The viral video that saved a homeless DJ

An Ohio man's smooth voice gets the Internet's attention -- and turns him into a star

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published January 5, 2011 8:35PM (EST)

Nobody's childhood dream is to become homeless. Nobody imagines himself standing by a Columbus, Ohio, road, asking for spare change. Ted Williams didn't. At 14, the Brooklyn, N.Y., native saw a different future for himself. He went on a field trip to a local radio station, and struck by the DJ's words that "Radio is theater of the mind," found his passion.

But then, as he puts it, "Alcohol and drugs and other things became part of my life." Lately he's been panhandling around I-71, brandishing an unusual plea. "I have a God given gift of voice," reads the cardboard sign he carries. "I'm an ex radio announcer who has fallen on hard times. Please! Any help would be gratefully appreciated. Thank you and God bless you." So earlier this week, Doral Chenoweth III of the Columbus Dispatch pulled up his car beside the camouflage clad man with the 5 o'clock shadow and asked him to "work for your dollar." What poured from Williams' lips next were the words "When you're listening to nothing but the best of oldies, you're listening to 98.9," delivered in rich, throaty tones custom made to rest comfortably between top 40 hits -- and a viral sensation was born. The clip made its way to YouTube on Monday, and is closing in on 5 million views already. In the space of one minute and 38 seconds, Williams became a star.

More significantly, though, Williams has been deluged with opportunities to help him put those "hard times" behind him. It started with a truly moving outpouring of offers, mostly from the frequently outstanding Reddit community.  "I have a friend that owns a station in Cleveland," read one posting. "If you can get his dimensions, I can donate a suit to a job interview for this man if he is my size. He looks kind of stringy like me so could work out. I will pay for shipping," said another. "I will donate a Virgin Mobile cell phone, with a $25 credit on it," read another. Then came the big one. While he was being interviewed for Ohio radio station WNCI 97.9 Wednesday morning, a representative from the Cavs told Williams, "We’d like to offer you full time work with the Cleveland Cavaliers, as well as Quicken Loans Arena ... On top of it, because we know you’re a person trying to get up and on your feet, Quicken Loans is actually offering to pay a mortgage on a home."  "That's it," he gasped. "That's the best deal ever. You just made a whole new version of sweat under my armpits."

It was a stunning moment for a man who admitted minutes earlier that "I'll do anything for a meal." He had explained that 14 years ago, while DJing at a jazz station, he started drinking "pretty heavily." He began dabbling in other drugs, and soon, as he told WNCI, "There was no ambition to pursue work." After boomeranging in and out of 12-step programs, he's been sober for over two years now, but hasn't worked in radio for several years. Yet as he recounted his tale, that golden voice broke only once, as he thanked promoter and musician friend Alfred Battle, who continued to float him announcer work even through the hardest times.

Like Susan Boyle's  and Grayson Chance's, Williams' meteoric viral fame stems in large part from the surprise of his talent. We don't expect the shy middle-aged woman down the street or the kid from the back of the classroom or the homeless guy on the corner to open their mouths and dazzle us. They spend much of their lives blending into the background, easily ignored. We could drive past Ted Williams 10 times a week -- and no doubt thousands of Ohioans have -- and never even really see him, this man who indeed has a rare gift, who admits, "I've slept under a few bridges in my time."

But it's not just his gift that has ignited his story. It's Williams' gracious responses to everyone he's encountered along the way -- his sincere "Thank yous" and "God bless yous" -- that strike such a chord. It's his heartfelt, humbled admission, as he stands by the side of the road, that "I'm trying hard to get it back. I'm hoping." A smooth baritone is rare; resilience in the most dire of straits is even rarer.  And Williams proves it's not just the sound of a man's voice that matters. It's the way he uses it -- to express such great stores of  gratitude and optimism -- that truly resonates. 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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