eyes with a smoky gray eye and faint black liner, with a shimmery nude lipstick accenting her mouth. She didn’t speak to me with false enthusiasm; rather, it was a sort of quiet friendliness, a professional posture, as if I was a family friend roaming around the place. “I’ll show you around really quick. Would you like that? We’ll find a room somehow, everyone’s still wrapping up a little bit. It’s a busy job.” I accepted and she showed me each room with great timeliness. Now the job seemed huge. Each room had giant controls, rows and rows of endless buttons in neon purple, yellow, blue, green, gold. There was so much weight in viewing these shiny mechanisms and sleek microphones.
In the newsroom, I met Billy Costa, who was quite outgoing and open. “What a great jacket! Love that lime green”, he said about my raincoat. “She’s writing a paper for Emerson”, retorted Lisa. “Emerson?!”, said Billy. He seemed rather chuffed. “How is old Emerson! It used to be on Beacon Street when I went there. I’m sure the curriculum’s changed”. In this brief conversation, Lisa cutely nodded and smiled. A realization hit me: Billy is exactly who I thought he sounded like on radio: charismatic, goofy, loud. Lisa was slightly different. I hoped to figure out why as I conducted the interview.
Don’t get me wrong; Lisa is a wonderful lady who is full of insight and personal warmth. But on-air she sounded girlish, giddy, giggly, and effervescent. However, she’s less bubbly in real life. There’s a gentle serenity, a slight seriousness, a simple, down-to-earth kindness at the core. Once we found an empty control room to converse in, she sat opposite me and appeared ready for anything. I learned she wasn’t exactly a small-town girl. “I grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.” For high school, “I went to a really small private high school…it was all girls…there were only about 50 of us in the graduating class. I could get along with pretty much everyone.” I watched her demeanor as she spoke, thoughtfully and truthfully, which was one minor expectation that was easily confirmed. As we talked, I anticipated that she must’ve been an ordinary girl-next-door who played a couple of sports and had a summer job in a restaurant. And she was: tennis, skiing, field hockey, and a Chinese restaurant to be exact. “I just liked being out of the house, getting fresh air.” Of course, she loved a good dose of fashion and gossip magazines and Entertainment Tonight, though she probably never thought these casual interests would serve her well in the end. For college, “I started out at Babson College with a major in business and entrepreneurial studies, but I discovered that that kind of career path was a little too sterile for my tastes. I needed something less rigid, so I transferred to Emerson College majoring in public relations.” This fact somewhat surprised me; she never alluded to Emerson when I requested an interview with her through email with the Emerson tagline. “Yeah, same school as you”, she laughed quietly. “You must’ve been a baby”.
When I asked her what sparked her interest in broadcasting, she giggled for a second before a long, careful explanation. After a chance encounter with the whole cast of Cheers while working at the Hampshire House in Boston, she felt a pang of interest in deeper celebrity culture. However, she brushed it aside to focus on her PR work elsewhere. One day in her car, years later, “…I turned on KISS 108 and I heard Matty himself telling listeners to call a specific number if they were interested in becoming an associate producer on his show. I jotted down the number and called, and I went in for an interview. Then they hired me…with hardly any experience.” “You’re kidding?” I said. “I know, I really wasn’t expecting it. There was no competition, not really much of a struggle, nothing. It was all very sudden.”
I could feel two or three questions about the auditioning process dissipate in my brain.
With that in mind, I directed more of my questions on the everyday aspects of the job itself. Here is where Lisa became surprisingly frank and open about the job. “It’s tiring,” she sighed. “The schedule is very demanding–constantly getting up before the sun has risen. I’m always up by 4:00 am. Take a quick shower, then get dressed for the show. My routine and presence is crucial; this is not a job in which I can decide if I want to work from home on a certain day. You just can’t. I always have to be on top of current events…Jump on the computer, browse some online news websites. Then I drive in and head up to the station. I’ll meet up with Billy, and gossip to prep for the day’s discussion. Then I call in with the traffic people/trackers, check the status every ten minutes, and make sure we’re on the same page weather-wise.” “Do you ever get used to it?”, I asked. “Not really”, she earnestly replied. She suddenly seemed exhausted, though never ungrateful. “The segments are a blast, the conversations are always fun…I really lucked out. I’m so thankful. I do love my job. I just have to be in bed every night by 9- 9:30 pm. Sacrifice is a big aspect of maintaining a strong regimen. Sometimes if there’s a party going on in my normal life, I’ll have to decline. It would seriously mess up my routine, and it wouldn’t be good for my well-being, it’s not ideal for my kids to have a cranky mom.”
Now I understood something. Billy Costa devotes himself to his careers, and seems to lead a pretty well-rested, undomesticated life. Here was a woman with a lot on her plate. Lisa has other things to care about besides just fun at work. She has to show great care in both preparing for work and the events of her everyday life. She also has to make an effort to care about the silliness of Hollywood, find time take care of her husband and kids, and make sure to take care of herself with equal time. The need for balance was apparent, and I saw a relatable light in her. She’s a people-pleaser and a dutiful worker in more ways than one.
When I asked her if it was difficult being the only female, she softly said “Yes, it’s a challenge every single day”. She explained, “Obviously, I’m not the female voice for everyone in the city. Sometimes you find yourself trying to generalize an opinion or be a little more soft-spoken in order to appear like a more universal advocate for women. But you can’t get into that mindset of overanalyzing what other women might think about something because then you stray from your own opinion and your own truths and beliefs. I mean, I’m a mom of two children, I’ve been divorced, worked a ton of jobs. I’ve lived a really full life, and knowing that makes it easier to believe in myself and speak a little bit for women who have had similar experiences.”
When I asked her what a young girl should do if given the opportunity to pursue a career like hers, she perked up. “Get an internship, absolutely! Once you’re in the work environment, it can be really confusing for a young person, especially now that things are taking more of a casual tone in the workplace. It may be a little jarring, but don’t let that nonchalant environment overtake you. Stand tall and be sharp–in the way you dress, speak, and address your superiors.” She cautioned me with a jokey little pointer finger: “But don’t be annoying”, she smiled. As I departed from our intriguing interaction, I thanked her for a wonderful tour and conversation. Her last words, “Things happen for a reason, just take a chance and let it yourself shine. Be proud. Good luck.” That small quote, in itself, was the closest to the “Lisa” I had imagined through the soundwaves. But real-life Lisa is just as good: warm, soft, open, centered, clear, and hardworking for all the right reasons. To be simple, she’s just real. And that shines through in both reality and her work, no matter if she’s playing along with the gang or headed back home after a long day.