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Stepping into the Spotlight

Lisa Williams maintains control of her voice while balancing the “public” and “private” versions of herself
Author: Alley L. Biniarz
Photographer: Syx Langemann
1 week ago
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Lisa Williams is used to the captain’s seat when it comes to conducting interviews.

That’s why the thought of sitting with me—a writer—throws her off a bit. Out of pure habit and wanting to be prepared, she asks me to prep her with interview questions prior to our meeting.

I can’t help but feel intimidated; I’ve been in the industry an entire three seconds compared to Lisa’s 34 years. What do you ask a woman who has a been a staple of Windsor’s radio community for longer than you’ve been alive?

So I sent the questions off for the sake of the story, and waited patiently to meet the infamous face behind one of AM800’s leading voices.

Entering the station’s building, I expect to be led to Lisa’s office by desk staff, but before I have the chance to ask, Lisa is bouncing in from the left corridor to greet me. I go for the professional handshake, but she immediately takes me into an embrace. Her smile stretches from dimple to dimple, and her eye contact with me never wavers—not once during our entire hour-long interview.

Even as we’re sitting in the boardroom, not a hair flows out of place; Lisa’s curled blonde locks stay sprayed intact. I learn that she gets up by 3 a.m. to get ready for her morning show, and I wonder how anyone could come in with a full winged liner and smoky eyes, and still be this approachable.

This effortlessness comes with being in the biz. Lisa is good; she even fools me into thinking that all of this is easy. That her career happened by chance and that she has stuck with it for this long just because she never felt she needed to look elsewhere for job satisfaction. She shrugs it off like it’s no big deal, but I know what it takes to thrive in the media and radio industry, and it’s anything but easy.

Lisa took full-time university with a side of the morning radio shift and made it look like the norm. In reality, Lisa was in the playing field at a time where the role of the female co-host on a morning show was to laugh at the male host’s jokes. Looking at her now, all done up in professionally pressed slacks with a royal blue top that makes her bold eyes pop, I can see how this wouldn’t have gone over well in her books.

Twenty years ago, and even in some cases today, it wasn’t out of the ordinary for the woman to take the backburner when it came to equal pay with a male counterpart. This practice didn’t sit well with Lisa either, but the industry has come a long way since then.

It’s no secret that her role on The Morning Drive is still the one of superhero. She and her current co-host of 16 years, Mike Kakuk, have a visibly compatible relationship where, yes, they can goof off, but once the going gets tough and the shit hits the fan, #LWS (Lisa Williams Saves). She knows what works on air and what doesn’t, and often when it comes down to a few good ideas swirling around between her, Mike, and their producer Ed, she says she usually wins.

“I’ll let them know when it’s been done to death, if someone just covered it, or if people are just over it and we just need to go in another direction,” she explains.

Even with me, Lisa is armed with her answers printed out in front of her, ready to save me in case I falter. I’m half expecting a mic to pop out of nowhere, and for her to take charge as she smooths out the papers on her desk. But she releases control just enough for me to take the lead, and only looks down occasionally to ensure we’re on course. A public figure like Lisa didn’t get to where she is without keeping one hand on the steering wheel at all times.

Maintaining a pulse on what her listeners need is crucial to the station’s success, and is how Lisa has become such a trusted voice throughout the community. Thousands wake up to her and Mike every morning and expect up-to-date and entertaining information. Many believe that the job of a radio host only last four hours a day, but it trickles into every moment of their day. Most of the prep begins the evening prior, when she scrolls through her newsfeed to see what she thinks her audience will respond to.

“It’s a delicate balance going from one extreme to the other,” she explains. “I need to be mentally prepared, even if I’m not feeling well or haven’t had a good sleep. My attitude and my delivery on-air need to rise above anything that may be bothering me that day.”

Labelled as an energizing force for the city, Lisa can’t just roll out of bed and be tuned out at work. She says she owes it to her listeners to be present, and notes that she has to be careful of the inflection of her voice on-air, as it can affect how information is digested.

It all starts to piece together. Knowing that she’s “on” all the time as a recognized personality, Lisa is hesitant to say anything offbeat. Her voice has been shaped by the airwaves, and the frequency translates to professional, powerful, and in control.

Since she’s often recognized just by her voice, Lisa is incredibly aware of how she interacts with people, how she presents herself, and how she conducts business. Once upon a time, a voice is all she’d be. With the added element of modern-day visual marketing, and the show’s Facebook Live segments, she doesn’t have the luxury of hiding how she looks. Her actions are constantly being monitored.

 “I used to be the one to always show up—I was that girl. I was pulled in so many different directions, and it did benefit the show. The more contact I had with people, the more they felt connected to me,” Lisa explains her early days of manipulating herself to fit everyone’s expectations of her.

It’s not easy to stand up and say “no” when listeners are relying on her, which makes her visible boundaries with me stand out. As much as I want her to give me the intimate details, she politely ties her answers up with a bow that tells me we’re done with this question.

This doesn’t mean Lisa isn’t open with her listeners; if anything, she shares more than the average radio personality.   

“You can’t help but share and I feel really close to our listeners. We’re a family! I’ve been on the air for over 30 years and it’s hard not to feel like you owe your listeners a part of your life,” she says. “Many listeners stop me to have personal discussions, often commenting on something said on the show, or opening up about their personal stories and private experiences. This often means I’m ‘on the clock’ even on a day off,” she says.

Lisa says that if she had to pick another career, it would be some sort of therapist because so many people come to her for advice. She’s not sure why, but I think it’s because she has a natural way of keeping people in line. I know this just after 20 minutes of sitting with her, as she compliments me on my interviewing skills.

“It’s a marker of a true seasoned professional when they can ask a derivative question rather than sticking to the page,” Lisa smiles, and I’m not sure whether I feel comforted or fuelled. Lisa lives with this duality that allows her to be both maternal and a powerhouse all at the same time.

The beauty of her intensity comes with the ability to wear her emotions on her sleeve. Since her job isn’t to be a reporter, she can let her feelings pour out into the microphone.

Lisa is extremely passionate about gun control, and often finds herself getting fired up about American politics. “I’m very vocal and public about how I feel about Donald Trump, and I get some pushback on it. I don’t care, because I think he’s slowly chipping away at the moral fibre of the United States, and because we’re so close it trickles over into our country as well.”

As soon as she brings up the emotional trauma of Sandy Hook, the 2012 school shooting, Lisa begins to choke up in front of me. I see her heart come to the forefront, and that passion of hers is one of her great strengths as a radio host.  

Lisa is very conscious of the leadership role she plays on AM800, and uses her voice to advocate for causes she believes in as often as she can.

“My dad was a university professor and my mom was a city counsellor, so it’s in my blood to communicate, educate, and work in the community,” she says. This ethical responsibility to her city is what has helped her come to grips with the fact she has to be fairly disciplined and can’t always do what “normal” people do.

Lisa has had to sacrifice a lot of the mundane to get to where she is. Between the hours, the research, and the added element of raising children, she had to learn the hard way to slow down. Since losing her voice not once, but twice, in the course of her career, she’s had to become more cautious of her health. The first time, she didn’t take the time off that she needed to because of the difficulty it takes to find an alternate co-host at 3 a.m. The second time, she developed nodes on her vocal cords, and worried that her voice would never get back to where it should be. “I actually said if it happened a third time, that I should start thinking about a different career. It wouldn’t be fair to my listeners and to my co-workers to have this keep happening.”

The loss of her voice forced her to take a look at her health and sleep, and she worked with voice professionals on different ways to adjust her public speaking. After having tried to do it all, and aiming to please everyone, Lisa has learned to become a bit choosier about what she commits herself to.

“It’s so flattering to be asked to emcee or to host an event, and I love all of what I do, but I can’t overdo it anymore or spread myself too thin,” she explains.

She has now lived with a chronic cough for 17 years, which many avid listeners may recognize muffled off in the show’s background. As Lisa begins to tell me about it, she starts to cough for the first time in the 40 minutes we’ve been together.

“See! The more I talk about it, the more I cough. Sometimes I think I’m insane.” She says the cough might be a marker of vocal exhaustion, or maybe it serves as a reminder for her to take it easy and grab a drink of water. She sits with an entire reusable cup filled to the brim with water, and has an extra one as backup in case she needs more.

Most people would be able to take time away from their careers in the event of illness, but Lisa continues to power through with gusto. To keep up with the hustle of her day-to-day life, which requires her to go to bed at 10 p.m. and wake up at 3 a.m. (and if you do the math, that’s not a lot of time for rest), she has to work out almost every day. She says she’ll never be used to the hours that she works, but working out gives her the added strength to cope.

“I often joke and ask Craig, ‘What’s it like to not feel tired?’”

Her voice gets quiet all of a sudden, realizing she may have strayed from her comfort zone. I don’t ask at first, waiting for her to regain her footing. As professional as ever, but with the warmth of friendship and familiarity now that we’ve spent nearly an hour together, she goes on to tell me about her new husband Craig.

The two of them ran off to Muskoka for a secret wedding this past summer, with just their children and parents by their side. “We’ve been together 13 years, so we figured, ah, why not? What are we waiting for?” Lisa says they didn’t want to make a big fuss about the ceremony, so they didn’t even tell their friends, but it wasn’t long before news broke out to friends, family, and, of course, her extended radio family.

As public as Lisa is with her job, she is an extremely private person and is very much a homebody. She would rather have a dinner party or gather with friends on the weekend than attend an event.

Lisa’s lifelong friend, Beth Ann Prince, says that Lisa’s best quality (especially at a gathering) is her storytelling.  “She can tell the same story months or years later and it’s as funny as the first time we heard it,” she says.

It’s true—Lisa tells a particular story, that she calls her most embarrassing moment ever, with hilarious detail. “Let’s just say, it’s about me walking in my sleep—for the first time ever—and ending up in a hotel hallway in New York City… naked!” Her friends, and anyone who hears this story, know it’s a good one—and told even better after two-to-three glasses of wine.

Lisa Craig Deerhurst wedding
Photograph by Lisa Craig

These gatherings give Lisa new life, as her downtime often consists of unplugging from the news and negativity by putting away her phone. There’s a running joke among Lisa’s friends that she is going to start an Instagram account… soon. Lisa’s been saying this for two years and has gotten as far as activating it, but nothing more. She knows that as soon as she does, even more of her privacy will go out the window.

Most people living in this digital age have their lives on display for everyone to see, and Lisa knows that she would feel like she has to share even more of her life, like the intimate details of going on travel volleyball trips with her daughter, golden dinners with her “Blended Brady Bunch family,” or photos of her trips to New Zealand or Bora Bora with Craig. It’s one thing to talk about them; it’s another to document every moment.  

Lisa is happy to share a lot of life’s milestones with her listeners, but there are some moments that must remain a mystery. She’s not willing to give up too much control of her voice just yet.