by byby Charles McGuigan
Liz Humes is now a producer at WHRO/WHRV in Norfolk, though she still lives here in Richmond’s North Side. For years she was synonymous with Punchline, where she met her husband Pete, who was one of this popular alternative magazine’s founders. Later, Liz became one of the founders of WRIR-97.3 LPFM and for years has produced a popular program called Wordy Birds, a carefully edited half-hour weekly show about writers. She has spoken on Capitol Hill about low-power FM stations, and has become an advocate for these stations which are now popping up all over the country like mushrooms after a spring rain. Her passion, though, is making radio.
Charmed lives aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Their courses are all too often straight and narrow with no divergence, no side trips, never a cul-de-sac of remorse, nor a stultifying dead end. Maybe that’s why those born with platinum spoons dangling from their mouths seem almost unbearably smug and boring. Nothing ever happened to them, challenged them, made them duel it out with reality, examine their own perceptions and beliefs. Things were done for them, or they were born with utter good fortune. Sad though, because they have no real understanding of human experience, which may, in its conclusion, be sweetest joy, but it is a joy that comes slowly, rising sometimes painfully through layers of defeat, self-loathing and even exquisite pain. Trauma tests us, reshapes us. It can hurt to the core and at times may crush us. In some people it does just that, snuffs out life before its natural end. Others just begin to run, frequently in dizzying circles that bring them back to the point of starting. But others learn to mold that pain into understanding and then compassion, which inevitably leads to a desire to know everyone’s story and listen with an ear that is both sympathetic and empathic. It doesn’t matter what that trauma was. What matters is how the woman or man, the boy or girl who felt the pain ultimately made it to work for them. How they made a story of their own life. Brought meaning to it all and moved on to the next chapter.
I first met Liz Humes about five years back when I was pitching A Grain of Sand to WRIR. She was extremely supportive of the show, which features audio stories about human beings, rich in sound, some real, some fictional. Liz got where I was going with it from the very beginning and I’ve been forever grateful to her. She understood; she had the ear for it. What’s more, Liz comprehended the passion that drives such stories. You either have that passion, or you don’t, and nothing will ever buy it for you, or rob you of it. Passion is what you own. And I knew Liz shared that passion.
We’re sitting in the conference room at Stir Crazy, sequestered from the buzz of the coffee shop, enjoying comparative silence underscored by the white noise of the HVAC, which purrs and thrums, something alive behind the walls that surround us and the ceiling above us. Liz wears deep crimson lipstick in contrast to her pale complexion and dark brown eyes and hair that is almost black. She is animated as she speaks.
Though she was born in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, Liz grew up in Virginia Beach where she attended Kingston Elementary, Lynnhaven Junior High, and First Colonial High school. The family lived in the middle class suburb of Kings Grant, and Liz, one of six children, served as president of various high school clubs and acted as secretary for student council. But her grades weren’t great. Even during her high school years, Liz worked full-time at The Limited in Lynnhaven Mall, putting in 40-hour weeks, selling clothes. She had no plans to attend college and shortly after graduation moved out to Boulder, Colorado and then San Francisco and later Jacksonville, Florida. “I worked for Green Peace, I skied, smoked a lot of pot and took a lot of hallucinogenics,” Liz says.
Eventually, she settled in Richmond where she took classes at Virginia Commonwealth University. She studied communication arts, English, sculpture, but never graduated. “I didn’t want to commit to it,” she says. For years she lived in Oregon Hill, when it still had grit to it, before gentrification stole away its soul. “I lived at 525 South Laurel Street,” Liz says. ”There were still tarpaper shacks. Six-year olds smoking cigarettes. There were still the fields down by the James River.”
Somewhere in there a terrible thing happened to her, one of those transforming traumas that drive you but never really leave you. Without telling me what happened, Liz says, “You can’t drink it out of yourself. You’re still here. I’m still here. There is this other mind swirling around that lives inside this body that is in this world and focuses.”
She pauses for a long while, which is quite uncommon, and then says this slowly, the words coming one by one. You can see them forming in her eyes before they flow over those bright red lips. “I think that’s what radio is,” she says. “It’s the mind that lives within the world. It’s all of our ids. They get a chance to talk. It’s who we are. The appearance of the voice within our minds. It’s almost like we set that free by making radio. Radio is your internal voice.” I nod vigorously in full agreement.
When Liz was 27 she had her first daughter, Sophie. During her pregnancy she worked for ADT security. “Right before Sophie was born I got married,” she says. That marriage dissolved three years later.
She went to work for STYLE as the classified customer service manager and later became operations manager. “The learning curve was amazing,” Liz says. “I did distribution and accounting for the quarterly reports.” Liz moved up fast and then the publisher decided to cut both her salary and responsibilities. ”The publisher didn’t know what she was doing,” she says. Liz left STYLE and slung sushi on the Slip for a while and then took a job at Punchline, when that magazine was about three years old. Hired as assistant publisher, Liz took over the classifieds and made them sing. ”Then they offered me partnership and ownership and I became one of the owners of Punchline,” she says. “Then I became full on publisher.”
At Punchline she also fell in love with the man she would eventually marry—Pete Humes, one of magazine’s founders. She began writing columns while at Punchline, in addition to being sales manager and handling distribution and billing, and almost anything else that had to do with the magazine.
They finally shut Punchline down in 2004 and Liz’s husband, Pete, went to work for Royall and Company and then the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where he was a freelance writer doing feature-length profiles. And then he was hired by the TD to start up that mock alternative magazine called Brick Weekly, which always reeked of the parent corporation. “That was a tough time in our marriage,” Liz recalls. “There was a lot of ego in my response. I was jealous he was doing a publication without me.”
Throughout the interview, Liz keeps checking the broad face of the wall clock behind her. She’s got to pick up cupcakes for her daughter Lola’s birthday party at Holton Elementary School and she can’t be late.
Three days after Lola was born to Pete and Liz Humes, they were told that their infant daughter had a congenital heart defect. “That was eight years ago,” Liz tells me. “And I still wonder if I did something wrong, if I was accountable.” Rationally, she knows she didn’t do anything wrong, but the feelings still tug away. “That’s the case with all women,” she says. “We hold ourselves accountable for what happens.”
Liz and Pete would later learn their daughter had pyloric stenosis, a narrowing of the pylorus, the lower part of the stomach through which food passes on its way to the small intestine. ”She wasn’t absorbing food,” Liz remembers. “She was throwing up a lot. There was a period of two weeks that I went to a different specialist every day. Her esophagus was also all screwed up.”
Lola had her first operation when she was just three years old. And later, surgeons would crack her sternum to get at the little girl’s heart and mend a tear that had enlarged as the heart grew. Today, her daughter is doing just fine.
After the demise of Punchline and before the birth of her daughter, Liz did free-lance writing for Vegetarian Times and Prevent Child Abuse Virginia. “Exactly one year after Punchline closed I started at WRIR,” she says. “I helped write the business plan along with Chris Maxwell and others. I did a media kit, I wrote press releases. There was the board but everybody else was doing all the work. None of the board members had any media experience.”
Liz committed herself fully to this experiment called WRIR, a low-power FM station, still struggling for its first on-air breath. “I wanted to do public radio, I love public radio,” she says. So she ended up raising money for the station before it even broadcast its first signal. As the director of development she was paid commission for her efforts. She would later serve as vice-president of the board, then president, along with other duties that included managing the talk show hosts and producing her own show—Wordy Birds.
In March of 2005 Liz produced her first installment of Wordy Birds. Since that time, she’s done well over 400 programs, each one a gem in its own light. She’s also served as the station’s NPR liaison and started its FCC committee.
It was always her program, though, that she loved first and foremost. She tells me about an interview she did some years back with Reginald Dwayne Betts who penned “A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison”.
“He was an honor student from Maryland just outside of D,C. and his friend got a gun and they carjacked this guy,” she says. “They were caught and at 16-years old, this kid was sentenced as an adult and went to prison for ten years. It was a personal story, but the interview was about the criminal justice system. He discovered poetry and read non-stop everything he could get his hands on while he was in prison.” Liz pauses for breath, then adds, “The cadence and some the things this kid said about a justice system that is not just were absolutely riveting.”
Of all the interviews she’s ever done, her favorite was with Charles Shields who wrote both “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee”, and “I Am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee”. She had just completed an interview with David Sedaris and though she was taken by the author, the interview wasn’t particularly revealing. “David Sedaris is a lovely human being,” Liz says. “But he’s a celebrity and over-saturated, so it’s not a good story.”
But Charles Shields was another story. “Every word in that book he wrote on Harper Lee was perfect,” says Liz. “Exactly the right word at exactly the right time and that is just breathtaking when you see it and when you know it. And Charles spoke like that too. It was my favorite interview.”
That interview also led to Liz’s work with the University of Mary Washington. “Charles Shields was heading up this program called the Chappell Great Lives Lecture Series,” Liz says. “Charles called me and said, ‘I want you to come up and help me with this lecture series.’ So for the next three years I interviewed their authors, I did these video introductions, I did stage introductions of the authors, and sometimes I would go to dinner with them. It was 24 authors over four months—all biographers.” Though part of the university’s history curriculum, the lectures were soon open to the public and the response was astounding. More than a thousand people would pack the hall to hear the lectures every Tuesday and Thursday night. Liz considers the popularity of these lectures. “It has to do with the appreciation of history unique to the Civil War south,” she suggests. “We are all aware of our shadows.”
All the while, Liz honed her skills as producer, writer and interviewer. “I was sharpening my tools, getting my ten thousand hours in.”
Not long back, Liz Humes was hired professionally as a producer with WHRO/WHRV down in Hampton Roads. She commutes, spending time with her aging parents in Virginia Beach. It is a dream come true, what she has worked toward most of her life. “The people in the building where I work are amazing and it’s really exciting to work with people who have spent their lives working toward the same goals with the same passions that you and I have worked towards,” she says to me.
Liz also works as a consultant to groups wanting to form their own low-power FM stations. After all, she had spoken before Congress prior to the passing of the National Local Community Radio Act, spoke to these representative about the success of WRIR. Eventually passed, this act has allowed for the proliferation of LPFMs all across the country. “I went to Idaho last year for ten days for migrant Latino potato pickers who were starting up a station way up on the Snake River,” she says. “Now, they’re putting together funding for me to go to Alaska and work with an Inuit tribe there. I love doing all this work.”
As a consultant she helps newbies realize their own dreams of the profound inner voice that is public radio at its best. “Since birth I’ve been a fighter for the underdog, I’m a believer in the underdog,” she says. “But I also believe that not everybody gets their fighting chance in the beginning of life, which doesn’t mean that they need to be diminished as a person. So if we can just give equal voice or some voice to all people and an opportunity to express their stories I think it’s a life worth living for all of us.”
And then Liz Hume is off to buy cupcakes for an eight-year old girl with a distinctive voice and singular stories of her own.