#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. 

 

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