The serendipitous life of Jason Plunk

Published 2:44 pm Monday, March 18, 2024

By Julie Hines Mabus
Photos by Bruce Newman

On June 8, 1971, a boy was born at the “Methodist Home Hospital for Unwed Mothers” in the Lower Garden District of New Orleans. For obvious reasons, the birth was fraught with fear and anticipation, and within days the baby was put up for adoption. But this baby boy — this life — held untold secrets intended to right the wrongs and calm the chaos of mistakes made and choices gone awry. 

A young couple, Bill and Gloria Plunk, steeped in conservative, southern values, a church-going couple, was gifted with this infant son. And so began the extraordinary life of Jason Taylor Plunk.

Jason Plunk at WOXD in Oxford on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023. (©Bruce Newman)

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Jason grew up on Beanland Drive in his parents’ hometown of Oxford. The Plunks also adopted a baby girl named Jenny, and Gloria, like many young mothers of the 1970s, dedicated her life to creating a stable and loving home for her two young children. 

Bill, an Ole Miss graduate, ran Colonial Savings & Loan, but he had a bent for elective office and was voted in as Lafayette County’s Chancery Clerk in 1974, when Jason and his sister were toddlers. He held that position for 28 years. Gloria became the family’s focal point and raised the children with a loving and attentive hand. 

Typically, children do not do well with a geographic move, even if it’s just three miles down the road. When Jason was eight, the family moved “out of town” to Highway 7, just south of Oxford, building a house next to Gloria’s parents, M.T. and Faye Rotenberry. How was Jason going to play with his friends? He would never get them to come to his new home so far away from town — all thoughts critical in the life of an 8-year-old boy. But in an interesting foretelling, his new house would be half a mile from his life’s work, broadcasting music from a radio tower just one Lafayette County hilltop away. 

Jason responded to my question about his birth parents. “I was never interested in finding them,” he said. “When I was old enough to raise the question, I remember the talk show host Sally Jessy Raphael devoting a program to the subject. I asked my mama about the idea. ‘I don’t want you to do it, but it’s okay if that’s what you want.’ When I asked her why, I’ll never forget her answer. ‘I don’t want to share you.’ That was all I needed to hear. I never thought about it again.”

For Jason, recognizing and capitalizing on fortuitous situations are as natural as breathing. Everything is an opportunity in his eyes.

When I walked into his radio station/office, a refurbished shack at the south end of South Lamar, his bigger-than-life personality marked every inch of the structure. Two barber chairs from the ’60s, embedded with ashtrays in the armrests, invited guests to have a seat. An oversized, gilded vanity mirror hung behind the barber chairs, reminiscent of Floyd’s Barber Shop from “The Andy Griffith Show.” A vaulted ceiling of corrugated metal rose above old wooden support beams; and wide-planked pine flooring cradled the room in warmth and earthy smells.

Jason Plunk at WOXD in Oxford on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023. (©Bruce Newman)

Decorated Harley-Davidson engine covers hung from the wooden paneled walls. “Look at my desk,” Jason said. “It’s from a ’54 Chevrolet pickup my daughter spotted at a salvage yard when she was 9.”

Jason bought the radio station in 1995. “You were so young when you bought it. How did you know what to do?” I asked.

“I’ve been working since I was 12,” he answered. “I started at Big Star bagging groceries, making $2.85 an hour.

“From an early age, I knew life was sweet, and I was going to partake in it. Eventually, I told my parents I wanted to be a rock star. The thing was, I had no musical talent. None.

“So, I made up my mind to do the technical part. My parents believed in me and loaned me the money to buy the needed equipment. I went to Ron’s Music Center and bought two speakers and an amp for $1,200. I was going to be a D.J.”

“How in the world?” I said.

“I got the idea when I was at a party in high school,” he said. “The ‘Sunshine Kid’ was spinning records. Johnny ‘Sunshine’ Buford was Angelo Mistilis’ main cook. We called him the ‘Sunshine Kid.’ When I saw him deejaying, I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”

His efforts paid off. Jason made $100 a night from local parties, weddings and school dances. “When I barely had my driver’s license, I worked a party in Tunica. On my way home, I got pulled over by a highway patrolman, and when I reached for my driver’s license in the glove compartment, the officer balked. He pulled me out and threw me against the car. To make things worse, he found an open cooler of a dark liquid on the front seat. ‘Sir, that’s just my grandmother’s sweet tea.’ It really was. The lesson here is never reach for the glove box without asking permission first.”

When Jason graduated from Oxford High School in 1989, he accepted a scholarship into a notable program at Northeast Community College, a country music group called Campus Country. Chosen students joined a ready-made performing band with singers, technicians and instrumentalists. It was a perfect fit for Jason. He was the lead technician and, for a year, he performed with the group at school events and around the state. 

Though Booneville wasn’t far from Oxford, Jason missed home, and in his sophomore year he transferred to Ole Miss. “But school really wasn’t for me. I never graduated.” Jason wanted to taste life his own way. 

“I started bar-tending at Irelands’ Irish Pub, right off the Square. Yeah, I know, I wasn’t 21. But in those days, getting emancipated before the Chancery judge to serve drinks was commonplace. Also, bartenders had to be fingerprinted and have a license issued. I did it all.”

After Jason left college, he also worked at General Generics on North Lamar. “It was a telemarketing position,” he explained. “We serviced many of the North Mississippi pharmacies with their generic prescriptions. It was mainly cold calling. I didn’t mind that, but I wouldn’t say I liked sitting behind a desk. I wanted to be out with the people.”

In 1991, Jason made his foray into the broadcasting business at WOXD, working for Mel Chrestman, the station’s owner and a radio entrepreneur from the early AM days. Jason began with a Sunday morning church program and worked his way to a Saturday night slot.

Four years later, Jason bought the station and never looked back. 

“I remodeled a building on Highway 7 and moved the station there from the original South Lamar location,” he said. “Back then, the old Baptist Hospital had a radio tower to contact its ambulance drivers — no cell phones. We broadcasted from that tower.

“We started as ‘Oldies 96,’ but with Y2K, I rebranded the station ‘Bullseye 95.5,’ like the music is ‘right on target.’ I play classic rock from the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s. It’s still older music, but it’s programmed for 25- to 54-year-old females. I believe women are the decision-makers in the home when it comes to spending money.

“My advertisers are pleased with the format. And I love the music.”

Jason kept his hand in the hospitality industry as “Mr. Music,” the house DJ at Oxford Billiard Club on West Jackson. He bought the club in 2001 and renamed it Night Town Billiards, hosting such talent as Dirks Bentley and Otis Day and the Nights. He later bought Taylor’s Pub in 2008. “But when my daughter was born, I knew it was time to give up that life,” he said.

“And what about your family?” I asked.

“As I said, I have a wonderful 13-year-old daughter, Anna Claire, who helped me pick out the truck for my desk.” He smiled. “And, yeah, I can see myself getting married again someday.”

“After Taylor’s Pub, where did you direct your business energies?” was the next question. “For one thing, I moved the station again,” he said.

In 2016, with the continuation of the new Highway 7 project, Jason had to sell his property to make way for the highway’s interchange. His choices for a new station location were limited, as the tower and the broadcasting site had to be in close proximity. “I found this little shack,” he said. “It was a mess, covered in debris. But the location was perfect for the nearby tower.” 

When Jason first spotted the cabin, he walked up to the house next door, hoping to find the owner. His instincts were right on target. “I offered to buy the building, and we made a deal on the spot,” he said. “But, I had to gut and rebuild the whole thing, and that took some time.”

Jason has a knack for taking things in stride. “It’s like when I got into the shuttle business,” he said. In Jason’s energetic pursuit of advertising dollars, he approached one of the apartment complexes in town. “I ran into a young tenant looking for weekend transportation to the Square. Bingo, I bought a bus and started shuttling kids every weekend. Then, I sold the idea as an amenity to other apartment complexes. I hired drivers, and at one point, I had five buses.” 

COVID-19 put a dent in the business. Undaunted, he repurposed the buses and rented them out for wedding parties. That was also the time Jason started his Hotty Toddy Wedding Cars business. Once again, the idea came serendipitously. 

Jason harbors a love for classic cars. When I drove up to his radio station for the interview, an immaculately restored 1948 Chrysler Windsor graced the building’s gravel driveway. “Jolene, that’s her name; Jolene got me into the business,” he said. 

In 2020, on one of Jason’s occasional joy rides in Jolene, a young man and his father waved him down on the Square. The rented “getaway car” for the son’s upcoming wedding was in the shop, and Jolene caught their attention. Jason agreed to chauffer the newlyweds in his Chrysler.

At the wedding,  he met the wedding planner and, with her encouragement, Hotty Toddy Wedding Cars with “A Perfect Ending to Your Perfect Day” was off and running. But the fleet didn’t end with the Chrysler.

For some time, Jason had been eyeing a 1959 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud 1, the very car that was out of service for that wedding. Oxford couple Charley and Trisha Meyers owned the fully restored Rolls, but the mechanical parts needed a little tender loving care. “When I first approached them, they weren’t quite ready to let her go,” Jason said. Eventually, Jason and Charley shook hands on the deal, and “Eleanor,” the elegant white Rolls with her red leather interior, joined Jason’s fleet.

Jason’s studio is a small sound room at the back of his cabin off South Lamar. His broadcasting equipment sits beside a computer where the content is preprogrammed, playing 24 hours a day. He grabbed a microphone, announced the weather, and pushed a few keys on his computer to schedule the report. “That’ll play next hour. Things have significantly changed in the broadcasting business, and we do offer streaming at, but most of our broadcasting is on the FM radio dial.” 

I asked about his position as chairman of the Oxford-Lafayette Chamber of Commerce. “I’ve participated as a volunteer with the chamber for years,” he said. “It’s a great organization. I’m committed to increasing membership and am proud to continue with upgrades to the property. The chamber is the perfect organization to meet people and network in the community. And in a place like Oxford, that’s a key ingredient for a successful business.”

I said “you mentioned you can see yourself married again. Is there anyone special in your life now?”

He smiled and offered, “Yeah. I’ve been seeing somebody for several years. I really outkicked my coverage.”

“Explain, please. I’ve never heard that one.” 

“It has a football meaning,” he said. “When your team has kicked a ball too far down the field, and the other side picks it up while your coverage team is still yards away, that’s outkicking your coverage. But it also has a nonsports meaning: It’s when your partner is better looking than you are.”  

It took me a minute, but I got it. “I find that hard to believe,” I responded. 

Jason is 52 years old, with the energy of a teenager. Broadcasting is the mainstay of his life’s work.

Given his propensity for new business ventures, whether by serendipity or organized effort, this “almost” native son is a gift to his beloved Oxford.