BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — It’s starting to feel real for “Dollar” Bill Lawson.
On this particular day, he’s sitting alone in a recording booth at the iHeart offices of The Denham Building downtown. Madison Reeves, his co-host on the “Dollar Bill and Madison” show on 102.5 WDXB The Bull, is doing the show remotely, patching in “John from Sylacauga,” who had just won $1,000 through the station.
“Every time you’re on, I try not to miss,” said “John.”
Listening to “John,” Lawson is watching his computer monitor, rubbing the thinning mohawk atop his head. Suddenly, when “John” said that he’s planning on taking a trip with his family to the Great Smoky Mountains, Lawson pipes up.
“I might go to the Smoky Mountains with you,” Lawson joked.
Soon, Lawson will have all the time he wants to take a trip or do anything else. On Friday, the longtime Birmingham radio personality will retire, signing off from a 50-year career in radio in Alabama, 40 of them spent in Birmingham.
“I still don’t know what I’m going to do when I grow up,” Lawson jokes during a commercial break. “I’m just doing radio until I figure it out.”
The idea of retirement was something that had been bouncing around in Lawson’s head for a while. Part of it was recently turning 70 years old. Another part was hitting a half-century in broadcasting. Another was the strain that his chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy had put on his heavy workload, starting every morning at 3 a.m.– Monday through Friday– as he drove into the city for work. But the biggest reason was needing to spend more time with his family.
“You don’t want to stay too long at the party,” he said. “It was a nice time to jump off the train.”
Lawson is ending his career in the same place he always wanted to work, Birmingham. Growing up outside the city, he listened to local broadcasters like Dave Roddy, Joe Rumore, Doug Layton, Dan Brennan and many others.
“I looked up to them as mentors,” he said. “One day, I woke up and I was part of the old guys out there. I realized I was older than most of the staff around me.”
In 1973, Lawson started his journey in radio, making several stops at stations in Tuscaloosa, Selma and the Shoals area, where the early years were often a struggle.
“When you first start out, you don’t get paid much at all, but you’re trying to make a name for yourself,” he said. “All my friends were making better money and their work was a lot more stable, but I just kept sticking with it.”
Lawson came back home in 1979, where he went to work for WERC. In 1985, Lawson went to WZZK, where he stayed for 17 years and arguably gained his largest audience alongside co-host Patti Wheeler with “Patti and Dollar Bill.”
Lawson is perhaps best known for his 16-year association with Wheeler, going back to when they first came together when he took over for Wheeler’s longtime on-air partner, Tom “The Doc” Atkinson, in 1993. Lawson said he learned a lot from Wheeler, calling her one of the smartest people he ever knew who lived life as free as she wanted.
“That woman would talk about her life,” he said. “She shared everything with people: the good, the bad and the ugly. She was real.”
In fact, it was Wheeler, who died in 2012, whom Lawson credits with learning how to be himself on the radio.
“I was still a DJ. Everything was kind of fake. I talked like every moment was exciting,” he said. “Then, I saw the way she was and learned that the better thing to do than be an act was to be yourself, opening yourself up to being the person you were.”
Reeves, who has worked alongside Lawson as his co-host on the “Dollar Bill and Madison” show on The Bull since 2009, said what listeners love the most about Lawson is how, like Wheeler, he is himself on the air.
“He’s uniquely Dollar Bill,” Reeves said. “They know they’re getting the real deal with him.”
During the show Thursday morning, one listener called in to tell “Lawson” how big a presence he had had in his life.
“Literally my whole life, it’s been your voice,” the listener said.
“Give me a call when you’re driving in and I’ll talk to you,” he laughed.
For the first 20 years of his career, Lawson was focused on being the best disc jockey. However, once he became more of a radio personality, he learned about how special the relationship between a host and their listeners could be.
“You forget that every day, you’re coming into people’s lives at very intimate times,” he said.
Lawson often thinks about what some people who are listening to him are doing in the mornings. Are they listening in the car while they’re on the way to work? Are they in the kitchen eating breakfast? Are they getting ready to start the day?
“You forget that when you’re sitting here talking into a microphone,” he said.
Dino Conrad, program director at The Bull, said Lawson has always had a special way with people where they are drawn in. It’s one reason he was inducted into both the Alabama Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame and the Country Radio Hall of Fame.
“I always tell people that he’s not the gold standard; he’s the standard,” he said.
Conrad said that despite many opportunities to go to bigger stations in bigger cities, Lawson always called Birmingham home. He said that despite his retirement, Lawson has an open invitation to come back to the station as a consultant or fill-in host whenever he wants.
“I told him ‘You have a free pass for life to come be a part of whatever you want,'” Conrad said.
Reeves said that over the years, Lawson has become more than just a co-worker to her.
“When you spend every morning with someone and you talk about your lives, you become really close,” she said. “The first person I want to call for anything is ‘Dollar’ Bill.”
The idea of not seeing Lawson every morning in the studio hasn’t quite Reeves yet, so she’s not sure how she will feel during his final show Friday.
“It’s scary,” she said. “Change is scary. The unknown is scary, but he’s taught me a lot. I’m definitely going to miss him.”
Despite closing this chapter of his life, Lawson said he’s not quite hanging up his microphone just yet. He’s still willing to do voice-over work and, soon, he will be starting a podcast with actor Kevin Wayne called “Savage Talks.” However, the first thing he wants to do is travel and spend more time with his wife, Mary.
“I don’t know; she might want to kill me,” Lawson joked. “This could be horrible.”