PROFILE Andrew Hart

Andrew Hart began working in the radio business at the age of 14 at a local Du Quoin station. He now works for WTMX, one of Chicago’s top stations.

Andrew Hart wasn’t a normal teenager.

He did homework, attended classes at Benton Consolidated High School, played in the school band and tried to find time to hang out with his friends. More often than not, though, he found himself locked away in a small studio, sharing his free time with both peers and an audience much his elder.

But it was within the confines of those quarters at a small-town radio station that Hart underwent a transformation. He found himself channeling both his inner drive and personality. Little did he know that what started as a job-shadow would become a career taking him to new heights.

“It was almost immediate for me,” Hart said of discovering his passion for radio. “It’s just the concept of sitting around a desk, literally just having a conversation with your friends, except with a microphone in front of you. The microphone has this little wire and the wire goes into the rack room and then up to the transmitter and the next thing you know, it’s in everyone’s cars. That very simple concept still to this day intrigues me.

Hart’s journey, which began as a teenager in Southern Illinois, has taken him to the airwaves in Chicago, where thousands of listeners tune into his program every weeknight on 101.9 FM, “The Mix,” one of the city’s most popular and listened to stations.

Those who hear the 24-year-old’s voice on the airwaves know him as “Finnigan,” but to the people at home in Benton, he’ll always be a local celebrity.

How did you get your start in radio?

I grew up next to a radio station, WQRL-FM. My dad actually worked then when he was in high school and college, when it was WQRX. It was the summer before my freshman year of high school, and I guess I was sick of playing golf all summer, I wanted something to do. I can’t really put a finger on what it was that interested me and encouraged me to go to the radio station but something had always intrigued me about it. I think it was probably this picture of my dad in the bell bottoms in the studio in the late 1970s that was in my house.

I went in and hung out during the morning show as kind of a job shadow for one day. I absolutely fell in love with the whole concept of radio. I didn’t want to leave. I went back the next day and ended up staying all week long.

Then they wanted to bring me on in as a full-time intern. My entire freshman year of high school, I went in there every day before school started. I was there at 5:30 in the morning, and I was probably late for school every day because I didn’t want to leave.

How did you balance that with the typical teenage lifestyle?

I literally had two different lives. In the morning, I was this professional, and then it would be “Oh yeah, I’m a high school kid.” I did the normal high school things, but where most kids would have been doing nothing after school or just hanging out being with friends, I chose to take that time and put it into the career.

I was the only kid in high school who was deeply involved in his job. My job was a part-time job just like everybody else, but the other kids were doing things just to make money, and I was already set on my career and moving up, so it was a different situation.

I didn’t plan on stumbling into what career would be at age 14. It just kind of happened, and I fell in love with it. It’s a very rare and unique situation.

How did things progress from there?

The next big step took place during my junior year of high school. I ended up taking an internship class. Everyone is in there and people are trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives. Well, I’d been doing what I want to do with my life for the past two years. The instructor said to me, “There are more things outside of Benton radio. There are big radio stations in the city; you need to explore.”

WQRL was and still is an oldies format station, which meant my friends didn’t listen to it. Down in Carbondale, WCIL-FM, which is the heritage Top 40, is the station everyone listens to. They were looking for an intern, and I thought, “If I go down here, I’ll be working for the radio station all the girls in my school listen to. This may be good for me in the future.”

I went in there with two years experience, and they loved it. They actually offered me a part-time job on the second day of my internship. They wanted me on the air. Up until this point, I hadn’t really been on the air.

Ten o’clock rolled around that Friday night, and I was freaking out; I didn’t know what I was going to do. It was probably the worst four hours of radio ever recorded. It was a train wreck, but they listened to it and they said, “You need to work on this; we like this, we didn’t like that.” They thought I had potential and wanted to put me on again the next week.

About five or six months later, their position on nights opened up after their guy left, and they asked me to fill in until they found someone. After about four weeks of doing it, they offered me the job. Without hesitation, I took it. So now I’m in high school, I have the job at Q106 in the morning and then I’m on the air from 7 until midnight Monday through Friday after school.

I’d be up at 5:30 or 6 in the morning, I’d go to the radio station, I’d go to school. I’d go home, do my homework, have dinner with my family and then be on the road. I wouldn’t get home until almost 1 in the morning. Then I’d do it again. I did it for two years straight, and I never looked back.

When did the next big break come?

My freshman year in college, I was on a piano scholarship at Rend Lake, and they moved me to the afternoon spot on CIL, so I was able to go to college and work around my schedule. It was around then that I got good enough to where I was getting attention from some bigger radio stations.

I had always wanted to work for KSLZ in St. Louis, which is the big Top 40 radio station in St. Louis. I sent my demo to the program manager, and he said I wasn’t good enough yet. He worked with me for several months, and gave me an opportunity when I was 19 and offered me a job to come on air there. It was a big deal; I was the youngest person to ever be hired there, still to this day.

What has the transition from Benton to St. Louis and now to Chicago been like?

Without even knowing anything about the industry, you can look at the cities and know it’s going to be a different vibe. The concept of radio never changes; I’m talking to the audience and keeping them intrigued. It’s just your doing it in front of many more people, and there are a lot more zeroes behind the commercial advertising rates.

KSLV was and still is the station in St. Louis, so we were involved with every single dance club and every bar and every major event. Years before I was in St. Louis, I set the goal of being on air in a major market before I turned 21. St. Louis was considered a medium-to-large market. I went for this job in Chicago, and they officially hired me two weeks before my 21st birthday, so it was really weird. I was the youngest person to ever be hired at KISS-FM.

Coming to a city like Chicago, you’re competing with people on WGN, people like Mancow or Eric and Kathy — major radio personalities that now I am in their circle. It was just amazing to walk into it and very, very different. It’s one of those thrill rides where you sit back and just wonder, “What’s going to happen next.”

How do you describe your style as a DJ?

I think I’m approachable; that’s what I try to be on the air. If I’m going to be on the air talking to the audience, I want them to think, “Hey, he’s a cool guy. I want to hang out with him. He seems normal and down-to-earth.”

That’s my goal, and that’s how I try to be in real life. I don’t like to separate who I am on the radio from who I am as a person because it takes really good acting. I’m not the best actor in the world, so if I’m going to be on the air, I need to be as close to who I am as a person as I can.

What are your plans for the future?

The position that I just recently accepted is one that I could see myself doing for a really long time. I would love to one day crack the mic at KIIS in Los Angeles, which is the platform for so many guys —Ryan Seacrest, Casey Kasem, Rick Dees, Dick Clark and all these major personalities. That would definitely be a goal of mine, to make it out to LA for a little while.

But I’m very set here. I do a lot of charity work. I work closely with The Primo Center for Women and Children here in Chicago, and the founder of the charity is a successful real estate developer. He and I have plans of maybe getting into radio real estate. I would love to own and operate radio stations.

I’m a huge foodie. I love everything about Chicago and the food. I may be getting involved in some restaurants down the road.

I want to dabble in everything. While my career, my love and my passion is radio, I’ll always have a business mindset and the entrepreneurial stuff is a big deal for me. I’m learning how to balance that and juggle it. I’m still young, and if I can do a few things before I’m 30, that would be great.

Looking back on your relatively short career, is it hard for you to believe you’ve made it so far from those early days at WQRL in Benton?

It’s definitely surreal; that’s for sure. I’ve always had incredible work ethic; I’ve always been that person who says it has to get done, no matter how it gets done. I never procrastinated, and that’s what they loved about me throughout my career. I never had a problem being that guy, being on call all the time, answering their call when the station goes off the air at 3 a.m. That work ethic is what set me apart from other personalities out there.

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