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Trail of the Wolfe: How a car guy overcame adversity to have a growing radio show

You could drive down Camp Bowie Boulevard a thousand times and never realize that, in one of the many strip shopping centers, there’s a low-lit radio studio.

Or that in that studio, on Saturday mornings, a show originates that airs in more than a dozen markets, most of them in Texas and the South but also as far away as Allentown, Pennsylvania.

It’s here, from 8:30 a.m. to noon Fort Worth time on Saturdays, that John Clay Wolfe talks about cars on the John Clay Wolfe Show.

More specifically, he talks about buying cars. According to his website, www.givemethevin.com, he’s bought over 80,000 cars during his career, and he boasts that he can always give you a better deal than a dealer can.

And he’ll also tell you that his car show is not a car show.

“I’d say that [car] content is 15 percent of the show,” says Wolfe, who airs in DFW on KZPS/92.5 FM “The show is topical, it’s observational, it’s comedic-driven. A little sassy. … Non-PC. We still hit topics that others won’t.”

Wolfe has been at this for more than 10 years, and he has a veteran crew: Co-host J.D. Ryan, who reads news and Internet reports for Wolfe to comment on and also works as a sounding board for the commentary, is a DFW radio-TV vet best-known for his work with The Russ Martin Show.

Another co-host, Bobby “Bobbo” Brown, who does a weekday gig as afternoon DJ at KNTX/1410 AM in Bowie/Nocona, provides comedy bits and impressions (he does a mean Rush Limbaugh, and his Paul Harvey and Casey Kasem aren’t bad). Mike Turley, formerly of KTCK/1310 AM/96.7 FM “The Ticket,” is the show’s producer.

The KZPS move is recent, having taken place on Sept. 3, after the show had a stint on KEGL/97.1 FM “The Eagle.” It’s a move that Wolfe pushed for, for a variety of reasons, and that he’s happy with. He hopes to by syndicated in about 25 U.S. markets by the end of 2016.

It might seem like a lot of effort to put behind a Saturday-morning radio show, but Wolfe has taken a long, bumpy road to get here — one that involves surviving a near-paralyzing accident, a divorce and an embezzlement.

For a period, Wolfe says, his life was like a bad country song. “My mother died, my dog died, my wife left me — in the hospital, literally,” Wolfe says. “Everybody had me for dead.”

The Wolfe of Berry Street

Wolfe has long had an entrpreneurial streak. He grew up in Fort Worth, graduating from Arlington Heights High School, and went to SMU, he says, as a “rich kid.” What he didn’t know, till his second semester there, was that his father’s construction business had gone bankrupt and that there was no money for that second semester. His mother and stepfather covered the costs while he worked on financial aid to stay in school. When financial aid was approved, he took the extra money he received from his mom and decided to open a TCU-area bar with his best friend Carter Coleman, a TCU student.

That bar was the Plaid Pig, a University Drive club that opened in 1993 and managed to book bands that were sought-after by bigger, more well-known Dallas clubs. Wolfe says he and Coleman were each making about $75,000 a year there, and they were still in college.

The next year, Wolfe and Coleman took over The HOP, a long-running Berry Street club that had been closed for a couple of months, broke down the wall between it and a defunct laundromat, and turned it into The Rail. (No relation the current west-side metal club The Rail). They soon sold the Rail, which evolved into the Aardvark, which is still going after more than 20 years. Around the same time, Stage West founder Jerry Russell, whose theater company was then based in the old TCU Theater on University, bought the Plaid Pig space and turned the club into a lounge adjacent to the theater.

After that dip into nightlcubs and after graduating from SMU, Wolfe says, he patented an Internet terminal and moved to Idaho to work with a Boise-based company on developing the project. He stayed in Boise about a year to develop the project, till he picked up the Wall Street Journal and read a story about a company from Silicon Valley rolling out the same product. “It was kind of a race to market, and they did it first,” Wolfe said.

But even before all that, there were cars.

“I was a salesperson at Hillard Ford on Bryant Irvin when I was 18, the summer between high school and college, 1991,” Wolfe says. “I sold cars for two months at the Ford store. I did well, and for an 18-year-old kid, making nice money was exciting. I liked it.”

Not sure what his next move was after Boise, Wolfe returned to Fort Worth and worked at a cousin’s car lot, where they’d buy cars from wholesalers to build their inventory. The wholesale side of the business appealed to him, so he started learning it. “I was about 21, 22,” Wolfe says. “We’d go to dealerships, buy the trade-ins, take them to auction and sell ’em. I started making real good money.”

By the time he was 27, Wolfe says, he was a self-made millionaire. But he adds that there’s a stigma against wholesalers in the auto trade, comparing it to that of a ticket scalper. He decided that he wanted something different, and got into the new-car business.

“When I was 32, I bought a dealership up near Wichita Falls,” Wolfe says, referring to Wolfe Ford-Dodge in Vernon, about 50 miles west of Wichita Falls.. We [also] bought one by the Winstar casino [in Oklahoma], Wolfe Chevrolet. I had the three major domestic brands and I was going to start an Internet shop out of that.”

It was all going great, he says — and then he had the wreck.

A wounded Wolfe

When Wolfe was 32 years old, his marriage was falling apart, and he sought things to take his mind off his trouble. He and Coleman had grown up racing motocross bikes, so he bought a bike and returned to the track to blow off steam. But he was still preoccupied, and he says now that he had no business being on a racetrack at the time.

At a motocross park in Nocona, about 85 miles northwest of Fort Worth, Wolfe was trying to pass a guy at the finish line when he made a bad jump with his bike, which went into an airborne vertical flip, and Wolfe landed badly on his back.

He told paramedics that if they would just cut his boots off, he would show them he could still move his legs. They told him that they’d cut his boots off five minutes ago. That’s when he knew this was no ordinary accident.

“I broke my back,” Wolfe says. “Paralyzed. I was never supposed to walk again.” Wolfe, who still has a slight limp, says that he was in in Harris Methodist Hospital for about two weeks and then in the Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation for about two months.

“I had to learn how to drive a car with hand controls,” he says. “You get one of those $5,000 wheelchairs you’re supposed to keep for 20 years. But when I would get into the swimming pool and the gravity would go away, my leg would move just a little bit. I thought, ‘There’s still a connection there.’ So over time, rehab, rehab, rehab, rehab and I got my ability back. But I was having to pee through a stick, a catheter, for four years.”

But the wreck and the rehab were only a fraction of what was going on with Wolfe’s life at the time. The biggest thing that went wrong happened at his car dealerships, where an employee — who didn’t think that Wolfe would be able to recover from his accident — embezzled money from him. By the time Wolfe realized how bad the damage was, he was broke. But his life was falling apart in other ways, as well.

Wolfe says, however, that the bank he worked with trusted his ability to fix things and helped keep him afloat. Bank officials suggested that he move up to Vernon, about 50 miles northwest of Wichita Falls, to keep an eye on things. Then he had an idea for promoting the dealerships.

“I was like, ‘How do I get this thing fixed?’,” he says. “And that’s where the radio show came from: ‘Why don’t we go outside the box and try my chops on radio?’ Because I’d done some stand-up and this and that, and I’ve always had that entertainment flair in me. Worst-case scenario, I might come up with another career in case this car thing doesn’t work out, now that I’m paralyzed.”

Air Wolfe

The show launched in Wichita Falls 11 years ago, and quickly spread to five regional stations. Wolfe was able to save the dealerships to a point, but the hole was too deep, so he sold them and moved back to Fort Worth. In 2010, he moved the show to weekends at sports-talk station KRLD/105.3 FM “The Fan.” But a new program director came in who didn’t like Wolfe’s hot-talk style, and paired Wolfe with a co-host he didn’t like. Sensing little future with the CBS-owned station, Wolfe worked out a deal with Clear Channel (now iHeart Media) to move to KEGL.

Wolfe began to look for a new co-host. Gavin Spittle, who had given Wolfe his start on 105.3, was programming a sports station in Houston, where Wolfe’s show was airing on a rival station. Wolfe had kept in touch with Spittle, who recommended Ryan, who had severed his long association with Russ Martin. Wolfe says he and Ryan hit it off immediately.

When Martin moved from the morning slot at KEGL to his current afternoon slot, Wolfe thought he might have a shot at getting a weekday-morning show, although for most of the day (except for Martin’s talk-oriented show) the Eagle is a hard-rock music station. Wolfe, frustrated at being in Martin’s shadow, pulled his show off of KEGL for a while but continued to air in Houston.

In February 2016, he returned, along with Ryan, who in a strange twist now also works weekdays at CBS-owned KRLD/1080 AM — where Spittle is back in DFW as program director. (CBS and iHeart both gave the OK to Ryan being on Wolfe’s show.) The plan, if the show was successful, was to move to KZPS. Things went well, and the move happened Sept. 3.

Brown’s path to Wolfe show was somewhat less serpentine. A longtime Wichita Falls jock, he had been fired from his station after a 15-year-run. He heard Wolfe’s show, called the voice-mail, said he was an old-time radio jock who would be willing to act as a fill-in radio host. A month later, he did a fill-in gig, and Wolfe liked his timing, impersonations and writing talent and decided to keep him in the cast.

Wolfe hopes to be syndicated in about 25 U.S. markets by the end of 2016, but the increased reach comes with a trade-off: He can’t be quite as opinionated and politically incorrect as he used to be.

“It’s like when a hard-core country artist who has a big fan base signs with a big record label, and they want to turn him into Taylor Swift,” Wolfe says. “That’s what I’m going through right now. Is it worth it? Sure, to get to a more mass audience, but it’s still frustrating. Because you know you’re alienating your die-hards.”

And the fact that the show airs on FM music stations — mostly classic rock and country, some alternative rock — also has its limitations.

“There’s plenty of edgy talk radio,” Wolfe says. “Rush Limbaugh gets way out there on limbs. But we’re not on the AM dial. We’re not on news-talks. They’re putting this into big FM music stations. That’s why we have to convert.”

Wolfe still pushes buttons, just not as hard. He’s OK with some compromise if it means reaching a larger audience. And he’s happy with his off-air life: He’s remarried, with three sons. His wife Jeanette, who he describes as 20-something Danish national, met him while he was still in a wheelchair. And she knew he’d come back.

“She said all along, ‘If you put all that together before, you’ll do it again if that’s what you want’,” Wolfe says. “It’s like a bad drama with a happy ending.”

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