Sistafriend is the word that most accurately describes V103's radio personality Bonnie DeShong. For many years, she has been the voice of urban Chicago bringing her humor and warmth to thousands of listeners on V103 from 3-7 p.m. with the V-Crew.
Her humor is in fact contagious—a few minutes into our conversation I find myself smiling, and my smiles turn into downright laughter as Bonnie shares her experiences in the radio industry, especially how much fun she has with her coworkers.
Whether she is talking about the radio show or her position as the community relations' director, you can sense that she is for real. She also feels connected to her listeners. 'To me it is the fun part of my job [community relations] because I really enjoy being a part of the community and working in the community,' shares DeShong. 'I enjoy talking to people and helping people. I am on two boards. I had to cut down a lot. So I work on the South Side with South Central Community Services and then in the Maywood area with PLCCA, which is also a social-service agency.'
What looks liking cutting down to DeShong would still steamroll many people, but DeShong takes it in stride and has decided to add one more piece to the pile. She, along with several other Chicago media personalities, has registered for the AIDS Marathon training program.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the HIV virus continues to be a major threat facing the African-American community. Although Blacks account for 12 percent of the U.S. population, they represented half of the new cases reported in 2001. As of two years ago, more than 168,000 African Americans had died from AIDS. The spread of disease among Black women is even more alarming.
DeShong is no stranger to walkathons and raising money for causes. She organizes groups to walk for breast cancer and other groups. She organized the Bonnie DeShong V103 Walkathon Team, a group of listeners that walk in at least 10 walkathons a year for charity. Yet, the thought of doing a marathon is still staggering even for seasoned pros, and not something to take lightly.
'I have to give it to Oprah, you know you see her out there training and when she was doing those marathons, I was like you go girl because it takes a lot of effort and I didn't know at first if I would want to put myself through that,' she said. Yet the cause is more important than sore muscles and with the rising number of African-Americans contracting the disease, DeShong wanted to do something. 'What I am hoping is that it will bring more serious attention to it. Right now in the African American community some of us think, 'Oh it can't happen to us; you know it is no problem. I am careful or that is somebody's else's disease.' And it is not, the rise in the African-American female community and with senior citizens is through the roof and the thing is to bring awareness and keep telling the folks when I am on the air that I am running for AIDS. The Chicago Marathon is just a teeny tiny part but I want them to know that the money that I am raising is going for AIDS research and the AIDS Foundation.'
She pauses and her voice has a quality of compassion and fervor as she continues sharing her thoughts: 'I want them to get a spark and say, 'oh OK this is for AIDS'. So maybe when I say something they will listen and when they go to have sex, or if they are doing or thinking about drug usage or anything, maybe they will think that they need to be a little more protective. I would like to think that by me doing this that it would bring more self-awareness to people.'
'Seniors?' I ask. 'It floored me,' says DeShong. 'I said, 'what are they still doing that?' We both laugh but we are aware that a rise in the African American senior population shows that the disease is a silent epidemic. It shows that safe sex needs to be practiced regardless of age or race. It also shows that this is everyone's problem within the Black community.
DeShong hopes that the media attention will spark everyday people to get involved with the marathon. 'People want to do things; like with our travel trips, it makes people feel that they can do things when they see us doing it. They think, 'if they can do it, then I can do it.' So if we get out there, LeeAnn (Trotter), Portia (Stevens) and myself and people know what we look like and we are saying, 'OK we are out there and we can do it. We are going to do this for this cause, come and join us. We'll do it together; yeah it may take us eight hours,'' a smile creeps into her voice, 'but it will take us eight hours together and you have that support. I want people to know that all ages can do this [the marathon]. That was my concern. LeeAnn, WNUA's Portia Stevens, and I are all in different age groups. I am 50 and I will be 51 when I run this and that is OK and I can do it and it may take me eight hours or 10 hours or however long it takes me, I CAN DO THIS. I may walk across the line, crawl across the line (laughs), or be carried across the line but I can do this.'
Her can-do mentality has always been part of DeShong's personality. A Champaign, Illinois native, DeShong graduated from Illinois State University with a degree in theater. Her foray into radio came as a surprise to her but one that she is glad she took. Her voice just naturally suited itself for radio and voiceovers. 'I used to do some voiceover work with Richard Pegue and he was working at WGCI. They were getting ready to start a traffic department and he asked me did I want to do it. And I said I don't know how and he said we would teach you and I said OK and that is how I got into radio. It was definitively a step from God. I was blessed to be teamed up with Tom Joyner who helped me to develop my personality and I worked with Doug Banks and some of the greatest guys, including Tony Richards, who I am working with now.'
In terms of training, DeShong is doing the marathon training along with her own thing. Her trainer, Cornell McClenan of Naturally Fit, is helping to make sure that she is ready when September arrives. 'It is a natural way of training—no drugs are used and he watches your diet and it is a great and wonderful stress-free way of training; he is fabulous and I just love him to death.'
Consistency in a fitness program is a hard thing but DeShong believes she can stay on track. 'They keep telling me that the streets are lined with people cheering you on and between thinking about that and thinking about what I am actually running for that will keep me going.'
I have one final thing to ask of her before our conversation ends, 'Finish this sentence for me … Preparing for this is …' She laughs and without hesitation answers. 'Preparing for this is like pledging Delta Sigma Theta.'
AIDS Foundation of Chicago hosts Marathon training workshops. Call (312) 765-0210, www.aidsmarathon.com .
This article also appeared in the Aug. 20 Windy City Times.