Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The Voice: Jeff Brown provides a soundtrack on life in Happy Valley

It’s a little after 7 a.m. on a Monday inside a small radio studio in Happy Valley. The voice behind the mic is familiar.

If you listen to classic rock, have gone to a Penn State basketball game, a State College Spikes baseball game, or just about any charity event in State College, you know the voice.

“… on 99.5 DAAAAAAA BUS,” says DJ Jeff Brown, the legend who has been filling the State College airwaves for decades.

Brown sits behind the mic, Mountain Dew by his side. He is clad in blue jeans, sneakers, and a Penn State pullover. If there’s a perfect voice for radio, Brown has it. The truth is that he could be broadcasting anywhere – so Centre County is lucky to have him.

Brown’s path to a career in broadcasting isn’t as simple as one might think. In fact, he had a long and winding road before arriving behind a mic in Happy Valley.

On the air

Brown grew up in Grove City and attended Slippery Rock University. Originally, Brown wanted to be a kindergarten teacher because, “What could be better than working with kids all day?”

Somewhere along the way, a friend invited him to join the campus radio station. The only experience Brown had, he says, was pretend-broadcasting NBA games into a tape recorder as a youngster. However, once he sat down behind a mic, he was hooked. He immediately changed his major. Then a friend took a job at a radio station in Gilmer, Texas.

“He came back home over Christmas break and said, ‘I have this opportunity for you.’ It was an up-and-coming station. … I had one semester to go to graduate, but radio jobs were tough to get back then. I said, ‘I’m going.’ I told my parents and they wanted to kill me,” Brown says with a laugh. “But I moved down to Texas and the rest is history.”

In Texas, Brown says, he honed his craft. He also met some characters along the way. One weekend, there was a biker rally in town. He got a call from one of the bikers demanding that he “play some Bob Seger!” When Brown explained that it wasn’t in the station’s format, it was met with a threat of bodily harm on the request line.

These were the days well before the internet, so Brown had to do some quick thinking.

“I ran out to my car and I grabbed two Bob Seger cassettes and I just let ’em roll. My boss called, yelling at me, but when I explained the situation, he said, ‘Play whatever they want!’ He didn’t want any trouble,” Brown recalls.

Following several stints throughout Texas, Brown went to Hagerstown, Maryland, and Syracuse, New York, before returning to Pennsylvania. He landed a part-time radio gig in a big market – at Lite 92 in Pittsburgh. The station manager had promised Brown an eventual full-time slot. 

“I had my first son and I was working swing shift, which wasn’t that bad,” Brown says. “But they told me to ‘go find a job for six months and we’ll come and get you.’ So I see something for 3WZ,” Brown says.

When he pulled into the lot of the radio station, he was underwhelmed.

“I drove from Pittsburgh to State College and I pulled into the radio station and they have ‘3WZ’ written in soap on the window. I said, ‘Oh, no,’” Brown says. “I left without even going into the building. Then I thought, ‘This is stupid.’ I had driven from Pittsburgh.”

The interview sold Brown. He started at 3WZ on August 8, 1988. Six months later, Pittsburgh came calling.

“By then, I had fallen in love with the place,” Brown says.

After his run at 3WZ, Brown joined The Bus, which was one of the first stations in central Pennsylvania to employ the classic rock format.

Pat Urban, who handles morning duties at Happy 103 and middays at The Bus, has worked with Brown since 2008.

“Jeff is a very kind-hearted person. Even before I worked at The Bus, Jeff was every bit as genuine with his competitors as he is with his co-workers,” Urban says. “He has a natural talent and he makes it look easy. The problem with making it look easy is that people think it is easy.”

Brown has been at The Bus for more than two decades now.

“I’ve been at The Bus since 2000,” he says, as a classic Def Leppard song plays in the background. “It never gets old. I just love it.”

Radio days

Since his early days in Texas, radio has changed. Gone are the days of playing records, carts, and CDs. Everything is computerized, which makes the job easier.

“You don’t have to leaf through albums anymore,” Brown says. “A lot of your show prep is already done for you.”

Brown says he loves the format of The Bus. There are some bands, he says, that he never gets tired of hearing.

“Beatles, Eagles,” Brown says matter-of-factly. “I used to play a game with myself – if you were stranded on an island with just a CD player and a few CDs, what would you choose?”

Brown’s list? Elton John’s Greatest Hits; Abbey Road, by the Beatles; and Hotel California, by the Eagles.

“I love Steely Dan, too,” Brown says.

Make no mistake about it: Brown has a passion for classic rock.

“I play it here, I play it in the car, I play it at home, I play it when I’m mowing my lawn,” Brown says.

Brown has been named “Best Radio Personality” several times and was named the Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters small market Broadcaster of the Year in 2018. He was also one of the first inductees into the Slippery Rock Broadcasting Hall of Fame.

And while he gets recognized at the grocery store, restaurants, and sporting events, he doesn’t consider himself a celebrity.

“I’m a celebrity in a 30-mile radius,” Brown says, smiling. “Once you get past that, it goes away.”


Love of sports

For as long as he can remember, Brown has loved sports. As a youngster, he would call those NBA games into a tape recorder. In college, he had the opportunity to cover a Pittsburgh Steelers game for the campus radio station, where he quickly learned about the media circus inside NFL locker rooms.

“I’d never been to a Steelers game,” Brown says. “I was star-struck.”

Before he arrived in State College, Brown did some ring announcing for professional wrestling events in Texas. At one event, he recalls, one of the promoters concocted a skit where a wrestler would try to take the mic away.

“Just before I got in the ring, he said, ‘Hey, the bad guy is going to try and take the mic away from you.’ OK, so I get in the ring, he says, ‘Give me that microphone.’ I say, ‘NO!’ We are going back and forth … I step backwards, step over my own foot, and fell. The crowd went nuts because they thought this guy had pushed me down. I get out of the ring and the promoter says, ‘That was genius; that was so cool.’ I tripped over my own foot,” Brown says with a chuckle.

In State College, Brown has moved on to Big Ten basketball as the PA announcer for Penn State men’s and women’s games. This past season, Brown handled PA duties once again – even though there were no fans in the stands due to COVID-19.

Was it weird announcing to a bunch of cardboard cutouts? You bet.

“But you just call it like a regular game,” Brown says.

Brown is looking forward to getting back into the press box at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park when the State College Spikes’ season begins in May. According to Joe Putnam, the Spikes’ director of communications, Brown is a key cog at Spikes games.

“When fans think of the great memories they have enjoyed at Medlar Field, I would bet that Jeff Brown’s voice is the soundtrack to those memories,” Putnam says. “Jeff’s boundless enthusiasm adds so much to the ballpark experience each and every night. We pride ourselves on putting on a show for fans at every single game, and we could not be happier that the voice behind that show belongs to a pillar of the community like Jeff Brown.”

Brown has also been the host for Forever Broadcasting’s local Penn State football pregame show. More recently, he’s been hosting “Black N Gold Breakdown,” a one-hour sports talk show geared toward the Steelers with his partner, Kryder.

However, when Kryder was out for a show, Brown brought in a notable fill-in – his son.

“That was so cool,” Brown says. “Doing sports talk with my son … is there anything better?”

Ch-Ch-Changes

Because of COVID-19, the radio game has changed. Brown can no longer do live remotes with Bus giveaways. For now, the days of handing out T-shirts, bumper stickers, and keychains are off limits.

“They’re a thing of the past,” Brown says. “There are so many hoops to jump through. The whole idea of a remote is that you want to bring people into the place, and you can’t bring people into the place. It has changed a lot.”

Brown’s morning show, which runs Monday through Friday, 6-10 a.m. on The Bus, used to depend heavily on community members coming into the studio. Those who had something to promote would make their way in for an interview. Now, Brown has to carry all four hours by his lonesome. However, he has adjusted.

The COVID-era has taken a toll, for sure.

To access the Bryce Jordan Center for Penn State basketball, Brown estimates that he’s had “more than 40 COVID tests.”

He has, however, gotten his two shots of the COVID-19 vaccine. Needless to say, he’s eager to get back to a sense of normalcy.

“More than ready,” Brown says.

Family first

Brown says he doesn’t have a lot of “down time.” In addition to his morning drive shift at The Bus, Penn State basketball and Spikes baseball PA announcing, he’s also a full-time employee in the Bellasario College of Communications at Penn State and is the general manager of CommRadio.

Hobbies? Free time? Are you kidding?

“What the heck is that?” Brown jokes.

Brown has four adult children: Josh is 35, Somer is 32, Carson is 26, and Mackenzie is 24. His granddaughter, Bennett, is 6.

The free time he has, he says, is spent with them.

“Hanging with my kids and my granddaughter are the main [hobbies],” Brown says.

He also performs in a local doo-wop group, RamaLama, and learned to play pickleball last fall.

“I could see that becoming something I look forward to,” Brown says. “Plus, I love days away at a lake or a beach, and I don’t get nearly enough of those.”

Charity calls

If you have been to a charitable event in Centre County, you may have spotted Brown. Through the years, he’s been involved in a myriad of good causes – everything from Coaches vs. Cancer to the Bob Perks Fund and Centre Volunteers in Medicine. The organization doesn’t need a fancy name. Brown has been known to ask – on air – to help those who can’t speak for themselves.

One time, it was helping a woman escape an abusive situation.

Simply put, Brown can’t help but help.

“I can’t write the big check,” Brown says. “But I can use my voice to ask those who can.”

Norma Keller, executive director of the Bob Perks Cancer Assistance Fund, says that Brown’s work has been invaluable.

“When I think of the Bob Perks Cancer Assistance Fund having raised $2 million to support local cancer patients, I am struck with all of the time, energy, good will, devotion and professional talent that Jeff Brown has showered upon this organization,” Keller says. “He has emceed every Bob Perks event for the past 15 years, encouraged financial support of our efforts and heightened awareness of the financial nightmare faced by cancer patients, as they undergo treatment. Because of his commitment to raising the profile of many nonprofit organizations, Jeff Brown has helped many of them raise the funds necessary to continue their important work in Centre and surrounding counties.”

Bellefonte Mayor Tom Wilson, who sings with Brown in RamaLama, says Brown has “a desire to be helpful” and is “kindhearted.”

Brown has been amazed by the willingness of Centre County residents to give.

“I truly value and love the support from our community,” Brown says. “Anytime I have asked for their help, they’ve always gone above and beyond what I expected to give. That’s why I love living here so much.”

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Chris Morelli is a resident of Pleasant Gap and a staff reporter at The Express in Lock Haven.