Charese Fruge’ Talks To Claire Ballard

This article was originally posted to AllAccess’ “Women To Watch” series, written by Charese Fruge on March 16, 2021 

She started in her hometown of Evansville, IN at HOT 96, as a morning show intern for Atom Smasher and Shawnda McNeal in 2009. 12 years later, Claire Ballard is the host of “Claire and the Hot 96 Morning Show” on that same station. Her partner is friend and neighbor Tyler Cooper. They literally live in the same apartment complex, next door to each other. That was not planned, and according to Claire, a funny coincidence. “We do an engaging and local morning show together,” says Claire. “He’s really talented, organized (at least one of us is), and works hard. The show is my main priority and responsibility. Voxpro and I are close friends. I’m also active in the community and on social media, I podcast, blog for all four of our radio stations, do remote broadcasts, and so on.

When she started at Hot 96 in 2009, Claire was in college. “I was studying Radio & TV at the University of Southern Indiana. Shawnda (McNeal) really took me under her wing, and by the end of 2010, I landed my first full time gig doing nights at the station,” she says. “After 3 years, I moved on to do middays at KWNR in Las Vegas, added afternoons/APD/MD at KPLV (which was My 93.1 and then 93.1 The Party), and then returned home to Evansville for afternoons/APD at HOT 96. A year later I moved into morning drive, which had been a goal of mine for a long time. I’ve been in the role for a little over four years.”

Claire got into the radio side of the broadcast business by accident. “In middle school I hosted a news segment that aired in homeroom in the mornings. There are several pictures of me at various ages throughout childhood holding microphones, or other items as microphones. But radio didn’t occur to me until the end of college,” says Ballard. “After changing my major a few times, I thought my dream job would be to host a television show. I quickly realized I didn’t want to be a news anchor and stumbled upon an internship at HOT 96 with the morning show at the time. It all just kind of clicked after that. I fell in love with the ability to connect with an audience, and to talk about things with people I don’t know personally, but we can relate to one another and talk, share, laugh, and be entertained. That’s what made me want to do this.”

Like many women in the business, breaking the glass ceiling was a big priority for Claire. “I think my greatest accomplishment is being one of the few female led morning shows,” she says. “I’m extremely grateful to work for a general manager like Tim Huelsing. When he gave me my first job in 2010, there weren’t many women hosting night shows either. Tim believes in hiring based on personality, not gender. Our show is consistently number 1 with women 18-34, and just recently became the number 2 morning show for persons 25-54 for the first time in many years. Within the last year, and during a pandemic, we raised over $40,000 for the Tri State Food Bank. I’ve also been voted ‘Evansville Living’s’ Best Radio Personality (or show or station) by our community each year since I moved home, and that honor means a lot to me.”

Spending a few years in Las Vegas gave Claire the opportunity to learn a lot about the business and gave her some of her fondest memories. “I had a lot of fun experiences in Vegas,” she says. “When I first started at KWNR, JoJo Turnbeaugh taught me to schedule music, and I got to tag along for meetings with record reps. Gator Michaels invited me to NYC to see Allison Veltz in my first artist showcase. Wendy Wild was nice enough to show me around 103.5 KTU while I was in town. I did my first Sandals broadcast in the Bahamas, was a part of the station launch for 93.1 The Party, met Sheryl Crow, Ciara, Lil’ Jon, and Bobby Bones, and did all kinds of fun promotions and artist interviews and went to countless concerts and shows,” says Ballard. “Currently, I work in an environment where I get to have absolute creative freedom, for a boss who believes in grooming and growing some of the best talent in the industry. I hear hilarious stories from our listeners almost every morning. Often, I meet people at doctor’s offices and grocery stores who tell me they love the show. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had.”

The last 12 year of Claire’s success didn’t come without its challenges. “It was difficult just learning to navigate the business,” she says. “Going from Evansville to Vegas was a big leap, and I didn’t have enough people to guide me that I could trust. I think that’s really important. When I was in Vegas, I was voice tracking shows and scheduling music and working with talent and meeting with reps. I’m so glad I had those experiences and learned that side of things, but it didn’t take long for me to realize ‘this ain’t it.’ Something was missing,” she says. “Having to pivot at that stage in my career was tough because I hadn’t quite been out of Evansville and in Las Vegas long enough to make the connections in the industry that it would take to get to where I wanted to go – mornings. I wanted to do a show with other people and with callers and that took all my time and attention… and I wanted to run it. I was told by several people that it wasn’t a possibility for women, but I couldn’t accept that. I’m glad I didn’t.”

Finding some amazing mentors along the way has been a big help to Claire. “Some pretty amazing women have stopped at HOT 96 before me, like Sarah Pepper, Falen Bonsett, and Shawnda McNeal, and they have each been there for me through the years,” she says. “As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t be in this business if it weren’t for Shawnda. She not only managed the internship program where I got my foot in the door, but she really believed I could do this, and she pushed and advised me for years. I’m very grateful to her for that and always will be. She even introduced me to Chris Pickett, who I went to work for in Las Vegas. He’s another incredible mentor and friend that I really admire. He’s a great talent and programmer, and I’ve learned a lot from him. Scotty Davis is someone else that has always supported me and taught me a lot. I couldn’t have made it this far without all of them.”

Since Claire tried the programming side of the business for a minute, I asked her about her thoughts on the lack of Female PDs in the radio business. “When I turned 30, I went to see a therapist for the first time and he had me take a personality test called the Big 5,” she says. “It measures you on five personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. I scored a bit low in agreeableness. That made sense to me. I’m comfortable having tough conversations and expressing my thoughts, and I don’t always agree just to keep the peace. Interestingly, studies show that most men score low in agreeableness, while most women score high. In addition, most men say they prefer women who are highly agreeable,” she says. “Knowing this helped me greatly in understanding some of the challenges that come with being a female in a leadership role in a male dominated industry. If you lack the ability to say no and you avoid conflict, it’s tough to be a good leader, but being a good leader requires going against societal norms, which isn’t received well by men or women. It’s the story we all know, but a different way of explaining it, I guess. When you’re assertive, you’re a bitch. It’s just an additional challenge. Ultimately, I think women should be programming radio stations, and that requires both hiring them and supporting them.”

Her advice to me in trying to inspire more Women to take on the role of Program Director: “For me, the biggest inspiration is seeing women in the role,” she says. “From the time I started in radio, I found and followed women in positions I wanted to be in – Jayde Donovan, Nessa, Jilly O’Silly, just to name a few – and seeing them made me think I could do it too. Representation really is important. I also think being there for other women, and supporting them, is crucial. I’ve had women like you, Randi West, and others who have picked up the phone for me and given me advice and it has helped tremendously.”

2020 presented the usual challenges for Claire. “The pandemic, for me, has been very introspective. It’s given me time to evaluate where I’m at, think about what I want out of life, set some long-term goals, and even explore other interests. It’s also been a pretty alienating year. I miss people and events,” she says. But Claire has used the lockdown to do a public service to us all by binging EVERYTHING and coming up with some pretty solid recommendations for those of us hunting for the “next best binge.” “I have watched ALL of the shows. I have recommendations for days!” She says. “Yellowstone, The Last Kingdom, Bridgerton, Outlander, Painting with John, Chef’s Table, Schitt’s Creek, Ugly Delicious, The Umbrella Academy, Peaky Blinders, Blown Away, Pretend It’s A City, The Witcher, The Magicians… I re-watched all the Harry Potter’s and LOTR’s and Hobbit’s and… I’ll stop. Hit me up on IG if you need a new show.”

Claire does have other hobbies to keep her balanced. “Yoga and meditation are a really important part of my life,” she says. “Admittedly, I don’t practice or teach as often as I’d like, but it helps immensely. I also still see my therapist. It’s nice to have someone to check in with and keep you on track. Traveling also really energizes me, and my dog and cat are a big part of my life.”

I asked Claire what she’d most like to be known for. “I may only ever be known for ‘Group Clairepy’ (a popular segment on her show), and that’s okay,” she says. “But I would most like to be known as someone who’s real, relatable, smart, and thought-provoking. I hope people think of me and think of someone who values fairness and transparency, who stands up for what she believes is right without fear, and who helped break barriers and challenge the norm. It’d be cool if someone noticed my quirky, dry humor, too, but that’s less important I guess.”

As for what we have to look forward to from Claire: “I love the role that I’m currently in, and I feel really lucky to be doing a show in Evansville right now. My plan is to continue to do my best to entertain this community, while at the same time work hard to expand my brand and grow my career in a business I truly love.”

Follow Claire Ballard on Facebook and on Instagram @claireontheair