#42 – Uncle Lou

The man who inspired me to get into the radio biz signed off last week at the age of 98. My dad’s brother, Lou Essick had been in the biz for over 50 years, starting his career right after World War 2. His adventures in radio took him from be a young announcer at a fledgling Michigan radio network, to the Carolinas and Georgia, where he became a star when personalities mattered to both the public and station owners. We’re talking about the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s.

When I was a kid, Uncle Lou would come to Toledo for an annual visit with the rest of the Essick clan. I used to think of him as a real star. After all, he talked on the radio! For a youngster, that was a big deal.

Lou was a hell of a storyteller. As recently as this past Spring, I’d listen to him tell stories of growing up during the depression. Running numbers for the syndicate in Toledo to make a buck. Lou would choke up and fight back tears when telling how, during WW2, he went to visit his brother Pip in France right after the D Day invasion, only to find out he was killed.

I asked Lou’s wife Carol to help me fill in some blanks. She writes:

Lou was sent to Fort Fisher, North Carolina for training where he met Kathleen “Kay” Taylor, who, he said, was being pursued by every GI on the base. They married and he went overseas. While he was in Europe, Sandra, his first child was born. He was injured and eventually returned to the states to rehab at the Wakeman Convalescent Center in Indiana where he was discharged September 1945. He did spend time with Dave and his mother before heading South. (I believe this is the time period when Dave’s baby boy was so sick and died.) I remember him saying he was concerned about what he was going to do for a career being disabled and having a wife and child to support. I don’t remember the details about who suggested he try radio, but he did join WGNI when it went on the air Christmas Eve 1945.

About 4 years ago, during one of our annual Jekyll Island visits. Lou told a story I had never heard before. After the war, Lou went to Grand Rapids to visit his oldest brother, my uncle Dave. Dave was selling furniture at Herpolshimers Department store. While in Grand Rapids, Lou had heard about an upstart national radio network operating out of WLAV. The owner, Leonard A Versluis gave Lou a job as an announcer. Apparently, an affiliate didn’t like the way Lou sounded and complained to Versluis who subsequently fired him. During this time, Dave and his estranged wife had a very sick infant. The baby had to be sent to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for treatment but didn’t survive. Lou tells the story of both he and Dave waiting at the train station for a very small casket containing the body of the child to arrive. It was Christmas time, 1945. After the burial, Lou turned to Dave and said “let’s get out of here.” They both left Grand Rapids for good.

I spent most of my career in Grand Rapids and I never knew I had a cousin buried there. So I located the Jewish section of a cemetery, and with my daughter Cara, grandkids Olivia and Brooklyn, son in law Jose, and my wife Sharon, we fanned out checking gravestones. And there, in the very back corner, in the last row, was the marker of Maurice Ross Essick.

The way Lou told the story was mesmerizing. I could feel the cold of that winter night and the loneliness that had to be experienced by my two uncles as they both stood, waiting for a train and a little casket. My writing doesn’t do the story justice.

Lou moved on to the Carolinas landing at WGNI in Wilmington, NC where he soon became a big hit doing crazy antics on the radio like playing The Witch Doctor or the Purple People Eater. His jokes were corny, but clean and funny. His talent for being an on air “salesman” made him a precious commodity for the station. Lou knew how to sell.. both on air and off.

The guy had a style that jumped right out of the radio. I recall hearing him on a Waycross, GA station in the early 80’s. Here was Lou playing Freeze Frame by the J Geils Band and sounding as if he was having the time of his life. He must have been in his 60s.

We used to visit with Lou and his wife Carol every year on Jekyll Island. I just saw him this past May and spoke with him on the phone the week before he died. He sounded great on the phone. I kidded him that he was shooting for 100 and he said “heck, I’m going for 110”.

The good lord apparently needed an announcer for Christmas services in heaven. At least that’s the way I like to think of it.

I’m going to really miss him. Lou Essick, signing off.

#41 – WANTED: Storytellers

I got a promotional e-mail the other day from a broadcast vendor offering vintage programs from radio’s “Golden Age”. Shows that my father grew up listening to, like The Shadow, The Lone Ranger, Jack Benny, and so forth. A part of the pitch:

Join the hundreds of AM and FM stations around the country who are delivering top-flight entertainment to their listeners and devoted audiences to their advertisers.

Program Directors Love WHEN RADIO WAS!

I’m a great believer in “the theatre of the mind”. That’s what we used to call it. When I was program director of Toledo’s WSPD, we carried the CBS Mystery Theatre. It was a radio drama series, very reminiscent of radio shows from the 40’s, created by Himan Brown that ran from 1974 to 1982. The show aired late nights and it was a ratings winner.

When I think about that era, and even when I think about the great radio personalities many of us grew up with, I have to ask the question. Where are the storytellers? Orson Wells was an amazing storyteller. So amazing, he convinced a nation that we were being attacked by aliens from Mars! Bruce Grant, the legendary morning man on WOOD Radio used theatre of the mind almost every instant his mic was on. I’ll never forget one of my first days as program director at WOOD. I heard Bruce announce he was giving away a prize and the”random selector” would choose the winning phone caller. I figured it must be some piece of equipment the station installed. I asked one of the engineers what The Random Selector was. He laughed and said it was just Bruce randomly selecting a caller. Grant was great at theatre of the mind. He had thousands of audio clips from movies and TV shows that he used as comebacks to his banter. You talk about a storyteller! No wonder the guy pulled 40 shares.

Even the great legendary Drake boss jocks had the unique ability to create energizing, exciting theatre of the mind – and they only had seconds to do it. I know a person here in my “fun side of the wall” hideaway who does national commercials. You can hear his fabulous voice on radio and TV spots throughout North America. He bills himself as a voice actor, not an announcer. He has a talent for taking a script and telling a story.

Announcers are a dime a dozen. Storytellers are the exception. If you’re new to the business, good for you! Now, learn to tell a story. Your future may very well begin with radio’s past.

Who knows what talent lurks in the hearts of the aspiring broadcaster? The Shadow knows. (Sorry, couldn’t resist)

Essick signing off

#40 – Oops


This time of year a video of the 70’s TV show WKRP in Cincinnati pops up on Facebook. It’s the infamous WKRP Turkey drop episode. I think it’s one of TV’s funniest shows and I’ve been told it’s based on a true story, although I’ve not verified that. Those of us in radio can identify with promotions gone wrong. I’ve been a part of a few. When I was program director of a certain radio station, which shall go unnamed to protect the innocent, a car giveaway went off the tracks.

It was part of our classic hits summer and we gave away a classic 1965 Corvette. During the week, our air personalities would drive “the rocket of death” to various retailers where listeners could come and “ooh and ahh” over the car, and then register to win it. Towards the end of the summer, we drew about 20 finalists. Each finalist was given a key. Only one key would start the car. To add to the drama, we staged the giveaway event at a prominent location.

The promotion director had the keys made. Only one key would actually work, the others would fit into the ignition, but they would fail to turn on. Now, for those of you who remember the old General Motors ignitions, you may recall they had 3 positions. Lock-Off-On. The ignition housing resembled a wing nut. You could remove the key in the off position and still be able to start the car. If you turned the ignition to the lock position and removed the key, the only way you could start the car is re-insert the key and turn clockwise to unlock.

And so, as the car was taken to the venue for the giveaway, one of our staffers parked the car, turned the car off, and removed the key. The finalists were assembled, 20 keys were placed in sealed numbered envelopes. The first contestant ripped open his envelope, took out the key, entered the car, inserted the ignition, and….VAROOM!

I looked at the promotions director. There was the obvious bewilderment. We knew something went awry but what??!! How??!! At this point the rest of the contestants, disappointed, had began to scatter. After the event, I realized that the car ignition was not locked and any of those keys would have started the car. What I didn’t know is if that first contestant actually had the correct key. And I didn’t want to know. So, I called a good mechanic friend of mine and had the ignition changed before we handed it over to the “winner”.

That was the day I swore off doing car giveaways. They always somehow get screwed up. Of course I didn’t stay on the wagon long. I ended up doing dozens more. Each with their own unique idiosyncrasies.

#39 – The Vatican

C8E46E76-8880-4F0E-BC68-ACB55589BE1AFor years I’ve been somewhat of a Pope-a-file. I have books about the Popes and am somewhat fascinated by the whole institution. John Paul II will likely be the most influential pontiff of my lifetime. I doubt I’ll live long enough to see another of his kind. Too bad this whole priest sex abuse scandal has cast a dark cloud over his 27 year papacy.

My first trip to Rome was in 1988 where I originated a live broadcast on WOOD radio from the studios of Vatican Radio. I was hosted by Archbishop John Foley, who was the president of the papal commission of social communication. In other words, he was the popes PR guy. Foley was taking me on a private tour of St. Peter’s Basilica where, of all places, I ran into the pastor of my home parish in Lima, Ohio – Father Lamantia. When we saw each other we both exclaimed in unison “what are you doing here!” I love small world stories like that. I spent 10 days in Rome but never saw the pope.

My 2nd trip to Rome was when Benedict was Pope. No, I didn’t see him either. I think he was out of town.

My luck changed on my third trip to the eternal city. My close encounter with Pope Francis. Ahead of the trip I went to get a haircut. My barber, who is a know it all, was asking me about my upcoming trip. “Why would you want to go to Rome. It’s a dirty city, the traffic is horrible, the people are rude, the food is overrated, and there are pickpockets everywhere. Where are you staying in Rome?” He asked. I told him we were booked at the Michaelangelo hotel near the Vatican. “What a flea bag joint that is” he said. “The rooms are small, there are bedbugs, the elevators don’t work, the place stinks, and there are beggars hanging around the place”. I haven’t a clue on how he knew all this. He asked why I was going to Rome. I told him about my interest in popes and that I had bought a tour that includes a private audience with the pope.

“Private audience!!??”, he shouted as his shears were dangerously close to my neck, “I hear those so called private audiences have hundreds of people and you won’t stand a chance of getting within 50 yards of the pope. You’ve been conned!” Geez, I was glad to get out of there. What a know it all!

And now, the rest of the story. About a month later, after my trip was over, it was time for another haircut. As I walked into the shop, the barber loudly announced to everyone “the world traveler returns! So, didn’t I tell you Rome was a dirty place”. Quite the contrary I said. I found it to be clean, traffic was a bit crazy but we managed through it. The food was fabulous, and the people we delightful. And no pickpocket encounters. I could tell he was disappointed that his perception of Rome was wrong.

“What about that flea bag hotel? Did you get any bed bug bites”. No way, I said. That was a magnificent hotel. The rooms were spacious, the decor was recently updated, the linens, towels, and other amenities were first class. And, they even had a fruit basket and bottle of Preseco waiting for us.

The barber, now clearly agitated that he was once again misguided, said “oh yeah, we’ll what about that so called private audience with the pope?” He had me on this one. Well, you were right, I told him. There were hundreds of people there and I could barely see the pope. “Ahh Hah! I told you! I was right!!” He said.

But then a strange thing happened, I said. Two of the pope’s Swiss guards approached us and said the pope wanted to meet with us privately in the apostolic palace.

My barber was almost speechless. “So what happened?” He asked. Well, we were led into the popes private chambers and there he was. Pope Francis. He came up to me and whispered something into my ear.

The barber asked “what did he say?”

He wanted to know where I got the shitty haircut.

#38 -Things I miss.

I recently learned of the passing of a former colleague of mine, Tom Girocco.  Tom had a distinguished broadcast career that included the General Manager position of WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids.  Tom was sent by Time Life to run the newly created HBO in New York. What a gig!   When WOOD Broadcasting purchased WSPD in Toledo, Tom was brought in as the company president.  I got to know him fairly well while I was in both Toledo and Grand Rapids.  He was a cool guy.  I used to marvel at Tom’s gift of smart investing.  In fact, some of the guys called him Tommy Timing because no matter what the situation, Girocco timed it well.  I hadn’t seen him in years and just learned that he passed away of complications from a stroked at the age of 80.  80!!! I remember him when he was in his 40’s.  I remember when Girocco first came to Toledo.  He lived on his 40 foot yacht  moored in North Toledo in the Maumee Bay of Lake Erie.  Tom had piloted the craft from New York, through the St. Lawrence Seaway, into Lake Ontario, and then into Lake Erie and, finally, Toledo.  Who does that?  I miss people like that.

I miss my radio buddies in Grand Rapids.  Oh, I have lots of radio friends in Lousiville, Detroit, Toledo, hometown Lima, Ohio, and Fresno.  But Grand Rapids, Michigan is where I really cut my teeth in both on air, programming, and upper management.  I miss Grand Rapids.  I miss going over to the West Side and getting some polish kielbasa at Lewendowskis Market.  I miss driving down Plymouth wishing I could afford one of those magnificent homes between Lake Drive and Argentina.  I miss the fish ladder, the Cottage Bar, Reeds Lake.  As it happened, I was in Grand Rapids last week visiting the family.  I really miss them.  The radio business is kind of unsettling for kids.  My two, Cara and Eric, both handled moves to Toledo, Lousiville, and Detroit quite well.  But in between those radio stops, there was always the inevitable return to Grand Rapids.  Cara followed dad’s footsteps for awhile and got into the radio business at a competitor.  And soon after that, without any interference from me, she got a job working at Clear Channel in GR.  She and her husband Jose now run a very successful Civil Processing company called JACO.  Eric, on the other hand, decided to become a college professor.  Not sure where he got those smarts but after graduating from Aquinas in Grand Rapids, he went on to the University of Lousiville and post doc work at Boston U.  Dr. Eric now is a tenured prof at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Illinois.  I’m very proud of them.  Who wouldn’t be?  And I believe I owe Grand Rapids big time because the city afforded both of my children enormous opportunities.  Just like it did for me.  I miss Grand Rapids.  I don’t miss the winters.

I’m writing this at Los Angeles International Airport and I have to sign off for now..before I miss my plane.

#37 9-11-01

There are some days you’ll never forget.  I can remember my parents telling about where they were and what they were doing on December 7th, 1941 – the “day which will live in infamy”.

I vividly remember November 22nd, 1963.  I was in the 8th grade at St. Charles School in Lima, Ohio when the school principal, Sister Mary Patrick,  went on the public address system and asked for prayers.  Then, she put the radio on throughout the school so we could hear the events unfolding in Dallas.  Our 8th grade teacher was Sister Ann Rita.  She was about 80 years old at the time (or it seemed like it) and when the announcement came that President Kennedy had been assassinated, she wept.  I’ll never forget it.  School was dismissed early and we all retreated to our homes.  When I got home I saw my mom, ironing in front of the TV with tears streaming down her face.   My mom was a big Kennedy supporter and 3 years earlier, she attended a Kennedy campaign rally ion Downtown Toledo when she was pregnant for my brother David.  I recall her coming home beaming because she got up close with JFK.  She talked about it for days.  Being Catholic, of course, gave all of us a sense of ownership in this president.  And now, he was gone.  I think all of us felt empty.

And then there was September 11th, 2001.  The day after my 51st birthday.   For me, the day started out like most days.  I recall the weather was perfect.  I was the Market Manager for Clear Channel in West Michigan. My office was on the 10th floor of the Michigan National Bank Building in Downtown Grand Rapids.  Before I went to the office, I dropped off my Rotary Club exchange student at school.  I was a sponsor of a nice young girl from Istanbul, Turkey named Sezin Ata.  Sezin was 15 or 16 at the time and was one of our international exchange students.  After school hours, she came down to the radio station and worked as an intern for my daughter, Cara, who was a DJ on one of our stations and worked with our promotion team.  By the way, I didn’t hire my daughter.  She got the job essentially without my knowledge and without my help.  But I must say she was (and is ) a real go-getter.

As was part of my morning ritual, I would go through morning e-mails (yes, we had e-mail even back then) from corporate, check with my assistant Patty Newman (“anybody sue us today?”) and then I’d head down to Romper Room – my name for the studio floor.  The 9th floor at Clear Channel Grand Rapids was where all the fun was.  It was a little after 9AM and as I walked into the WOOD Radio newsroom, I saw staffers gathered around a TV.  “What’s going on?” I asked.  “Someone flew a plane into the side of the Word Trade Center in New York”.  I could see the gash on the side of the north tower and I recall someone saying a private pilot may have had a heart attack or some other medical event which caused them to fly their plane into the building.   But I looked at the size of the gash and compared it to our building.  I said, that might be a Cessna if it flew into our building but that’s the World Trade Center and that gash is so much bigger…and at that point, the 2nd plane hit the south tower.  We all looked at each other, jaws hitting the floor.  “Son of a bitch!!!”  We knew what just happened and who did it.  There was no doubt.  Bin Laden.  News Director John Bry and Program Director Phil Tower instantly knew what we were dealing with.  And they jumped into action.  It was one of my proudest moments in broadcasting.  Perhaps my proudest.  To see how everyone, working in concert, developed a plan and got information, instantly, on the air.  We not only provided news and information, we launched a fundraising campaign to funnel cash resources to New York City.  By early afternoon, we had raised over $15,000.

September 11th, 2001 was the day that changed talk radio forever.  That was the watershed event that breathed new life into Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity.  It was also the day that essentially put an end to Dr. Laura’s show.  Her program of personal advice became non relevant as listeners had an unquenchable thirst for news.  At WOOD, we took Dr. Laura off the air – permanently.  And put Glenn Beck on the air.  All of the Clear Channel stations in Grand Rapids took the news feed from WOOD in order to provide the best coverage to all of our listeners.

Around 3 in the afternoon I had to go back to the middle school and pick up Sezin.  I felt awful because Sezin had the same last name (Ata) as one of the terrorists who flew a plane into the World Trade Center.  I feared she had encountered problems at school because of her background.  When I went to pick her up, she was very well aware of what had happened.  She didn’t appear to have experienced any problems from other students which was a great relief.  As we drove from Heritage Hill down to the station, she told me how terrible the entire thing was and how bad she felt.  I learned something important that day about tolerance.  About not jumping to conclusions.  And I learned it from a teenage girl from Istanbul.

#36 Sluggo, Tubby, and Bart.

This blog is going to seem really stupid to most of you.  Meet Sluggo and Tubby.  I was introduced to these two characters by one Bart Brandmiller nearly 45 years ago and they became the centerpiece of a series of practical jokes that began in the WGRD days, and to a certain degree, is still going on to this day.  Bart is my best friend.  We’ve known each other since we started radio together in Lima, Ohio in 1971.

As I attempt to explain the joke, I’m sure most of you will think we’re out of our minds.  But here goes.  Sluggo and Tubby is a “gotcha” invented by Bart and a college buddy of his.  Here’s an example:

“Hey Bart, I just saw two friends of yours and they said to say Hi”

“Oh really?  Who are they”

“Sluggo and Tubby !!!!

Of course you can get much more sophisticated with the joke..like:

Hey Bart, I saw 3 friends of yours..Tom said Hi..

Oh..who were the other two?

“Sluggo and Tubby!!!!!”

There are, of course, Sluggo and Tubby rules.  First, you can’t play a Sluggo and Tubby on someone who has no idea about the joke.  They’ll look at you like you’re nuts.  Rule #2..Gender is important.  Sluggo and Tubby are guys.  So your setup has to be masculine or generic, but not feminine.  Rule #3…the setup has to indicate TWO..or a couple,,or a pair..anything that indicates TWO.    In the case of the second example above, two is implied through subtraction.  And Rule #4 – if you’ve been Sluggo’d..you have to slap your forehead and say “oh, shit”.

The best Sluggo and Tubby’s are when they come from out of left field.  I once engaged Jackie Sirianni to play a Sluggo and Tubby on Bart.  Jackie is one of Grand Rapids best advertising sales representatives and she worked for Bart at Michigan Media.  The set up was classic.  Jackie went into Bart’s office and told him she knew of a couple of radio sales guys that were looking for a job.  Bart, never suspecting Jackie was in on the Sluggo and Tubby bit, said “Oh Really?? Who are they?

So, what does this have to do with radio?  As silly as this bit is, it fostered a helluva lot of fun and camaraderie at WGRD.  Everyone was in on the bit and everyone took painstaking steps to “get” someone.  Of course, you also have to take similar steps of not being caught,  I’ve been on guard since 1975.   It’s been a long time since I had to slap my forehead and say “Oh Shit”.

Practical jokes at the radio station were always a blast. Some of the football bets between WGRD General Manager Don Anderson and Bart were classic.  The bets were always $5,  Whoever lost that weeks college football bet, had to pay the other person off in an unusual manner.  At first the payoff’s were rather elementary like $5 worth of pennies, or $5 worth of postage stamps.  Then, things got more elaborate.  In one payoff episode, Bart had won the bet and was to collect his $5 from Don.  A note was placed on his desk telling him:

“there lurks a familiar character in Grand Rapids who is known to most of us.  Go up to him, put your hands on your hips, and say “ooh, eee, ooh ahh ahh, ting tang, walla walla bing bang” twirl around three times, extend your hand and say “give me the money”. 

What a scene this could create.  After all, you wouldn’t  want to do that to just anybody.  You might get shot.  So Bart had to spend a great deal of time analyzing various people in town.  It just so happens that there was a little old man that occupied the corner of Lyon and Monroe Street in Downtown Grand Rapids every day.  His name was Wally Gingrich and he used to own a trucking company but the IRS shut him down on tax violations.  So, everyday, old Wally would be standing downtown on the corner with signs protesting the IRS.  Could Wally be the guy?  Could this little old man, with his cardboard “taxed out of business” sign be the holder of Bart’s Football Payoff?  Bart considered the possibility carefully and consulted with various people at the station.  It might be worth the risk.  So Bart trudges down the street to the corner and there’s Wally with his sign.  Bart approaches him and then, goes through the ting tang walla walla bing bag routine..he spins, he extends his hand, he says “give me the money”…and Wally reaches into his coat and hands him the $5.00!  A Classic!!!

There were other imaginative payoffs..some involved airplanes.  One involved placing the payoff in the beacon light atop the WGRD transmitting tower (it may still be there). Of course, if you do some of this stuff now you’ll probably get sued.  Do they actually have fun in radio stations anymore?

I started these blogs nearly a year ago and expected them to last about a year.  I was thinking of wrapping this up in September but two friends of mine are urging me to keep going.