#32 – VIPs.

I’ve met a few big shots over the years. One of the questions I get most is “have you met any famous people” and the answer, of course, is yes. From movie and TV personalities, sports legends, and politicians, I’ve met my share. I think anyone in this business can say the same thing. Most were pretty nice folk too. One was a real jerk and he’s been in the news recently.

Bill Cosby was coming to Grand Rapids and WOOD Radio got the “presents” rights as part of an advertising buy. Gary Allen and I were to introduce Cosby at his DeVos Hall Performance. Gary and I arrived backstage thinking we’d have a short meet and greet with the Cos only to be told a firm no. Moreover, we were told not to look at Cosby. Cosby’s manager said “don’t look at him Mr. Cosby doesn’t like people looking at him. And when you do introduce him, no eye contact. Just introduce him and get off the stage”.

While I was at WJR, the head of news talk programming for ABC summoned all the company news talk programmers to New York City to monitor and critique WABC. We all met at WABC Radio, which is located in Manhattan. There, in all his glory, surrounded by swirls of cigar smoke, was Rush Limbaugh. The other guys knew Rush. I was the new kid in the company and hat not met him in person. I was struck at how shy he seemed. Somewhat quiet, and very nice, he is very typical of a lot of radio personalities. Somewhat of a dud in person but in the solitude and confines of their little broadcast studios, they become someone else.

A side note – while on this trip we had an interesting dining experience. At lunch, our table was next to 3 familiar faces. Al Pacino, Sean Penn, and Robert Dinero. All I could think of was Cosby’s manager saying “don’t look at them”.

G. Gordon Liddy, mastermind of the Watergate break-in, did a talk show that I inherited when I took over as General Manger of WOOD. The program director had invited Liddy to Grand Rapids to do his show live. We made arrangements to broadcast his nationwide show from a large movie theatre. The night before the show, I went to the airport to pick him up. As I watched Liddy walk down the concourse, I wondered if anyone would recognize him. Had he not been wearing a hat, his bald head would have given him away for sure. Liddy was alone and it was just he and I as I drove him to his hotel. That was a very surreal moment for me.

The next day a huge crowd turned out at Studio 28 Theatre to watch The G Man do his show. There was absolutely nothing pretentious about Liddy. He was funny, engaging, gracious, and a gentleman.

As it turned out, that same day there were a bunch of big shots in town for the opening of a major exhibit at the Gerald R Ford Presidential Museum in Downtown Grand Rapids. It was The Watergate Exhibit! I can’t make this stuff up. President Ford, President Bush (41), and several dignitaries were on hand for this big event. I got a call from the Ford Museum people furious that I would have G Gordon Liddy in town on the same day as their Watergate exhibit opening. I pleaded not guilty. Who knew?!! But as I reminded them, there wouldn’t even have been a President Ford had it not been for G Gordon Liddy. Anyhow, things settled down. They had a successful event and so did we.

I’m not much of a Sean Hannity fan. I think he’s put himself in a place he shouldn’t be. You don’t see Rush Limbaugh kowtowing to anyone. Regardless of your politics, Rush Limbaugh has never forgotten that his job is to entertain and grow listeners. He’s not trying to be a presidential adviser. And there’s Laura Ingraham. She’s another one of these conservative talk show hosts who are filled with too much self importance.

When Sean Hannity launched a radio show I jumped on the opportunity to get his program on WOOD. Sean had been a rising star on Fox TV and it just figured that his radio show would be a hit too. The show aired right after Rush Limbaugh. But after a couple of years, the show failed to deliver the kind of ratings we had hoped for. Phil Tower, WOOD’s exceptional program director had a vision of hiring a local show to put in afternoon drive. Not just any local show, but market bad boy and legend Rick Becket. When Phil hit me with the idea I thought he lost his mind. Becket was extraordinarily talented. He had number one ratings at crosstown WGRD. He had all the baggage that goes with it too. He was uncouth, he was difficult, he had personal issues. In other words, he had everything it takes to be a big star. But I wasn’t sure I wanted the liability. Phil Tower convinced me that with Becket and his sidekick Scott Winters, we would finally shed WOOD’s old codger image. To do all this, 3 things had to happen. First, I had to convince Clear Channel that this would be a good investment. Second, Becket and Winters would have to agree. And third, I had to move Sean Hannity off WOOD and onto our other talk station, WTKG.

WTKG is a 1000 watt AM station at 1230 in the dial. It formerly was WCUZ AM but when Clear Channel purchased it, I changed the format and call letters in order to have another station to place programming that I wanted to lock up in the market. It was a good strategy and, sales wise, we could combo sell with WOOD. By putting Hannity on WTKG, it would give that station a marquis program. Everyone thought this was a great idea..everyone except Sean Hannity.

All the deals were done. Becket and Winters were under contract. The syndication company for Hannity agreed to move his show from WOOD to WTKG. And then the shoe dropped. I received a call from my boss, Dave Crowl in Cincinnati. Dave informed me that Hannity was threatening cancellation of his show on Clear Channel’s WKRC in Cincinnati, if we move him off WOO D to WTKG. And Clear Channel wasn’t going to let that happen. I asked Dave “what the hell are we going to do? We’ve already inked a deal with Becket and Winters.” Crowl said “you’re going to have the most expensive midday show in America”. And that’s what happened. We moved Glenn Beck from his 9-Noon slot on WOOD over to WTKG and debuted Becket and Winters 9-Noon on WOOD. Things worked out pretty good nonetheless. Becket and Winters soared in the ratings. It was a success but it chafed my hide that Hannity involved himself in a place he didn’t belong.

A number of years later, when I was in Fresno programming KMJ, Hannity was in town for an event. KMJ carried his show and the Sean Hannity Show producers asked if he could use one of our studios to do his show. As his entourage was walking past my office, Hannity spotted me, and pointing an accusatory finger told the people he was with “there’s the guy that tried to kick me off WOOD Radio.”

It’s nice to be recognized.

Skip Essick signing off.

4 thoughts on “#32 – VIPs.”

  1. Because of his infamous Watergate conviction, we could only guess what we’d be in for when G. Gordon arrived in Grand Rapids. What a fantastic experience it turned out to be for the station, and all of us closely aligned with his visit. Class act, funny, and one of the all-time great storytellers. That evening we, and our spouses, had dinner with Gordon will always be fondly remembered.


    1. Well-told Skip. The Rick and Scott Show would have never happened without your backing me 100% as you did.


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