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An Exclusive interview with Judi Franco Chalme

Judi Franco Chalme has been a personality at 101.5 FM for 18 years.  She first appeared as DJ “Jersey Judi” and then as the second half of the Dennis and Judi Show, which airs from 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM every weekday.  It’s a position that’s taken on many variations during her time there, especially as her values became increasingly spiritual. By now, she’s become a household name, a voice tri-state area residents feel an immediate connection with. Still, Judi downplays her fame. “I will never think of myself as a famous person,” she insists. “I’m so shy when people come up to me, and I’m blown away when I see people line up to get my autograph.” She’s felt throughout it all that Hashem has given her a gift, the capacity to influence people and make an impact on their lives. “I never underestimate the power of that,” she proclaims.

Judi grew up in San Francisco, but in time her parents moved their family back to New York, so they could be a part of a more religious environment.

 While in school Judi didn’t enjoy the structure of the classroom.  As a young adult she got a job at a radio station. Finally, she found a place where she could project her voice, make her feelings known, could completely become herself. She never forgot the experience.

After her job at the radio station ended Judy found herself floundering, like many young adults trying to make their way in the world. She worked at a few retail stores and as a receptionist in an advertising agency.  She hoped that these jobs would lead to something better. In fact, she expressed as much to her boss one day, boldly telling him how badly she wanted to do something creative, rather than spending her life stuck behind a desk. Some time later she asked her boss for a raise. He fired her instead. “He said, ‘You’re asking for a raise because you want to work here for awhile, but that’s not what you’re meant for,’” Judi recalls. As he handed Judi her severance pay he said, “I want you to take this and do something with it to further your creative side.” At first Judi felt humiliated.  But shortly after that surprising, transformative moment she called her former boss to thank him. “I told him, had he not seen what was inside of me I wouldn’t be who I am today.”

Now Judi is a co-host of The Dennis and Judi Show.  For religious reasons, she now operates from the privacy of her own home. It wasn’t always this way. For the first 11 years on the air, Judi worked in a studio opposite her colleague, Dennis Malloy. She was one of only three women in the workspace, and was the only woman on the air. Initially, this didn’t bother her. She thrived under the spotlight and enjoyed an easy camaraderie with Dennis, as the two conducted lively discussions on topics of relevance to New Jersey residents. Judi was comfortable and successful doing what she loved. But her life was about to change – for the better.

Judi’s teenage daughter began to increase her religious observance. “At first we were resistant to it,” Judi admits. “But then we liked the way it was affecting our family and we began to embrace it ourselves.” As her daughter stood on the threshold of dating, Judi was introduced to the world of shidduchim. Though skeptical initially, Judi was awestruck when her daughter met her match on the first try. “It was her first date ever with this wonderful boy, and a handful of weeks later they were married!” Judi was so happy with the results she went the shidduch route for her second daughter and began reevaluating her life in the process. “I began to feel, if it’s good enough for them, why shouldn’t it be good enough for me?” she says.

The air of spirituality was contagious. Judi, too, began getting more religious – and finding contradictions between her inner and outer lives. “I began to realize it wasn’t a wholesome environment,” she says of the 101.5 FM studio. “I no longer felt comfortable doing the kind of show I was doing. It wasn’t in me anymore to be on the radio.” Judi left the show, and for a long time felt very happy with her decision. The only drawback was that she and her family were no longer living as comfortably. “We were struggling financially, but I put my faith in Hashem and money came to me,” she says.

Specifically, parnasah came to Judi in the form of public speaking engagements. She spoke in synagogues about her life on the radio and her decision to make a change. She also got hired, over and over again, as a public speaking coach. “Most people are afraid to speak in front of groups,” she says. “I am too, but I’ve fought it for so many years. Since I speak for a living, I’ve had to learn the tricks – I work on my diction, my vocabulary, and my articulation.”

Additionally, while on hiatus, Judi wrote a children’s book, which was later turned into a musical and performed at the JCC in Deal, NJ. Entitled “Judi and the Jolly Beans,” it is now being adapted for an all-women audience.  

Though Judi had thankfully found new ways of making money, she still wasn’t entirely happy.  “I gave up my career for my religion,” she says. “For two years, that’s what I did. But I knew something was missing. I’d be in the checkout line at the supermarket and I’d begin telling the cashier who I thought would win the presidential election. I’d go on and on about my opinions to my family - until my husband finally said, ‘Will you please just go back on the air already?!’ I realized that’s what I wanted to do more than anything, but I didn’t see how that was possible, given the new life I was living.”

Judi visited rabbis frequently, asking for a beracha for her parnasah. One of the rabbis, a prominent gadol, asked her directly why she had left her job. When she told him her story, he said simply, “Go back to the radio. You can do it in a kosher way. There’s something you can change.” Judi was left to mull over his words, unable to fathom what he could possibly mean. How could she conduct the show in a modest fashion when so much of the content revolved around pop culture? And even if she were to blindly trust the rabbi and go back to her position, there was the minor issue of her position already having been filled – by the person she’d recommended! She couldn’t just walk into the studio and get her old job back. Judi began by doing a couple of fill-ins on WABC, a political news station.  There she felt her values would not need to be compromised. Alas, the fill-ins never led to a full time position and Judi’s predicament remained the same.

Until the day she received a phone call from her old boss, telling her that a nighttime position had opened up. Judi pictured it: She’d be alone in the studio after everyone else had gone home, completely eliminating her worries about modesty in the presence of so many men. Could this be what the rabbi meant when he advised making a change? Yes, that must have been it, she rationalized. Judi was about to call her boss back to accept his offer, but he called her first. “You’ll never believe this!” he said effusively. “Michelle, your replacement, has decided to leave. You can have your show back again!” Just as Judi was wrestling with her conflicted feelings – euphoria about being offered the opportunity and regret at having to turn it down because of the circumstances – her boss continued: “There’s just one thing. We can’t afford to pay you as much as we used to. Would you be willing to take a 25% salary cut if we built you a studio in your house?” In that moment, the rabbi’s face flashed through Judi’s mind and she thought, Yes! This is what he meant!

Judi’s boss made good on his promise, and installed drywall, soundproofing, and carpet in her home basement which now serves as her personal studio. Judi and Dennis conduct the show on Face Time as they stare at each other through the screens of their IPads and stay absolutely still so that nobody knows the difference. On Fridays, Judi makes her challah during commercial breaks; she has the whole process perfectly timed!

“I didn’t realize until I left the building how it was messing with my spirituality,” Judi says. “The best compromise was to do it like this, away from the workplace, away from the yeser hara, which I know was there. Now, I’m in the sanctity of my own home, which I know is a holy place. I feel like I finally found the right balance – with my career, with my kids, and with my spirituality. I gave up a little money for a lot more spiritual fulfillment – and I really feel like Hashem is smiling.”