#27 The Fat Lady Sings

Following the death of JP McCarthy, it was decided that an immediate successor would be inappropriate.  Besides, Jimmy Barrett was doing an excellent job hosting the morning show with the able assistance of Mike Shiels and Russ White.  WJR General Manager Mike Feezey insisted that we continue to rebuild the on air line up with Mitch Albom in the afternoon and a new show in Mid-Day.   JP had died in August and I spent the remainder of the year working on the development of the new Mitch Albom Show and the Ken Calvert Show.  But, always in the foreground of my mind was the morning show.  And anyone in this business knows that so goes the morning, so goes the station.

I had given consideration to several on air talents including WJR’s Jimmy Launce – a fixture on WJR for eons.  And there was Frank Beckman, then the play by play announcer for the Tigers.  Frank expressed an interest.  Jimmy Launce was less enthusiastic.  I even kicked around the idea of putting Mitch Albom in the morning chair.  There were all kinds of suggestions, but the reality is that there were only two contenders.  Dick Purtan and Paul W Smith.  I was firmly convinced that it had to be Paul W.

Many in the building didn’t like the idea of Smith replacing JP.  One sales manager took me aside and said “He’s a JP wannabe” to which I said “Thank God”.  My rationale was very simple.  Paul W Smith had spent a career studying McCarthy.  He understood the art of the interview, the importance of getting out there and shaking hands with just about anyone who is anyone in Metro Detroit.  He was outgoing, gregarious, and just oozed WJR from every pore in his body.  Dick Purtan, on the other hand, would have meant a total change – a complete overhaul of the morning show.  It would not have been a seamless transition.  One other important fact – Purtan was under contract with WKQI.

Management, at least initially, agreed with my argument and that an offer would be extended to Paul W Smith.  A contract was drawn up and I contacted Paul and told him Mike Feezey and I would join him for dinner in Philadelphia.  And so it began.  About an hour before I was to meet Feezey at Detroit’s Metro Airport, Cap Cities ABC Executive Don Balukas called me:

“Skip, where’s Feezey?”

“He’s playing golf Don.  I’m going to meet him at the airport this afternoon and we’ll fly to Philly to meet with Paul and present him with the contract”

“Don’t do that.  Fly down there, keep him on the warm burner, but don’t give him the contract and don’t offer him the job”

“Why?”

“What if I told you we had Dick Purtan”

“How could that be?  He’s under contract.  We can’t touch him”

“Let me worry about that..you just keep Smith in the wings for now and don’t present him with that contract”

When I arrived at the airport, Balukas had already filled Feezey in.  A lot of different scenarios were playing out in my mind but there were two things I knew for sure.  This wasn’t going to be easy..and dinner with Paul W was going to be awkward.

We met Paul at a Ruth Chris Steakhouse in downtown Philadelphia and dinner was mostly a bunch of small talk.  I was uncomfortable.  When Feezey got up to use the restroom, Paul leaned over and said “what in the hell is going on here?”  I told him something at the corporate level was developing but not to despair.  I truly believed that it would work out.   Paul is a very shrewd businessman and he already knew that there was a little dance going on between Purtan’s attorney, Henry Baskim, and Balukas.  Baskim wasn’t going to waste his time with the local yokels..he went right to the top.

Apparently Purtan was unhappy with his employer and believed there was a blatant violation of his contract – so blatant that he could cancel his contract and go elsewhere.  And so began months and months of limbo.  And during this time, Paul would call to ask “has the Fat Lady Sung yet”  – which meant, has Purtan gotten out of his contract and signed with WJR.

Now, the rest of the story….Purtan wasn’t about to cough up the money to pay an attorney to get him out of his deal with WKQI.  And Cap Cities ABC couldn’t pay – that would be contract tampering.  But someone paid.  I can only speculate where the money came from but it’s speculation.  It took months for this process to play out and, almost every week, I’d get the “fat lady call” from Paul W.  Finally, around the first of 1996, a judge ruled in Purtan’s favor that WKQI had indeed violated the terms of his agreement.  Purtan was free to work wherever he so chose.

I had my very first meeting with Dick Purtan shortly after he was free of his contract.  I had never met him before.  Feezey and I met Dick at his home in a beautiful gated community in the Orchard Lakes area of metro Detroit.  I found him to be somewhat reserved, maybe even a little shy.  He was not the funny guy you hear on the radio.  Mostly, he was all business and very serious.  He sure didn’t strike me as someone who was excited about coming to work at WJR.  A variety of things were discussed like how much he would need to pay his staff.  We also talked about where his office would be (he did not want JP’s old office).  Dick was bringing his entire staff with him and we talked about where they would be located in the station.  Dick expressed concern about interviews vs playing music.  We assured him that working with Mike Shiels and Russ White, he would be in good hands and he seemed good with that.   But leaving the meeting I had the queezy feeling that this deal was never going to close.

Menwhile, WJR ushered in 1996 with 2 new shows.  Both Mitch Albom and Ken Calvert debuted their new programs on January 2nd.  Month of planning went into the new programs, especially the Mitch Albom Show.  I worked directly with Mitch on all aspects of the show..everything from who his producer would be, to his cohosts, to promotion.  We thought it would be fun to have a live studio band every day on the show.  I’ll never forget how WJR’s chief engineer reacted to the prospect of a live studio band performing every day on the Mitch Albom show.

Ed Butterbaugh was a legendary engineer.  Ed was the genius behind the incredible technical sound of The Big 8, CKLW..the powerful top 40 blowtorch that dominated Detroit radio ratings from the mid 60’s to early 70’s.  Ed also had a legendary temper and when he blew his top, everyone scattered.  Prior to the first Mitch Albom show, Ed appeared in my office, hands firmly planted on my desk. He was glaring at me, the color of his face had turned to a bright red and the veins in his neck were popping out..  “You just can’t have a band set up in the studio!!!!!  It’s got to be professionally mic’d !!! And who do you think is going to do that??!!!”  I really hadn’t given it that much thought. I tried to reason with him and calm him down.  “Ed, just teach us how to do it and we’ll take care of it”.  But Ed insisted it was an engineering responsibility.  So, everyday an assigned engineer would set up the microphones for the band.   I really didn’t see what the big deal was because there was always a studio engineer on duty 24/7.  I’m certain that all the bluster and hubris was because he wasn’t consulted in the first place.

The Mitch Albom show debuted on January 2nd, 1996.  We had assembled a good cast for the show including Mitch, comedian Ken Brown, and Voice Actor Rachel Nevada.  The show was produced by Joan Isabella who we recruited from Philadelphia.  The studio band sounded great and the show flowed well with a good mix of topical talk and a bit of humor.  I was pleased with the roll out and, although Mitch is very particular and tends to be overly critical, I think he was pleased with the first show.   There were some hiccups though.  Mitch wasn’t disciplined on timing which is why newscasts ran late most of the time.  And he didn’t like the afternoon sports to go any longer than one minute.  Sports Director Chuck Swirsky (who is now the voice of the Chicago Bulls) was outraged when Mitch put the sound of a ticking clock under his sportscasts.  When one minute was up, there was this loud buzzer signaling that Chuck’s time was up, regardless of whether he was done.  It was actually kind of a shitty thing to do.

Meanwhile, the interminable negotiations with Dick Purtan continued into the new year.  One day I got a very strange call from Purtan who was driving from Detroit, across lower Ontario, to Niagara Falls and then into Buffalo, New York.

“Skip, It’s Dick Purtan”

“Hey Dick, whats up”

“I’m driving with my wife to visit my mother in law in Buffalo and I can hear the station all the way over here at Niagara Falls”

“Yes, we have a great signal in that direction”

“I’m listening to the Mitch Albom Show and I’ve got a real problem with the show”

“what’s that?”

“Mitch is doing a bit with some guy doing an impersonation of George Bush.  Who is that?”

“I have no idea.  Why?”

“I do that bit on my show and we can’t have Mitch Albom doing it on his show.  You need to tell him to stop”

“Dick, with all due respect, you don’t work here yet.”

“OK..I get it..I’ll call Feezey”

It didn’t take any more than 15 minutes for Mike Feezey to show up in my office telling me I need to go up to the studio and tell Mitch Albom that he couldn’t do the George Bush bit anymore.

“Mike..you want me to go up to the studio and tell Mitch Albom that a guy who doesn’t even work here is demanding he not do a bit on the air?  You really want me to do that?”

Feezey bummed one of my cigarettes, took a couple of puffs,  and then muttered “I guess not..forget it”.

(phone rings)

“Skip, It’s Paul W..has the fat lady sung yet?”

And now the final act of the Purtan episode.  It happened at the 50th birthday party for Art Voulo, a well known radio historian who has chronicled the history of just about every radio station in America.  Art is affectionately called radio’s best friend.  The party took place at a club, north of Detroit, on the shores of Lake St. Claire.  All of the Detroit radio gentry was in attendance including Elaine Baker, the General Manager of WOMC, Detroit’s powerful oldies station.  Elaine had a great reputation for being a tough but astute broadcaster.  Like me, she knew that if there is one station that Dick Purtan would be a perfect fit for is WOMC.  Anyhow, Elaine came up to me at the party and came right out and said “So, how are things going with Purtan?”  WJR’s negotitions with Dick were the worst kept secret in Detroit by this time.  I took the bait.  “Elaine, I think you already know how it’s going.  You may want to do us both a favor and hire him.”  She gave me a rather sly smile and walked away without saying one more word.

A few days later a very excited Mike Feezey came into my office.  He had a large envelope.  “It’s finally here..the Dick Purtan contract.  I’m heading out to Dick’s house to get his signature.  I’ll call you before the ink dries.”  About 2 hours later Feezey called me from Dick’s house and told me Purtan got delayed and wasn’t there to sign the contract.  “He’ll sign it tomorrow”  The next day, Mike drove back out to Purtan’s house only to learn that Purtan wasn’t there again.  Mike knew that he was used by Purtan’s attorney, Henry Baskin.  Purtan wasn’t going to WJR.  He signed with WOMC – the very same day.  Mike was angry and he said “call your friend in Philadelphia.”  I wanted to make sure I understood what he said.  “Mike, you’re telling me to call Paul W Smith and tell him he’s got the job?  Is that what your telling me?”  “yes…get it done now before the news gets out about Purtan.”

I immediately called Paul W Smith:

“Paul, it’s Skip..the Fat Lady is signing”

“Oh God…tell me”

“She’s singing  (and I sang it in my best Soprano)  Paul..come to Detroit!”

I think it was the best call I ever made.  To this day, 22 years later, Paul W Smith is hosting the morning show on WJR and Mitch Albom is still on in the afternoon.

And that is my WJR story.

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “#27 The Fat Lady Sings”

  1. Extremely well-written piece, Skip, about one of the biggest stories in Detroit radio’s storied history. Well done, pal.

    Like

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