You probably know the voice.
It’s a smooth baritone, a fish-out-of-water British accent in the middle of Omaha, a cadence as familiar as an old friend’s.
Each weekday morning starting at 5 a.m., the voice reads the news and weather and does interviews on KIOS-FM, the local National Public Radio affiliate.
About half the nights a year, the voice belts out Sinatra and Elvis and Bublé at weddings and corporate cocktail parties and private events all over the city.
The voice is attached to a man named Michael Lyon, a man whom many of us feel like we know, even though we may have never actually met the man. Only his voice.
So you probably know the voice, but you probably do not know this: That voice came harrowingly close to disappearing forever.
Fifteen months ago, Michael Lyon got rolled into surgery, not knowing if he would still have the ability to sing, or to speak, when he woke up.
“Some people wake up, and two-thirds of their tongue is gone,” Lyon says in that familiar voice. “Some people have to have their larynx removed. Any of that ... it would have been a death blow for me, for what it is I do every day.”
What Lyon does every day is roll out of bed at an ungodly 4 a.m. hour, drive to the Omaha Public Schools' Career Center at 32nd and Burt Streets, enter the KIOS studio just inside the back door and put on his headphones.
“I’m Michael Lyon, and you are tuned to 91.5, KIOS-FM,” he says in that unmistakable voice. “A community service of the Omaha Public Schools.”
On Tuesday morning, at 8:46 a.m., he welcomed listeners to “Events Calendar,” his daily interview segment, then talked with the organizer of an upcoming conference focused on neighborhood improvement. At 9:04 a.m., he did the headlines: A 110-year-old building owned by the Salvation Army is being demolished; Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad doesn’t have to testify at a state worker’s wrongful termination trial.
He told us, on several occasions, that it was 41 degrees in Omaha. “Get ready for some rain tonight, tomorrow and Thursday,” the voice said.
He leaves around 10 a.m., works his day job — he and wife, Kristin Lyon, are real estate agents — and rests up for his voice’s second act. On roughly 175 nights a year, he sings a gig. He has performed opera in California, Rat Pack tunes at the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, jazz at Omaha restaurants and too many receptions in too many hotel ballrooms to count. Often he doesn’t finish until late at night, mere hours before he is slated to head into the radio studio and do it all over again.
“It’s how I make my living,” the voice tells me. “But it is also what I love. It’s all a labor of love.”
All of that — the radio, the singing, everything — got threatened on Nov. 7, 2015, when Lyon returned home from a performance, looked in the mirror and noticed a large lump on the left side of his neck.
He woke up in the morning, and looked in the mirror again. The lump was still there. The next few weeks were a blur of doctors, specialists, surgeons and questions that couldn’t be answered.
What is this, exactly? What about my voice? What about my life?
On Christmas Eve morning, they rolled him into an operating room at Methodist Hospital. The surgeon had promised to take out only what he had to, but as the drugs kicked in and Lyon drifted into sleep, no one knew what that meant.
He woke up 10 hours later, and asked.
He still had his larynx. He still had his tongue. The surgeon had removed his tonsil, where the cancer had started, and the lymph nodes on the left side of his throat, where it had spread into one node.
It was, in many ways, the best-case scenario. “But you have to remember,” the voice says. “Not even the best-case scenario guaranteed that I would ever be able to sing again.”
Lyon is no stranger to long-shot scenarios. He moved from his small English town to Bristol, England, at 17, carrying two bags and $25. His first job: Running the incinerator at a hospital. From there, he got his nursing degree and became the hospital’s head nurse.
He moved again, this time from Bristol to Los Angeles as a young adult and, when his U.S. nursing career derailed, ended up selling sweatshirts at roadside stands to pay the rent. He sold a sweatshirt to Dick Van Dyke. During the “Flashdance” craze of 1983, he splashed paint on the sweatshirts and quadrupled their price. From there, he broke into finance and rose to become a vice president at a major West Coast bank.
He got laid off in 1998. A month later, Kristin got laid off, too. And so they moved to Omaha, Kristin’s hometown. Their son Max graduated from high school here. And together the couple cobbled together their current lives: Radio. Real estate. Kristin’s nursing license. Singing.
After he got the KIOS morning job, Lyon noticed his British accent would flower on the air, as he spoke louder and enunciated his words. He toned the accent down off the air, though he still struggles with words like “laboratory” and “literature.” He toned it down because he likes to blend in with the nasally-sounding Nebraskans who have become his friends, neighbors and family. Still, a couple times a week, an Omahan will hear the voice at the grocery store or the bank, approach and tell him “You are the voice that takes me to work every morning” or “I feel like I know you.”
“For several decades, I have lived a very full life,” Michael Lyon says. “I have had all those things. I have struggled, triumphed, failed, laughed, cried and began again.”
And so he began again, yet again. He returned to KIOS on Jan. 19, 2016. On Jan. 21, he had his first post-surgery gig, in a ballroom filled with 1,000 people. He made it through all of that, even though the voice grew hoarse and gravelly and weak. Even though fluid was building up in his throat, from the loss of his lymph system. Even though he couldn’t yet fully lift his left arm, because of unavoidable nerve damage during surgery, and could barely lift and move his equipment.
But on Feb. 20, during a gig in Lincoln, Lyon noticed his voice felt stronger. He felt the voice hitting the notes. He felt its strength, its richness, returning.
He looked at his wife during a break in a song, grinned widely and mouthed two words to her. “I’m back,” he said.
He wasn’t. He wasn’t because five weeks of intense radiation in the basement of Methodist’s Estabrook Cancer Center had just begun.
Each morning, after his radio shift, he would go to the basement to be bolted into a harness to keep him completely still. He would try to meditate as pinpoint radiation was fired into an area the size of a small potato.
As the days became weeks, he grew nauseous. His mouth was always dry. His jaw stopped opening correctly.
He took experimental drugs to help with the sore throat. He did jaw exercises as he drove in the car, and breathing exercises he had learned during years of vocal training.
And he did something else, something a little bit incredible: He continued to show up at KIOS each morning at 5 a.m., every weekday. During radiation he didn’t miss a day of work.
“It helped, honestly,” the voice tells me. “Get out of your head. Thinking about something and somebody else besides you. Be of service. Thinking like that changed my outlook immensely. I started approaching things more fully in this spirit of love.”
Last summer, the voice mounted a comeback. It could remain syrupy during his daily interview on KIOS. It could belt out the Sinatra, the Tony Bennett, the Bublé just as he always had. Heck, it’s probably better, he says — the jaw exercises and his constant focus on breathing technique make him believe he’s a more complete singer than he has ever been.
The checkups are every three months now, and he is cancer free. He says there are no guarantees. He says he doesn’t need any.
The voice is still here, every morning on KIOS, like an old friend. “I think I know that the harmonics that go on, the cadence, that becomes a piece of peoples’ routines,” he says of the KIOS morning show. “We are all geared toward that comfort, and I get that people sort of rely on that, and I do feel a little bit of that is what my contribution is. But I feel this great urgency to contribute beyond that.”
The voice is back, and it’s attached to a man who is striving, every day, to be about more than that sound.
Recently, the voice sang to an old man in his final hours of life, an old man whose family wanted him to hear the old songs as he drifted into another place. So Michael Lyon showed up and he sang the standards. He hopes the old man heard them as he died. He knows that he himself heard something.
“I feel as humans that our success on a minute-to-minute basis is not determined by the outcome, but how we conduct ourselves. I don’t want to be self-indulgent. I want to have humility. To think about others. To act on that.”