Once a fairly popular part of a radio station’s brand and culture, mascots have been on the wane in recent years. In fact, in a budget-conscious environment, only a handful of country stations still employ a full-time, salaried mascot. Yet if you ask the guy (or gal) in the furry suit, it’s not only the best gig in radio, but an invaluable asset to a station’s community relations efforts, even if they sometimes have to deal with hostile drunks, terrified children and even the occasional reluctant recording artist.
Among the country stations with heritage mascots are Cumulus/WIVK Knoxville, Tenn.’s Wivick the Frog; Bristol Broadcasting Co./WXBQ Bristol, Tenn.’s WXBQ Rabbit (sister stations WQBE Charleston, W.Va., and WKYQ Paducah, Ky., also have rabbit mascots, and share the company’s “24 Carrot Country” slogan); and iHeart Media/KNIX Phoenix’s Barrel Boy. Unlike some stations that just throw the mascot costume on the nearest intern, these three employ professionals for whom mascot duties are their primary job.
The person inside the Wivick the Frog costume for the last 20 years has been Peggy Boatman, an energetic 57-year-old woman who stands just under 5 feet tall. For the last six years she has been the full-time frog, as well as the station’s remote coordinator, a combination that in 2013 earned her the employee of the year award. She makes multiple appearances per week on behalf of WIVK and even keeps busy a “backup frog” (with a separate, larger suit) for when the station is covering more than one event at a time.
Inside the WXBQ Rabbit costume for the past 10 years has been James Gilmer, whose other duties include keeping the station van cleaned and maintained, doing some of the updates on the rabbit’s social media pages and “a little bit of everything” at the station, making him a jackrabbit of all trades. He took on the mascot gig when he was between jobs, then fell in love with it.
Barrel Boy, whom is discouraged by management from revealing his real name, originated the character a decade ago, and three years ago fulfilled a long-held dream by adding night jock duties at KNIX to his tasks. Unlike the furry characters, who admit heat is the biggest challenge of their jobs in the summer, Barrel Boy’s unique, year-round outfit consists of a cowboy hat, bowling shoes and a large barrel hanging by suspenders. “Yes, being in a barrel is goofy, but it’s also memorable,” he says.
With no pants or shirt included in the getup, his bigger concern in the Arizona heat is sunburn rather than heat stroke. But unlike the frog and rabbit, who are prohibited from speaking or taking off their headpieces in public, Barrel Boy is freer to interact normally with fans. While he admits the barrel “can get a little heavy after an eight hour-day, and the bowling shoes are not as comfortable as a pair of Nike Air Maxes,” he says, “as long as I keep hydrated and keep a good layer of sunscreen on, you will not find me complaining. I get paid to wear a barrel and work for a nationally renowned country station.
“The part I enjoy the most is the interaction with the listeners, whether [that means] giving them concert tickets at a morning show stop, helping them in a time of need or simply making them laugh and smile,” he adds. “Barrel Boy is all about making a positive impact in the lives of the KNIX listener.”
WXBQ has employed a rabbit mascot since the early 1980s when it was introduced in conjunction with a Volkswagen Rabbit giveaway. Gilmer, who typically makes two to six appearances a week, says the gig is pretty entertaining, especially meeting celebrities and being onstage. “It’s fun to get out in front of all those people and feel the energy of the room. It really pumps you up.”
Boatman is equally enthusiastic about her job, saying, “You’ve got to love it and the people you work with.” She notes that she’s “very honored” to play the part of Wivick, which has a heritage at the station dating back approximately 35 years. “I’ve probably got the best job in the whole place,” she says. “I can be out every day meeting new people.”
Barrel Boy has had numerous “amazing moments” while in costume, including being a trending topic during the 2015 Super Bowl media day, being nominated for 2015 Country Music Assn. major-market personality of the year award and once being pulled up on stage during a Tim McGraw concert to perform “Where the Green Grass Grows” with the country superstar in front of a packed house that, he says, “went nuts.” But “hands down the [best] moment of my career was when a special-needs boy named Austin told me I was his hero.” Barrel Boy responded by inviting the child to “take over” the station for a day that included a limo ride, a one-day KNIX employment -contract, a cake and pizza party and a guitar autographed by McGraw. “It was truly a moment I will never forget,” says Barrel Boy.
The mascot job comes with challenges too. Gilmer cites the heat and not being able to see very well. Plus, he says, “I’ve been battered by some drunks pretty good, [and] kids sometimes can catch you in the wrong spot with their heads.” Boatman agrees that some people “try to play with you or hit you in the head.” An occasional hazard for Barrel Boy is “the fan who has a had a little too much fun who may try and use the barrel as a walker.”
Gilmer says a staffer who preceded him in the mascot role once got a large drink thrown at him. Other people feel the need to flip him off. The limited visibility of his costume also brings its own issues. Gilmer says he has been onstage “trying to be really animated” and accidentally smacked a station DJ in the face. Another time he tripped over an object onstage, stumbling in front of a few thousand people. And while he says plenty of artists have been friendly and receptive, a few have a childhood fear of furries, including one star who made it known she didn’t want the rabbit anywhere near her.
There is an art to playing the mascot role, according to Gilmer. “I don’t just stand there and wave. I keep active the entire time,” he says. “Anybody can get in the suit, but to make it come to life you have to want to do it and you have to be a bit of a goof-off. You have to be willing to step outside yourself and not worry what people think.”
Boatman agrees that to do the job well, “you’ve got to have the heart for it.” And she’s saddened that station mascots are quickly becoming extinct. “That’s kind of a loss. I hate that … That’s your brand. Everybody in town knows Wivick the Frog. Everybody.”
This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.