JP McCarthy ruled the airwaves of Detroit for decades. Quite simply, he was the most talented radio personality in America. His Rolodex was a whose who. From Presidents to titans of industry, governors, clergy, royalty, sports legends, you name it. Everyone, and I mean everyone wanted to be on JP’s show. I was on it once – when he called me in Louisville and put me on the air to introduce his audience to the new WJR program director. I was presented a cassette recording of that brief interview by JP’s producer, Mike Shiels. I wish I could find it but it’s probably in a box somewhere with all of my radio treasures. I first met JP McCarthy in 1986 in, of all places, Fremantle in Western Australia. We were both there covering the America’s Cup Race. WJR’s broadcast booth was located directly behind ours (WOOD). I wouldn’t go so far to say that we were chummy but we did exchange a few pleasantries. A few years later I had another close encounter of a JP kind at the Kentucky Derby. JP was doing his show backside on Oaks Day, the Friday before the Derby. Backside at Churchill Downs is where one finds all the owners, trainers, jockeys, network corespondents and writers, all the horsey people gathering to watch and report on the morning workouts and latest handicapping. I was there with WHAS’s Wayne Perkey and the Morning Team. JP was there too and again we engaged in some Derby small talk. It wasn’t unusual for McCarthy to broadcast from Tokyo to Timbuktu. He was everywhere.
I’d write more about JP but the fact is, I never really got to know him that well. Much has been written about JP by Mike Shiels who, as his producer, probably knew JP better than anyone other than his family and close friends. Shiels, along with Russ White produced the McCarthy Show every day. Mike lined up the guests and outlined the show. Russ ran the audio controls and made sure the technical intricacies of the program flowed smoothly. It was radio art. I recall my first day. I got to the station early and went to the studio floor and peered into Studio D to watch McCarthy in action. He motioned for me to enter the inner sanctum of his radio home. Shit! It was like having a private audience with the pope. I entered the studio and McCarthy said to me “look, those guys out there are the best”. He didn’t need to say anymore. Michael Patrick Shiels and Russ White were McCarthy’s guys and nobody was going to mess with them. As it turned out, both Mike and Russ became good friends of mine at the station. They, along with News Director Dick Haefner and my assistant Fran Ehlers were the people I depended on the most.
Now, what I’m about to write may be contrary to what others recall. But this is how I remember the sequence of events that began about 6 weeks after I started my new job. I knew that there was something wrong with McCarthy. He seemed tired to me and there were a few days he was too ill to come to work. JP’s wife Judy called me one evening and told me JP wouldn’t be in the following morning. I contacted Mike Shiels and told him we’d need to have someone to fill in. Of course Mike took care of it and always had someone in the wings. One day I went up to the studio and asked JP if he wanted me to bring him a bagel from the bakery in the Fisher Building. He motioned no. Looking at him, I couldn’t believe it was JP. He looked very sick. But, I dismissed it as the flu or some other virus. I think Mike and Russ were very worried. On that same day, Mike Feezey asked me to ride with him for a meeting in Ann Arbor with the Athletic Director of the University of Michigan. As were were driving, Mike tuned the radio down and simply said “JP is dying”. Even now, as I write this 23 years later, I get goose bumps retelling this story. “He has a blood disorder called myelodysplastic syndrome”. I asked if it was curable and Mike said it would be if JP had siblings that would be an exact match for a bone marrow transplant. But JP was an only child and his chances were very slim that someone would be an exact match. Mike obviously wanted this to be kept quiet, at least for now. I suggested perhaps we might launch some kind of a bone marrow drive to find a match for JP. Mike, understandably wanted to avoid a circus but he didn’t think it was a bad idea. But not right now. Not yet. Nevertheless, I have no idea what transpired in the meeting at U of M because my mind was reeling..what in the heck are we going to do? Imagine, you’re about to lose the most important figure in Detroit Radio History. This was big. Really big.
Returning with Mike to Detroit, I hopped a plane and flew back to Louisville, where we still lived. When I got to Louisville, I went straight to WHAS. I walked into my old office, now occupied by Rick Belcher, closed the door and said “Rick, JP McCarthy is dying”. Rick was the only person I told. But news this big didn’t stay a secret very long. The following week, in Detroit, news was already out. The newspaper and TV stations started camping out at the Fisher Building looking for any tidbit of news about JP’s health. Meanwhile, local efforts commenced looking for a bone marrow match.
I had a meeting with the owners of the Tigers and Red Wings in downtown Detroit one day that week. I was with Atanis Ilitch, the son of owner Mike Ilitch when I was informed I had a phone call. It was JP McCarthy. “Skip, it’s Joe. I won’t be in the next two weeks because I’m going to New York to see if I can lick this thing”. It was the last time I spoke with JP McCarthy. He died about a week later at Sloan Kettering in New York City. A meteor had hit the Great Voice of the Great Lakes on August 16th, 1995.
The tributes came pouring in. The day of his death, Mike Feezey had summoned all the department heads into his office. In attendance was Don Balukas, the head of ABC Radio News Talk Station. Don was also the General Manager of WABC in New York City. Mike announced to the department heads that JP had died earlier in the day. It was the first time we had heard an official announcement from the management of WJR. But many of us already knew. News Director Dick Haefner had told me a good two hours earlier that JP was gone.
Later in the afternoon, Balukas and Feezey came into my office to discuss the next day’s programming. They actually and unbelievably suggested we say nothing. I asked Mike Shiels and Russ White to come to my office. By this time I was chain smoking cigarettes. Mike and Russ strongly argued that we needed to have a big sendoff..one great final JP show with some of the Best of JP from years gone by. I recall Mike Shiels saying “let’s give JP one more show” I agreed 100%. Mike Feezey started to agree too. And so the project was green lighted.
Shiels and White worked all night with Frank Beckman and Mike Whorf and the tribute which aired starting at 6AM the following morning was the best radio I’ve ever been associated with. The program was so good, it was preserved for all time on a CD, which I think might still be available today. Nevertheless, it was a proper tribute to a man who sat in Studio D for 30+ years, entertaining and informing Metro Detroit. A few years later I recall playing the JP tribute CD for a friend of mine in Grand Rapids. He listened – with tears flowing. The picture above is from the cover of that CD.
JP’s funeral was a big deal. It was held at St. Hugo of the Hills Catholic Church in Bloomfield Township and we broadcast it on WJR. In attendance were Governors of Michigan present and past, mayors, the major executives of the auto industry, sports legends from the various Detroit teams, even the Vatican had dispatched some Cardinals. It was really something. As I peered over this impressive gathering, I could only think of one thing. Who is going to replace the great JP McCarthy? Who could possibly step into these shoes and carry on the great traditions of the Great Voice of The Great Lakes? I knew who I wanted but the odds were stacked against me. The behind the scenes, backstabbing politics were about to play out. Secret meetings, secret negotiations, all behind my back had begun. Everyday I had to be on guard. But I kept my head down and forged ahead with the rebuilding of WJR.
Dick Purtan, Jimmy Barrett, Frank Beckman, Paul W Smith..Soupy Sales (not really but there’s a funny story here) …who was it going to be? The amazing, behind the scenes story is next.