Catt Sirten’s smooth, calm voice is known across the Gulf Coast, but he is more than those warm-toned words flowing through the airwaves as he says “Hey You” and “Moooooobile.”
For 30 years Sirten has played the soundtrack of the South, introducing new songs and artists through Catt’s Sunday Jazz Brunch and Radio Avalon, and promoting the music of local musicians. He has also presented more than 100 concerts a year, including the Brown Bag and Sunset Concerts series.
“When I joined the radio station, 92 Zew, I was in the right place at the right time,” says Sirten. “It is unusual to have the creativity and freedom on the radio that I have, and I don’t take that for granted.”
Speaking into a microphone didn’t come naturally, though. Born tongue-tied, speech was a handicap to overcome. When he was five years old, doctors clipped a ligament in his tongue to help fix the problem.
“I didn’t know I had a speech impediment until the 8th or 9th grade when I heard myself recorded on tape,” Sirten says. “I immediately asked a neighbor ‘Do I talk funny?’ He said, ‘Yes, you didn’t know that?’
“I didn’t know I sounded funny,” Sirten says. “I just sounded like me.”
The speech impediment defined and labeled Sirten in school, but it also provided a motivation to succeed in radio.
“The first person I met who worked in radio had such a great, resonant voice that was so much more impressive compared to the way everyone else talked,” Sirten says. “I wanted to talk like that, so I practiced by talking into a tape recorder and listening to every word I said.
Sirten may speak more clearly today, but he still doesn’t like listening to himself.
“It’s like looking in a mirror and seeing my faults,” he says. “If I mispronounce a word, I stop myself and go back and correct it. I do it all of the time.”
Sirten grew up a country boy in the late 60s and early 70s in Limestone County, Alabama. He picked cotton, dug postholes, chopped wood, milked cows, and helped his dad build the first bathroom on their farmhouse. His contact with the outside world was three television channels and the radio — where his love of music began.
“I innocently thought that radio was about the music, and that is where I wanted to be,” he says.
Sirten’s first radio job was in 1973, playing country, pop, oldies, gospel, and big band in Pulaski, Tennessee. Late at night, he played the Allman Brothers and the Marshall Tucker Band as country music while the station’s owner was sleeping.
The name Catt began in 1978, when the station wanted Sirten to be a rock-n-roll animal.
“My full radio name became Cartwright Stone; they called me Cat for short,” says Sirten. “I hated the name Cat Stone, and I dropped Stone as soon as I could. I kept Cat, and added the extra ‘t’.”
Sirten’s mother said the name fit because when he was a kid, she always looked for him in a tree or on top of the barn.
“I have been Catt for 35 years,” he says. “Even my brother calls me Catt.”
Video, not radio, brought Sirten to Mobile, and it was not love at first sight with the Port City.
“When I moved to Mobile, I hated it here,” Sirten says. “After a year, I had enough of Mobile and moved to Phoenix, Arizona with my best friend. However, she is from Mobile and missed it, so we returned.”
Back in Mobile, Sirten was hired as the program director at 92 Zew, a position he held three times between 1984 and 2009. He helped introduce artists that the record industry wasn’t supporting, including Tracy Chapman and Bruce Hornsby.
Sirten was also the first to play Melissa Etheridge after he listened to her cassette while driving down Dauphin Street.
“Her song ‘Like the Way I Do’ was so passionate; it was her soul coming out,” Sirten says. “I was enthralled with her, and the next morning I played every song on that cassette. Someone heard it and wrote Melissa the first fan letter she ever received. The next day I got a call from Melissa thanking me for playing the album. She called back every week for a while. Even now, she still has a soft spot for Mobile.”
With Sirten as program director, 92 Zew was awarded 18 gold or platinum albums by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for the advancement of musical artists careers including: Melissa Etheridge, Tracy Chapman, Tom Petty, Bryan Adams, Georgia Satellites, Suzanne Vega, Bruce Springsteen, and others.
Through Catt’s Sunday Jazz Brunch and Radio Avalon, Sirten is on the air six days a week.
“Every day I get to play what I think the audience wants to hear, expects to hear, and more importantly what they don’t expect to hear,” says Sirten.
Introducing new, unheard music is one of the reasons Sirten got into radio.
“Does a new song fit what I am trying to do? Is it musically intelligent? Will the audience like it? Why should I play this one instead of another one? It is exciting to play the music that I think other people will like, and chances are at that moment I am the one person in the world playing that song.”
Each show is a new story for Sirten to tell. There is no script, rough draft or set list, but there is always a structure and foundation.
“I take a minute before the show begins, and a song will come to me based on the weather or how I feel,” he says. “Who knows where it comes from, but it always comes.”
The next piece is related but different, like a jigsaw puzzle. There is always a piece that fits next, Sirten just has to find it.
“Sometimes I may go through a dozen pieces and use every bit of the three minutes of the song that is playing to find the next song,” he says. “By the end of the program, I hope we have painted a picture with music. There are usually about three programs a year where I feel like I’ve really said something.“
During his shows, Sirten envisions what people are doing as they listen. His favorite image is of a long-married couple who may be past the point of communication. Maybe life is mundane at home. Maybe they are laying in bed or at the kitchen table reading to themselves. Then a song comes on and one asks the other to dance.
“That happens,” Sirten says. “Music affects people’s moods and what they do. People tell me that I am not just playing music; these radio shows are a part of their lives. It is all connected.”
It was this visual imagery that connected Sirten to photography. He was 45 when he first picked up a camera and taking pictures came naturally. He spent 18 years as director of photography for Mobile’s BayFest music festival, and his photography is featured in nine books including Mobile Bay Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.
“Photography is a parallel endeavor to music,” Sirten says. “Both try to elicit an emotional response from a viewer using only our senses. Whether it is photography or music, my goal is always to tell a story.”
Sirten believes Mobile is the one city where he can earn a living doing what he loves.
“The reward of my work is not the money, because I am certainly not getting rich,” says Sirten. “The reward is getting to do all of this. If success is waking up each morning and loving what you do, then I am the most successful person I know.
“If I don’t screw it up, I will get to do it again tonight.”
Catt Sirten passed away on August 6, 2023.
I posted this story to The Southern Rambler on August 5, 2013. Michelle Stancil and I had just started TSR – Catt was such a big influence on me that he had to be one of our first stories. Catt was the most sincerely humble person I knew. He made everyone he met feel like the most important human on the planet and became their lifelong cheerleader. No one can replace Catt and his lifetime of work and love, but maybe he lives on in enough of us that we carry on his legacy.
(Catt’s photos by Michelle Stancil and Lynn Oldshue)