#32 – VIPs.

I’ve met a few big shots over the years. One of the questions I get most is “have you met any famous people” and the answer, of course, is yes. From movie and TV personalities, sports legends, and politicians, I’ve met my share. I think anyone in this business can say the same thing. Most were pretty nice folk too. One was a real jerk and he’s been in the news recently.

Bill Cosby was coming to Grand Rapids and WOOD Radio got the “presents” rights as part of an advertising buy. Gary Allen and I were to introduce Cosby at his DeVos Hall Performance. Gary and I arrived backstage thinking we’d have a short meet and greet with the Cos only to be told a firm no. Moreover, we were told not to look at Cosby. Cosby’s manager said “don’t look at him Mr. Cosby doesn’t like people looking at him. And when you do introduce him, no eye contact. Just introduce him and get off the stage”.

While I was at WJR, the head of news talk programming for ABC summoned all the company news talk programmers to New York City to monitor and critique WABC. We all met at WABC Radio, which is located in Manhattan. There, in all his glory, surrounded by swirls of cigar smoke, was Rush Limbaugh. The other guys knew Rush. I was the new kid in the company and hat not met him in person. I was struck at how shy he seemed. Somewhat quiet, and very nice, he is very typical of a lot of radio personalities. Somewhat of a dud in person but in the solitude and confines of their little broadcast studios, they become someone else.

A side note – while on this trip we had an interesting dining experience. At lunch, our table was next to 3 familiar faces. Al Pacino, Sean Penn, and Robert Dinero. All I could think of was Cosby’s manager saying “don’t look at them”.

G. Gordon Liddy, mastermind of the Watergate break-in, did a talk show that I inherited when I took over as General Manger of WOOD. The program director had invited Liddy to Grand Rapids to do his show live. We made arrangements to broadcast his nationwide show from a large movie theatre. The night before the show, I went to the airport to pick him up. As I watched Liddy walk down the concourse, I wondered if anyone would recognize him. Had he not been wearing a hat, his bald head would have given him away for sure. Liddy was alone and it was just he and I as I drove him to his hotel. That was a very surreal moment for me.

The next day a huge crowd turned out at Studio 28 Theatre to watch The G Man do his show. There was absolutely nothing pretentious about Liddy. He was funny, engaging, gracious, and a gentleman.

As it turned out, that same day there were a bunch of big shots in town for the opening of a major exhibit at the Gerald R Ford Presidential Museum in Downtown Grand Rapids. It was The Watergate Exhibit! I can’t make this stuff up. President Ford, President Bush (41), and several dignitaries were on hand for this big event. I got a call from the Ford Museum people furious that I would have G Gordon Liddy in town on the same day as their Watergate exhibit opening. I pleaded not guilty. Who knew?!! But as I reminded them, there wouldn’t even have been a President Ford had it not been for G Gordon Liddy. Anyhow, things settled down. They had a successful event and so did we.

I’m not much of a Sean Hannity fan. I think he’s put himself in a place he shouldn’t be. You don’t see Rush Limbaugh kowtowing to anyone. Regardless of your politics, Rush Limbaugh has never forgotten that his job is to entertain and grow listeners. He’s not trying to be a presidential adviser. And there’s Laura Ingraham. She’s another one of these conservative talk show hosts who are filled with too much self importance.

When Sean Hannity launched a radio show I jumped on the opportunity to get his program on WOOD. Sean had been a rising star on Fox TV and it just figured that his radio show would be a hit too. The show aired right after Rush Limbaugh. But after a couple of years, the show failed to deliver the kind of ratings we had hoped for. Phil Tower, WOOD’s exceptional program director had a vision of hiring a local show to put in afternoon drive. Not just any local show, but market bad boy and legend Rick Becket. When Phil hit me with the idea I thought he lost his mind. Becket was extraordinarily talented. He had number one ratings at crosstown WGRD. He had all the baggage that goes with it too. He was uncouth, he was difficult, he had personal issues. In other words, he had everything it takes to be a big star. But I wasn’t sure I wanted the liability. Phil Tower convinced me that with Becket and his sidekick Scott Winters, we would finally shed WOOD’s old codger image. To do all this, 3 things had to happen. First, I had to convince Clear Channel that this would be a good investment. Second, Becket and Winters would have to agree. And third, I had to move Sean Hannity off WOOD and onto our other talk station, WTKG.

WTKG is a 1000 watt AM station at 1230 in the dial. It formerly was WCUZ AM but when Clear Channel purchased it, I changed the format and call letters in order to have another station to place programming that I wanted to lock up in the market. It was a good strategy and, sales wise, we could combo sell with WOOD. By putting Hannity on WTKG, it would give that station a marquis program. Everyone thought this was a great idea..everyone except Sean Hannity.

All the deals were done. Becket and Winters were under contract. The syndication company for Hannity agreed to move his show from WOOD to WTKG. And then the shoe dropped. I received a call from my boss, Dave Crowl in Cincinnati. Dave informed me that Hannity was threatening cancellation of his show on Clear Channel’s WKRC in Cincinnati, if we move him off WOO D to WTKG. And Clear Channel wasn’t going to let that happen. I asked Dave “what the hell are we going to do? We’ve already inked a deal with Becket and Winters.” Crowl said “you’re going to have the most expensive midday show in America”. And that’s what happened. We moved Glenn Beck from his 9-Noon slot on WOOD over to WTKG and debuted Becket and Winters 9-Noon on WOOD. Things worked out pretty good nonetheless. Becket and Winters soared in the ratings. It was a success but it chafed my hide that Hannity involved himself in a place he didn’t belong.

A number of years later, when I was in Fresno programming KMJ, Hannity was in town for an event. KMJ carried his show and the Sean Hannity Show producers asked if he could use one of our studios to do his show. As his entourage was walking past my office, Hannity spotted me, and pointing an accusatory finger told the people he was with “there’s the guy that tried to kick me off WOOD Radio.”

It’s nice to be recognized.

Skip Essick signing off.

#31 – People

IMG_3077Tonight it is storming in San Miguel de Allende.  One of those nights to pour some Canadian Club over ice into one of my prized Waterford Crystal tumblers, and begin a series on people.

The broadcast industry is a people business.  And boy, do we have some characters.  I look back on my career and certain people just pop!  There’s Bart Brandmiller.  Bart, along with his pals Sluggo, Tubby, The Wizard, and the Mongoose had a major impact in my life.  Coming up, an entire chapter on that.  There’s Gary Allen.  I recall the summer afternoons – a Tuesday I think – when I was program director of WOOD and Gary would come into my office and declare it a “Tropical Tuesday”.  For those of you that associate the word “tropics” with a West End establishment in Grand Rapids, you know what that was all about.  Aside from my wife Sharon, I think Gary and Bart are my best friends.

And then there’s Bob Becker.  Weekend DJ for life in Grand Rapids.  Becker is perhaps the cheapest person I know..but I love him all the same.  As a young DJ arriving in Grand Rapids in 1971, Bob Becker was the first Big 14 Jock I met.   I remember Ron White (WGRD PD) telling me that Bob Becker would be coming in to relieve me in the morning.  I was doing overnights Saturday into Sunday and Bob would come in to do the Sunday Morning shift.  The name alone suggests gravitas..BOB BECKER.  I was expecting a 6’4″ 200 pound Adonis to walk into the studio.   When Mr. Peepers showed up, I was taken aback.  But from there, a life long friendship developed.  I can tell you lots of stories about Becker..like how I used to sneak back into the station and hide his Cheerios.  Or how I played Santa Claus for his kids one winter night shortly before Christmas.  But my favorite was Sunday morning church.  Bob, his wife Cathy, and Bob’s mom (Mrs. Becker) would all go to mass at St. James on Bridge Street.  Afterwards, we’d all go to the Big Boy on Pearl Street for breakfast.  I swear this really happened.  Bob’s mother left a tip for the waitress.  After Mrs. Becker got up to head to the parking lot, Bob said “oh, that’s too much” and he picked it up..leaving a smaller tip.  Now, just to be fair, Mrs. Becker did leave a rather large tip..and Bob replaced it with the customary 15%.  But it was one of those moments in time that I won’t forget.  I recently went to lunch with Gary Hunt and Bob at Tillman’s in Grand Rapids.  The three of us used to meet there for lunch frequently.  I hadn’t seen either of them for a few years and it was so damn good to get together again..and Bob picked up the tab!  By the way, the three old sales guys at the bar are still there.

A lot of people I worked with over the years are no longer with us.  Gary Bazner told me one time that there are two types of people in radio – those that have been fired and those that are going to be fired.  He also told me he would die at a young age.  He was right – on both counts.  Gary died on February 2nd, 1996.  He wasn’t even 50.  I think it’s very ironic that Gary, a weatherman by profession, died on Groundhogs Day. Weird.

One of the people I had to fire was the sports guy at WOOD Radio.  Tom Mahoney wasn’t a bad sports announcer in my opinion but he wasn’t liked.  General Manager Mike Lareau wanted him gone.  I had just taken over as PD of WOOD and the night had arrived for me to fire Tom.  I was trembling..didn’t want to do it.  So Lareau said “let me show you how to fire somebody”.  After Mahoney finished his sports show at 8pm, I summoned him into Lareau’s  office.  Tom walked in and Mike said “Tom, we’re parting company effective tonight.  Please give me your key and Skip will walk you out”.  And that was that.  A few years later I learned Mahoney had died.  That episode has haunted me ever since.

I was never more struck then when I learned of the death of Sue Price.  Sue was our accounts payable person and assistant business manger at Clear Channel.  I really like her.  She was a single, hard working mom who also knew how to plan one hell of a Christmas Party for about 200 employees.  When I learned of her sudden death a couple of years ago, I cried.

And then there’s Bob Scherer.  Bob was the General Manger of WHAS in Louisvllle who hired me and put up with my antics for 7 years.  Bob was the easiest going person I ever met.  In fact we used to joke around that he must have had an intravenous drip of lithium administered daily.  Nothing – and I mean nothing – could upset this man.  Even the harrowing months of Clear Channel Budgets he handled calmly.   One of my fondest memories with Bob was one of the first Clear Channel Manager meetings I attended.  (Bob played a big role in convincing Lowry Mays and Stan Webb that I’d make a good manager).  Part of the meeting took place on the Mays Ranch outside of San Antonio.  This ranch was huge..and it had a big river running through it.  Lowry Mays had an old WWII era Jeep (kind of like Nelly Belle on the old Roy Rogers Show).  Mays would pile a bunch of us up with inner tubes, drive along the banks of the river, and drop us in.  We’d then float back down towards the hacienda.  You never saw a person more relaxed than Bob Scherer, in an inner tube, floating down that river.  Bob died of lymphoma in 1999.  He wasn’t even 60.  I miss him.  A lot of Lousiville legends are now gone.  Milton Metz, Chuck Taylor,  Joe Donovan.  Great people..truly great.  I am so blessed to have known them.

Time for a night cap.  This is Skip Essick, signing off.

 

#30 – The View from the Valley

Fresno?! A lot of people asked how I ended up over 2300 miles away from my beloved Grand Rapids to the Central Valley of California. The story began in 2000 when change was in the air. Clear Channel merged with Jacor and Randy Michaels became president of the company. Now, for those of you that know Randy, you know that combining the staid and conservative culture of Clear Channel with the bad boys of radio was sort of like mixing oil and water.

A quick side on Randy Michaels. Around 1991 when I was programming WHAS in Louisville, I received a call from Randy. He was running WLW in Cincinnati. I’ll never forget the call. Randy first commented that I was still playing too much music on WHAS (he was right). And then he wanted to know if I had an interest in programming WLW. I politely thanked him for asking and I told him my lapels might be a little too wide for him. Randy chuckled and said “the trouble with you Skip is that you always use the sidewalk. You’ve got to learn to run across the front yard.” Yep, that pretty much summed it up.

Anyhow, faces at the top started to change. Stan Webb decided to retire. My new boss was Dave Crowl. Dave was a longtime radio pro with an impeccable track record. We were familiar with each other and I thought I’d be okay. And I was…at least until 2005 when after more mergers, Randy was out and John Hogan was in. I thought Dave Crowl should have gotten the nod.

New systems were implemented by Hogan. Big brother stuff like Best Rate, MERS (Media Star Executive Reporting Systems) all driven by the new battle cry, Less is More. Managers became tethered to computers constantly manipulating rates. If you failed to log on to the system, you’d get a call. They knew what you were doing. Going out and actually spending time with clients became more and more difficult with the never ending cavalcade of yet another conference call. And when, at a managers meeting in Dallas I was admonished in front of a roomful of my peers for not properly managing inventory, I decided then and there that this was going to drive me nuts. The Senior VP conducting the session chastised me for having all of our commercial inventory sold out. Imagine that. Being sold out! He put me on the spot and asked for an explanation. I shot back “well, I’m not apologizing for being sold out. That’s how I was trained. We’re getting high rates and we’re exceeding our goals. How many of your stations can say the same?” Dead silence in the room. A smattering of applause. I think I could hear someone humming taps. I was a marked man.

I decided to look for a job in programming. After all, who wouldn’t want me??!!! A great list of stations under my programming hat, 11 years in upper management. I mean..I was a real catch, right? Wrong. I went for big programming jobs. Like WGN and WLS in Chicago. I came close.

Then, I had heard about KMJ in Fresno. I threw my hat in the ring and the next thing I knew, I was invited to fly out and interview for the job. Todd Lawley had just bought the CBS cluster in Fresno which included KMJ. I was met by market manager Patty Hixson and Lawley. We had a nice lunch at the Elbow Room in Fresno and then convened at the station. They asked me to put a good ear to the station and write them a report. So, I listened to KMJ for a few days and then wrote a report and emailed it to them. It was brutal. I figured I insulted them and that would be it. But it wasn’t. I was offered the job with an excellent compensation package. Now I had to make a decision.

Several days later while vacationing on Jekyll Island, Georgia I made up my mind. I was taking the job. I called Dave Crowl and told him I was resigning. Dave was stunned. He asked where I was going. “I’m going to Fresno.” Dave replied “Fresno?!!! – Skip, have you ever been to Fresno??!!!”

The following Monday I met Crowl at the station and we announced to the staff I was leaving.

Fresno was good to both Sharon and I. We had 7 great years there. But there were some rough times too including the Great Recession that forced the company into Chapter 11. But nothing could have prepared me for a phone call I got in September 2012.

Premier Radio was the syndicator of 60% of our programming on KMJ. We broadcast the Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity shows as well as the popular overnight show, Coast to Coast AM. Plus a variety of weekend shows. Peter Trippe from Premier called and informed me they were pulling all of the shows effective the first of the year. Premier was owned by Clear Channel and, although Peter wouldn’t spill the beans, I knew this could only mean one thing. Clear Channel was going to launch a station against us.

I went back through my notes from 2007 when I sent my evaluation of KMJ to Patty and Todd. In it I told them the station needed to beef up it’s news department and develop local programming because I knew that one day something like this might happen. Here’s a portion of the original report.

Patty – here are some initial thoughts I want to share with you regarding KMJ.  These are in no particular order. As I told you when we met, this might seem a little too direct but I’m just being very open and honest with you on my “first ears” assessment.

Overall station branding – needs to be consistent and constant.  I would go with Newsradio 580, KMJ….Fresno’s News, Weather, and Traffic station.    I personally don’t care for the news/talk moniker.  Newsradio works well on stations like KMJ which have no all news competition.  By default, you are the all news station.  News is huge..it is content by which everything else revolves and it needs to be showcased in a major way.

Weather and traffic are surveillance elements that are, in most cases, number one and number two in terms of listener interests.  Now, I suspect that the weather and traffic in Fresno are very predictable but they are, nonetheless, critical.  When you absolutely control the news-weather-traffic hill, as KMJ does, it becomes almost impossible for a competitor to move in.  News, Weather, Traffic – this is YOUR turf and even if you get an FM “talk” competitor down the road, they won’t win.

Still, the call from Trippe left me stunned. I walked into Patty Hixson’s office. The look on my face pretty much said it all. We called Todd Lawley and I remember his response. “Well, I guess we’ll find out how good we are.”

Live and local was the only way to go. Period. 2nd tier syndicated talk shows were not an option. The radio waves are saturated with the Hugh Hewitts of the world. And frankly, the only show that really mattered was Limbaugh. That was the 600 pound gorilla. So we built our live and local lineup. And it was fabulous. John Broeske was brought out of retirement and paired with Jenn Lipp to host 9-11AM, Ray Appleton was expanded from 2 hours to 3 hours and was on 11-2, and Chris Daniel and Philip Teresi did PM drive. Since Ray also did the morning news, I took that over and went back on the air.

Meanwhile Clear Channel launched Power Talk with our former syndicated shows. We took a hit.. but they never beat us.

KMJ was taken over by Cumulus in 2014. The same year I dealt with prostate cancer. I had surgery in April of 2014 but was back on the job in 10 Days. In July of 2014 I received a corporate visitor from Atlanta. He fired me and I was escorted out of the building. It was the first time in my life that I was fired. And, at the age of 64, I found myself without a place to go the next morning.

I recall the words of Richard Nixon on the day of his resignation from the presidency:

Only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.

Boy, ain’t that the truth.

#29 – Home Sweet Home

WIRT+ROWLAND+77+MONROE+CENTER

It has occurred to me while preparing to write about my 11 years as Market Manager for Clear Channel in Grand Rapids, that it would probably be very boring to the reader.  After all, upper management isn’t as fun as being on the air.  There really aren’t any funny stories, practical jokes, and all the other things that makes programming so damn much fun.  I’ll try and make this interesting.  I began what would be my longest held position on April 8th, 1996 and presided over what would become one of the company’s most successful markets.

The interesting thing about writing these blogs is that you hear from people you haven’t heard from in years.  And that’s what happened to me today.  I actually got a  message from Stan Webb.  Stan was the person who hired me.  As Lowry Mays grew the company, he depended on his two most loyal Texas managers to be Senior VP’s.  Stan Webb from Austin and Jim Smith (Smitty) from Oklahoma.  I reported directly to Stan.  Stan and Smitty were best of friends too and there was a real sense of comaraderie in those early days of what I’ll call the old Clear Channel.  Despite reputations as being cheap (they really weren’t) I loved working for them.  You always knew were you stood with these guys.

By the time I occupied the mnager’s chair, Clear Channel had purchased 2 more stations.  WCUZ and WCUZ FM were longtime foes.  I competed against them back in the 80’s when I was program director of WOOD.  And Country Giant WBCT (B93) had a rather brutal war with WCUZ when they came on the scene a few years earlier.  Tales of programming espionage were already legendary by the time I arrived on the scene.  And there, on day 1, was Lowry Mays and Stan Webb to announce the purchase of WCUZ.   Lowry walked into the lobby where the staff was assembled and proclaimed “The War is Over”.

Jumping in to manage 5 radio stations from two different locations was akin to putting your mouth over the end of a fire hose and turning on the water full blast.  I felt like the guy on the Ed Sullivan show who would come on and spin plates.  But I knew I could do it if I just focused on the job.  And the job was simply this.  Get the right people in the right positions and then get the hell out of their way.   I was blessed.  I inherited a fairly solid staff, like Paul Boscarino, Gary Allen, Don Missad, and Kate Folkertsma.   Many I had worked with years earlier so we knew each other.  Many were either new to me, or former competitors.   As I was building our sales staff, I knew I had to have one person on the team in a management position.  Henry Capogna had been the sales manager at WCUZ for years but when we bought the stations, Henry was not clear if he would come with us.  He indicated he had other opportunities.   So I contacted Stan Webb and told him I needed his help in closing the deal with Henry.  Stan flew up, met with Henry and afterwards told me “that guy is a sales animal”.  It wasn’t easy.  Henry played hard to catch.  But we eventually got him on board.

B93 was the big country station in the market.  It had toppled WCUZ in the ratings a couple of years before and it enjoyed ratings superiority over everyone else and, of course, it was a money machine.  The staff of B93 were renegades.  They didn’t like doing things the Clear Channel way per se, and they really didn’t like being in the same building as WOOD and WOOD FM.  The previous owner, Bruce Holberg, had purchased B93 and moved them from their Ann Street location where they had the entire building to themselves, and crammed them into the WOOD AM/FM facility in downtown Grand Rapids.  There was no question they resented it – and I didn’t blame them.   And now, with WCUZ in the stable, it became a question of where are we going to put all of these radio stations?  They sure wouldn’t fit at the WOOD facility.  The WCUZ building was deluxe in every way.  Nice location on Monroe Mall,  nice studios, conference room, lunch room, etc.  But it was too small.  So, for a period of time, we operated out of two buildings which was hardly ideal.

About one month into the job, Stan Webb to tell me we had purchased one more station.  WAKX was licensed to Holland Michigan with a great lakeshore signal but a deficient signal in Grand Rapids proper.  Now there were 6.  And it was time to move.  Stan had given me the marching orders locate all of the stations into a new facility.  He outlined for the parameters like needed sqaure footage and budget.  And so I went to work looking at properties.

One day Doug Montgomery came into my office and said he found the perfect place for us.  Doug was the program director of B93 (more on Doug later).   It was the former Michigan National Bank Building in Downtown Grand Rapids at the corner of Monroe and Ionia.  Doug and I walked over and met the owners of the building and took a tour.  Doug was right.  It was perfect.  We both could envision what would go where.  We brought others over to check out the place including our chief engineer, Don Missad.  After all, a lot of the build out would fall squarely on his shoulders and I had to make sure the building could support all of our roof gear like satellite dishes, antennas, etc.  Don said it looked good to him too.  So, with negotiations on rent, contractors, and parking for staff to our satisfaction, the build out began.  Clear Channel Grand Rapids would occupy 18 thousand square feet on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors.  Several months later, we all moved in.

I managed this one big happy family from 77 Monroe Center for over 11 years from 1996 to  September, 2007.   During these years, we not only completed a build out of the new facilities, we added a 7th station (WSNX), commanded the top 4 rankings in the market,  took the biggest piece of the revenue pie, rolled out a profitable internet component, and took WOOD from 5,000 watts to a brand new transmitting plant cranking out 20,000 watts.  In 2005 Clear Channel Grand Rapids was recognized as the top Midwest Medium Market cluster for the company, generating over 22 million dollars in revenue and returning 51% of it to the bottom line.  I was named VP of the year.  It was one helluva run.

#28 – Grand Rapids Part 3

In the Winter of 1996 things were beginning to return to normal at WJR.  The drama of the post McCarthy period had pretty much played out and the new shows were on the air – all except Paul W.  We had to wait a few months before he could start due to contractual obligations he had to honor in Philadelphia. It was a cold, blustery March afternoon when my assistant Fran came into my office.

“There’s a Lowry Mays on the phone for you”

I told Fran to put the call in.  Hmmm – what could this be all about?  I picked up the phone and I could hear the sound of an engine faintly in the background, accompanied by some phone static, and the unmistakable Texas drawl of Lowry Mays. He was riding his jeep around on the Mays Ranch outside of San Antonio.

“Skip Essick !  This is Lowry Mays calling you…I want to see you in Grand Rapids tomorrow night for dinner.  Meet me at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel”.

Grand Rapids?  I knew immediately what he wanted.  The next day I left WJR early and hopped on I-96 and headed west to Grand Rapids.  I pulled into the semi circular drive of the swanky Amway Grand Plaza where the valet took my car.  I figured I’d splurge and let him park it, very aware that, as anyone who lives in Grand Rapids knows, downtown parking rates are on par with Chicago.

When I walked into the hotel lobby I spotted Mark Mays along with Clear Channel Austin, TX  General Manager Stan Webb.  But no Lowry.  I was a bit confused.  Mark greeted me with a big smile and re-introduced me to Stan.  I had met Webb a few years earlier at a Clear Channel meeting in New Orleans.  Mark explained that his dad couldn’t be there because of other company business.  As it turned out, that other business was buying radio stations.  The Clinton Administration had just deregulated the radio industry with the Telecommunications Act of 1996.  Essentially this allowed broadcast companies to go out and by up radio stations with essentially  no caps on the number of stations you could own.   And Clear Channel was buying in Grand Rapids!  In fact, they were buying my former stations WOOD and WOOD-FM, along with country giant WBCT FM.  They asked me if I would be interested in coming on board as General Manager.  Jackpot!  Lowry knew of my tenure in the Grand Rapids market and he wanted a “local” who was both familiar with the market AND with Clear Channel.  I would be a good representative of the company in Grand Rapids.   And so, I accepted.  Press releases were sent out, staff reaction was overwhelmingly positive (Skip’s back!!!) and the general market response was great.  I can’t begin to tell you the number of congratulatory notes I received.

In turning in my resignation at WJR, General Manager Mike Feezey already knew.  When I went to resign, he scowled and said “you’re quitting and going back to Grand Rapids”. I asked him how he knew and he gave me the standard “I make it my business to know”.

A few days after I had accepted the job, Lowry called me again and wanted me to come over to Grand Rapids.  He had something for me.   I drove across state from Detroit to Grand Rapids and met him, Stan Webb, and the entire staff, at the station.  It was a bit of a homecoming and a nice little reception.   Later in the evening, Mays called me into what would become my office.  The same office that had been previously occupied by my mentors Mike Lareau and Jim White.  Mays handed me the keys to a 1995 Infinity Q45.  It was the leased car that belonged to Bruce Holberg, the previous station owner.  I could keep the car but would have to turn it in at the end of the lease.  Then Mays asked me to drive them to the airport.  We hopped in the Q45 and drove out to the Northern Air private flight facility at the Kent County International Airport.  The Clear Channel jet was waiting.  It was a snowy night in March and the flurries were blowing all over the tarmac.  We entered the building where Lowry and Stan met their pilot.  We said our goodbyes and I watched them walk out towards the waiting plane with the backdrop of a dark Winter sky and lake effect snow showers swirling all around.  Then, Lowry stopped, turned around, and walked back.  He opened the door where I was standing, grabbed me by the lapels on my coat, and said “50 Million Dollars..don’t F%$K it up”.

GULP.  It was on me now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#27 The Fat Lady Sings

Following the death of JP McCarthy, it was decided that an immediate successor would be inappropriate.  Besides, Jimmy Barrett was doing an excellent job hosting the morning show with the able assistance of Mike Shiels and Russ White.  WJR General Manager Mike Feezey insisted that we continue to rebuild the on air line up with Mitch Albom in the afternoon and a new show in Mid-Day.   JP had died in August and I spent the remainder of the year working on the development of the new Mitch Albom Show and the Ken Calvert Show.  But, always in the foreground of my mind was the morning show.  And anyone in this business knows that so goes the morning, so goes the station.

I had given consideration to several on air talents including WJR’s Jimmy Launce – a fixture on WJR for eons.  And there was Frank Beckman, then the play by play announcer for the Tigers.  Frank expressed an interest.  Jimmy Launce was less enthusiastic.  I even kicked around the idea of putting Mitch Albom in the morning chair.  There were all kinds of suggestions, but the reality is that there were only two contenders.  Dick Purtan and Paul W Smith.  I was firmly convinced that it had to be Paul W.

Many in the building didn’t like the idea of Smith replacing JP.  One sales manager took me aside and said “He’s a JP wannabe” to which I said “Thank God”.  My rationale was very simple.  Paul W Smith had spent a career studying McCarthy.  He understood the art of the interview, the importance of getting out there and shaking hands with just about anyone who is anyone in Metro Detroit.  He was outgoing, gregarious, and just oozed WJR from every pore in his body.  Dick Purtan, on the other hand, would have meant a total change – a complete overhaul of the morning show.  It would not have been a seamless transition.  One other important fact – Purtan was under contract with WKQI.

Management, at least initially, agreed with my argument and that an offer would be extended to Paul W Smith.  A contract was drawn up and I contacted Paul and told him Mike Feezey and I would join him for dinner in Philadelphia.  And so it began.  About an hour before I was to meet Feezey at Detroit’s Metro Airport, Cap Cities ABC Executive Don Balukas called me:

“Skip, where’s Feezey?”

“He’s playing golf Don.  I’m going to meet him at the airport this afternoon and we’ll fly to Philly to meet with Paul and present him with the contract”

“Don’t do that.  Fly down there, keep him on the warm burner, but don’t give him the contract and don’t offer him the job”

“Why?”

“What if I told you we had Dick Purtan”

“How could that be?  He’s under contract.  We can’t touch him”

“Let me worry about that..you just keep Smith in the wings for now and don’t present him with that contract”

When I arrived at the airport, Balukas had already filled Feezey in.  A lot of different scenarios were playing out in my mind but there were two things I knew for sure.  This wasn’t going to be easy..and dinner with Paul W was going to be awkward.

We met Paul at a Ruth Chris Steakhouse in downtown Philadelphia and dinner was mostly a bunch of small talk.  I was uncomfortable.  When Feezey got up to use the restroom, Paul leaned over and said “what in the hell is going on here?”  I told him something at the corporate level was developing but not to despair.  I truly believed that it would work out.   Paul is a very shrewd businessman and he already knew that there was a little dance going on between Purtan’s attorney, Henry Baskim, and Balukas.  Baskim wasn’t going to waste his time with the local yokels..he went right to the top.

Apparently Purtan was unhappy with his employer and believed there was a blatant violation of his contract – so blatant that he could cancel his contract and go elsewhere.  And so began months and months of limbo.  And during this time, Paul would call to ask “has the Fat Lady Sung yet”  – which meant, has Purtan gotten out of his contract and signed with WJR.

Now, the rest of the story….Purtan wasn’t about to cough up the money to pay an attorney to get him out of his deal with WKQI.  And Cap Cities ABC couldn’t pay – that would be contract tampering.  But someone paid.  I can only speculate where the money came from but it’s speculation.  It took months for this process to play out and, almost every week, I’d get the “fat lady call” from Paul W.  Finally, around the first of 1996, a judge ruled in Purtan’s favor that WKQI had indeed violated the terms of his agreement.  Purtan was free to work wherever he so chose.

I had my very first meeting with Dick Purtan shortly after he was free of his contract.  I had never met him before.  Feezey and I met Dick at his home in a beautiful gated community in the Orchard Lakes area of metro Detroit.  I found him to be somewhat reserved, maybe even a little shy.  He was not the funny guy you hear on the radio.  Mostly, he was all business and very serious.  He sure didn’t strike me as someone who was excited about coming to work at WJR.  A variety of things were discussed like how much he would need to pay his staff.  We also talked about where his office would be (he did not want JP’s old office).  Dick was bringing his entire staff with him and we talked about where they would be located in the station.  Dick expressed concern about interviews vs playing music.  We assured him that working with Mike Shiels and Russ White, he would be in good hands and he seemed good with that.   But leaving the meeting I had the queezy feeling that this deal was never going to close.

Menwhile, WJR ushered in 1996 with 2 new shows.  Both Mitch Albom and Ken Calvert debuted their new programs on January 2nd.  Month of planning went into the new programs, especially the Mitch Albom Show.  I worked directly with Mitch on all aspects of the show..everything from who his producer would be, to his cohosts, to promotion.  We thought it would be fun to have a live studio band every day on the show.  I’ll never forget how WJR’s chief engineer reacted to the prospect of a live studio band performing every day on the Mitch Albom show.

Ed Butterbaugh was a legendary engineer.  Ed was the genius behind the incredible technical sound of The Big 8, CKLW..the powerful top 40 blowtorch that dominated Detroit radio ratings from the mid 60’s to early 70’s.  Ed also had a legendary temper and when he blew his top, everyone scattered.  Prior to the first Mitch Albom show, Ed appeared in my office, hands firmly planted on my desk. He was glaring at me, the color of his face had turned to a bright red and the veins in his neck were popping out..  “You just can’t have a band set up in the studio!!!!!  It’s got to be professionally mic’d !!! And who do you think is going to do that??!!!”  I really hadn’t given it that much thought. I tried to reason with him and calm him down.  “Ed, just teach us how to do it and we’ll take care of it”.  But Ed insisted it was an engineering responsibility.  So, everyday an assigned engineer would set up the microphones for the band.   I really didn’t see what the big deal was because there was always a studio engineer on duty 24/7.  I’m certain that all the bluster and hubris was because he wasn’t consulted in the first place.

The Mitch Albom show debuted on January 2nd, 1996.  We had assembled a good cast for the show including Mitch, comedian Ken Brown, and Voice Actor Rachel Nevada.  The show was produced by Joan Isabella who we recruited from Philadelphia.  The studio band sounded great and the show flowed well with a good mix of topical talk and a bit of humor.  I was pleased with the roll out and, although Mitch is very particular and tends to be overly critical, I think he was pleased with the first show.   There were some hiccups though.  Mitch wasn’t disciplined on timing which is why newscasts ran late most of the time.  And he didn’t like the afternoon sports to go any longer than one minute.  Sports Director Chuck Swirsky (who is now the voice of the Chicago Bulls) was outraged when Mitch put the sound of a ticking clock under his sportscasts.  When one minute was up, there was this loud buzzer signaling that Chuck’s time was up, regardless of whether he was done.  It was actually kind of a shitty thing to do.

Meanwhile, the interminable negotiations with Dick Purtan continued into the new year.  One day I got a very strange call from Purtan who was driving from Detroit, across lower Ontario, to Niagara Falls and then into Buffalo, New York.

“Skip, It’s Dick Purtan”

“Hey Dick, whats up”

“I’m driving with my wife to visit my mother in law in Buffalo and I can hear the station all the way over here at Niagara Falls”

“Yes, we have a great signal in that direction”

“I’m listening to the Mitch Albom Show and I’ve got a real problem with the show”

“what’s that?”

“Mitch is doing a bit with some guy doing an impersonation of George Bush.  Who is that?”

“I have no idea.  Why?”

“I do that bit on my show and we can’t have Mitch Albom doing it on his show.  You need to tell him to stop”

“Dick, with all due respect, you don’t work here yet.”

“OK..I get it..I’ll call Feezey”

It didn’t take any more than 15 minutes for Mike Feezey to show up in my office telling me I need to go up to the studio and tell Mitch Albom that he couldn’t do the George Bush bit anymore.

“Mike..you want me to go up to the studio and tell Mitch Albom that a guy who doesn’t even work here is demanding he not do a bit on the air?  You really want me to do that?”

Feezey bummed one of my cigarettes, took a couple of puffs,  and then muttered “I guess not..forget it”.

(phone rings)

“Skip, It’s Paul W..has the fat lady sung yet?”

And now the final act of the Purtan episode.  It happened at the 50th birthday party for Art Voulo, a well known radio historian who has chronicled the history of just about every radio station in America.  Art is affectionately called radio’s best friend.  The party took place at a club, north of Detroit, on the shores of Lake St. Claire.  All of the Detroit radio gentry was in attendance including Elaine Baker, the General Manager of WOMC, Detroit’s powerful oldies station.  Elaine had a great reputation for being a tough but astute broadcaster.  Like me, she knew that if there is one station that Dick Purtan would be a perfect fit for is WOMC.  Anyhow, Elaine came up to me at the party and came right out and said “So, how are things going with Purtan?”  WJR’s negotitions with Dick were the worst kept secret in Detroit by this time.  I took the bait.  “Elaine, I think you already know how it’s going.  You may want to do us both a favor and hire him.”  She gave me a rather sly smile and walked away without saying one more word.

A few days later a very excited Mike Feezey came into my office.  He had a large envelope.  “It’s finally here..the Dick Purtan contract.  I’m heading out to Dick’s house to get his signature.  I’ll call you before the ink dries.”  About 2 hours later Feezey called me from Dick’s house and told me Purtan got delayed and wasn’t there to sign the contract.  “He’ll sign it tomorrow”  The next day, Mike drove back out to Purtan’s house only to learn that Purtan wasn’t there again.  Mike knew that he was used by Purtan’s attorney, Henry Baskin.  Purtan wasn’t going to WJR.  He signed with WOMC – the very same day.  Mike was angry and he said “call your friend in Philadelphia.”  I wanted to make sure I understood what he said.  “Mike, you’re telling me to call Paul W Smith and tell him he’s got the job?  Is that what your telling me?”  “yes…get it done now before the news gets out about Purtan.”

I immediately called Paul W Smith:

“Paul, it’s Skip..the Fat Lady is signing”

“Oh God…tell me”

“She’s singing  (and I sang it in my best Soprano)  Paul..come to Detroit!”

I think it was the best call I ever made.  To this day, 22 years later, Paul W Smith is hosting the morning show on WJR and Mitch Albom is still on in the afternoon.

And that is my WJR story.

 

 

 

 

#26 WJR post JP

The big question that everyone was consumed with is who will be the new morning host on WJR. Following the untimely death of JP McCarthy, it became Detroit Media’s Top guessing game.

I probably contributed to the drama by commissioning a research project. I contacted my good friend Dr. Ed Cohen to work up a study and get it in the field. We put several names on the list and asked respondents a variety of questions regarding their listening preferences and who would be best suited to replace McCarthy.

One person that contacted me through his agent expressing an interest was Soupy Sales. Soupy was a frequent guest on JP’s show and, I believe, was a guest host a couple of times.  Soupy began his TV career in Detroit. So, in many respects, he was a well known Detroit personality.  Anyhow, when constructing the questionnaire with Dr. Ed, I said “just for the hell of it, let’s put Soupy on the list”.  A few days later when I arrived at the office, my normally cheerful assistant Fran Ehlers scowled at me, raising her voice while slamming a copy of the morning Free Press on my desk. “How could you possibly consider Soupy Sales to replace JP!”  There it was – The headline in the newspaper. “Soupy Sales on list to replace JP McCarthy”.  Yikes!!!! I had a lot of explaining to do.  But in reality, there were only two real contenders.

Dick Purtan, was Detroit’s funnyman in the morning.  He had done morning shows in Detroit stations WXYZ,  CKLW, and now was at WKQI. With his cast of characters and Dick’s somewhat wry and dry sense of humor, combined with superb writing,  I used to laugh my ass off when Purtan was doing mornings on CKLW.  I frequently tuned in to hear his antics on my long drives from Grand Rapids to Toledo in the early 80’s.  Although Dick was known for his comedy, he had a serious side too – partnering with many charities raising millions over the years in Detroit.  Everyone in town knew Dick Purtan.  He was the best at what he did.  I was a big fan.

And then there was Paul W Smith.  Paul and I worked together at WSPD in Toledo. Paul was a JP protege and had done morning shows in Detroit at CKLW, WABC and WMCA in New York City, and WWDB in Philadelphia.  Paul had superb interviewing skills and relished rubbing elbows with the shakers and movers.  Paul was not comedic like Purtan, but he did have a keen sense of humor and an engaging personality both on and off the air.   At the time of JP’s death, Paul was hosting the popular WJR Mid-day Focus show while doing mornings at WWDB.  Motor City listeners were certainly familiar with Paul W.

The overwhelming consensus from the staff was Dick Purtan should be the new morning host on WJR.   I recall gathering Mike Shiels and Russ White in my office and soliciting their input.  They felt Purtan would be the best choice.  There was never a question in my mind, not for a nano second, of who that person should be.  My choice may surprise you.