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How This Radio Host Went From Refugee Camps To Rocking The Mic

BOSS UP

In an industry where few women are positioned in front of the mic, Vildana “Sunni" Puric is on a mission to make a name for herself.


During the late mornings and early afternoons tune your radio to WPGC 95.5 and you can catch Sunni on the airwaves as the voice of Washington, DC., ironic considering at one point the Bosnian native didn't even speak English. As a radio host in the coveted midday slot, she's breaking down doors that aren't often left open for the female minority, proving that sacrifice and hard work pays off when relentlessly pursuing your passion.

It's almost hard to believe that at one point Sunni hated radio. The on-air personality is a perfect balance between upbeat and down-to-earth, the home girl that you can kick it with and talk everything from gossip and glamour to what's going on in the gritty streets of the DMV. When Sunni's in the city you can catch her on the social scene hosting parties or interviewing celebs, but when she's not living the glamorous life she's in the streets giving back to the community that she so closely connects with. For Puric, it's not simply charity work to write off on her taxes, but a reminder of her humble beginnings before Reggie Rouse, VP of Urban Programming for CBS, called her during her stint of unemployment to fill the midday slot.

“When I see a homeless person I'm like yeah, I know exactly what it's like to sleep out in the cold. I know what it's like to go days without food," she says on our call.

And that's an understatement.

***

It's the early 90s, and nine-year-old Sunni is playing outside in the woods with her sister and brother in Donji Purici, Bosnia—a town so small that even Google gave up on trying to map it.

Sunni (left) with her family in Croatia.

Life is simple, but good. Slow. No telephone. No car. There was a television, which was occasionally tuned into one of two channels that showed The Simpsons and Beverly Hills, 90210, but even that remained relatively untouched. She preferred climbing trees and running through the countryside to planting herself down in front of the TV.

But when bombs began to drop one summer morning as a result of religious tensions between the Serbs and the Muslims, the Puric's carefree lifestyle quickly turned into chaos within minutes as the family was forced to snatch up anything they could carry and join the thousands on the run towards the borders of Croatia. While they escaped the mass killings that lay behind them, they had little to look forward to in their makeshift refugee camps.

The Croatian army wouldn't allow them to camp in nearby towns, many of which were littered with land mines ready to take the lives that weren't cut short by gunfire. The journey south quickly turned into the survival of the fittest and the generous—there was no room for selfishness when everyone was just hoping to stay alive. “If you have a piece of bread you share with whoever is next to you. Or if you get some water, you share that. I think that's where we created our own situation. Like we have to survive here so let's just make it happen."

For three years, they were on the run before being offered the opportunity to migrate to America. After an intense interview process to determine if her dad was a terrorist, Sunni and her family arrived in Hamtramck, Michigan in the middle of winter. It was a culture shock, nothing like the palm trees and white picket fences that she saw on 90210.

Surviving war was just one of the many battles that the future radio host would have to face. As a new immigrant who didn't speak English, Sunni was placed in ESL classes in the basement of the school with other refugees. Her new mission? Learn English so that she could move to the top floor with the “regular" kids, and somehow manage to survive the middle school bullies who picked on her for not wearing deodorant or the latest threads.

The summer before eighth grade she and her siblings pigged out on cheap chips and sweets while brushing up on their English from popular American television shows such as Family Matters. By the new school year she walked in with her head held high speaking the language fluently in her thick Bosnian accent. “I was like I just want to be American and blend in. I don't want nobody to know where I'm from. I just want to be a regular American girl so people will leave me alone," she says.

Sophomore year, her family relocated to the suburbs to a predominantly white school where her slang was just as unwelcome as her accent. She spent more time trying to fit in than creating a way out for herself, and by the time she reached her senior year had yet to settle on a career path. She took a radio class, but hated the small studio set up in a dark corner of the room. The good grades that she once brought home began to slip as she carelessly coasted through her courses, and her family began to pressure her about her next step, reminding her that they came to America to give her a better life, not a purposeless one.

After high school she attended community college and her sister snagged her a job as an assistant at a dentist's office, but she hated the sight of blood. What she did like was listening to the radio, which is what she was doing when on-air personality Kris Kelly for Detroit's WJLB announced that she was looking for interns. Sunni arrive at the radio station for the open call interviews, only to find herself in a room full of hopefuls that she felt she couldn't compete with. She didn't have the experience but she did have a story, which she poured out to the radio host. “She was like 'oh my God, this is really incredible. Yes, I'd love to hire you as an intern.' She gave me the job on the spot."

It wasn't paid, but it was a start. Her first day at the station was much different than the small, dark corner that she imagined it to be. Big studios filled with DJs and celebrity guests made her reconsider the career path she has written off just months before. “I was like holy shit, this is completely different than I thought. I can't be on the radio, but I'm definitely going to figure out a way to stick around and did something here."

Finding a way meant doing what others wouldn't with a smile. Her bright and cheery demeanor earned her the nickname “SunShyne" (she would later change her name to “Sunni" when she started working on air), which she maintained despite balancing school, an internship and an overnight clerk job at Walgreens. For eight months she hustled before her boss finally told her that she had gone beyond the standard length of an internship. She boldly told them she wasn't leaving without a job, and snagged the Promotions Assistant role for $9 an hour with an extra $100 doing club promotions one night a week.

But as much as Sunni loved her new position she wanted to go to the next level. Watching the on-air hosts sparked a desire to have her own show, but her thick accent made public speaking a challenge. Instead of giving up she got to work, and at the recommendation of her boss contacted the program director at a smaller radio station in Lansing, Michigan and drove two hours from Detroit for her first interview. She arrived to find that the afternoon host was sick, giving her the opportunity to do her tryout shift on the spot.

“Everything I learned in Detroit watching the personalities there, I did that here. I changed the show. I had a four o' clock countdown. I had a DJ at five o' clock—all this stuff that I added. And he was like okay you're pretty good, but you're still terrible. Literally people would be like you got the idea you just have to work on your voice."

She was offered a Sunday shift for $6 an hour, which covered the gas for her four-hour drive there and back from Detroit. She worked on perfecting her voice by reading books out loud and recording herself in the studio. The years of practice paid off, and it was just enough to eventually land her back in the top 10 market of Detroit as a part-time on-air personality. “If you really want something and you work hard at it, it's going to have to pay off. You will not fail because you're going to work so hard at it you're not going to allow it to fail."

"If you really want something and you work hard at it, it's going to have to pay off."

From 2002 to 2009 Sunni built her name in radio before Clear Channel was bought out, resulting in massive layoffs. Sunni, who was then working the late night “Quiet Storm" shift, found herself jobless at 26. Looking for a change of scenery, she packed her bags and drove to Miami where she ran into friend and former promotions department worker Necole Kane, who extended an offer to work on the then popular celebrity gossip site Necole Bitchie.

Initially sunny Florida was a much-needed break from the bitter cold of the north, but the heat and humidity soon had her packing her bags and following Necole to New York just months later. “When I got to NYC I decided that the whole blogging thing wasn't for me. I told Necole this is my year of my transition. And she was like great, I can see that your heart is not in it, and she's like you're going to get back in radio. I'm like no I'm just going to take a break from everything, and she's like no trust me, one day you'll get back in radio."

While walking through a New Jersey mall with only five dollars to her name, she received a call about an open position at WPGC in Washington, DC. Her former boss in Detroit sent her tapes out in hopes to replace the radio job that she lost months prior, and by January—just eight months after being laid off—she had relocated to the Chocolate City to work as the midday host for the radio station and continue the next chapter of her dream.

***

February 2011, Sunni sat in silent reflection as if she were alone instead of in a room surrounded by 80 people celebrating another year of her life—courtesy of Ciroc, of course.

It had been a year since she took over the midday airwaves, and though she'd built a reputable name for herself, she humbly remembered when just a year prior she brought in her birthday in a hotel room alone and a little scared, but determined to make the most of her opportunity. “I was in my own little world like holy shit, last year I sat on the fucking couch watching the NBA All-Star Slam Dunk Contest eating a pizza not knowing one soul here."

This past January, Sunni celebrated five years at WPGC, and she's finally giving herself credit for all of her accomplishments. “Overcoming that fear of feeling like you're not good enough…in the presence of certain people I get like I'm just some radio girl that doesn't speak well, that's always really extra, that's tatted up, whatever. And then I have to be like no, you're a radio girl who worked her ass off, who's been in the business for 14 years now, who's done amazing charity work, who's helped so many people, and who's overcome so much. I feel like so many times I just get so…I'm just on the air, that's just what I do. And I'm like no…"

“You're phenomenal," I say, a slight attempt at completing her self-motivational thought.

“Yeah, you have to remind yourself of that, otherwise you can fall so deep into that thought of yes my job is shallow and I talk about celebrities all day. But I think the other things outside of [radio] has made me really appreciate and love it so much more."

Photo by Terri Baskin

Sunni isn't driven by accolades from herself or from others, but by the memories of once being the girl who wore the same pair of ripped socks for two weeks straight at a refugee camp miles away from home. In an industry where a woman at the top is questioned on her climb, Sunni finds peace in knowing that everything she's gained has come through a positive attitude and relentless work ethic. The best advice she received on navigating the industry came from a former boss, who reminded her that she deserved to be exactly where she is.

“For women, it's always hard for us because it's like when you get that promotion, how did you get that promotion? Or if you're pretty, oh it's only because she's pretty. Nobody can ever deny your hard work, and your reputation is all you've got. So when you work your ass off and somebody tries to bring you other shit, you know the hard work you put in you're never going to feel like it's anything else.

"Nobody can ever deny your hard work, and your reputation is all you've got."

Her best advice to other young women following their dreams? Stay away from boys.

“I was just a hot mess," she says, chuckling at the naivety of her youth. “I'm happy that I definitely stuck to my career because it taught me so much. Looking back at my early experiences in my twenties, I guess I had to go through all of those heartbreaks just to be the person that I am right now—easy breezy, no drama, very calm about everything."

But in all seriousness, she hopes that her story, which she's penning in a memoir, will encourage anyone with an unconventional childhood, who may be walking a crooked path instead of the straight and narrow, or who's just simply chasing purpose that it's all going to be fine.

“Looking back there were so many crazy moments in my life that if I were in front of [younger Sunni], I would be like girl, you're going to get through it. You're amazing."

*Featured image of Sunni via @officialsaraboyd

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