#45 Mind your p’s and q’s..or else.

Most people that make a living speaking on the radio understand that fine line you dare not cross. It’s the line between opening your big mouth, pissing off a client, and costing the radio station an account. It’s that very delicate, fine line between freedom of speech, and being stupid.

I’ve been witness to countless episodes of the radio personality upsetting a client, putting advertising revenue in peril.  Happens all the time.  Client hears something they don’t like on the radio, (it could even be a song) they call the station manager and threaten to pull their advertising money.  The ploy generally works.  I’ve sat on both sides of the desk..as a program director and as a general manager.  I always considered myself a product guy..I’m certainly not a sales guy.  But when you’re getting pressure from corporate suits to drive top line revenue…well, you know where this is going.

Anyhow, I have always had a huge distaste for advertiser threats.  “You get that off the air or I’ll cancel my advertising and put it all on your competitor”.   Nervous nelly sales people run to the managers office in panic..“Oh my God!!!! you’ve got to pull so and so off the air or I’ll lose this $2000 a year annual” 

To be fair, I have an equal distaste for moronic, irresponsible on air behavior that would lead to such a showdown. 

Lately I’ve experienced my own “situations” that sort of fall in this realm.  As many of you might know, I freelance news casts in my semi retirement.  The stations I do this for are clients that I have a very high regard for.  With a news background, I have always subscribed to factual reporting.   Somebody, years ago (I forgot who,  but I never forgot the message) told me “Newsmen don’t make news.  Newsmen report the news.”  I never forgot that message.  In reporting factual news, as it recently has related to politics, I’ve received word that it’s off limits.  Seems that some listeners don’t want to hear anything that could be construed as negative as it relates to their political leanings.

There have been two of these incidents recently regarding national politics and a certain investigation.  In one instance, a listener actually contacted their local representative and this touched off a inquiry from the congresspersons office to the radio station manager, who then called me.  Of course the manager supported me as I explained that this was a legitimate news story and, in fact, was not the least bit negative.   But, this is where we are today, in the year 2019.  You better mind your P’s and Q’s buster..or else!!

Final word on this.  News people at your local TV and Radio stations work their butts off to gather legitimate news stories.  Fair and unbiased.  Don’t confuse talk shows with news casts.  There is a big big difference.

#44 Talk Radio in the age of Trump

Donald Trump was re-elected to a 2nd term as President this past Friday after the Mueller Report said there will be no more indictments coming down.

I know that writing this will generate some negative comments. But that is what you will hear across the radio dial tomorrow from conservative talk radio stations. The glee will be nauseating if you’re not a Trump fan. But make no mistake about it, there shall be gloating.

I was involved with Talk Radio for the better part of my career and I understand the beast which I helped unleash. Conservative Talk Radio is a clubhouse for like minded people. The demographics run across all spectrums – poor, affluent, uneducated, educated, etc with one thing in common: fear that their way of life is threatened by the left. Conservative Talk Radio hosts understand this fear and they do a fabulous job feeding the appetites of their constituency.

So tomorrow, if you want to free yourself of hours worth of listening to Rush, Sean, etc, here’s what you’ll miss.

🎶Nah nah nah nah nah nah… we were right, they were wrong, nah nah nah nah nah nah🎶

And in other news….

#43 – The Best Seat in the House

Radio and TV folks always get the best seat in the house.  If there’s an event coming to town, or if you’re fortunate enough to take the show on the road, there’s always a special “seat” just waiting for your royal rear end.  I’ve given a lot of thought about this and in no particular order, here is my list.

Watching the Kentucky Derby perched on the roof of Churchill Downs next to the Twin Spires.  WHAS originated it’s Derby Day Coverage from a rather crude but efficient structure nestled on the roof between the newer grandstand building and the original grandstand sprouting the Twin Spires.  We called it The Plywood Palace..and what a view!

Flying first class anywhere.  Often, broadcasters get bumped to first class to cover events abroad.  Such was the case when going to Ireland for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.  Working with Bord Failte (The Irish Tourist Board) our group was given the royal treatment with First Class or Business Class seats to the Emerald Isle.  That was years ago.   They don’t do that anymore.

Sitting behind Ernie Harwell doing play by play at Tiger Stadium.  I suspect there are people that would pay big money for that privilege.  During my stint at WJR, I went to a Tiger game and sat in the booth with Ernie and Frank Beckman.  What a thrill!!!  Harwell had been brought back in an emeritus play by play role to work with Beckman who was the regular play by play announcer in 1996.

The Best Seats in the house at any concert, play, or sporting event that your station is co-sponsoring. As part of a sponsorship package, stations get top shelf seats for the event which are normally given to clients.  Some are held back and distributed to staff.  Sharon and I sure enjoyed sitting in the KMJ suite at Bulldog stadium during Fresno State Football games.

Disney Trips.  There was a time that Disney would host press events at Walt Disney World.  Broadcasters from around the world would be invited to broadcast their shows from various locations throughout Walt Disney World depending on what they wanted to promote.  It might be a new hotel or a new attraction at the Magic Kingdom or Epcot Center.  Having nearly carte blanche access to just about everything was a very rare treat.

News Events.  One really stands out.  Shortly after Bill Clinton was inaugurated, radio and TV stations across the country were invited to a press event on the front lawn of the White House.  WHAS’ Wayne Perkey and I traveled to Washington for what was a roll out of an ill fated national health care plan.  The White House rolled out the red carpet including lots of people for us to interview like the First Lady, Al Gore, Donna Shalala, and Dee Dee Myers.  I also handled producing duties for our sister station, WOAI in San Antonio.

The squeaky chair behind the mic.  I guess the best seat in the house is the one behind the mic.  I remember very clearly a detailed memo Ron White gave me when I started at WGRD.  It stated “you have chosen broadcasting as your profession.  Therefore, you owe it to broadcasting, to be a professional”.   I always considered that the most important professional piece of advice I every received.   It truly is a privilege crack open that mic and do the things we do.

#42 – Uncle Lou

The man who inspired me to get into the radio biz signed off last week at the age of 98. My dad’s brother, Lou Essick had been in the biz for over 50 years, starting his career right after World War 2. His adventures in radio took him from be a young announcer at a fledgling Michigan radio network, to the Carolinas and Georgia, where he became a star when personalities mattered to both the public and station owners. We’re talking about the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s.

When I was a kid, Uncle Lou would come to Toledo for an annual visit with the rest of the Essick clan. I used to think of him as a real star. After all, he talked on the radio! For a youngster, that was a big deal.

Lou was a hell of a storyteller. As recently as this past Spring, I’d listen to him tell stories of growing up during the depression. Running numbers for the syndicate in Toledo to make a buck. Lou would choke up and fight back tears when telling how, during WW2, he went to visit his brother Pip in France right after the D Day invasion, only to find out he was killed.

I asked Lou’s wife Carol to help me fill in some blanks. She writes:

Lou was sent to Fort Fisher, North Carolina for training where he met Kathleen “Kay” Taylor, who, he said, was being pursued by every GI on the base. They married and he went overseas. While he was in Europe, Sandra, his first child was born. He was injured and eventually returned to the states to rehab at the Wakeman Convalescent Center in Indiana where he was discharged September 1945. He did spend time with Dave and his mother before heading South. (I believe this is the time period when Dave’s baby boy was so sick and died.) I remember him saying he was concerned about what he was going to do for a career being disabled and having a wife and child to support. I don’t remember the details about who suggested he try radio, but he did join WGNI when it went on the air Christmas Eve 1945.

About 4 years ago, during one of our annual Jekyll Island visits. Lou told a story I had never heard before. After the war, Lou went to Grand Rapids to visit his oldest brother, my uncle Dave. Dave was selling furniture at Herpolshimers Department store. While in Grand Rapids, Lou had heard about an upstart national radio network operating out of WLAV. The owner, Leonard A Versluis gave Lou a job as an announcer. Apparently, an affiliate didn’t like the way Lou sounded and complained to Versluis who subsequently fired him. During this time, Dave and his estranged wife had a very sick infant. The baby had to be sent to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for treatment but didn’t survive. Lou tells the story of both he and Dave waiting at the train station for a very small casket containing the body of the child to arrive. It was Christmas time, 1945. After the burial, Lou turned to Dave and said “let’s get out of here.” They both left Grand Rapids for good.

I spent most of my career in Grand Rapids and I never knew I had a cousin buried there. So I located the Jewish section of a cemetery, and with my daughter Cara, grandkids Olivia and Brooklyn, son in law Jose, and my wife Sharon, we fanned out checking gravestones. And there, in the very back corner, in the last row, was the marker of Maurice Ross Essick.

The way Lou told the story was mesmerizing. I could feel the cold of that winter night and the loneliness that had to be experienced by my two uncles as they both stood, waiting for a train and a little casket. My writing doesn’t do the story justice.

Lou moved on to the Carolinas landing at WGNI in Wilmington, NC where he soon became a big hit doing crazy antics on the radio like playing The Witch Doctor or the Purple People Eater. His jokes were corny, but clean and funny. His talent for being an on air “salesman” made him a precious commodity for the station. Lou knew how to sell.. both on air and off.

The guy had a style that jumped right out of the radio. I recall hearing him on a Waycross, GA station in the early 80’s. Here was Lou playing Freeze Frame by the J Geils Band and sounding as if he was having the time of his life. He must have been in his 60s.

We used to visit with Lou and his wife Carol every year on Jekyll Island. I just saw him this past May and spoke with him on the phone the week before he died. He sounded great on the phone. I kidded him that he was shooting for 100 and he said “heck, I’m going for 110”.

The good lord apparently needed an announcer for Christmas services in heaven. At least that’s the way I like to think of it.

I’m going to really miss him. Lou Essick, signing off.

#41 – WANTED: Storytellers

I got a promotional e-mail the other day from a broadcast vendor offering vintage programs from radio’s “Golden Age”. Shows that my father grew up listening to, like The Shadow, The Lone Ranger, Jack Benny, and so forth. A part of the pitch:

Join the hundreds of AM and FM stations around the country who are delivering top-flight entertainment to their listeners and devoted audiences to their advertisers.

Program Directors Love WHEN RADIO WAS!

I’m a great believer in “the theatre of the mind”. That’s what we used to call it. When I was program director of Toledo’s WSPD, we carried the CBS Mystery Theatre. It was a radio drama series, very reminiscent of radio shows from the 40’s, created by Himan Brown that ran from 1974 to 1982. The show aired late nights and it was a ratings winner.

When I think about that era, and even when I think about the great radio personalities many of us grew up with, I have to ask the question. Where are the storytellers? Orson Wells was an amazing storyteller. So amazing, he convinced a nation that we were being attacked by aliens from Mars! Bruce Grant, the legendary morning man on WOOD Radio used theatre of the mind almost every instant his mic was on. I’ll never forget one of my first days as program director at WOOD. I heard Bruce announce he was giving away a prize and the”random selector” would choose the winning phone caller. I figured it must be some piece of equipment the station installed. I asked one of the engineers what The Random Selector was. He laughed and said it was just Bruce randomly selecting a caller. Grant was great at theatre of the mind. He had thousands of audio clips from movies and TV shows that he used as comebacks to his banter. You talk about a storyteller! No wonder the guy pulled 40 shares.

Even the great legendary Drake boss jocks had the unique ability to create energizing, exciting theatre of the mind – and they only had seconds to do it. I know a person here in my “fun side of the wall” hideaway who does national commercials. You can hear his fabulous voice on radio and TV spots throughout North America. He bills himself as a voice actor, not an announcer. He has a talent for taking a script and telling a story.

Announcers are a dime a dozen. Storytellers are the exception. If you’re new to the business, good for you! Now, learn to tell a story. Your future may very well begin with radio’s past.

Who knows what talent lurks in the hearts of the aspiring broadcaster? The Shadow knows. (Sorry, couldn’t resist)

Essick signing off

#40 – Oops

 

This time of year a video of the 70’s TV show WKRP in Cincinnati pops up on Facebook. It’s the infamous WKRP Turkey drop episode. I think it’s one of TV’s funniest shows and I’ve been told it’s based on a true story, although I’ve not verified that. Those of us in radio can identify with promotions gone wrong. I’ve been a part of a few. When I was program director of a certain radio station, which shall go unnamed to protect the innocent, a car giveaway went off the tracks.

It was part of our classic hits summer and we gave away a classic 1965 Corvette. During the week, our air personalities would drive “the rocket of death” to various retailers where listeners could come and “ooh and ahh” over the car, and then register to win it. Towards the end of the summer, we drew about 20 finalists. Each finalist was given a key. Only one key would start the car. To add to the drama, we staged the giveaway event at a prominent location.

The promotion director had the keys made. Only one key would actually work, the others would fit into the ignition, but they would fail to turn on. Now, for those of you who remember the old General Motors ignitions, you may recall they had 3 positions. Lock-Off-On. The ignition housing resembled a wing nut. You could remove the key in the off position and still be able to start the car. If you turned the ignition to the lock position and removed the key, the only way you could start the car is re-insert the key and turn clockwise to unlock.

And so, as the car was taken to the venue for the giveaway, one of our staffers parked the car, turned the car off, and removed the key. The finalists were assembled, 20 keys were placed in sealed numbered envelopes. The first contestant ripped open his envelope, took out the key, entered the car, inserted the ignition, and….VAROOM!

I looked at the promotions director. There was the obvious bewilderment. We knew something went awry but what??!! How??!! At this point the rest of the contestants, disappointed, had began to scatter. After the event, I realized that the car ignition was not locked and any of those keys would have started the car. What I didn’t know is if that first contestant actually had the correct key. And I didn’t want to know. So, I called a good mechanic friend of mine and had the ignition changed before we handed it over to the “winner”.

That was the day I swore off doing car giveaways. They always somehow get screwed up. Of course I didn’t stay on the wagon long. I ended up doing dozens more. Each with their own unique idiosyncrasies.

#39 – The Vatican

C8E46E76-8880-4F0E-BC68-ACB55589BE1AFor years I’ve been somewhat of a Pope-a-file. I have books about the Popes and am somewhat fascinated by the whole institution. John Paul II will likely be the most influential pontiff of my lifetime. I doubt I’ll live long enough to see another of his kind. Too bad this whole priest sex abuse scandal has cast a dark cloud over his 27 year papacy.

My first trip to Rome was in 1988 where I originated a live broadcast on WOOD radio from the studios of Vatican Radio. I was hosted by Archbishop John Foley, who was the president of the papal commission of social communication. In other words, he was the popes PR guy. Foley was taking me on a private tour of St. Peter’s Basilica where, of all places, I ran into the pastor of my home parish in Lima, Ohio – Father Lamantia. When we saw each other we both exclaimed in unison “what are you doing here!” I love small world stories like that. I spent 10 days in Rome but never saw the pope.

My 2nd trip to Rome was when Benedict was Pope. No, I didn’t see him either. I think he was out of town.

My luck changed on my third trip to the eternal city. My close encounter with Pope Francis. Ahead of the trip I went to get a haircut. My barber, who is a know it all, was asking me about my upcoming trip. “Why would you want to go to Rome. It’s a dirty city, the traffic is horrible, the people are rude, the food is overrated, and there are pickpockets everywhere. Where are you staying in Rome?” He asked. I told him we were booked at the Michaelangelo hotel near the Vatican. “What a flea bag joint that is” he said. “The rooms are small, there are bedbugs, the elevators don’t work, the place stinks, and there are beggars hanging around the place”. I haven’t a clue on how he knew all this. He asked why I was going to Rome. I told him about my interest in popes and that I had bought a tour that includes a private audience with the pope.

“Private audience!!??”, he shouted as his shears were dangerously close to my neck, “I hear those so called private audiences have hundreds of people and you won’t stand a chance of getting within 50 yards of the pope. You’ve been conned!” Geez, I was glad to get out of there. What a know it all!

And now, the rest of the story. About a month later, after my trip was over, it was time for another haircut. As I walked into the shop, the barber loudly announced to everyone “the world traveler returns! So, didn’t I tell you Rome was a dirty place”. Quite the contrary I said. I found it to be clean, traffic was a bit crazy but we managed through it. The food was fabulous, and the people we delightful. And no pickpocket encounters. I could tell he was disappointed that his perception of Rome was wrong.

“What about that flea bag hotel? Did you get any bed bug bites”. No way, I said. That was a magnificent hotel. The rooms were spacious, the decor was recently updated, the linens, towels, and other amenities were first class. And, they even had a fruit basket and bottle of Preseco waiting for us.

The barber, now clearly agitated that he was once again misguided, said “oh yeah, we’ll what about that so called private audience with the pope?” He had me on this one. Well, you were right, I told him. There were hundreds of people there and I could barely see the pope. “Ahh Hah! I told you! I was right!!” He said.

But then a strange thing happened, I said. Two of the pope’s Swiss guards approached us and said the pope wanted to meet with us privately in the apostolic palace.

My barber was almost speechless. “So what happened?” He asked. Well, we were led into the popes private chambers and there he was. Pope Francis. He came up to me and whispered something into my ear.

The barber asked “what did he say?”

He wanted to know where I got the shitty haircut.