I was first offered the program director position at WJR in Detroit in 1991. But when I learned management fired legendary Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell , I backed out. General Manager Jim Long asked me to reconsider. He said he had already told his boss I was coming aboard. I told Jim that I completely disagreed with the firing of Harwell and that it would be a major PR blunder that would distract from the work that needed to be done at the station. I was right. It was a huge mistake orchestrated by management within the Tigers organization. You just don’t fire people like Ernie Harwell. The guy they hired, Rick Rizzs from the Mariners was a good guy but he didn’t stand a chance. Harwell cast too big of a shadow. The entire matter was a spectacular flop. Rizzs didn’t last very long and he was eventually replaced by well known Detroit sports announcer Frank Beckman. And Harwell was brought back too, serving as announcer Emeritus with Frank. That was a good move.
Some said I was a coward for not going to WJR in 1991. Maybe. But I never regretted it. And so I remained at WHAS and continued to enjoy the best job I ever had…until 1995.
I was in Ireland when my assistant at WHAS contacted me with an important message to call Mike Feezey at WJR in Detroit. What is it about getting job offers while in Ireland. Seems I tasted this cocktail before.
I had met Mike Feezey 4 years earlier in 1991. He was WJR’s sales manager. Now, he was General Manager and I had a hunch why he was calling me. They needed a program director and Feezey wanted me for the job. When I returned from Ireland, I flew up to Detroit. Mike picked me up at the Doubletree in Southfield, a suburb of Motown. He was driving a Mercedes. I quipped as I hopped in the car “how is it the General Manager of WJR is driving a Mercedes in Detroit?” Probably not a smart thing to say. Feezey snapped back “I can drive anything I damn well please”. And thus began my relationship with the General Manager of WJR.
Mike Feezey was a young guy, in his late 30’s, who bore a striking resemblance to actor Jim Belushi. I didn’t think we would ever be close friends but I thought we could be a good team. A complicated man, Mike was a combination of different emotions. One could walk in his office and find him reading a bible. Or you could walk in when he was unloading on someone. Feezey had his critics but you would be hard pressed to find anyone more dedicated to his family, the community, and WJR.
Following a productive Saturday with the management team at the station, I decided to take the job. It seemed the time was right and for some strange reason, I felt I was being called to the position. Little did I know what laid in wait for me. I recall phoning my father from Detroit Metro Airport as I waited for a night flight back to Louisville and told him the news. WJR – wow.
I grew up in the shadow of two giant Detroit radio stations. WJR and CKLW. WJR was the station my grandfather listened to. I remember riding in his “old man blue” Chevy Impala 4 door, listening to Bud Guest. And, of course, Ernie Harwell doing the play by play..”here come the Tigahs !!!” Every summer we would drive into Canada on a 2 week fishing trip and always drive through Detroit, windows down, Gramps smoking non filtered Pall Malls, and WJR blaring out of the radio. WJR was part of the soundtrack of my youth.
WJR is located in the iconic Fisher Building in an area of the city called New Center, which wasn’t very new. It was developed in the 1920’s and it sits a bit to the North of Downtown Detroit. The Fisher Building was built in 1928 and is a testament to art deco. The ornate, marble lobby with the most intricate mosaic vaulted ceiling is called Detroit’s largest art object. WJR moved into the Fisher Building in 1928 and is the building’s oldest tennant. Back in the late 80’s the station decided to move to the suburbs and spent millions building an entirely new broadcast center. But the public outcry was so overwhelming, Cap Cities (then owner of the station) elected to remain in the Fisher Building. They ate millions but the PR nightmare they avoided was probably worth it. I can’t imagine Cumeless or I (don’t have a)Heart doing that today.
I arrived in Detroit the week after the 1995 Kentucky Derby. My good friend, Rick Belcher was recruited to be my replacement at WHAS. The same Rick Belcher who, 13 years earlier, followed me at WSPD in Toledo. Rick, like me, grew up in Toledo and, like me, had an appreciation of the history of WJR. I would frequently consult with Rick on programming issues. I found him to be a great sounding board. Still do. As I rode the elevator up to the 21st floor where my office was located, I couldn’t help but have this lump in my throat and I felt a bit queasy. I feared the Peter Principle was finally going to apply to me. I got off the elevator and wandered around looking for my office.
I was met by my administrative assistant, Fran Ehlers. Fran was a grandmotherly type person who was my greatest ally. I had known Fran for several years. In addition to being the administrative assistant to the program director, Fran was the coordinator of WJR’S sports franchises. I often spoke with Fran, and would meet with her in person several times discussing Detroit Lions and University of Michigan game broadcasts. Both of which we carried on WOOD in Grand Rapids. If anyone knew where all the bodies were buried, it was Fran Ehlers. I always arrived at my desk around 7am and Fran would be there already..with fresh coffee, a bagel, and a copy of the Detroit Free Press. I used to try and beat her to work but she was always there before I got there, and normally there when I left. And always..always..would have my back. She was, perhaps, the most loyal person I ever worked with.
I found WJR to be 3, 4 or even 5 different stations. Producers were at war with each other, there was little camaraderie, and departments were isolated from each other. It seemed like there were a lot of empire builders. The morning show hosted by JP McCarthy was the crown jewel of the station, followed by the news department and then sports. The other shows were almost non relevant. My strategy was to build out more shows in the vein of McCarthy’s, but tweaked younger. Of course, when you have a show and talent like JP McCarthy, you don’t mess with it. In fact, one of the big reasons I took the job at WJR was the opportunity to work with JP. I don’t think there was ever a broadcaster as good. JP was a master at his craft. He was a great voice actor, a spectacular interviewer, a good listener, and one hell of a showman. He was the rock..the foundation of the station.
On my first or second day at the station, Mike Feezey called me and wanted to meet with me and JP in his office on the 23rd floor. They had an idea that was exactly in line with where we wanted to the station to be. An afternoon show hosted by Mitch Albom. Mitch was a personality on ESPN, a sports writer for the Detroit Free Press, and a celebrated writer. In fact, all of this was taking place while Mitch was writing his best seller “Tuesday’s with Morrie”. Mitch was a renaissance man that both Mike and JP wanted on board.
I was in Fantasyland. JP in the morning..Mitch in the afternoon. What could possibly go wrong?
A meteor was about to hit WJR.