#35 Fresno Redux

After 9 months in Lima, Ohio I was given the opportunity to have a piece of an AM station in Fresno.  Now, why I ever thought this was a good idea escapes me. KGED was a 10,000 watt full time radio station at 1680 AM. Even though the dial position was in the nose bleed section of the radio dial, the station had an amazing signal. I jumped in doing what I love to do. Programming. So, another big move, 2300 miles from Ohio back to California.  I was becoming something I never thought I’d be.  A radio nomad.

The station had a history of Christian Conservative programming which doesn’t mean it was a religious station, but it did offer programming from the Salem Radio Network which is very conservative, although not bombastic. In other words, boring. The station employed one sales person who didn’t know how to sell, and a transmitter that didn’t like to stay on the air. I identified two immediate needs. A new transmitter and a seller. Transmitters are expensive. But getting a new one was much easier than finding a seller. So I found myself hitting the streets drumming up some business. Now that’s tough work.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that the billing on the station couldn’t sustain my salary. There was only one choice. I had to cut my own salary. And it didn’t take me long to figure out after cutting my salary, that this was insanity. I was spending more money working than I made. So I cut my losses and forfeited my shares in the station.

John Ostlund, the owner of One Putt Broadcasting in Fresno tossed me a lifesaver. I had met John a few years earlier and found him to be a helluva guy. When I was at KMJ, management there had vilified John. Now, for those of you not in radio, you need to know that radio competitors are always portrayed as the Antichrist. The worst, nastiest, sleaziest snake in the grass is the person you compete against. As I look back on the multitude of radio wars I’ve fought in, this has always been an immutable fact.

Turns out John Ostlund and I had more in common than I would have ever thought. John is a programming guy and a good businessman. He and I forged a relationship which is in tact to this day. Johns idea was to bring the Bill Drake 20/20 news style back to the air in Fresno on KYNO. He wanted to know how familiar I was with 20/20 news. Are you kidding me?? I was raised on that stuff. So John sent me the 20/20 news sounder, teletype sound effect, weather jingle, and the famous Drake tympani and asked me to do a sample newscast. I nailed it. And so, I reinvented myself doing news everyday on KYNO. I also do newscasts on Ostlund’s other station too, although not in the 20/20 news style. And since this is a freelance position, I’m essentially working at my own pace, from my own home studio. It’s the perfect semi retirement job.

And this leads me to a mini rant.

As I’ve immersed myself daily into the business of gathering, writing, and reporting the news, I’ve become more sensitive to the crackpots who denigrate the profession of journalism with smart ass remarks about fake news. It’s insulting. Do reporters make mistakes? Yes. Nobody is perfect. I don’t know one single journalist or reporter – not one- who doesn’t work hard at their craft. Furthermore, I believe that the smear campaign against journalism, supported by some media hooligans, is an affront to the 1st Amendment and a threat to democracy. I’m firm on this. This is a funny business. You never know who you may end up working with or for down the road. That’s why you’re not supposed to burn bridges. The toes you step on today may very well be connected to the ass you have to kiss tomorrow. Most people in this business live by that adage. But not me. I spent 45 years kissing up and I really don’t have to do that anymore. I find the crap I hear on talk radio these days just that.

End of Rant

#34 – You’re Hired

Sharon and I spent the Summer of 2014 traveling around. We went to a favorite family spot, Jekyll Island, GA. where I pondered our future. I had received an invite to interview in Syracuse NY for the program director position of WSYR. I was also offered a job as new business manager for Childers Media Group in my hometown of Lima, Ohio. Let’s see…Lima or Syracuse.

After a lot of consternation, we left Jekyll for Syracuse where I met with the very nice staff and management of WSYR. The money wasn’t great but the job was. I knew I could make a difference. And the town looked amazing.

So, where did I choose? Lima, Ohio. Hometown. Comfort. Family. Once the decision was made, we went to France and knocked around Paris. It’s one of our favorite places. And a good place to take stock and plan. And then we returned to Fresno to pack it all in and move to Lima, where we were able to purchase an amazing home around the corner from my parents.

My life was soon to become an episode of “Everyone Loves Raymond”. That was actually a very good thing. The Fall if 2014 was a typical Midwest Autumn with the red, gold, yellow leaves on the trees. Kids trick or treating on Halloween, and one of the best Thanksgivings ever. Winter, on the other hand was a bear. One of the coldest, snowiest in recent years. On the home front, all was nice and cozy. But, on the job front I was miserable. In spite of my years of experience, I was accorded all of the deference of a novice. Maybe it was my ego. Probably was.

I think I did a good job but I really hated it. Nevertheless, I was able to forge some good friendships like Greg Stolly, Arron Matthews, and Tom Krouse. I saw some amazing talent too, who had huge potential but weren’t getting the direction they needed. It drove me crazy. But, I was a nobody now. After less than a year, and knowing I’d break my parents hearts, we left Lima and went back to Fresno where I bought into an AM radio station. A good friend of mine told me this was suicide. He was right.

#33. You’re Fired

Words I never thought would be directed at me. Actually, the exact words were “we’re going in a different direction”. My wife advised me to be cautious writing about this. Sour grapes and all. In the broadcast business people get fired all the time. We call it “getting the ziggy”. Most of my friends in radio and TV have been fired for one reason or another. But I thought all the angels and saints had given me a divine exemption.

I prided myself on never losing a job. Besides death itself, it was my greatest fear. The loss of income is one thing but the humiliation is another. I was fired as program director of KMJ 4 years ago. In truth, I’m still not over it. Getting canned puts you in a league all it’s own. Colleagues you’ve worked with for many years act as if you’re a leper. Let’s face it. There is a stigma that comes with termination.

I’m not sure why it happened. I wasn’t a wanted felon, porn king, boozer, or drug user. The ratings were not great but were stable. We still maintained a lead in our format category. I made a lot of money. Maybe that was it. Maybe it was health. I was recovering from a prostatectomy after a cancer diagnosis. Who knows?

I knew ahead of time I was going to get the ziggy. Cumulus had recently taken over KMJ in a rather complex station swap following the bankruptcy of Peak Broadcasting. Then they brought in a new programmer to oversee the news talk stations. Randall Bloomquist came to town and started finding fault with just about everything. We had too many interviews with Devin Nunes, our local congressman. We should have zero. Don’t allow local politicians on the air. Nobody wants to hear them. Why were we supporting Honor Flights? Those old veterans may be the greatest generation but they’re the richest. They can afford their own trips to Washington DC. Besides, it makes us sound old. Local show Hometown Hero’s ,a program that chronicles the stories of WWII veterans, was “old” and he wanted it axed. There weren’t enough topics on our local talk shows. He wanted 3-4 topics per hour! And here was his big “gotcha”. One night he listened to the overnight show and there were no station ID’s. Now, to be fair, that is a serious issue. But Cumulus had ordered KMJ to run one of their shows overnight and for several weeks they had technical issues. Tones that were supposed to fire local IDs at the station level didn’t work. It was their problem, not ours. I knew all this but I figured Bloomquist would only see it as an excuse. The bottom line was, he was going to fire me no matter what.

I wasn’t going to be humiliated, doing the walk of shame with a cardboard box full of my items. So, knowing he was coming to town to fire me, I took a couple of days and started quietly removing my things.

The executioner showed up promptly the morning of July 14th, 2014. I was invited to the conference room where he informed me I was no longer employed and that “they were going in a different direction”. That was it. He walked out and the business manager went over my severance package. Then I was escorted to the parking lot. Since then, I’ve heard very little from the people I worked with for 7 years at 1071 W Shaw. As I suppose it’s natural. Loyalties go with whoever has the power.

I recall the sage advice of a Clear Channel labor attorney many years before. We ended up settling a labor dispute with a disgruntled employee. I was a bit incredulous that we would just pay off this person when we were in the right. The attorney told me “live and be happy”.

I decided to take my wife and go to France.

#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.

#31 – People

IMG_3077Tonight it is storming in San Miguel de Allende.  One of those nights to pour some Canadian Club over ice into one of my prized Waterford Crystal tumblers, and begin a series on people.

The broadcast industry is a people business.  And boy, do we have some characters.  I look back on my career and certain people just pop!  There’s Bart Brandmiller.  Bart, along with his pals Sluggo, Tubby, The Wizard, and the Mongoose had a major impact in my life.  Coming up, an entire chapter on that.  There’s Gary Allen.  I recall the summer afternoons – a Tuesday I think – when I was program director of WOOD and Gary would come into my office and declare it a “Tropical Tuesday”.  For those of you that associate the word “tropics” with a West End establishment in Grand Rapids, you know what that was all about.  Aside from my wife Sharon, I think Gary and Bart are my best friends.

And then there’s Bob Becker.  Weekend DJ for life in Grand Rapids.  Becker is perhaps the cheapest person I know..but I love him all the same.  As a young DJ arriving in Grand Rapids in 1971, Bob Becker was the first Big 14 Jock I met.   I remember Ron White (WGRD PD) telling me that Bob Becker would be coming in to relieve me in the morning.  I was doing overnights Saturday into Sunday and Bob would come in to do the Sunday Morning shift.  The name alone suggests gravitas..BOB BECKER.  I was expecting a 6’4″ 200 pound Adonis to walk into the studio.   When Mr. Peepers showed up, I was taken aback.  But from there, a life long friendship developed.  I can tell you lots of stories about Becker..like how I used to sneak back into the station and hide his Cheerios.  Or how I played Santa Claus for his kids one winter night shortly before Christmas.  But my favorite was Sunday morning church.  Bob, his wife Cathy, and Bob’s mom (Mrs. Becker) would all go to mass at St. James on Bridge Street.  Afterwards, we’d all go to the Big Boy on Pearl Street for breakfast.  I swear this really happened.  Bob’s mother left a tip for the waitress.  After Mrs. Becker got up to head to the parking lot, Bob said “oh, that’s too much” and he picked it up..leaving a smaller tip.  Now, just to be fair, Mrs. Becker did leave a rather large tip..and Bob replaced it with the customary 15%.  But it was one of those moments in time that I won’t forget.  I recently went to lunch with Gary Hunt and Bob at Tillman’s in Grand Rapids.  The three of us used to meet there for lunch frequently.  I hadn’t seen either of them for a few years and it was so damn good to get together again..and Bob picked up the tab!  By the way, the three old sales guys at the bar are still there.

A lot of people I worked with over the years are no longer with us.  Gary Bazner told me one time that there are two types of people in radio – those that have been fired and those that are going to be fired.  He also told me he would die at a young age.  He was right – on both counts.  Gary died on February 2nd, 1996.  He wasn’t even 50.  I think it’s very ironic that Gary, a weatherman by profession, died on Groundhogs Day. Weird.

One of the people I had to fire was the sports guy at WOOD Radio.  Tom Mahoney wasn’t a bad sports announcer in my opinion but he wasn’t liked.  General Manager Mike Lareau wanted him gone.  I had just taken over as PD of WOOD and the night had arrived for me to fire Tom.  I was trembling..didn’t want to do it.  So Lareau said “let me show you how to fire somebody”.  After Mahoney finished his sports show at 8pm, I summoned him into Lareau’s  office.  Tom walked in and Mike said “Tom, we’re parting company effective tonight.  Please give me your key and Skip will walk you out”.  And that was that.  A few years later I learned Mahoney had died.  That episode has haunted me ever since.

I was never more struck then when I learned of the death of Sue Price.  Sue was our accounts payable person and assistant business manger at Clear Channel.  I really like her.  She was a single, hard working mom who also knew how to plan one hell of a Christmas Party for about 200 employees.  When I learned of her sudden death a couple of years ago, I cried.

And then there’s Bob Scherer.  Bob was the General Manger of WHAS in Louisvllle who hired me and put up with my antics for 7 years.  Bob was the easiest going person I ever met.  In fact we used to joke around that he must have had an intravenous drip of lithium administered daily.  Nothing – and I mean nothing – could upset this man.  Even the harrowing months of Clear Channel Budgets he handled calmly.   One of my fondest memories with Bob was one of the first Clear Channel Manager meetings I attended.  (Bob played a big role in convincing Lowry Mays and Stan Webb that I’d make a good manager).  Part of the meeting took place on the Mays Ranch outside of San Antonio.  This ranch was huge..and it had a big river running through it.  Lowry Mays had an old WWII era Jeep (kind of like Nelly Belle on the old Roy Rogers Show).  Mays would pile a bunch of us up with inner tubes, drive along the banks of the river, and drop us in.  We’d then float back down towards the hacienda.  You never saw a person more relaxed than Bob Scherer, in an inner tube, floating down that river.  Bob died of lymphoma in 1999.  He wasn’t even 60.  I miss him.  A lot of Lousiville legends are now gone.  Milton Metz, Chuck Taylor,  Joe Donovan.  Great people..truly great.  I am so blessed to have known them.

Time for a night cap.  This is Skip Essick, signing off.


#30 – The View from the Valley

Fresno?! A lot of people asked how I ended up over 2300 miles away from my beloved Grand Rapids to the Central Valley of California. The story began in 2000 when change was in the air. Clear Channel merged with Jacor and Randy Michaels became president of the company. Now, for those of you that know Randy, you know that combining the staid and conservative culture of Clear Channel with the bad boys of radio was sort of like mixing oil and water.

A quick side on Randy Michaels. Around 1991 when I was programming WHAS in Louisville, I received a call from Randy. He was running WLW in Cincinnati. I’ll never forget the call. Randy first commented that I was still playing too much music on WHAS (he was right). And then he wanted to know if I had an interest in programming WLW. I politely thanked him for asking and I told him my lapels might be a little too wide for him. Randy chuckled and said “the trouble with you Skip is that you always use the sidewalk. You’ve got to learn to run across the front yard.” Yep, that pretty much summed it up.

Anyhow, faces at the top started to change. Stan Webb decided to retire. My new boss was Dave Crowl. Dave was a longtime radio pro with an impeccable track record. We were familiar with each other and I thought I’d be okay. And I was…at least until 2005 when after more mergers, Randy was out and John Hogan was in. I thought Dave Crowl should have gotten the nod.

New systems were implemented by Hogan. Big brother stuff like Best Rate, MERS (Media Star Executive Reporting Systems) all driven by the new battle cry, Less is More. Managers became tethered to computers constantly manipulating rates. If you failed to log on to the system, you’d get a call. They knew what you were doing. Going out and actually spending time with clients became more and more difficult with the never ending cavalcade of yet another conference call. And when, at a managers meeting in Dallas I was admonished in front of a roomful of my peers for not properly managing inventory, I decided then and there that this was going to drive me nuts. The Senior VP conducting the session chastised me for having all of our commercial inventory sold out. Imagine that. Being sold out! He put me on the spot and asked for an explanation. I shot back “well, I’m not apologizing for being sold out. That’s how I was trained. We’re getting high rates and we’re exceeding our goals. How many of your stations can say the same?” Dead silence in the room. A smattering of applause. I think I could hear someone humming taps. I was a marked man.

I decided to look for a job in programming. After all, who wouldn’t want me??!!! A great list of stations under my programming hat, 11 years in upper management. I mean..I was a real catch, right? Wrong. I went for big programming jobs. Like WGN and WLS in Chicago. I came close.

Then, I had heard about KMJ in Fresno. I threw my hat in the ring and the next thing I knew, I was invited to fly out and interview for the job. Todd Lawley had just bought the CBS cluster in Fresno which included KMJ. I was met by market manager Patty Hixson and Lawley. We had a nice lunch at the Elbow Room in Fresno and then convened at the station. They asked me to put a good ear to the station and write them a report. So, I listened to KMJ for a few days and then wrote a report and emailed it to them. It was brutal. I figured I insulted them and that would be it. But it wasn’t. I was offered the job with an excellent compensation package. Now I had to make a decision.

Several days later while vacationing on Jekyll Island, Georgia I made up my mind. I was taking the job. I called Dave Crowl and told him I was resigning. Dave was stunned. He asked where I was going. “I’m going to Fresno.” Dave replied “Fresno?!!! – Skip, have you ever been to Fresno??!!!”

The following Monday I met Crowl at the station and we announced to the staff I was leaving.

Fresno was good to both Sharon and I. We had 7 great years there. But there were some rough times too including the Great Recession that forced the company into Chapter 11. But nothing could have prepared me for a phone call I got in September 2012.

Premier Radio was the syndicator of 60% of our programming on KMJ. We broadcast the Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity shows as well as the popular overnight show, Coast to Coast AM. Plus a variety of weekend shows. Peter Trippe from Premier called and informed me they were pulling all of the shows effective the first of the year. Premier was owned by Clear Channel and, although Peter wouldn’t spill the beans, I knew this could only mean one thing. Clear Channel was going to launch a station against us.

I went back through my notes from 2007 when I sent my evaluation of KMJ to Patty and Todd. In it I told them the station needed to beef up it’s news department and develop local programming because I knew that one day something like this might happen. Here’s a portion of the original report.

Patty – here are some initial thoughts I want to share with you regarding KMJ.  These are in no particular order. As I told you when we met, this might seem a little too direct but I’m just being very open and honest with you on my “first ears” assessment.

Overall station branding – needs to be consistent and constant.  I would go with Newsradio 580, KMJ….Fresno’s News, Weather, and Traffic station.    I personally don’t care for the news/talk moniker.  Newsradio works well on stations like KMJ which have no all news competition.  By default, you are the all news station.  News is huge..it is content by which everything else revolves and it needs to be showcased in a major way.

Weather and traffic are surveillance elements that are, in most cases, number one and number two in terms of listener interests.  Now, I suspect that the weather and traffic in Fresno are very predictable but they are, nonetheless, critical.  When you absolutely control the news-weather-traffic hill, as KMJ does, it becomes almost impossible for a competitor to move in.  News, Weather, Traffic – this is YOUR turf and even if you get an FM “talk” competitor down the road, they won’t win.

Still, the call from Trippe left me stunned. I walked into Patty Hixson’s office. The look on my face pretty much said it all. We called Todd Lawley and I remember his response. “Well, I guess we’ll find out how good we are.”

Live and local was the only way to go. Period. 2nd tier syndicated talk shows were not an option. The radio waves are saturated with the Hugh Hewitts of the world. And frankly, the only show that really mattered was Limbaugh. That was the 600 pound gorilla. So we built our live and local lineup. And it was fabulous. John Broeske was brought out of retirement and paired with Jenn Lipp to host 9-11AM, Ray Appleton was expanded from 2 hours to 3 hours and was on 11-2, and Chris Daniel and Philip Teresi did PM drive. Since Ray also did the morning news, I took that over and went back on the air.

Meanwhile Clear Channel launched Power Talk with our former syndicated shows. We took a hit.. but they never beat us.

KMJ was taken over by Cumulus in 2014. The same year I dealt with prostate cancer. I had surgery in April of 2014 but was back on the job in 10 Days. In July of 2014 I received a corporate visitor from Atlanta. He fired me and I was escorted out of the building. It was the first time in my life that I was fired. And, at the age of 64, I found myself without a place to go the next morning.

I recall the words of Richard Nixon on the day of his resignation from the presidency:

Only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.

Boy, ain’t that the truth.

#29 – Home Sweet Home


It has occurred to me while preparing to write about my 11 years as Market Manager for Clear Channel in Grand Rapids, that it would probably be very boring to the reader.  After all, upper management isn’t as fun as being on the air.  There really aren’t any funny stories, practical jokes, and all the other things that makes programming so damn much fun.  I’ll try and make this interesting.  I began what would be my longest held position on April 8th, 1996 and presided over what would become one of the company’s most successful markets.

The interesting thing about writing these blogs is that you hear from people you haven’t heard from in years.  And that’s what happened to me today.  I actually got a  message from Stan Webb.  Stan was the person who hired me.  As Lowry Mays grew the company, he depended on his two most loyal Texas managers to be Senior VP’s.  Stan Webb from Austin and Jim Smith (Smitty) from Oklahoma.  I reported directly to Stan.  Stan and Smitty were best of friends too and there was a real sense of comaraderie in those early days of what I’ll call the old Clear Channel.  Despite reputations as being cheap (they really weren’t) I loved working for them.  You always knew were you stood with these guys.

By the time I occupied the mnager’s chair, Clear Channel had purchased 2 more stations.  WCUZ and WCUZ FM were longtime foes.  I competed against them back in the 80’s when I was program director of WOOD.  And Country Giant WBCT (B93) had a rather brutal war with WCUZ when they came on the scene a few years earlier.  Tales of programming espionage were already legendary by the time I arrived on the scene.  And there, on day 1, was Lowry Mays and Stan Webb to announce the purchase of WCUZ.   Lowry walked into the lobby where the staff was assembled and proclaimed “The War is Over”.

Jumping in to manage 5 radio stations from two different locations was akin to putting your mouth over the end of a fire hose and turning on the water full blast.  I felt like the guy on the Ed Sullivan show who would come on and spin plates.  But I knew I could do it if I just focused on the job.  And the job was simply this.  Get the right people in the right positions and then get the hell out of their way.   I was blessed.  I inherited a fairly solid staff, like Paul Boscarino, Gary Allen, Don Missad, and Kate Folkertsma.   Many I had worked with years earlier so we knew each other.  Many were either new to me, or former competitors.   As I was building our sales staff, I knew I had to have one person on the team in a management position.  Henry Capogna had been the sales manager at WCUZ for years but when we bought the stations, Henry was not clear if he would come with us.  He indicated he had other opportunities.   So I contacted Stan Webb and told him I needed his help in closing the deal with Henry.  Stan flew up, met with Henry and afterwards told me “that guy is a sales animal”.  It wasn’t easy.  Henry played hard to catch.  But we eventually got him on board.

B93 was the big country station in the market.  It had toppled WCUZ in the ratings a couple of years before and it enjoyed ratings superiority over everyone else and, of course, it was a money machine.  The staff of B93 were renegades.  They didn’t like doing things the Clear Channel way per se, and they really didn’t like being in the same building as WOOD and WOOD FM.  The previous owner, Bruce Holberg, had purchased B93 and moved them from their Ann Street location where they had the entire building to themselves, and crammed them into the WOOD AM/FM facility in downtown Grand Rapids.  There was no question they resented it – and I didn’t blame them.   And now, with WCUZ in the stable, it became a question of where are we going to put all of these radio stations?  They sure wouldn’t fit at the WOOD facility.  The WCUZ building was deluxe in every way.  Nice location on Monroe Mall,  nice studios, conference room, lunch room, etc.  But it was too small.  So, for a period of time, we operated out of two buildings which was hardly ideal.

About one month into the job, Stan Webb to tell me we had purchased one more station.  WAKX was licensed to Holland Michigan with a great lakeshore signal but a deficient signal in Grand Rapids proper.  Now there were 6.  And it was time to move.  Stan had given me the marching orders locate all of the stations into a new facility.  He outlined for the parameters like needed sqaure footage and budget.  And so I went to work looking at properties.

One day Doug Montgomery came into my office and said he found the perfect place for us.  Doug was the program director of B93 (more on Doug later).   It was the former Michigan National Bank Building in Downtown Grand Rapids at the corner of Monroe and Ionia.  Doug and I walked over and met the owners of the building and took a tour.  Doug was right.  It was perfect.  We both could envision what would go where.  We brought others over to check out the place including our chief engineer, Don Missad.  After all, a lot of the build out would fall squarely on his shoulders and I had to make sure the building could support all of our roof gear like satellite dishes, antennas, etc.  Don said it looked good to him too.  So, with negotiations on rent, contractors, and parking for staff to our satisfaction, the build out began.  Clear Channel Grand Rapids would occupy 18 thousand square feet on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors.  Several months later, we all moved in.

I managed this one big happy family from 77 Monroe Center for over 11 years from 1996 to  September, 2007.   During these years, we not only completed a build out of the new facilities, we added a 7th station (WSNX), commanded the top 4 rankings in the market,  took the biggest piece of the revenue pie, rolled out a profitable internet component, and took WOOD from 5,000 watts to a brand new transmitting plant cranking out 20,000 watts.  In 2005 Clear Channel Grand Rapids was recognized as the top Midwest Medium Market cluster for the company, generating over 22 million dollars in revenue and returning 51% of it to the bottom line.  I was named VP of the year.  It was one helluva run.