Sandy McIlree's first bike was a red-and-yellow Schwinn with training wheels ... that he immediately wanted off.
"It was so cool," he says. "To me, it was the greatest thing in the world."
JB Hager, his Mix 94.7 co-host, saved up his allowance and bought his first bike — a black beach cruiser — at a garage sale.
"It wasn't cool at all," he says with a laugh.
Decades later, memories of those bikes — the adventures, the mischief — are still fresh in their minds. That's why, 14 years ago, they launched the annual Bikes for Kids campaign, which raises money to provide needy Central Texas children with bikes, helmets and locks.
"We would have started it 15 years ago, when we first went on the air, but no one was listening," Hager jokes.
The amount of cash the duo has raised through the years, however, is nothing to laugh at. Listeners and area companies, including Freescale, H-E-B and Whataburger, have donated a total of more than $1.3 million — enough cash to put smiles on the faces of 13,000-plus kids.
But why bikes?
"There are lots of great organizations in town that supply coats, shoes, backpacks and food," Hager says. "We asked ourselves, ‘What does a kid really want?' "
"A bike means a lot of things ... freedom, independence," McIlree adds. "Imagine not having that experience as a kid."
From humble beginnings
The goal that first year was modest: 94 bikes. But after countless trips around town to pick up and deposit handfuls of coins and wadded-up bills, they ended up being able to purchase more than 200. This holiday season, they're hoping to buy between 800 and 1,000 bikes. Listeners can give at mix947.com.
"It may not seem like much," Hager says, "but the small donations really do add up."
Trek provides several different styles of bikes at a deep, deep discount, and the assemblers at Mellow Johnny's offer volunteer labor, making donations go even further.
But collecting all that cash is just one part of the project. It's up to listeners to find and nominate needy families.
"We're looking for people who aren't on anyone's radar," Hager says. "People who haven't already been adopted by another group or organization. Someone's neighbor. A co-worker."
A crew of volunteers — including Hager, McIlree and their on-air sidekicks — reviews each and every letter received. Thousands come in each year. Some are even read on-air, moments before the show calls recipients to let them know they've been selected.
"The letters are always very eye-opening," McIlree says.
And with the recent economic troubles, Hager says the number of requests for help is on the rise.
"We were scared the contributions would drop," he says, "but thankfully they haven't."
The big day
Just days before Christmas, recipients line up outside Mellow Johnny's in downtown Austin. One by one, they're handed a bike, helmet and lock. Kids grin from ear to ear, while their parents choke back tears. It's a scene Hager and McIlree have watched many times — one that makes the campaign especially rewarding for them.
"There's lots of hugs, lots of crying," McIlree says. "Everybody's happy."
How to help
Make a Bikes for Kids donation, or nominate a family in need, at mix947.com. Also, through Dec. 3, Maudie's will give $3.25 for each diner who orders the JB and Sandy plate, which comes with a crispy taco, cheese enchilada, rice and beans.
Around the dial ...
When should Majic 95.5 start playing wall-to-wall holiday tunes? Cast your vote at majic.com. If you think it's too early, think again. More than 40 stations nationwide are already spreading round-the-clock Christmas cheer, according to radio-info.com. The first to flip was WSMM-FM in South Bend, Ind., on Oct. 18. ... Dan Neil is back on the air at 104.9 the Horn, prompting some shuffling of the station's schedule. Neil disappeared from the airwaves earlier this year after entering the race for House District 48. Following his loss to incumbent Donna Howard by just a handful of votes earlier this month, Neil returned to his radio gig on Monday. Catch him weekdays at noon. The Horn's new daytime lineup:6 to 10 a.m.: ‘The Morning Rush' with Erin Hogan and Chip Brown10 a.m. to noon: ‘The Herd' with Colin CowherdNoon to 1 p.m.: ‘The Nooner' with Dan Neil, Beau Edge and Dustin McComas1 to 4 p.m.: ‘The Sean Adams Theory' with Sean Adams and Ari Temkin4 to 7 p.m.: ‘The Drive' with Geoff Ketchum and Chad Hastings