Editor’s note: In April of 2014, Georgetown University brought together over 30 nationally reputable speakers and 400 attendees through its inaugural OWN IT Summit, a series of events aimed to inspire and provide networking opportunities for college-age women. On March 29, the University will host the Summit in Chestnut Hill through co-sponsors the Undergraduate Government of Boston College (UGBC) and BC Women in Business alongside other partnerships, joining founding institution Georgetown, the University of Notre Dame, and Washington University at St. Louis in efforts to teach, celebrate, and empower women.
“What I love about the Own It idea … the idea of owning our successes, our opinions, our differences, what I love about that line is that it’s all about passion. And there are so many positive vibes in this conference that make me feel like it’s the best place for me to be on March 29 because it really speaks to my mantra, which is: if you throw good things out into the world, they’re going to come back to you.”
Born in New York City and raised in Connecticut, O’Terry was originally recruited to the University as one of her state’s premier divers. She swam under the direction of current head coach Tom Groden during her freshman year and won the silver medal in the 1976 Intercollegiate Swimming & Diving Championships, but unfortunately could not continue thereafter. In fact, O’Terry did not come back to attend BC as a sophomore at all.
“While I was a [freshman] at Boston College, do you know, I was in a really different place in my life,” O’Terry said. “My mother was dying of terminal breast cancer … so my experience was really all about getting home every weekend to go and see her. And I’m an only child, and when she died, I was the person who had to deal with her estate. And so, just imagine being a freshman at Boston College and having this happen to you.”
O’Terry enrolled at Hartford College for Women for her sophomore year, but she was determined to return to BC, adamant that she continue her undergraduate English studies where she had started them. “I sort of, like, sat in the admissions office and begged them to take me back,” she said. Not only did O’Terry manage to persuade the University to readmit her, but she also graduated on time with her class of fellow Eagles and a bachelor’s degree cum laude in 1979.
“I have to tell you that my Boston College experience really changed my life because I learned how to write,” O’Terry said. “I always could write well, and I was an English major, but I guess what I learned was how to be a true communicator, and certainly as a broadcaster later in life, that’s really helped me tremendously … But you know, when your mom dies when you’re really young like that, it changes your life, and it makes you really grown up overnight.” Forced to mature quickly, O’Terry, in part, credits this significant hardship as the catalyst to her early understanding of responsibility.
While she did not dive for the Eagles during her junior or senior year due to the many legal responsibilities she inherited following her mother’s death, O’Terry began to sing at coffee houses throughout her later college years and continued in this vein thereafter.
“That’s always been sort of my most coveted talent that I have: I’ve been singing all my life,” she said. Vocal skills in tow, she embarked upon an expansive singing career—fronting several bands throughout the ’80s and thriving as the lead singer for Stage Unlimited from 1984 until 1990—which would eventually lead her to radio.
“You know, you have a set of talents, and goals, and dreams, and you start walking down this path and using those talents and you just never know where they’re going to end up,” O’Terry said. “So here I am, fronting this band, singing in this band for years. And I found myself in a recording studio all the time. So people were asking me, ‘Hey, you know, maybe you could sing us a jingle.’”
And she took the hint.
O’Terry performed numerous jingles—short, catchy slogans or tunes used in advertising to sell a product or make a statement—during her radio career, marketing for companies through song, landing and recording several famous blurbs, and earning residuals for each account on which she worked. When asked about those that stick out in her memory, O’Terry was quick to mention the jingle she sang for Colombo Yogurt, a company bought by General Mills in 1993 and eventually dropped in 2010. “So there was a really famous one … Colombo Yogurt came out with a yogurt called ‘Colombo Slim,’ and so I was the featured singer on this jingle on television and on radio all around the country.”
O’Terry said she owes her quick success in jingle production to her diligent work ethic and confident individuality, and she discussed the importance of owning one’s work—whether that be a jingle, or commercial, or piece of music—and making it original without wasting precious recording time. “Take a piece of music, own it, breathe life into it, get it right the first time, or the second time, or the third time … they don’t have time for 60 takes. They just don’t, okay? Because time is money in a recording studio. So, the idea is to get in and out as fast as you can and to be low maintenance. And that’s always what I was, so I think that’s why I was pretty successful doing it.”
Because her work brought her into the recording studio so often, O’Terry began to consider the other opportunities available to her in broadcasting. “By the time it was the late ’80s, I started doing voiceover work and doing a ton of jingles,” she said. “And all of a sudden I was like, ‘Wow, I should get a job at a radio station!’ And so that’s what happened. So, I ended up getting a job at Magic 106.7.”
In order to obtain her license to broadcast, she attended the Connecticut School of Broadcasting and graduated in October 1990, landing three job interviews—which subsequently turned into three job offers—after receiving her diploma. “I took that one job at Magic because I felt like it was a major market job, lots of opportunity for me to learn, even though it was only for eight weeks, because I was paying ball in the big league. And I’ve been there ever since—for 24 years.”
Flexibility and preparation, too, prove necessary attributes of a fruitful and exciting broadcasting career, according to O’Terry. Equating her own experience as an assistant and fortuitous on-air opportunity to that of a Broadway understudy, she talked about the importance of being ready to dive at one’s chance to perform: “The stars of the Broadway play go out there every night … But there’s the understudy over there in the corner, watching, and learning, and being a sponge, and hoping that someday, she’s going to get her chance. And that’s what I hope to explain to every woman that I meet who comes to the media panel … you just have to be ready, to jump, to leap without fear, and to know that if you have the skills, the talent, the passion, and the perseverance, you’re absolutely going to get it.”
Alongside her professional life, O’Terry also had two children by her first marriage before divorcing in 1991 and remarrying in 2006, and so she often brought her children to work. “As hard as it’s been—I was a single mom for 15 years—I think for my children it was hard because I was on the air all the time, taking every opportunity I could to do better with my class, every overnight, every weekend air shift, everything I could get, so that I could be really good and get to where I am today. And that’s so true about everything, isn’t it?”
After working the overnight shift on weekends for a year, O’Terry—and her superiors—quickly realized that recording commercials came easily to her, and she gradually gained recognition at 106.7. While attending a United Way breakfast in 1992 wherein the female speaker divulged her own story of perseverance—“She had overcome just about every obstacle you could possibly imagine to live a thriving life”—an idea dawned on O’Terry: a radio public affairs program called Exceptional Women.
“Here’s what you need to understand: I didn’t have a radio show to interview her on, okay?” O’Terry said, laughing. She pitched the barebones of her program plan to then-News Director Gay Vernon later that day. “He looked at me like I was [crazy], and I said, ‘Um, can I talk to you about this tomorrow?’ And I went home, and I wrote down a business plan for a radio show called, Exceptional Women: Radio Portraits of Women Who Will Inspire You,” O’Terry said. “I came up with a show title, and a theme, and an idea to interview women doing incredible things in the community. Some of them might be famous, some of them might be backyard heroes who you would never hear about if we didn’t tell their story.
“Well guess what, that show has now won 41 local and national awards for excellence in women’s programming. And that’s called just having the guts to say, ‘I have this idea.’”
The show officially aired in 1992, filling the early Sunday morning radio slot. “[It was at] 6:30, 7:00 in the morning when no one was listening. But you know, he gave me a chance!” While initially O’Terry and her coworkers sought people to interview for the show, as the program gained repute, more and more individuals began to reach out—either to disclose their own miraculous stories, or those of others. Six hundred interviews later, today O’Terry concludes the show by asking listeners to send in accounts of perseverance.
Speaking about one of her most memorable interviews, O’Terry alluded to the conversation she had in 2011 with former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, Kate White. “She, very much like me, got started at the bottom of the ladder,” O’Terry said. “And to sit in the corner office and to take over for Helen Gurley Brown for Cosmopolitan Magazine—she is a self-made woman who has done it all by herself and worked her butt off to get to where she is today. She’s a perfect example of that. And I’ve interviewed 600 women in the past 24 years, and each one of them who is really, really a success story has that kind of mentality.
“And honestly, I get a chance to interview a lot of famous people—like Kate White, or like Mariah Carey, or like the three former first ladies, or Attorney General Martha Coakley, the first [American] woman in space, Sally Ride, the list goes on—but it’s those women who are doing great things and never ask for applause (what I call backyard heroes, just everyday women doing great things just undercover) … they’re the best, because they’re so humble.”
With regard to her overall experience at Magic thus far, O’Terry noted the impediments she has faced. “You know what, it’s been a long road. And I have to tell you that one of the lessons here has been that it feels really good to earn your stripes. And by that I mean, I like knowing where I came from. I like knowing that I’ve learned pretty much every single job there is. I know everything about the business of radio.”
Due to the significant effect her mother’s death had on her life, O’Terry has dedicated a lot of her personal and professional time and talent to the fight against breast cancer, and she has recurrently used her career as a means to this end. For over 10 years, she has served as the radio spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk, which, in Boston, is the largest, one-day walk to fight breast cancer in the United States. Additionally, she works for the PinkRose Foundation, the All4One Alliance, and the Friends of Mel Foundation. “I would say that as part of my career and as part of who I am to listeners and to the community, I’m a really, really strong warrior in the fight against cancer.”
With regard to singing, too, O’Terry has taken up leadership positions. For seven years, she has served as a judge on the Emmy Award-winning talent show, Community Auditions. “Oh my god, it’s so much fun” she said. “The reason why I love it is because I love being able to be a guide and a mentor to young singers … And I think I’m a really good judge of talent. I hear a lot of great singers—and I must tell you, I also hear some singers who, you know, um, should never be singing, but you know, you always have to find a really nice way to find one good thing to say to them, because you know, you don’t want to burst somebody’s bubble, but you also don’t want to waste their time.”
Throughout her time on the show, she has met and judged numerous recognizable singer songwriters—even if O’Terry did not necessarily foresee their forthcoming fame.
“Back in 2010, there was a woman who … showed up wearing a long, sort of a slopey dress and flip flops, and she had a guitar, and she sang a song that was original,” O’Terry said, laughing.
“And it was kind of like a coffee-house-type song, like kinda like, ‘Strum strum strum, here’s my sad life, / strum strum strum, I wish I had a boyfriend.’ So, I thought she wasn’t very good, and I gave her a seven. And her name was Meghan Trainor.”
Continuing this sense of mentorship and guidance, O’Terry is president and co-founder of Boston Women in Media & Entertainment, an organization that focuses on education, connection, and inspiration and provides programming opportunities for women who are desiring to be a part of, or are currently working in those fields. She also serves on the board of directors for Strong Women, Strong Girls and Dream BIG, and she is a member of the Council for Women of BC, which inspired her to attend and speak at the Own It Summit, coming to the University on March 29.
Regarding the Summit itself, O’Terry discussed her excitement and enthusiasm. “Millennials have a fearlessness and a curiosity about them that other generations don’t really have. And I think that news is good for anyone who wants to get into broadcast,” she said.
“I think the Own It Summit is really all about women like me, who have already walked the walk, and are still talking the talk, who can take you by the hand and say, ‘Here I am, here’s what I did, this worked for me, might not be the perfect prescription for you, but may I be an example and then you can customize it for yourself.’
“And the BC connection is so strong. And that’s why women like me are coming back. Because we want to share what we know, we want you to be successful, we don’t want you to fail.”
Featured Graphic by Breck Wills / Heights Graphic