"This is Little Lightning in Columbus," replies the caller. "I want to say hi to Chicken Man and Mad Dog." Tablehopper calls next. "I'm in Marion, visiting Lady Ice Cream," he reports. Puddycat rings up to complain that "a certain trucker didn't call" and is followed by Little Abe from Wisconsin. "I want to say good morning to Snow-shoe Express," he relays.
For the next five hours Sommers, known only to his listeners as Truckin' Bozo, receives calls from Brain Damage, Possum Breath and the Crud, among others. They tell him jokes, talk about family problems and convey information. One caller wants to buy Sommers breakfast; another offers him five free acres on his farm.
Most of these unconventionally named callers are truckers, Sommers' main audience. WLW's powerful 50,000-watt frequency enables him to reach 48 states on a clear night. Thus, for thousands of lonely long distance haulers, Bozo is a friendly voice in the dark. "There aren't many people they can call at 3 in the morning," says Sommers, who recognizes the voices of many of his callers. "It's not just listener and deejay. It's friends. I find myself getting involved."
Sommers, who looks—and when he tries, sounds—like Wolfman Jack, may well be the favorite deejay of the nation's two million-plus truckers. Since starting "Interstate 700" (so named to denote WLW's number on the AM dial) two years ago, Sommers has discovered that his audience has a serious image problem. "The movies have depicted truck drivers as a bunch of illiterate hillbillies," he says. "People also have this idea that all drivers are related to Jimmy Hoffa. Today's truckers are really 20th-century cowboys. They cherish their independence and are always on the move." Claude Duncan, editor of Truckers/USA newsweekly, thinks Sommers has helped draw attention to their problems. "Truckers feel that no one out there cares about them," he says. "They see Bozo as someone who not only understands, but who trys to educate the general public."
Sommers got an early start in radio. As a boy in Humboldt, Tenn., he and a friend named Bugsy had a radio station in the basement—at least until two men from the FCC showed up and told them to get off the air. In 1958 Dale and his family moved to Cincinnati, where his father was a manager at the Duncan Hines plant. At 16, Sommers landed a job at a local station after lying about his age and experience. Every night he played the music of Lawrence Welk, Guy Lombardo and the big bands and thought his dream had come true. "I was on the radio and was going to be a star," says Sommers with a laugh. "I was making $1.25 an hour." A year and a half later he was fired, and so began a cross-country lineup of jobs from Evansville, Ind. to Charleston, W.Va., Kansas City (where a fellow worker dubbed him Bozo), Miami, San Diego and, finally, back where he began. "I got fired a lot," admits Sommers, who claims he has worked at 48 different stations. "I was a rebel. I did my own thing, and I was crazy. Hell, I didn't grow up until I was 33, 34 years old."
Sommers met his second wife, Sharon Mitchell, in November 1975 via the airwaves. "She called to request a Conway Twitty song and grabbed me with that voice of hers," says Sommers. "I thought, 'I gotta meet this lady.' " Three weeks after they met, they got married in a restaurant connected to a bowling alley managed by one of his listeners. Today they live in a three-bedroom ranch house with Jason, Sharon's 12-year-old son from her first marriage, whom Dale has adopted.
Lest one think that Sommers' affinity with truckers stems from his own 1968 stint driving an 18-wheeler, he is quick to point out that he only lasted a week. "It was too much like work, so I quit," he says. Nowadays he goes to a lot of trucking conventions, and he often broadcasts live from truck stops. He finds it a good way to get acquainted with his listeners, though they are sometimes disappointed when they meet him in person. "I'm not the Bozo they hear on the radio," he says. "I'm really a very introverted and inhibited person. But once I'm in that studio, it's like another world for five hours. I can be the person I always wished I was. I can be wild, crazy, funny and insulting. When it's over, the Bozo stays there and Dale Sommers goes home."
It is the stroke of midnight in Cincinnati, and WLW's disc jockey Dale Sommers, 42, is ready for work. After rolling up his sleeves, donning headphones and flipping on a Country & Western cassette, he picks up one of his flashing phone lines and booms, "Hello, this is Bozophone."