Mike Tanner was 29 years old when he woke up on a Monday morning with foggy vision, feeling like he had a blade of grass in his right eye. Though he had mowed the lawn that weekend, it wasn’t a grass particle. It was a cataract.
Mike, a morning DJ and program director at KNJO in Thousand Oaks at the time, was stunned at the diagnosis. “I need to read copy, I need my eyes, let’s get rid of it!” he told his ophthalmologist. A 30-minute surgery turned into 2½ hours when the equipment malfunctioned, pulling on his retina, which tore. Mike and his wife, then six months pregnant with their son, traveled to Boston to see a specialist. Thirteen hours of surgery couldn’t repair it.
“My surgeon here told me I have to let it go,” Mike, now 60, recalls. “But I was optimistic. ‘Well, I have my left eye,’ I thought. What was I going to do, close up shop?”
A year later, Mike took a job with a company that became Westwood One Radio Network, where he was heard on over 130 stations across the country. The radio host was hitting his stride in an entertainment career that began when he was a child actor appearing in commercials and on TV shows including “Dragnet” and “Marcus Welby, M.D.” The Chicago native recalls with pride that he was the last finalist against Barry Williams for the role of Greg on “The Brady Bunch.”
“My wife knows it still sticks in my craw that I didn’t get that job!” he jokes.
But in 1994, when driving home from work on the 118 Freeway, Mike started seeing bubbles through his healthy eye. “Sure enough, 10 years to the day, the retina started pulling away from my left eye.”
After six operations in three months, the retina was saved, but scar tissue in the center of the eye limited Mike’s vision to shapes and shadows, leaving him legally blind.
Mike was able to keep his job at Westwood One for 13 more years thanks to the help of an engineer at the company who worked tirelessly to adapt the sound board, enabling Mike to do his job independently. The radio host also gives credit to the Braille Institute and the nonprofit’s VIP group meetings in Simi Valley, which helped him get back to work after losing his sight.
In 2008, following companywide layoffs, Mike decided to retire from radio at age 53.
But it turns out he wasn’t quite done with broadcasting after all. In late 2014, Mike’s friend, Simi Valley Mayor Bob Huber, asked him if he’d like to get back on the radio—this time as a volunteer—and put him in touch with 99.1 The Ranch, a nonprofit community radio station that was launching in Simi Valley.
The station, in a storefront at the Simi Town Center mall, aims to connect listeners to local events, artists, government and businesses, broadcasting country music along with sponsor messages instead of ads.
The Ranch has attracted a legion of professional on-air DJs enthusiastic about volunteering their time to a station that strives to unite the community. Mike, who spent his career spinning adult contemporary pop tunes, learned to embrace country music and went on the air in July, hosting the Saturday afternoon shift.
But it wasn’t without help. Andrew Herdering, then-14-year-old son of the station’s community outreach director, Thomas Herdering, started brainstorming how to help Mike man the sound board independently.
“All the controls are on a touch screen,” explains Andrew, a Simi Valley homeschooler with an aptitude for engineering and programming. “So if he can’t see the screen, he can’t find where the buttons are. I made a box that basically functions as a keyboard, connected to the main computer.”
Mike’s wife, Marla, produces his show, helping him go over the playlist the night before and telling him what the next element is during his broadcast. Mike uses Andrew’s box, pressing the corresponding buttons—all brightly lit colors and shapes—to start or stop components in the lineup, “so I can talk and do my shtick,” Mike says.
“Andrew had the code written in 45 minutes,” says Thomas of his son. “He’s been doing electronics since about age 2.”
Andrew, now 15, has been involved with the station since the beginning. “All the songs and spots are stored on a server I built,” he says. Recently, he was able to write code to transmit digital information from the station to cars equipped with Radio Data Systems, so that the station name, song titles and artists will appear on the displays in cars with RDS.
But the most important invention as far as Mike is concerned is the gadget that helped him get back on the air. He’s not only grateful to Andrew, but admires the teen’s ingenuity.
“He’s a genius. It’s amazing—we’re talking to the new Steve Jobs!”
Mike is also pleased at the serendipitous turn his retirement years took, landing him back in broadcasting. “It’s therapy for me . . . more than anything. I love the music; I love being heard in the community again.”
Written by ERIN NEWMAN Photo by MICHAEL COONS