#23 Fake News

Caution: This blog may offend some of my conservative friends. Sorry ‘bout that

In 1993 I began transforming WHAS from full service Adult Contemporary to News Talk.  It took about two years and the first component was Rush Limbaugh.  

When the news was announced that Limbaugh was going to be on the venerable WHAS there was an expected backlash from a lot of people. The Louisville Courier Journal was uncomplimentary. There was mostly a negative response from the staff.  Milton Metz was very concerned. He told me “I think you’re making a mistake..Limbaugh is a demagogue”.  He was at least 50% right.  I had no political agenda.  I could care less if Limbaugh was left, right, crooked, or straight. I only cared, as do most programmers, that show would get ratings.  And the gamble paid off.  The Rush Limbaugh show drew huge ratings and it put WHAS on firm Tierra Firma. BUT!!!! It changed the fabric of the station forever.  

So what is it about Limbaugh?  The main appeal of Limbaugh, like most right wing talk show hosts is that they appeal to mostly paranoid people who like to gather around their radios and hear someone confirm their fears that their way of life is under attack.  Of course every demagogue needs a villain.  Limbaugh used (and still does) the Clintons as the enemy of the people.  

As Limbaugh continued to grow his audience I was besieged by other syndicated hosts to add their shows to the line up. But they all lacked any entertainment value.  Rush Limbaugh used his experience and skills as a rather talented disc jockey and included impressions and parody’s into his show. To this day nobody can match him. 

#22 – Hey Disc Jockey…

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University of Louisville Head Football Coach Howard Schnellenberger refered to  WHAS afternoon personality Terry Meiners as the “Disc Jockey” Meiners parlayed this into an on going parody of the coach.  It was hillarious and perhaps one of my favorite Meiners  skits.  Oh, there was an entire cast of characters that made the daily Terry Meiners skit list.  If you were a local politician, a celebrity, a TV news reporter, even the radio station General Manager, you were a target of a Meiners paradoy.  Many of the voices were placed by Meiners himself but most of them were done by the very talented voice actor, Randy Davidson.   The Terry Meiners show was void of any music.  The show just didn’t need it.  With news, weather, traffic, sports, and Meiners skits and interviews, it was a perfect blend of entertainment and talk that had mass appeal.  Terry is still going strong every afternoon on WHAS.

With deference to my many radio friends, I would have to say that of all the people I worked with in my career, Wayne Perkey is my favorite.  I think Wayne Perkey has personally shook the hand of every person in Lousiville.  He understood what it takes to get out there and meet the listener.  Part of the word “personality” is “person” and Wayne loved people.  He always would look for the good in everyone.  In my case, as I knew full well what my faults were, he always made me feel good.  I could have the shittiest day going on but Wayne would be a bright spot.  And that is exactly how he came off on the air.  Wayne’s program was also all talk..news, weather, traffic, sports, farm and garden information from Fred Wiche, interviews, and so forth.  A virtual wheel of information with Wayne as the conductor.  The format was brilliant and I used it several years later.  For years, Billboard Magazines list of drive-time dominators – these are the top broadcasters in America with the largest audience shares – included Wayne.  Wayne retired from radio about 10 years ago but he’s still active in Lousiville.

Jack Fox and Doug McElvein were the mid-day personalities on the station.  The programs were music shows with news and weather in between.  This was at a time when the station was considered a full-service adult contemporary station.  Both Jack and Doug had excellent voices.  McElvein also hosted a popular weekend talk show on Sundays that generated large ratings.  And keeping a station at the top of the ratings heap is what it’s all about.  Jack Fox had the best voice on the radio station.   He freelanced for a lot of ad agencies in the area and is also the voice of airports across the United States.  When you hear a voice that says “Welcome to Orlando International Airport” chances are, it’s Jack.

The year was 1991 and we had just gone through an intense but brief battle with Iraq over the invasion of Kuwait.  It was a defining time for WHAS too.  Our listeners wanted to talk about it.  And, it certainly dominated our news coverage.  Something changed in 1991 forever.    Meanwhile, across town at former powerhouse rocker WAKY, Rush Limbaugh was making inroads.  I could see audience shares slipping in mid-days on WHAS.   WHAS was fortunate to have Clear Channel’s research department physically located in our building.  I commissioned a study to see if Limbaugh was actually pulling numbers away from us.  The answer was affirmative and I was convinced WHAS needed to convert to a news talk station.  It took another two years to make it happen.

 

#21.  The stars were aligned perfectly

I inherited a great team. I think there was devine intervention in the assembly of the WHAS program staff.  These are the people who made me look real good.  Wayne Perkey, Jack Fox, Milton Metz, Terry Meiners, Diane Williamson, Joe Donovan, and Doug McElvein. Not pictured are Joe Elliott, Terry Dismore, and John Ross – the weekend warriors. Plus there was a large news department headed up by Brian Rublein, Van Vance, Paul Rogers, and Smooth Talking Sid Jenkins on Sports. In the air, Ron Robertson in Skywatch 84. We even had an on air staff psychologist, Dr. Stan Frager.  Randy Davidson and Scott Goettle headed up our production department.  Of course nothing would have happened without Charlie Strickland, the chief engineer. Charlie worked his butt off. And, he was a gentleman.

WHAS had it all. Power – 50 Thousand Watts, the news and sports franchises, the top air talent, excellent sales and marketing.  It came down to this for me – don’t screw it up!

As I said a couple of blogs ago, a lot can be written about WHAS and I’ll do my best to keep it a “best of” my 6 years.

Milton Metz was one of the most dignified,  well spoken pros I ever worked with.  He had IT. A class act. Milton could even make cussing sound refined.  His nightly talk show “Metz Here” was a staple. “From the nighty banks of the Ohio on good old 84WHAS” The show was a general talk show. Metz didn’t need to cater to the right or left to get ratings.  The topics  ran the gamut. Metz had friends in high places, local and national politicians, movie stars, sports celebrities. His interviews of the rich and famous at the Kentucky Derby were legendary.  Metz was unflappable.  Except once. Metz would occasionally have sex therapist Dr. Jean Koehler on his show fielding rather delicate questions from the audience.  One night, in 1989, Metz lost it.

Milton’s age was a secret.  I knew he had to be well into his 60’s or early 70’s when I joined WHAS in 1989.  But he was the hippest senior citizen I ever met – except perhaps my father.   Milton retired from his weekly nightime show in the early 90’s but continued to be a part of the staff doing daily commentary’s.  The tributes rolled in last year when Milton passed away at the age of…well, I won’t tell you.

I’ve worked with a lot of people over the years.  And I hate to pick favorites..but if Wayne Perkey isn’t my favorite, he would be tied with Terry Meiners.  These guys were the drive time bookends on WHAS..and they’re the next blog.

For now, this is Skip Essick signing off.

 

 

#20 – WHAS – Day 1 

I arrived in Louisville the Thursday before the 1989 Kentucky Derby.  Bob Scherer’s administrative assistant Marylin Ritchie had made arrangement for temporary housing at the Kentucky Towers, an older downtown apartment.building. It was just a few blocks from the station. After getting settled, I walked over to the station. It was raining and I didn’t have an umbrella so I was soaked.  It was later in the afternoon and not too many people were around so I wandered.  One very attractive woman stopped me and wanted to know who I was.  I must have looked like something the cat dragged in.  I introduced myself.  Turns out she was Dianne Williamson, one of the WHAS air personalities.   I’m sure, just given my appearance, I made a less than flattering first appearance.  Most people who know me know I normally suit up.  

The next day was my official first day at WHAS and I was anxious to get to work. I got there early…dressed to impress.  It was Oaks Day.  Wayne Perkey, WHAS morning personality was doing his show at Churchill Downs.  At the studios downtown was news director Brian Rublein, Meteorologist Ken Schultz, and farm director Fred Wiche.  Flying overhead in Skywatch 84 was traffic  reporter Ron Robertson.  Paul Rogers, the sportscaster, was at the track with Wayne.  Even with Perkey out of the studio I was amazed how smoothly that show ran.  It was a well oiled machine.  

As staff began arriving at the station I made it a point of introducing myself to everyone.  And then Bob Scherer arrived with a very tall, distinguished Lowry Mays. It was my first encounter with the man who would revolutionize the radio industry. In 1989 Clear Channel was a small company with stations in San Antonio, Austin, Houston, College Station, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, New Orleans, Richmond, and Louisville.  

After introductions, I hopped in the back seat of Bob’s Cadillac. Lowry Mays riding  shotgun.  We were on our way out to Churchill Downs. On the way we had the radio on and our Skywatch 84 traffic reporter gave an update on traffic conditions around Churchill Downs. I was so proud to be associated with a radio station that had a helicopter for traffic reports.  And I told Mays how much I appreciated having those kind nd of resources.  Mays turned around, looked at me, and in his Texan drawl said “and if you want to keep it, you better figure out how to pay for it”.

Gulp!

The fact is I liked Mays and I’m fairly certain he liked me.  

 

#19 – You’ll Luv Louisville 

Being program director of WHAS in Louisville is one of the best jobs in radio – period.  

I had that honor from 1989 to 1995. It was the best job I ever had.   My love for the station began in the early 1980s when a radio friend of mine, Denny Nugent, left Columbus WTVN to be PD of WHAS. Denny made things happen at WHAS. The station had a unique sound. Everything clicked. And the Kentucky Derby coverage was simply magic.  When Denny left for a job in Phoenix, I interviewed and was offered the job. That was 1984. And I turned the job down. Huh????? Yep – I decided to stay in Grand Rapids. The consultant for WHAS was Lee Baylee. Lee was disappointed that I turned down the job but we stayed in touch.  In fact, we spoke almost every week.  

5 years later, the position became available again.  I’ll never forget how it came down.  I went to Louisville and met with GM Bob Scherer. Bob and his wife Lisa arranged a staff dinner in which I met all the on air people.  We had a wonderful weekend getting to know each other. We wrapped the visit up watching the NCAA basketball tournament at  the Scherers home. But, as it turned out, I didn’t have the job sewn up. Former program director Denny Nugent was not happy in Phoenix and was entertaining a move back to Louisville.  Bob asked me to call him the following Monday and he’d let me know his decision. 

I called Bob from a pay phone at Kennedy Airport in New York the folllowing Monday as he had requested. We were embarking on a family vacation to Ireland but before I boarded the Art Lingus 747 for Dublin, Bob gave me the news – he had to go with Denny.  And so, with that behind me, I decided that if it was meant to be…..

Several days later we had just finished touring the Ring of Kerry and had returned to The Great Southern Hotel in Killarney.  It was a cold, rainy, blustery day. We were cold. The kids ran into the hotel and huddled around a turf fire in the hotel lobby.  I ordered some sandwiches and coco for the kids, mom and dad had Irish coffees.  

As we were warming up, the concierge at the hotel came to our table and said “ there’s a Mr. Lee Baylee on the phone for you”. I was stunned. How in the hell did he find me?

“hello?”

“ Skip, Lee Baylee here.  How soon can you get to Louisville?”

“What happened to Denny?”

“Denny  is going to Cleveland. Bob needs you in Louisville. Are you in?”

“Yes…hell yes”

The luck of the Irish ☘️ 

And that’s how it came down. 

A lot can be written about WHAS and I intend to write a lot about it. It was the best job I ever had. I loved the station, the staff, the town, everything!  

Stay tuned. 

#18 WOOD FM 105.7

WOOD FM was the first FM radio station in America to go number one in the ratings in a market. I became program director of WOOD FM in 1982 but the real program director was Jim Schulke,  an eccentric radio programmer from New Jersey. I simply put up a schedule of what tapes aired and when they aired. 

 The FM, as everyone in the station called it, boasted a powerful signal. 265,000 Watts. The 2nd most powerful FM station in the United States.  The FM antenna was perched on top of the WOOD TV Tower about 20 miles southeast of the city.  It was a monster signal.  

Enter Jim Schulke, the inventor of the beautiful music format…or as most referred to it: elevator music. Schulke would spend hours picking just the right selection, and the song that would follow. It was what he called “match flow”.  Every song was an instrumental.  There were no vocals. Schulke insisted on non intrusive elements.  Which meant announcers said very little.  “Beautiful music, from beautiful WOOD FM”.  “Always relaxing, always beautiful, this is WOOD FM”.  The music was the star of the show. All announcer elements were pre-recorded.  Commercials were straight voice. No music beds or jingles. Advertising agencies hated placing time on the station because they had to produce separate commercials to run exclusively on WOOD FM.  It was a boring radio station. But it always got great ratings.  Many businesses in West Michigan played the radio station to provide a certain ambiance. The formula worked for years until the mid 80’s. 

I had wanted to move the station into a more foreground format.  Many beautiful music stations we’re going in this direction.  When The former WZZR radio became W-Light, it took a chunk of listeners from WOOD FM.  Schulke saw the writing on the wall and sold his company to his number one competitor, Bonneville Broadcasting.   Bonneville programmers started adding vocals. First 2 per hour, then four, then six. But it was too late.  The format was not going to survive.  When Philadelphia broadcaster Jerry Lee took his station out of the beautiful music format and launched a full scale adult contemporary format, I knew it was over.   Lee was one of those rare guys that invested a lot of money in market research. He understood trends better than most in the industry and he understood his listeners.  

I left WOOD and WOOD FM in 1989.  I didn’t stick around long enough for the eventual format change of the station in 1991. The stations were sold to Bruce Holberg – another Philadelphia broadcaster. Holberg knew all too well about Jerry Lees station. And it didn’t take him long to bid so long to beautiful music and launch the new Easy 105.7.   But it still had that stigma.  The Easy relaxing message still gave a perception of boredom. Holberg got it about 25% where it needed to be. 

A side note – Holberg visited me in Louisville after he bought the stations. He wanted me to return to Grand Rapids to program the stations.  I met him in Grand Rapids a second time and he presented me with a contract.  During this meeting he asked me what I thought of the automation  equipment in the WOOD FM studio.  I told him he should put it out on Division Street and set it on fire. I was being funny but Holberg went off, yelling “ look, this is a new company and you’ll just have to be patient.”  Wow! I wasn’t prepared for that.  After I left Holberg’s  condo in downtown Grand Rapids, I deposited the contract into a trash bin.  

When I returned to Grand Rapids on my 3rd tour of duty – this time as General Manager – I did what I wanted to do a decade earlier. 

Up next – the best job I ever had. 

#17 – On the Road

ROADSHOW

I would be remiss if I didn’t include a posting on Road Shows.  Of course, for decades radio stations did (and still do) remote broadcasts from different retail locations.  Many stations including WOOD Radio did full length programs from places like downtown department stores.  One of the more popular shows from the late 40’s and early 50’s was WOOD Radio’s Glenn and Lenore.  Art Berry did a remote broadcast every day for years on WSPD at Tiedtke’s Department Store in downtown Toledo.  So, while road shows were nothing really new, local radio stations originating broadcasts from places like Dublin, London, Australia, and even Disney World were quite novel.

I’m not exactly sure where we did our first long distance remote but Ireland was one of the first.  In 1986 we originated a special Bruce Grant Broadcast on St. Patricks Day in Dublin.  There was Bruce Grant, broadcasting live on the streets of Dublin during the annual Dublin St. Patrick’s Day parade.  Of course I accompanied Bruce on this journey which essentially began my love affair with the Emerald Isle.  Hey, it was a tough job but somebody had to do it.  Over the years,  including my time in Lousiville at WHAS, I originated St. Patrick’s Day shows in Dublin..and took close to 1000 listeners with us over a 10 year period.  In fact in 1991 I was given an award by the city of Dublin for promoting tourism.  They made me an official citizen!!!  I still travel to Ireland and always make it a point of visiting my favorite place – Dublin.

WOOD Radio also originated broadcasts in London, Rome, and Australia.  Plus a multitude of broadcasts at Walt Disney World.  As I look back on all of that, it may have been a bit self serving.  I love to travel which is why Wayne Perkey at WHAS called me “take a trip Skip”.  But I didn’t go on all the roadshows.  One year we sent Gary Allen to Munich for the big Oktoberfest Celebration.  Gary was accompanied by staff engineer John Kaiser.  I had arranged for Gary to be located in one of the more popular beer halls. But something got short circuited in the communication.  Turns out Gary’s broadcast booth was set up smack dab in the middle of a gay convention venue.

The world is a small place.  I recall walking with Bruce Grant through Heathrow Airport in London when someone shouted “Hey..there’s Bruce Grant”!  Another time, while riding with WHAS Farm Director Fred Wiche on London’s Underground, the train came to a stop..the doors opened, and a lady stepped on saying in her charming Kentucky drawl “why Fred Wiche..what are you doing here”?

My favorite story.  While doing prep work for a show from the Vatican, Cardinal John Foley, who was my host, was taking me on a tour of St. Peter’s Basilica.  He asked me to wait in the sacristy while he met with some priests from America.  I could hear him address the group of priests who were around the corner from the sacristy near the main alter.  He said he was working with “an The American Journalist Skip Essick on a documentary” when all of the sudden I heard a man shout “Skip Essick?”  Around the corner came the pastor of my home parish in Lima, Ohio..Father Lamantia.  The world is, indeed, a very small place.

Coming up in my next blog, I’ll talk about WOOD FM and the demise of the beautiful music format.  Many have asked for me to write about my time at WJR in Detroit.  That’s coming up too.  But for now, this is Skip Essick, signing off.