Dru Cunningham of Birmingham Mountain Radio has a rich and storied radio career, from Kentucky to New Orleans and Los Angeles to Nashville, and for the past 20 years, she’s been proud to call herself a Birmingham gal. She’s a gracious, salt-of-the-earth lady with a wickedly fun sense of humor and a secret double life as a medical speech therapist. We’re delighted to meet the person behind the voice of BMR’s Midday Show and Flipback Lunch, Dru Cunningham!
So what came first, your career in radio or speech pathology?
Radio was first. I was on the speech and debate team in high school in my hometown of Cadiz, Kentucky, and they had a category for radio broadcasting. You’d have a script with news, sports, weather and then two spots to insert your own made-up 30-second commercials, and that’s where I just really went crazy. I’d sing parts of my commercials and make up jingles. Well, I won every single tournament, and then I won the state championship in radio broadcasting.
How did you get into the professional side?
There was this little old country radio station that was literally out in a cow pasture, a tiny building next to a huge radio tower. My grandmother used to listen to it for the local news. And it was usually these two guys, a preacher and Willy Wilson, just sitting there running their mouths. Then, this fella named Gary Kidd bought it and wanted to make it sound more professional. So they came to the speech coach at the high school and said, “Do you have any kids that do radio broadcasting.” And she said, “Oh, yeah. Dru.” And so they asked if I was interested. I was 16 and couldn’t even drive yet. My parents dropped me off at the radio station. I remember the very first time I was on the air, I was really nervous, but we had two little turntables and we had 45s and I was playing the little hits, and then talking! Then I started doing it after school, which made you really popular because everyone would call in with requests, usually guys, and they all wanted to hear “Pour Some Sugar On Me.” It was awful. In fact, at the time, I proposed that we have a “sugar-free” weekend.
So, did you major in radio?
Well, everybody, including me, thought I was going to be a television broadcaster, so I went to Indiana University and majored in it. And then I did it, and I absolutely hated it. I felt like a square peg in a round hole, and I just thought, “Shoot, I’m just going to go back into radio.” And so I moved to New Orleans, and I worked all the time, because my show was really popular. It was a dedication show, where I gave very bad love advice. They wanted me to be kind of a Delilah, but I was only 22, so I didn’t know what I was doing. You can’t give good advice at 22.
How do you stay on top of the music scene?
Well, Reg [Scott Register of Birmingham Mountain Radio’s “Morning Blend with Reg” and the long-running Birmingham favorite “Reg’s Coffeehouse”]. It’s still Reg. I remember the first time I got satellite radio, and I was like, OK I’m going to try this out. And I listened. Then I called him and I was like, “Nope, I still need to listen to you!”
Have you ever discovered something before Reg?
I played Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros before Reg. Actually Shovels & Rope is one I called Reg on too, though, because my friend Amy Claire saw them in Memphis. She was like, “Dru, you got to check them out.” And so I called Reg, and I said, “Hey, my friend Amy Claire just told me about this band called Shovels & Rope.” And he said, “Oh, yeah, I’ve heard of them. They are pretty good.” He’s always heard of them And he has! He really has, but he’s got to be first! That’s what Reg’s colleague Don VanCleave used to say. Don would be like, “Reg? Just let him think that he found them first.”
Were you ever in a band?
No, but we’ve got a neighbor that likes to rent a karaoke machine for the condo tenants to enjoy, and I’m telling you, the 80-plus crowd loves me. I’m a hit. The song they love is Blondie’s “One Way or Another,” because I can sound exactly like her. I’m kind of a mimic.
What are the most memorable shows, concerts or performances you’ve seen?
Some of my most memorable shows are during live interviews, thanks to being an audience of one. Eliot Morris came in and crooned his love songs to just me, and I nearly melted. April Smith and The Great Picture Show brought a stand-up bass into Birmingham Mountain Radio’s first studio in Forest Park and played for me and my son, and all I could think about was how lucky I am.
Tell us about your “parallel life” as a rehab director at a nursing home, where you are a speech therapist.
Well, I’m a medical speech therapist, and I only see adults. I work with a lot of people with swallowing disorders and, of course, word-finding issues for people with aphasia. And then we do cognitive therapy. I love working on swallowing issues with people after strokes and people with Parkinson’s, because they can really improve. I love that. And, you know, I think there’s a correlation between having Parkinson’s and having high intelligence, because every single one of them is so with it. They are all of these highly educated, really sharp people, and they’re always delightful to work with — so motivated and so ready to get better. And it’s really rewarding, because it’s one of the few things where you really can get them to better.
Do you have a mentor or role model?
For radio, I always tried to cover up my accent and sound really plain. But I started listening to Elizabeth Cook on Sirius’ Outlaw Country, not covering up that accent. When I heard her, I thought, “It would be better just to be myself.” I really learned that from her.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Live in the moment. Be fully present in that moment and you’ll be fine. Don’t get preoccupied with the past or the future, but live fully in that moment. To me, that’s the easiest way to stay happy. If something is just going completely wrong, just get right there in that moment and deal with it.
What’s your favorite thing about Birmingham?
I love Birmingham’s wealth of visual art, music, culinary, theater and dance events. Birmingham Mountain Radio has so much to talk about we have a tough time getting to it all, and that is a good problem to have. And I love that we have a history of huge bands breaking out of Birmingham. I mean, the whole country has just gone crazy for Alabama music. When you’ve got Alabama Shakes and St. Paul and the Broken Bones on Stephen Colbert’s first broadcast, that’s huge! We also have a reputation among music artists for being a great place to play thanks to the hospitality, radio support and sound engineering and acoustic design of our music venues WorkPlay, Saturn and Iron City. They usually say we stack up favorably against the venue they played the night before.
Any guilty pleasures?
Make-up. And I have my guilty-pleasure list of pop songs, like, Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” “Blurred Lines” or “All About That Bass.” I also secretly love “Family Feud” hosted by Steve Harvey!
Name three frivolous or lighthearted things you can’t live without.
My husband’s sense of humor, Allure magazine and Facebook.
Tune in to Birmingham Mountain Radio, 107.3 FM, Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., to catch Dru’s Midday Show, and submit your lunchtime song requests to the Flipback Lunch on the BMR Facebook page.