There’s a spot 12 miles and two ridges outside Homer, Alaska, which is about as far from civilization as you can get without a passport, where the only sounds heard by recent visitors have been of beavers turning trees into pencil stubs, moose trampling through the brush—and, of course, the incessant jangle of Tom Bodett’s telephone. One day’s messages tell the tale: A big-city newspaper editor lavishes praise on Tom’s writing and asks him to review James Michener’s new book on Alaska. A Los Angeles agent says he would like Tom as a client now that Bodett has turned into a national cult hero with his folksy Motel 6 radio commercials, now that he has two hardcover books out and now that he’s launching his own radio show.
Bodett, 33, may feel the call of the wild in his bones, but he can’t resist the summons of the telephone either. “Seems like I spend most of my time on the phone these days,” says the former contractor who has become the latest in a long line of quintessential American voices ranging from Mark Twain to Garrison Keillor. Hang on. The next few messages on his answering machine reveal something significant about Bodett’s appeal. A tipsy caller from Baltimore pours out his heart—just another Tom Bodett fan sounding a lot like old Tom himself. He asks Tom to send an autographed picture to his girlfriend but fails to say where she lives. The next message is from the girlfriend, calling to leave her address.
That’s how they are, practicing Tom’s own lines, asking if he’ll call back and saying—as Tom says in that by-now-famous Motel 6 tag line—”We’ll leave the light on for you.” Twelve miles and two ridges outside Homer, you can hear the cry of distant friends, calling out to a man they’ve learned to like and to trust.
It might seem strange that affection like that is showered on a man in the commercial end of the free-enterprise system. But follow Tom Bodett’s Odyssey and you will find more than one bizarre turn. He grew up with four brothers and two sisters in Sturgis, Mich.—the “curtain-rod capital of the world,” he calls it. At Michigan State University, he received a piece of crucial advice from a writing teacher. “Professor Al Drake encouraged me to just write the way I talk,” says Bodett. “I decided if that’s what I needed to do, I didn’t need to be in school to do it.” By 1975, Bodett had quit school and hit the road. “I had been reading Rolling Stone and got the idea that there was some kind of radical movement going on out there. I was like the Japanese guy marooned on an island who didn’t understand that the war had ended years ago. All the old radicals had already opened up import stores in San Francisco by the time I got there. So I cut my hair and went to work.”
Bodett spent 6½ years in Petersburg, a tiny fishing village in southeastern Alaska. He worked as a logger and a deckhand, saved his money and bought out a local contractor. He also laid the foundation for a major change in his life. For five years he had been corresponding with his old high school sweetheart, Debi Hochstetler, a slender, blue-eyed woman who was about to look for a job as a high school art teacher. He began to write her ardent letters, pleading with her to come to Alaska. “I just took a chance and moved out here,” says Debi, 33. “Best writing I ever did,” says Tom.
Married in 1977, the couple moved five years later from Petersburg (pop. 2,800) to Homer (pop. 2,200). Unlike Petersburg, Homer was connected to the rest of the world by road. But contracting work was tough, and one day, standing in the line at a grocery store, Tom realized that he didn’t have enough money in his checking account to pay for cigarettes. As he often does, he quit smoking and wrote a humorous essay about how quitting could get to be kind of like a hobby. It was printed in the Anchorage Daily News. Before he knew it, the news director of the local radio station asked him to write more essays and read them on the air. He wrote one about the strangeness of losing one sock in a washing machine and how maybe men would be better off washing their socks in the sink so they could keep an eye on ’em. It wasn’t long before Bodett became a regular contributor to All Things Considered, National Public Radio’s afternoon news-and-feature program.
Within a month of his NPR debut, he was called by a publisher and asked to write a book based on his radio readings. As Far as You Can Go Without a Passport hit the stores in 1985, but by then Tom had already signed to do a second volume, Small Comforts. “Mine is not a story to tell struggling writers,” says Bodett sheepishly.
Or aspiring pitchmen. Intrigued by Tom’s folksy way with words, a Dallas ad agency called up next, asking him to do some 60-second spots for Motel 6. The coast-to-coast economy chain had been losing business and was hoping Tom could help. “The hard part was talking Tom into it,” says David Fowler, then an ad writer for the Richards Group and the man who lured Bodett into the money trap. “He’s a serious writer, and that’s the way he wants to be known.”
The radio spots, which now play on more than 3,000 stations, have a warm country feel and lots of dime-store wisdom. There’s a fiddle and a soft guitar playing in the background, and up front is a voice that sounds familiar, even if you’re hearing it for the first time. “You know, in some ways, a Motel 6 reminds me of one of those big fancy hotels,” says Bodett, sounding a little like a homegrown Paul Hogan. “They’ve got beds, we’ve got beds. They’ve got sinks and showers, by golly we’ve got ’em too. There are differences, though. You can’t get a hot facial mud pack at Motel 6 like at those fancy joints. And you won’t find French-milled soap or avocado body balm….Under 21 bucks in most places….We’ll leave the light on for you.”
In one year, Motel 6 occupancy rates did a full reverse, jumping six points to 72.7 percent. Hugh Thrasher, the chain’s executive vice-president of marketing and development, attributes the change mainly to Bodett. “It was Tom who got our message out there,” he says.
Bodett has just signed a four-year contract with Motel 6, which is spending $7.8 million this year on the radio campaign. A new book, a still untitled collection of essays, will be published in the fall of ’89. And the new radio show, a weekly broadcast from Homer called The End of the Road and featuring Tom and his best friend, singer-songwriter Johnny B., will air on over 100 commercial stations come September.
Most days Bodett drives over to the house where Johnny B. (for Bushell) and his wife, Sharon, live, just to see how the new songs are coming. The Bodetts and their son, Courtney, 3, spend a lot of time with Johnny and Sharon and their two kids. Since early July the grown-ups have been playing late-night card games at Tom and Debi’s new home, a four-bedroom retreat in Homer proper, overlooking Kachemak Bay. Things probably aren’t going to change much, though. Tom still drives the same beat-up Chevy pickup and is still married to the same unaffected woman. He also turned down a hefty offer from the ad agency for Nissan trucks because he didn’t want to overdo a good thing.
Ironically, there are no Motel 6s in Alaska and none in New York City, where Bodett visited recently. Old Tom stayed at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. They had a whole bunch of lights on, he says—but somehow none of them seemed to be shining for him.
—By Ken Gross, with Priscilla Turner in Homer, Alaska