In the Winter of 1996 things were beginning to return to normal at WJR. The drama of the post McCarthy period had pretty much played out and the new shows were on the air – all except Paul W. We had to wait a few months before he could start due to contractual obligations he had to honor in Philadelphia. It was a cold, blustery March afternoon when my assistant Fran came into my office.
“There’s a Lowry Mays on the phone for you”
I told Fran to put the call in. Hmmm – what could this be all about? I picked up the phone and I could hear the sound of an engine faintly in the background, accompanied by some phone static, and the unmistakable Texas drawl of Lowry Mays. He was riding his jeep around on the Mays Ranch outside of San Antonio.
“Skip Essick ! This is Lowry Mays calling you…I want to see you in Grand Rapids tomorrow night for dinner. Meet me at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel”.
Grand Rapids? I knew immediately what he wanted. The next day I left WJR early and hopped on I-96 and headed west to Grand Rapids. I pulled into the semi circular drive of the swanky Amway Grand Plaza where the valet took my car. I figured I’d splurge and let him park it, very aware that, as anyone who lives in Grand Rapids knows, downtown parking rates are on par with Chicago.
When I walked into the hotel lobby I spotted Mark Mays along with Clear Channel Austin, TX General Manager Stan Webb. But no Lowry. I was a bit confused. Mark greeted me with a big smile and re-introduced me to Stan. I had met Webb a few years earlier at a Clear Channel meeting in New Orleans. Mark explained that his dad couldn’t be there because of other company business. As it turned out, that other business was buying radio stations. The Clinton Administration had just deregulated the radio industry with the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Essentially this allowed broadcast companies to go out and by up radio stations with essentially no caps on the number of stations you could own. And Clear Channel was buying in Grand Rapids! In fact, they were buying my former stations WOOD and WOOD-FM, along with country giant WBCT FM. They asked me if I would be interested in coming on board as General Manager. Jackpot! Lowry knew of my tenure in the Grand Rapids market and he wanted a “local” who was both familiar with the market AND with Clear Channel. I would be a good representative of the company in Grand Rapids. And so, I accepted. Press releases were sent out, staff reaction was overwhelmingly positive (Skip’s back!!!) and the general market response was great. I can’t begin to tell you the number of congratulatory notes I received.
In turning in my resignation at WJR, General Manager Mike Feezey already knew. When I went to resign, he scowled and said “you’re quitting and going back to Grand Rapids”. I asked him how he knew and he gave me the standard “I make it my business to know”.
A few days after I had accepted the job, Lowry called me again and wanted me to come over to Grand Rapids. He had something for me. I drove across state from Detroit to Grand Rapids and met him, Stan Webb, and the entire staff, at the station. It was a bit of a homecoming and a nice little reception. Later in the evening, Mays called me into what would become my office. The same office that had been previously occupied by my mentors Mike Lareau and Jim White. Mays handed me the keys to a 1995 Infinity Q45. It was the leased car that belonged to Bruce Holberg, the previous station owner. I could keep the car but would have to turn it in at the end of the lease. Then Mays asked me to drive them to the airport. We hopped in the Q45 and drove out to the Northern Air private flight facility at the Kent County International Airport. The Clear Channel jet was waiting. It was a snowy night in March and the flurries were blowing all over the tarmac. We entered the building where Lowry and Stan met their pilot. We said our goodbyes and I watched them walk out towards the waiting plane with the backdrop of a dark Winter sky and lake effect snow showers swirling all around. Then, Lowry stopped, turned around, and walked back. He opened the door where I was standing, grabbed me by the lapels on my coat, and said “50 Million Dollars..don’t F%$K it up”.
GULP. It was on me now.