After six years serving as WBEZ 91.5FM's "The Morning Shift" host, Tony Sarabia is signing off and exploring his story's next chapter.
Sarabia, who is openly gay, grew up in Oak Park and has been living in Rogers Park for about eight years, and he graduated early from Oak Park and River Forest High School. He recalled that during his time in high school, student teachers came in to teach classes they themselves had gone to school for or that they had experienced working in that field. One, he said, was an employee of NBC television and radio. It was in that class Sarabia caught the radio bug.
"I was always a lover of music and current events," said Sarabia, who initially wanted to become a music DJ.
Putting together his love of current events, writing skills and curious nature, he realized he could be a radio journalist, and pursued it. He also credited a few supportive teachers who motivated him.
After graduating high school, he completed a six-week DJ course and then applied to work at WXRT. Upon receiving a rejection letter for the job, he decided to attend Columbia College. Taking a break from college for a few years, Sarabia held a number of different jobs ranging from bank teller to pastry chef to drywall worker.
Eventually, he decided to return to Columbia College, claiming he knew what he wanted to do and knew he needed to pursue it. He earned a B.A. in radio/journalism in 1992.
In 1990, he started at WBEZ as an intern.
Beginning with his intern position, Sarabia has had numerous roles at the station, including reporter, arts editor,the first midday anchor and the local host of "Morning Edition."
"The Morning Shift" that Sarabia hosts is a live talk show that airs weekdays at 9-10 a.m. The show features a mix of news, culture and music that relies on authentic engagement with listeners on-air and through social media. Sarabia also hosts the weekly music program "Radio M," where he brings his skills to create locally impactful and universally relevant conversations.
"It is grueling," said Sarabia of being 'The Morning Shift' host. "It's a daily live show. We only tape when we have to; typically a politician who can't make it in or can't call in when we want them to, so before the show. So, we don't have to do very much if any editing. I think for the last six years 97% of the books that I've read have been for the show, probably 100% of the plays I've gone to have been for the show. It's just day in and day out."
"I wouldn't be able to do this if it weren't for the team, but it is me in front of the microphone, it is me in front of the audience; if I make a mistake it's all on me, which is totally understandable, but I love the high wire act of live radio," Sarabia added about his role. "I thrive on that. Anchoring and hosting has been a good chunk of my career here, a good chunk of my overall responsibilities, but this show has certainly been a grind and I'm really glad to be getting off the hamster wheel, that's for sure."
Sarabia said his curiosity and love of talking to people are what drive him. He explained WBEZ has been a welcoming place that "encourages innovation and creativity, it encourages risk taking," which he feels made it an easy fit.
Sarabia's last air date is Dec. 21. Jennifer White has been named the new host and will be live starting Jan. 7, 2019.
"Jen is so talented," Sarabia said. "She's been in the business for about 20 years in different roles herself and she's got a great personality, she's very curious and I think she'll do a fantastic job."
Sarabia hopes he walks away from his radio career with people thinking of him as a fair-minded host.
"I hope people come away saying, 'He was a fair-minded host, he was open to new ideas, he was tough when he had to be with guests, but was respectful and that his personality and his curiosity really came through,'" Sarabia said. "I don't see myself as an expert. I have to know a lot about a lot of things and I'm constantly researching and studying and reading just so I can curate a conversation and carry on a conversation. So, those are the things that I hope people take away that when they think of my time here, they say 'Oh, yeahhe was a pretty fair-minded guy and I also loved listening to him because he was personable and he wasn't afraid to let his own personality come through.'"
Along with his time at WBEZ, Sarabia has also participated in three fellowship programs at NPR in Washington and worked at NPR's Cultural Desk, producing pieces for the network's national news programs.
Among his journalistic work and the multiple awards he has received, Sarabia was the force behind the documentary "Unlocking the Closet: Stories of Coming Out Later in Life."
Sarabia shared that he was about 33 when he came out as gay. He had been married for almost nine years to his high-school sweetheart and has three adult sons. Sarabia's own experience and curiosity about how other people in his situation dealt with the process led him to creating "Unlocking the Closet."
"It was a combination of trying to reach out personally, to connect, but also to tell listeners and to inform an audience that you may have a picture of the community, but there's more to it and here's a slice of this part of the community," said Sarabia of the purpose of the documentary. "All of their stories were so different from each others', but each one touched on my own experience as wellbeing married, having to hide it, being glad and happy once it was out. So that was sort of a freeing experience."
"That was a way, without forcing me onto people or without using it out of context, that I would be able to put my own experience, my own sexuality, in that context," Sarabia said, never wanting to insert himself into the story, unless people ask him directly. "This was about sharing and wanting other people to hear what one part of the gay community goes through or had gone through and what they experience. That was freeing and that was organic."
In his next chapter, he and his partner of almost nine years are moving to rural Iowa. The couple will be raising meat goats and free-range chickens and establishing a sizeable garden for themselves and maybe will start a community-supported agriculture ( CSA ) operation to sell to other people locally. Down the road, Sarabia said, the ideal plan is to open the farm to the public to give them a living-farm experience.
After the move, Sarabia will also work part time at a day-care facility, working with kids. During the downtime he will have on the farm, he also plans on training to be a certified nursing assistant, adding he hopes to eventually join the chamber of commerce.
"For me, it's just all about trying something new," he said.
He enthusiastically added his new guiding philosophy is a quote from Helen Keller: "Life is a daring adventure or nothing."
"I'm ready for something new," Sarabia said of changing paths. "I'm really looking forward to working outside. I'm stuck in the office all day, it's not a complaint, it's just a reality, but I love being in the outdoors. I'm sort of an outdoorsy type person anyway, so to be working outdoors in all the elements fascinates me. I'm really looking forward to it. If you don't take those risks or dreams, then you have regrets and I don't want to have regrets."
To learn more about "The Morning Shift," visit WBEZ.org .