Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 2/11/2018 (896 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In September, veteran radio personality Joe Aiello was presented with the Broadcasters Association of Manitoba’s 2018 Broadcast Excellence Award at a reception at the Park Theatre.
During his acceptance speech, Aiello, co-host of Power Mornings on Power 97, humbly thanked those in attendance, referring to himself as "just a kid from the West End of Winnipeg with a vocabulary of 32 words and the F-word is five of them."
True, that. Over drinks a few weeks after the ceremony, Aiello, 52, admits his potty mouth almost crash-landed his career before it got off the ground. Twenty-five years ago, five minutes into his inaugural shift as host of The Joe Show, his first, full-time on-air gig, there seemed to be a glitch with his microphone. He was introducing a song by Bruce Springsteen when he suddenly couldn’t hear his voice through his headphones. Assuming he’d turned his mic off by mistake, he became flustered and let out an expletive a millisecond before realizing everything was working just fine, thank you very much.
"My very first shift and I drop an F-sharp live on the air? I thought, that’s it, I’m finished," he says, rolling his eyes. "Fortunately, when I listened to a tape of the broadcast later, the music was so loud you couldn’t really make out what I had said and the rest, as they say, is history."
Even as a kid, Aiello dreamed of working in radio. He recalls a cherished confirmation gift he received from his aunts and uncles, a Hitachi tape recorder he wore out mimicking disc jockeys he ritually tuned into, local legends such as Andy Frost and Brother Jake Edwards, in the comfort of his Clifton Street bedroom.
After graduating from Daniel McIntyre Collegiate in 1984, Aiello, the eldest of two brothers, enrolled in the University of Winnipeg’s education program, feeling he needed a "fall-back plan" if a radio career wasn’t in the cards. He became convinced the airwaves were his true calling, however, the moment he began volunteering at the campus radio station. During his third year of studies, he began showing up at the Polo Park offices belonging to KY-58 and 92 CITI-FM every second day for three months straight, asking if there were any job opportunities. His persistence paid off when a manager there finally gave him a part-time, gofer position, stating, "Either you’re crazy about this business or just plain crazy."
Aiello was still attending the U of W when he got his first on-air assignment at KY-58, reading 15-second AccuWeather reports three times an hour between midnight and 6 a.m. That’s when he decided to break it to his parents their first-born son wasn’t going to be standing in front of a classroom with a piece of chalk in his hand, any time soon.
"Let’s just say it wasn’t the easiest conversation telling them my plan was to talk for a living, especially given the fact they’d been paying for my education the last four years," he says. "When I got to the part where I was going to be paid the handsome sum of $1,000 a month, I think the first two words out of my dad’s mouth were ‘Pardon me?’"
Early in his career, a program director who Aiello jokes is "now teaching diversity training somewhere" informed him he would never amount to much, radio-wise, because of his strong Italian accent, which some have described as New York meets Manitoba. Others suggested he change his surname to something more generic-sounding. When he landed his own afternoon drive show after close to five years of paying his dues behind the scenes, he patted himself on the back for sticking to his guns.
"Let’s face it, I don’t look like a Smith or a Jones, so it’s not like I was going to fool anybody with some made-up last name. Plus, my way of thinking was why can’t I sound different than everybody else? What’s so wrong about that?"
Kathy Kennedy, who worked side-by-side with Aiello on the Tom and Joe Show that aired on 92 CITI-FM from 1995 to 2013, says it was his distinct look and style that stood out to her most when she met him for the first time almost 30 years ago.
"In March 1990 I was doing a swing-shift at what was then KY-58, working late afternoons and evenings during the week, and Saturday and Sunday mornings," Kennedy says over the phone. "On my first Saturday shift — this would have been at four in the morning — I was pouring myself a cup of coffee in the hallway when, all of a sudden, this Italian vision with the most beautiful mullet you’ve ever seen came walking down the hall. Joe was wearing skin-tight jeans, snake-skin cowboy boots and white dress shirt. I thought if this is what radio is all about, sign me up for life."
Referring to Aiello, with whom she has a long-standing, once-a-month "catch-up date" at Mona Lisa Ristorante, as her "big brother from another mother," Kennedy says she probably shared more with him during their time at CITI than she did with her closest girlfriends.
"During that 18-year period, the two of us experienced so many life-changing moments. I went through a divorce, he lost his wife (to cancer)… I would hope he would say the same about me but for sure, if it wasn’t for Joe, I don’t know if I would have gotten through that period, both on and off the air."
Aiello concurs; during his wife Alanna’s illness, getting up and going to work each day was probably what kept him from "jumping off a cliff," he says.
"Of course there were lots of good times along the way but at the end of the day, it was an eight-year struggle and my wife was definitely the toughest person I’ve ever met my whole life," he says, pausing to take a breath. "It’s not like what you’re going through ever leaves you but at least I was able to go to a place where I could escape for four hours.
"Radio is probably what kept me from becoming very depressed or suffering some sort of mental illness. Plus, listen; when you’ve been married long enough, even when somebody is sick you’re still going to drive them crazy if you’re around them all the time. So yeah, definitely, she was always like, ‘Joe, don’t worry about me, go to work. I’ll see you later.’"
Since Alanna’s death in 2011, Aiello has tirelessly raised tens of thousands of dollars for an endowment fund he set up in her honour, in support of palliative care. Last month, Santa Lucia Pizza donated $7,500 to his cause, thanks to proceeds from a Joe Aiello-inspired ‘za topped with pepperoni, bacon, mushroom and extra sauce.
"No pineapple!" he mock-yells, speaking directly into a reporter’s recorder.
"Here, I’ll do the math for you," Aiello says, when asked how many stations, precisely, he’s worked at through the years. "There was KY, 97, CITI, Clear and now back to 97 so four, five if count 97 twice.
"Phil (Aubrey) and Kirby, who I work with now, and I have a tremendous relationship and at this point in my career, it’s all about having fun. I don’t feel any pressure because I know it’s going to end one day, but to be doing exactly what I’ve always wanted to do for 32 years, in my hometown, to boot? Hey, not too many people can say that and if it’s all over tomorrow I have nothing to complain about. I’ve had a great run."
About that: Aiello says besides radio, there were two other things he used to dream about doing when he grew up – being a pro wrestler and owning a restaurant.
Though it’s a bit late in the game to step into the ring, his latter goal will finally come to fruition next spring when Frankie’s Italian Kitchen & Bar, a family-run operation with two outlets in B.C., opens on Sterling Lyon Parkway, near the Seasons of Tuxedo outlet mall. One of his cousins opened the first Frankie’s in 2008. Three years ago, they began making plans to bring Winnipeg into the fold.
"I’ll be a not-so-silent partner," he says with a chuckle, when asked what his role will be. "It’s something we’re definitely going to be proud of because a lot of what we’ll be serving is based on family recipes. The menu here will be pretty much the same as the other two restaurants, plus a few things we’ll whip up special for Winnipeggers."
Finally, if you’ve ever run into Aiello at one of the more than 100 charity events he lends his time and voice to each year, you already know he sounds exactly the same in person as he does coming through your speakers. He credits his what-you-hear-is-what-you-get demeanour to his close circle of friends, the majority of whom he’s known since grade school.
"For sure, they keep me humble and in check because they don’t give two hoots about what I do for a living," he says. "Check that; they probably do enjoy the fact I’m on the radio because it’s the only time when I’m talking that they can reach over and turn me off."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.