Mario Smith

The People Issue

The voice

Mario Smith, 55, is a native Chicagoan, a proud Hyde Parker for the past eight years (“I’ve kind of been all over. I haven’t lived in all 77 communities; I’d say about ten or 15.”), a poet, and a longtime host and radio personality. His radio show News From the Service Entrance airs Thursdays on Lumpen Radio (WLPN-LP 105.5 FM and online at and he can also be heard on Randomly Selected, a podcast produced by the Silver Room, as well as Who You Got?, a podcast he cohosts with musician Michael Lockett. 

Interview by Salem Collo-Julin

Photos by Matthew Gilson

I think what I’d like people to know is how much I really appreciate opportunity. The opportunity to be on a stage, the opportunity to speak in front of people, the opportunity to be in a classroom.

Being able to be on a radio show, for me, for as long as I’ve done it, is a blessing. It hasn’t translated into the trillions of dollars I’m expecting, but it is a blessing nonetheless. The idea that I have not been asked not to return makes me feel like what I’m doing is worthwhile. I don’t have the luxury of concentrating on who’s listening, or, on the occasion I write something, who’s reading . . . I’m concentrating more on the art of it than I am on the result. I feel like my voice is important in Chicago—as important as anyone else who’s on the radio who gets paid a handsome salary.

The origin story of my radio show is me getting fired from a job. The prequel of me getting fired from a job and ending up on the radio was that I’ve been listening. I listen to the radio more than I watch TV, and it’s always been that way. I watch lots of TV, but I listen to way more radio than I watch television.

When I was a little kid going to Myra Bradwell school on the south side of Chicago, 77th and Burnham, we got invited to WBEZ when it was located at the Board of Education building. There was a radio show called Let’s Talk About Books, and my sister dressed me up to go. I looked great, but I had these patent leather shoes on, and the shoes were squeaking against the chair legs in the radio station. So during this entire broadcast, you can hear my shoes squeaking. It was embarrassing. And I’ve been trying to redeem myself ever since.

I used to work for an organization called Guild Complex. It’s the best job I’ve ever had to date. Around 2001 I was removed, or asked to leave. I don’t like saying “got fired,” but, you know, I got fired. At the time I was kind of doing stuff on WHPK with Richard Fammeree, who was a great poet who has since passed on, and he said to me something I had already known. He was like, “Radio, Mario, you should do this.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I want to.”

I was doing a lot of poetry at the time. Working with Guild Complex had put me in a different stratosphere in terms of organizing events and hosting. I had started doing a lot of that and getting myself out there. 

Joining WHPK came as a result of three people: Richard Fammeree, Marta Nicholas, and Jake Austen. Jake was the program director for the public affairs department and he put me in.

Actually, Marta asked me two weeks after I got fired if I wanted to start at WHPK. And I was like, “Sure.” I knew it didn’t pay. I didn’t care. It was me being on the radio, and it was me being able to continue to say things and have people hear them. 

People don’t always agree with what I say, which I appreciate, but it’s about coming to the table.

Mario Smith

The show News From the Service Entrance was about me doing what I had heard white broadcasters do and what I had heard Black broadcasters do. I wanted it to sound big, and showcase opinions coming through the lens of a Black man. It was about making sure that people realized that Black people’s thoughts and ideas, and creativity, and woes, and sorrows, and all that, are just as valid as anyone else’s.

I tried to be intelligent and have the show make sense to everyone who listened to it—regardless of what color they are. I want people to be able to listen to this show, the music I play, and the guests that I have on and not solely focus on the fact that I’m Black and I’m a Black man—but know that what I air comes from a Black man and be able to see my world as I see it.

In Chicago radio, you had Herb Kent, Tom Joyner, Doug Banks, Bobby O’Jay, BeBe D’Banana—those are all Black men that I listened to, that I learned from. There were also people like Clark Weber, Milt Rosenberg, and Dick Biondi. I listened to them too and learned from them as well. 

The “painting a picture for yourself” part of radio is what hooked me. I can see what they are saying. I can see the room they’re sitting in, the setup, how it all works. People don’t always agree with what I say, which I appreciate, but it’s about coming to the table. That’s what radio and poetry both provide—the opportunity to have a conversation.

I started reading when I was three, picking up the Chicago Daily News. My aunt, my sister, and my mom were big on me reading, so I read everything. And my sister used to work at Sears in the record department, so she brought home a lot of music.

Lumpen Radio host Mario Smith finds opportunities for conversation in both radio and poetry. Credit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

One day, years later, I asked the Thing that Created All Things to give me a chance to let my voice be heard. The poetry stuff came to me after I got fired from another job on the radio in Greenville, South Carolina. While I was in South Carolina, I was kind of just dozing out one day, and I saw [Chicago author and publisher] Haki Madhubuti appearing on a public television show. He kept talking about authenticity, and he was reading his work and just saying how you have to be authentic. This was around 1992. I knew who he was, but I hadn’t yet read his work. It felt like he was talking directly to me through the television, and everything stopped around me. And like a week later, I got fired from that radio job and came back home.

A friend of mine was like, “Hey, come to the Jerry Springer show with me.” Another friend of ours was appearing on the show—this was before they just did all the fighting stuff. One of the pages working on the show was Theodore (Ted) Witcher, who ended up directing [the film] Love Jones. One of the other people in the audience that day was Regie Gibson, who wrote poetry that was used in Love Jones

After the show taping, Regie Gibson invited my friends and I to go to Spices Jazz Bar, which was on Chicago and Franklin, to read poetry. When I got to Spices, Haki Madhubuti is reading his work onstage. And I’m like, “Oh shit, it’s him.” 

It was a confluence of everything I had asked for. I came back to Spices about a week later. I had a telemarketing job, and I was wearing a shirt and tie and was super nervous. They had a beautiful open mike. I read this poem about John Coltrane, and I shook through the entire reading, scared to death. I came back the following week, and I kept coming back until Spices flooded. Spices was in a basement, and Malik Yusef and I helped them get the water out. 

Credit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

And then Malik was like “Let’s go to Lit-X.” We started going to Another Level, the open mike at Lit-X [hosted at the Literary Explosion bookstore] in Wicker Park, where I met Kendall Lloyd, who owned the place, and my friend Tina Howe. Another Level at Lit-X changed the fabric of my life. Everything that happened after that is because of that night that Spices flooded. It was because I said at some point to the Creator, “I want to get my voice out there.”

The times that I am very direct in my prayers and ask for stuff, I get it. There’s always some kind of Lemony Snicket path to get there, but I get it. 

All the people I met along the way are just kind of added to me now. It’s like the Tribune building: they have artifacts embedded in the stone from all around the world, right? That’s kind of how I view who I am. I got a piece of everyone’s intelligent DNA, and I keep that with me to keep me authentic and honest—as honest as I can be.

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