#16 – Promotions

I think the very best promotion in the Grand Rapids market during  my tenure as WOOD’s Program Director was that of a competitor. 

In 1984 WCUZ put Dennis Sutton up on a billboard. The billboard was an elaborate design by the marketing genius of Greg Hagley at Rogers Department Store.  It actually had a little house where Sutton liveduntil the Detroit Tigers lost a game. That was a championship year for Detroit and Dennis was up on that billboard for a long time.  That promotion generated market wide buzz.  A dream come true to those behind the promotion and a nightmare to competitors. 

We did some good stuff at WOOD too.  Road shows to Ireland and London were highlights. We took hundreds of listeners over the years to Dublin for St. Patrick’s Day. Of course WOODs strong ties with Disneyworld gave us a front row seat to a multitude of new attraction openings at WDW.  We did several broadcasts from various locations at Disneyworld. 

Perhaps the best promotion we did was the brainchild of Gary Allen.  The Baby Boomers Birthday Bash.  We rounded up the markets original top 40 DJ’s and turned the station into a blast from the past on a Friday.  Bill Merchant, and Skip Bell were flown in for the event. Tom Quain, Jim Francis and even Bruce Grant rounded out the lineup. Mel Vandegavel did the news.  We tweaked the audio processing on the station with some reverb and used old 1960s jingles.  That night we capped it off with a dance on the Monroe Mall.  The Kingtones played to a huge crowd.  What a day!!! 

In the end, the promotions that people remember are the good ones.  And my experience is that they really are fairly simple. 

Pictured – top row Skip Essick, Tom Quain. Middle row – Mel Vandegavel, Mark Roberts, Gary Allen. Front row – Bill Merchant, Jim Francis, Gary Bazner, Skip Bell, Chuck Bailey. 



# 15 – The Baz

BAZNER

 

Gary Bazner would often say to me that there are two kinds of people in broadcasting.  Those that have been fired, and those that will be.  He also told me on numerous occasions that he would die young. 

When Bruce Grant informed management he intended on retiring from WOOD Radio, we began the search for his replacement.  The Research Group was hired to conduct a study in the market.  The findings confirmed our belief that WCUZ’s Andy Rent and Dennis Sutton could successfully take over the morning show on WOOD and even grow the audience.  We offered them the job…they turned us down.

We knew that Gary Bazner was a very popular TV personality in the market.  The Baz was TV 8’s head meteorologist and he had a larger than life personality.  Perhaps that would work on radio?  A reasonable thinking person might come to that conclusion.  But there was one problem.  Bazner had a contract.  What happened next set off a chain of events that changed the TV broadcast landscape in Grand Rapids for years.

I had already known that Bazner would be interested in coming to WOOD Radio so we very delicately approached Channel 8 management and asked them if we might approach Gary,  being mindful that any discussions with him without managements approval could be contract tampering.  Much to my surprise, Channel 8 green lighted the idea.  Hmmmmm – that was too easy.   Channel 8 had been in negotiations with Channel 13’s Craig James.  James was numero uno in Grand Rapids.  He was the markets first TV meteorologist and his contract was up. But Channel 8 had a problem..that I helped them solve.  We hired Bazner – they hired Craig James.  And the headlines were huge!  Of course WCUZ wasn’t too happy about all of this and they leaked to the Grand Rapids Press that Andy Rent and Dennis were our first choice.  I thought that was petty. 

Gary Bazner took over the morning show on WOOD Radio in early 1986 and Bruce Grant semi-retired, doing Saturday mornings and filling in for Bazner during vacation time.  Pairing Bazner with the assembled morning team,  which included newly hired meteorologist Peter Chan was a little rough in the beginning.  There were awkward moments of dead air as Gary was learning how to run the control board.  But otherwise, things seemed to take off well.  At least for a while.  Without getting into specifics, it was becoming increasingly clear that this was going to be a bumpy ride.

Bazner had big ideas including doing the morning show from the America’s Cup Race in Australia.  When Gary approached me with the idea, I couldn’t get my mind around it.  But he had already worked it out with America’s Cup Sponsors Amway Corp to fully fund the broadcast.  In February 1986 I found myself with Bazner on the shores of the Indian Ocean in Western Australia.  It was here I first met the legendary JP McCarthy from WJR – also there broadcasting from the America’s Cup Races. I’ll never forget the plane ride over.  The 747 United Jet took a bolt of lightening somewhere over the equator.  The smell of burning electrical components permeated the cabin and people were alarmed.  Bazner was sleeping.  I woke him up – he looked out the window, saw a small fire on the engine, and said it’s no problem..and he went back to sleep!   I was about ready to wet my pants.  I thought this is it..we’re going down.  In fact, were were going down..to dump fuel over the ocean. The captain addressed us over the PA and said we had experienced and “over temperature: and we were landing at Fiji.  We made a safe landing at Nandi on the Fiji Islands and were there several hours while crews worked to repair the engine.  Who knew they could fix a big Rolls Royce Jet Engine on Fiji??!!

As I had mentioned at the beginning of this blog, Baz was essentially a fatalist.  Things like a fire on a plane over the Pacific didn’t phase him.  But a memo from the program director would set him off!

Gary left WOOD radio after I had moved on.  He moved to Detroit and became meteorologist for WKBD TV 50 in Detroit.  He died of a massive heart attack at the age of 49, 22 years ago yesterday, February 2nd 1996.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blog #14 – Digging out

I knew we had to make aggressive changes at WOOD in order for the station to maintain dominance.  There was an inherent attitude that the stations (both AM and FM) were  impenetrable  but I knew otherwise.  I think one of the more brilliant moves that started bringing the station into a new era was when news director Greg Moceri hired Paula Drake to be the morning news anchor.  Moceri was always smarter than me and we both knew it.  Paula, paired with Bruce Grant!  Who would have thought that would work..but it did.  During this time we mounted an aggressive TV campaign called “The Janitor”. created by Chuck Bloor Productions.  In the commericial, the night time janitor goes into the control room and has a fantasy of being on the air.  Out of his mouth are the voices of Bruce Grant, Paula Drake, some WOOD Radio jingles, etc.  I went out to Hollywood to produce the spot.  It worked and we started to see the ratings improve.  Of course things can turn on a dime.  I thought Paula would be with us forever..but she got an offer in a bigger market.

I don’t recall who replaced Paula in the morning news anchor chair, but about this time I cut a deal with the Grand Rapids Police Department to do traffic reports on WOOD.  We set up a little broadcast center at the police department and hired retired Captain Charlie Tichon to do traffic reports on the Bruce Grant Show.  I had to coach Charlie a lot….but eventually the credibility of reports from the police department eclipsed the delivery shortcomings.

Of course, WCUZ was not going to lay down and let this go.  They started a big stink that the police department should not be used for traffic reports unless ALL the Grand Rapids radio stations could benefit from these reports.  So, we just moved Charlie down to the studios of WOOD.  By this time he was already established. So, where he did the reports was of no consequence.

One morning I was tipped off that our contract with WOTV Channel 8 weather services was in peril and that WCUZ had offered them a more generous compensation deal along with promotion to move their weather from WOOD Radio to them.  This meant that one of the city’s popular broadcast personalities, Gary Bazner, would be going to WCUZ.  It also meant that we were without a weather service.  There were, of course, options.  I would have gone with WZZM’S meteorologists.  Craig James and Bill Steffen were considered the tops in town..but they were not available to us.  And I don’t remember why.  There were weather services like Accu Weather, Pinpoint weather, and John McMurray’s weather services.  But I wanted to do something different.

Peter Chan was a brilliant meteorologist who had just graduated from the University of Wisconsin.  I was tipped off that he was looking for his first professional job..and here’s the clincher.  Grand Rapids was his home town.  This was no-brainer..we hired Peter. With the purchase of weather forecasting equipment, including a color radar weather unit, WOOD Radio was arguably the first radio station in the country with it’s own weather department.

With traffic reports, weather reports, more news updates in the morning, Bruce’s show became more of a news wheel.  But Bruce was also sending signals that he wanted to retire.  He felt that many of the things he did..were no being done by somebody else.  We began the steps to replace Bruce and I felt the best option was to hire the WCUZ morning team of Andy Rent and Dennis Sutton.  We made them the offer they couldn’t refuse..but they did.  Back to the drawing board.

Next…bringing a 747 into Grand Rapids..Road Shows…The Baz..post Bruce WOOD..and WOOD-FM changes..and so much more.  But for now, this is Skip Essick, signing off from San Miguel de Allende.

#13 – Grand Rapids Part 2


Spring 82 I was recalled to Grand Rapids to program the company’s flagship stations WOOD and WOOD FM.  Program Director Bill Struyk was stepping down after a long and successful run at the stations.  He was purchasing his own stations in Grand Haven, Michigan.

Times were changing. WOOD 1300 was facing a serious direct challenge from WCUZ, a country station that took some pages out of the WOOD playbook. WOOD Broadcasting President Mike Lareau asked me to come back and take the programming helm.  A look at the ratings and there was no doubt WOOD AM was in deep trouble. WCUZ had mounted a direct challenge to WOOD’s seemingly impenetrable news department. They also brought former WOOD personalities Andy Rent and Dave Randall on board. Rent was teamed with Dennis Sutton and the pair began chipping away at Bruce Grant on WOOD.  Of course it didn’t hurt that WCUZ carried the Detroit Tigers.  For the first time in my relatively young career, I was about to get beat.  

For two years I was pretty much a caretaker PD. I wanted to make big changes on both the AM and FM.  The AM was old sounding.  The FM even older playing elevator music.  But the owners of WOOD broadcasting were not about to support any big change.  There was too much concern about music.  It seemed that music dominated every program discussion about WOOD AM.  But the ratings success of nighttime’s Talknet and our weekly Sunday Morning Talk Show clearly showed the strength of news and talk.  Still, the charge was to program middle of the road music mixed with personality chit chat, news and information.  At one point I was ordered to develop a broadway music feature. The wives of the owners were a part of a music committee that apparently had a penchant for that sort of thing.  Meanwhile WOOD FM continued to chug along playing instrumental “beautiful music” produced by Jim Schulke out of New Jersey.   Schulke’s “matched flow” format had unbelievable success. WOOD-FM was the first FM station to be number one in a market…and they did it with elevator music, limited commercials, and non intrusive production. I really wasn’t the program director of WOOD FM. Schulke was.  Every time the ratings came out I’d go into the master control room at pat the automation machine saying “nice job.”  But even the FM started showing erosion. The audience was literally dying off. 

And WOOD AM was on a downward spiral. 1984 was serving up a cocktail I didn’t like the taste of.  WCUZ FM, helped with a winning Detroit Tigers, and a lot of brilliant promotion, kicked my ass.  

Next – digging out. 

#12 CONSULTANTS

IMG_2769Like many industries, broadcasting has a lot of consultants and I’ve worked with quite a few. There are legendary guys like Mike Joseph, Bill Drake, and Paul Drew.  Some others that come to mind are Tim Moore, Gary Berkowitz, Ron White, Dave Lange, and the always impeccably dressed Mike McVay.  I worked with most of these guys but my favorite was Lee Bayley.

Lee Bayley was the consultant for WHAS in Louisville and was very instrumental in my hiring at what I consider the best job I ever had.  Lee and I had talked off an on over the phone for several years before I actually met him in person.  Our friendship developed over long phone conversations about radio.  Lee had a background working with and for broadcast legends Bill Drake and Gene Chenualt.  He knew his stuff.   When I was up for the WHAS PD job in 1989, Lee tracked me down in Ireland to let me know I got the job.  I have no idea how he found me but I will never forget the call.  I had been touring the Ring of Kerry with my family on a rainy late Winter day.  Returning to Killarney’s Great Southern Hotel, the receptionist told me I had a call from “a Mr. Lee Bayley in America”.   Wow!!!  Lee and I worked together for nearly 7 years and I always enjoyed his visits.   I was saddened to learn of Lee’s death a few years back.  He passed away of a sudden heart attack after enjoying a day of golf.  He was only 73.

Mike Joseph was arguably the most influential programmer in American top 40 radio.  His ratings conquests are legendary.   Joseph programmed the legendary WABC in New York City in 1960. as well as stations in just about every major market in the United States.  He also consulted a number of stations in the Midwest including stations in Grand Rapids. Ft. Wayne, and Toledo.  His usual MO was to lure competing talent in markets he had stations.  I was called by Joseph twice while I was at WGRD in Grand Rapids.  He was setting up stations in Hartford and then Providence.  I had no desire to move to the east coast so I passed.  But Joseph was a really big deal.  Here’s an interesting story:  One day, while I was working in Toledo, I received a phone call from my godfather – Donny Francis.  Donny is my fathers’ best friend from high school.  They’re best of friends to this day.  Anyhow, Donny invited me to his home for dinner.  During dinner he said “I don’t think I ever told you this but my first cousin is in radio.  He’s always bragging about how important he is.  Ever hear of Mike Joseph?”  My jaw must have hit the floor.  “Donny, yes I have.  And he IS a really big deal”.  I don’t know what ever happened to Mike.  If anyone knows, please comment.

Paul Drew had left his position with Drake and had ventured out doing one day seminars with programmers and managers.  Mike Lareau and Jim White from WOOD and WSPD respectively invited myself and WSPD programmer Rick Belcher to join them in a one day seminar with the legendary Paul Drew.  I was in awe.  Drew was intense.  His seminar was about management..not programming.   To this day there is one thing he said that has stuck with me.  “When it comes to business..don’t trust anyone”.  I remember asking Drew “what do you do about problem employees?”  He said “don’t hire them”.

The day of the independent consultant has somewhat disappeared.  Large broadcast companies hired a lot of the consultants and use them internally.  Homogeneous formats that are cranked out of corporate programming offices have zapped a lot of  individuality out of local radio.  But I have a feeling that’s about to change soon as some companies will be forced to divest as a part of their debt restructuring.    I’ll keep my fingers crossed.  Who knows..maybe someone out there can use an old war horse to inject some good old local show biz into their operation.  You never know..but, then again, when it comes to business….

 

 

#11 – WSPD

I arrived in Toledo the same night Team USA beat the Soviets in Hockey during the 1980 Winter Olympics.  I was told to go directly to a hotel – and not the station.  I surmised that a mass firing was going to take place. General Manager Jim White and company president Mike Lareau terminated the employments of the program director and the sales manager. The chief engineer elected to retire. 

The next morning I arrived at the WSPD studios on South Superior Street ready to go to work. I met both Jim and Mike at the station around 7am and they gave me a brief tour.  The studios were dark and dumpy with very old equipment. The offices were 1950 colonial decor. The previous owner, Storer Broadcasting, used Williamsburg style colonial on all their properties.  The outside of the building kind of looked like a Bill Knapp’s Restaurant. 

As staff started arriving at the station they quickly knew something was up. New faces in the building!  We were called “ the Grand Rapids mafia”.  But, after an early morning staff meeting in which I was introduced, things settled down to business as usual. 

I inherited a mixed bag of staffers.  Some were very good, some had to go.  But I wasted no time in getting the station back on track.  Morning personality Jack Mitchell was key to our success. Getting Jack to buy in was my first goal.  Jack and I spent a lot of time talking about the overall programming and then, more specifically, his show.  In keeping the basics of Jack’s show in tact, we began adding other information elements like a weather service and more local news updates.  A new morning news anchor was hired.  Mary Beth Zolick came on board and it wasn’t long before Jack started bringing Mary Beth more into the show.  By the way, I had real concerns about the chit chat going on between the two of them  but Jack insisted that it was going to work. He was right!  Jack and Mary Beth became household names for almost 30 years in Toledo.

Mid days on WSPD were hosted by Bill Stewart. We hired Bill from WRFD in Columbus.  Bill was (still is) a creative on air talent.  These were before the days of talk radio.  The shows were a mix of music and information and Bill was obsessed with his headphones and getting a 10 share or higher.  About the headphones: our chief engineer Bill Rossini literally went thru dozens of  headphones, looking for a pair that Bill liked. To this day I’m not sure if we ever found the right set of phones for Bill.  I recall vividly Bill telling me he would get double figures in the ratings.  I was skeptical. After all, WSPD hadn’t enjoyed ratings like that for years. But after about a year, Bill Stewart pulled it off.  

Afternoons were handled by Paul W Smith. Yes, the same Paul W who now anchors mornings on WJR in Detroit. Smith is an amazing radio personality that has outstanding interview skills and an acute intuition on what people are interested in.  And the amazing thing is that he does it with such ease. Many people criticized Paul for being a J.P. McCarthy wanna be.  JP was the legendary morning personality 60 miles north of Toledo at WJR.  My answer to that was “what’s wrong with that?” and it’s the number one reason why I hired him 15 years later as the successor to JP, who tragically died in 1995. More on that in a later blog..and you won’t want to miss it. 

WSPD had the personalities and it had the sports and news franchises.  Who could ever forget the legendary Jerry Kyle, WSPD’s sports director. But WSPD’s ratings were anemic.  Something was missing and I knew what it was.  There was nothing gluing the station together. Essentially it sounded like a lot of different stations.  Working on the basics, developing cohesion among the staff, working on consistency, focusing on news, instilling the attitude that everyone on the station is a news person, seemed to do the trick. And then I created an on air marketing campaign to match our external “Heard the News” concept.  Jingle creator Ken R Deutch developed an ID package using the Heard the News theme. 

During this time, crosstown WOHO owned and managed by Lew Dickey Sr. was mounting a serious challenge against WSPD. If it’s one think Dickey wanted, it was to beat WSPD in the ratings.  He came close.  He had a solid morning show, his news effort was substantial, he was courting Paul W Smith almost daily, and he put the new NBC Talknet on the air with Bruce Williams and Sally Jesse Raphael. I was stupid and passed on it when it was offered to WSPD. To this day I don’t remember why.  With the exception of our new nightly sports talk show hosted by Jude Lacava, our nights on Speedy were weak.  Nevertheless, WSPD’s ratings began to increase. And after one year,the station  was generating healthy ratings. Lew Dickey commented that you should never count WSPD out.  

Note: about a year after I was gone from WSPD, my successor Rick Belcher was able to right my wrong and get Talknet on WSPD.  

While things were going well at WSPD, things started to soften at the company’s flagship station, WOOD in Grand Rapids. It was almost two years to the day when I got a call from Mike Lareau. He asked me to come back to Grand Rapids to program WOOD.  And so, Grand Rapids part 2 was about to begin. 

The one thing I know for sure. It takes a staff of great talent to get ratings. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time nudging them along. That’s really about all it takes. 

 

#10 Holy Toledo

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In late 1979 I had heard that WOOD Broadcasting was purchasing WSPD Radio in Toledo, Ohio while listening to a newscast on WOOD in Grand Rapids.  At that instant, I knew I was going to be their program director in Toledo.  Of course, how to do this would take my very best PR efforts because I really didn’t know the upper management team at WOOD.

Toledo?  Why Toledo?  I was born in Toledo and lived there until I was 12 years old.  My parents were born in Toledo and my maternal grand parents were born in Toledo.  A lot of family history there.  And radio in the early 60’s in Toledo was the best.  WTOD, WOHO, and WTTO all battled it out with each other and the Big 8, CKLW in Windsor.  It all made for great radio.  WSPD, or as it was nicknamed back then “Speedy” was Toledo’s first radio station.  In fact, it was Ohio’s first radio station.  The call letters stood for Speedene gasoline, the name of the company that owned WSPD.  Years later I would joke that the call letters stood for Where Skip’s Program Director.  The mascot of the station was a Frontiersman character with a coon skin cap – emblazoned on the front “Speedy”    Growing up in Toledo I can remember my folks listening to Art Berry and Jim Ubelhart on Speedy.

On a couple of occasions during the 70’s I applied for an announcing position at WSPD but my top 40 style didn’t fit the format of the station.  Nevertheless, over the years I had paid particular attention to WSPD, their line-up, format, news, etc.  And I also tracked their ratings, which were deteriorating.

I had sent a letter to both Jim White and Mike Lareau expressing my interest in the station and requesting a meeting.  Jim White was WOOD’s General Sales Manager and he had been named the new General Manager of WSPD.  Mike Lareau was President of WOOD Broadcasting.  It didn’t take long and I received a call from Mike Lareau wanting me to meet with both he and Jim.  My intuition told me they were not happy with the existing programming team at WSPD and wanted someone more familiar with the WOOD way of doing things.  I certainly was familiar with the WOOD-way.  Easy middle of the road music, topical announcers, and – most important – strong news.  WSPD was going in a different direction.  More top 40 type music (like Greeneyed Lady by Sugarloaf, and a de-emphasis on the news.  My pitch:  Soften the music, strengthen the news,  improve the overall production value of the station, require show prep from the announcers, work on the technical sound of the station, and contesting.  I loved doing radio contests.  Cash Call, The Phrase that Pays, Radio Bingo, all a bit corny, and certainly not original, but people loved playing contests.  Especially the people that participated in ratings.

I got the job.

WOOD Broadcasting’s head honcho and Mr. 51% was Bill Schroeder.  Schroeder was in his late 60’s or early 70’s at the time but he was exceptionally contemporary.  He drove around in a Porsche with a British driving cap. Schroeder had very specific ideas about WSPD too and he and I agreed on the need to strengthen news and musically make the station sound more compatible with a mature audience.  Schroeder, along with his ad agency pal Charlie Johnson developed a brilliant outdoor billboard campaign called “Heard the News”.  It was a about 1/3rd of a mans face with a huge ear on the left side of the poster with large letters “HEARD THE NEWS” and the station call letters and dial position.  That’s all it said.  Damn, it was good stuff!  My job was to take that campaign and bring it to life on the radio – not only in what we said, but what we did.

In April, 1980 I took over the reigns of programming Ohio’s Pioneer Station.  And my career in news/talk programming had begun.

Next week – putting it all together.