Charese Fruge’ talks To Tierza (TPot) Simmons

This article was originally posted to AllAccess’ “Women To Watch” series, written by Charese Fruge on April 21, 2020

Affectionately known as “TPot” on and off the air, a name given to her by her grandfather when she was born, Tierza Simmons got her first job in radio at WEZB, B97 in New Orleans in 1999. She’s been there for 21 years. She’s currently the host of the “TPot and Speedy” show which airs weekdays in afternoon drive. “It’s a show which is a mixture of pop culture and life,” she says. “My co-host Speedy is the best and we play off of each other well. It’s a true partnership. We were both born and raised in New Orleans and have known each other for 14 years. Our show is completely local because we are local.”

When this column originated, it was because I felt a strong need to find a way to mentor women in the business because there are so few, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have had a very successful career in radio. Talking to TPot reminded me that we can make a difference. When I asked her for a brief description of her career path, her answer honestly made me tear up. I had almost forgotten that over 20 plus years ago I hosted a morning show on B97, first with Scott Rob and then with Yvonne Velasquez. TPot’s answer made me feel like “Mission Accomplished!” And NO, I did not pay her to say this! “My career path started with you, Charese. I was in my second year at Xavier University of Louisiana and I would listen to you on the morning show while driving to class. I had never heard a woman leading a morning show before. I loved it. The energy resonated with me. It was the first time I thought, ‘I could do that.’ I had always struggled with self-confidence, but hearing you, I truly felt I could be on the radio.”

It’s a hell of an honor and accomplishment for me to hear her say that! So here’s how she actually got her foot in the door at B97. “After failing calculus, I realized that I needed to change my major. I couldn’t keep failing math classes and retaking them. So, I changed my major from Computer Science to something with the least amount of math, and it was Communications. 2 weeks after the spring semester started, J Love, currently the program director of sister station, KMXB, Mix 94.1 in Las Vegas, hired me to be his intern and I’ve been there ever since.”

So how’d she work her way to prime time on one of the most legendary stations in New Orleans? “I have done every shift on that station. While searching for a new night guy in the early 2000s I filled in at night. I was on the morning show for five whole months in 2004. I’ve done middays, and have been on afternoons since late 2005. In 2006 I started the ‘Afternoon Swirl’ with my then finance Stevie G. We got married, had kids, and divorced while on air. And now I’m still doing afternoons with my co-host Speedy.”

Obviously, one of the most challenging things she’s been through in her career besides living through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, was going through a divorce with her co-host live on the air. “We started the show together after we got engaged. Mike Kaplan, currently SVP of Programming for WNYL, Alt 92.3 in New York, and KROQ, 106.7 in LA as well as Entercom Alternative Format Captain, was my then Program Director and thought it would be great to have something positive on air while we were all rebuilding after Katrina. He was right. It was fun and people really got into the show. We got married and had two kids and shared every bit of it on air,” says Simmons.

When the couple decided to separate it was extremely difficult both at home and at work. “It was hard for both of us to put on a brave face every day. We didn’t want to put our business out on the air before we figured it out for ourselves. We also wanted our children to get used to the new adjustments. We went on daily like normal for a year before telling anyone,” says Simmons. “When I finally made the announcement I was alone. Stevie G had taken the day off. It was like that moment when you’re finally honest with yourself. There was no more denial or smiling through the pain. It was real and it was raw and it hurt. It was also very healing. I was saying it out loud and living in my truth. It was a ‘naked in the front of the classroom’ dream moment,” she says. “Eventually Stevie G left for a different career in computer software programming and Edward (Speedy) Gonzales became my new partner. We were lucky that our current Brand Manager, Tom (Jammer) Naylor trusted us.”

21 years with one station is a HUGE accomplishment in radio. Surviving three or four different Program Directors, several different companies, that’s amazing. “Yes, I’m very grateful,” says Simmons. “I’ve seen people come and go in our business. After Katrina, lots of people were leaving to find stability. Mike Kaplan asked me if I was going to leave as well. I told him I’m from here and my family is here–where else am I gonna go? I stayed and worked and faced some of my biggest fears. I had never been without my family. I came back to the city while they were staying in Baton Rouge. I was up before the sun to go to work in a desolate city. I was terrified, but we all made it through. It was during that time I learned what it meant to truly love radio. The power to reach people and give them a voice was amazing. I got to rebuild with our listeners and talk to them. I let them in and they let me in.”

Hurricane Katrina, the Hard Rock Hotel collapse, flooding, and now the COVID-19 pandemic, where New Orleans has experienced one of the largest number of deaths per capita in the country. What’s the vibe in the city right now? “It’s sad,” she says. “Our local musicians are suffering. Many of the vendors who count on Jazz Fest are without that revenue. Our restaurants and local businesses don’t have the crowds and the city isn’t making any money. This is uncharted territory and it’s a very uncertain time,” says Simmons. “The community always does seem to pull together though. It’s like we are so use to the craziest things happening that we are experts at rebuilding. And we’ll do it again.”

The pandemic has had a definite impact on the way the “TPot and Speedy” show is done. “Life is SO different,” says Simmons. “I’m here with my kids ALL DAY LONG. It’s a blessing and also brings me a lot of stress. Speedy comes over to do the show from my kitchen. My youngest daughter Chloe randomly comes and sits on my lap while on the air or I have to stop everything I’m doing to make lunch. I’ve never had to multitask so much while doing an air shift.”

It’s such a crazy time right now. What are the most important things you want your daughters to learn in life? “I want my kids to learn kindness and compassion. I want them to know they don’t need validation from anyone else. Whether it’s from internet trolls or real live people who try to take away our power, their inner-strength is real and will be with them forever. Sometimes it gets lost, but we later realize it’s been there the whole time.”

That being said, how important is it to mentor young women who want to get into the radio business? “It’s so important!” says Simmons. “Radio can be like a boys club. Just like hearing you do mornings back then lit that spark inside of me, I hope that I can also light the spark in other women. I have a lot of strong women around me. Diane Newman, who is Operations Manager of WWL, is a great example. She is a leader and doesn’t take shit from anyone. Kat, Brand Manager of Bayou 95.7, is a hurricane. She’s hysterical and can hold her ground in any situation. My greatest friends, Annette Wade (middays Magic 101.9) and Stacey Brady (Promotions and Marketing Manager/Music Brands) are both forces of nature. I’ve watched them create and run successful events, and help me through all my panic attacks. All of those women have made a huge impact on my life and continue to do so every day. I try to pay it forward as much as I can.”

So what are you looking forward to when and if things return to normal? “Eating Crawfish Monica, Crawfish Bread and Fireman Mike’s Shrimp and Grits at next year’s Jazz Fest,” says Simmons. “And I know this is gonna sound weird, but seeing everyone again at Mardi Gras next year if things are safe. But make sure you come the weekend before ‘Fat Tuesday.’ That’s the best time. We aren’t completely drunk and tired yet. But when Mardi Gras day rolls around, we’re all walking around like zombies,” says Simmons. “Most importantly I am looking forward to going back to my quiet studio at the office. I can’t wait to turn on the microphone again and have everything go silent. No lawnmowers in the background or cats walking on my keyboard. I will never take that quiet studio for granted again…”

Follow Tierza on Instagram and Twitter @Tpotb97