It’s hard to retire, especially if you’ve been working at your dream job. But Chuck Custer, the longtime talk radio host for the WGY 810-AM “Chuck and Kelly” show, has made that decision.
“It won’t be easy after 36-plus years,” Custer said. “But I think now’s the time. I feel good about it.”
His last day on air will be Dec. 18. The show runs from 5:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. Monday through Friday.
Custer has always been in the news business. Even as a kid growing up in western Massachusetts in the Pittsfield area he had an interest in the news and loved listening to radio.
“I never wanted to do anything else for a living,” he said.
One of his first full-time radio jobs was in Utica where Brian Whittemore hired him. Eventually, he moved on from that job to work in Providence, Rhode Island, which was then considered the 26th largest radio market in the country. With an eye to landing a job in the Boston market, he unexpectedly got a call from Whittemore, who had moved on himself to WGY as the station’s news director.
“I caught a break,” Custer said. “He made me an offer to do some newscast anchoring and reporting. I was smart enough to take it. My first day was on Memorial Day, 1984.”
Whittemore proved to be a tough boss, but Custer credits him with making him a better reporter and became his role model, as did Tom Parker and Greg Foster, program directors at WGY.
Custer’s timing proved serendipitous. In the ’80s, radio news anchors tended to be stiff and presentational, he said, but he was allowed to develop an on-air persona. Custer worked with various hosts, including Bob Cudmore and Dave Greene, but it was his connection with Don Weeks, who’d had his own show since 1980, that was the charm.
“Don and I had 20 great, ridiculously fun and successful years together and I miss him to this day,” Custer said.
When Weeks retired in 2010, WGY management asked Custer to stay with the show because “I was a news guy and had some equity with the audience,” so Custer was told to find another voice.
“They wanted someone local with a strong personality with a news background,” he said. “I knew Kelly Lynch had left Channel 13. So before Don retired, we had her sit in a few times. She’d never done radio, so we eased her in.”
It was a shot out of the blue for Lynch.
“He called me and asked if I had any interest in doing talk radio,” Lynch said. “I had no interest. But we met and he outlined what he wanted the show to be . . . to not just have the news. It sounded interesting and we just clicked. We had a meeting of minds.”
And Lynch was certainly local and a newsie: A Class of 1991 Shenendehowa High School grad and a graduate of Siena College, where Lynch used to contribute hourly news updates to the college’s radio station, 88.3 WVCR.
Initially, there was no firm idea of what the show should cover, but Custer and Lynch decided they wanted to present the top three news stories of the day and infuse those stories with information about health, pop culture, travel, sports, or any topic including stories about their own private lives. That formula continues today.
“We have a clear division between the show and the other reporters,” Lynch said. “They’re neutral but we talk about the issues. This was quite a change for me from my previous background. (Lynch spent 15 years as a television reporter at Utica’s WKTV and the local NBC affiliate, WNYT Channel 13.) It took some coaxing for me to give my opinion.”
On occasion, they’ve disagreed, Lynch said, but they always remain very respectful in discussing the issues.
“It’s good banter,” she said.
And Custer said he felt lucky that she agreed to do the show.
“She’s very honest and forthcoming,” he said. “You need that with radio.”
Their concerns about the audience response to the new team were put to rest within weeks.
“The first ratings were great. The audience accepted us immediately,” Custer said. “Because of the internet everyone’s connected. You can’t be behind your audience. Radio is a very intimate medium and people are passionate. They’re very proactive. We get tons of feedback. People have been very helpful. Frequently, we get suggestions about subjects we haven’t covered or opinions that expand our understanding. The audience is very sharp.”
They’ve also found a way to stay upbeat despite the early hours.
“You wouldn’t have a morning show without caffeine,” Custer said laughing.
Custer and Lynch don’t just go home after the show.
“We spend most of the time working,” Lynch said. “Before we leave the studio, we spend at least an hour preparing for the next day’s show. But we stay connected all day long reading up to 12 news outlets. We’re constantly wired in.”
Early to bed at 10 p.m. and up by 2:45 a.m. (Lynch is up by 3 a.m.), they spend an hour reading the news sites before coming into the studio.
Over the years, Custer has been news director and program director at WGY, but the “Chuck and Kelly” show has been his mainstay. Among the memorable moments on air have been the shock of 9/11 and then finding the cash, the reporter and getting the equipment to New York City for live coverage; the O.J. Simpson verdict, in which everyone crowded into the newsroom and was shocked by the “not guilty” verdict; the day Don Weeks passed away (March 11, 2015); and seeing the children who must be treated at Children’s Hospital at Albany Medical Center, which is one of the benefits the station holds and which Custer said was “hard not to get chocked up about on air.”
Now that he’s retiring, he won’t miss the hours.
“The hours are a grind,” he said. “But I love the show. I’ll miss the people. But my ego has never been tied up with being on the radio. It’s not how I identify myself.”
Among the things he wants to do are lose some of the 30 extra pounds he’s carrying or maybe learn to play guitar — “that would be cool.” He and his wife, Linda, also want to see all the national parks. Most of all is to move to the Durham, North Carolina, area where his son Scott, who just finished his PhD from Harvard, is working in a lab at Duke University, and be able to see their daughter-in-law Meghan and one- year-old granddaughter, Parker. His other son, Cory, is finishing up an MBA in Washington, D.C.
As for the show, Lynch said she’ll remain as co-host.
“It’s too much work for one person,” she said.
Custer agreed, and said in an email that who will replace him was a decision yet to be made.