#6 Grand Rapids – part 1

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I love Grand Rapids, Michigan. In fact, I love it so much that I’ve lived there 3 different times. From 1971-80, 1982-89, and 1996-2007.  Grand Rapids was always good to me.

WGRD was a daytime only AM station. In order to remain competitive, WGRD’s parent company, Regional Broadcasting,  purchased an FM station from the Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids.  WXTO, the Aquinas College station became WGRD-FM.  And now, WGRD could operate 24/7 and compete against the top 40 competitors  WLAV and WZZM.   In order to fill the extra hours, additional DJ’s needed to be hired and I was one of them.

Program Director Ron White hired me to do the overnight show on WGRD.  The show was Midnight to 6.  Ron was (and probably still is) a very strict formatics guy.  Believe me, you just didn’t veer from the format.  One slip..one screwup..one format violation..and the batphone would light up.  This was Ron’s private line into the studio and it was connected to a flood light mounted on the wall.  When the batphone rang, it lit up the entire studio.  I know guys who got sun tanned from Ron’s calls.  When the batphone rang, you would very timidly say “hello” and on the other end of the line it was Ron’s infamous “Geeeeeeez…what are you doing!!!!”  You ex GRD guys know what I’m talking about.  Ron had a code of rules you were handed from day 1.  I remember the first paragraph.  “You choose broadcasting as a profession..Therefore, you owe it to broadcasting to be a professional”.  That was pretty heady stuff for a 21 year old kid from Lima, Ohio.  But I truly admired Ron for his professionalism and I learned a lot.  From 1971 to 1980 there simply was no better Top 40 station in Grand Rapids than WGRD and we had the ratings to back that claim up.

General Manager Don Anderson had created an atmosphere that made almost every day a joy to go to work.  During my years at WGRD (1971-80) Don had built a staff of pros both in programming and in sales.  Don was the most competitive guy I ever met.  When it was time to play..we played hard.  And when it was time to work..we worked hard.

I did the overnight show for 6 months.  During that time the other disc jockeys, knowing I had a weakness for cracking up, would sneak into the station and play pranks just to get me to laugh.  When I first started at WGRD, we operated out of the transmitter building while new posh studios were being constructed in Downtown GR’s Water’s Building.  The transmitter building was actually an old bungalow.  The studio was located directly at the entrance to the front door.  Behind the studio was the toilet.  I can’t begin to tell you how many times a prankster would flush the toilet just as I was reading a public service announcement.  “Here’s a reminder from the Big 14 and Stereo 98 (flush)” this would be followed by me laughing my way through the announcement..and that would be followed by (batphone) “Geeeeeeez, whats going on down there?”  BUSTED!! One time the guys arranged for a stripper to show up at something like 3am.  The front door to the transmitter building opened up.  And there was some girl wearing a tight knit dress with a huge zipper down the front.  Of course this all happened as I was in a live set.   I can still hear the sound of that zipper..zipping down.  (Batphone)…”Geeeeez, what’s going on down there?”

In November of 1971 we moved from “where the deer and the antelope play” to Grand Rapids Most Prestigious Business Address…The Waters Building.  The transmitter building was a dump and we treated it that way.  Graffiti was scrawled everywhere.  Anonymous pearls of wisdom from the staff..mostly making fun of everyone.  I think DJ Mike McCarthy penned most of them.  He had a thing for Nietzsche.  All of that changed when we moved downtown.  That professionalism stuff Ron preached meant you were no longer a slob.  We had a nice new facility.  Brand new equipment.  Carpet on the walls (can’t write graffiti there) and a conference room that was complete with a stocked bar and WGRD logo embossed cocktail glasses.

Our chief engineer was John Seymour.  John was a brilliant engineer who could make anything work.  John was also pretty savvy when it came to money matters.  He knew how to make a buck and save a buck.  He saved a lot of money by mooching smokes off other staffers.  His technique was pure Seymour.  John would approach his intended, rubbing his hands eagerly, smile on his face “got a cigarette old buddy”.   We used to put explosive loads in marked cigarettes and made sure that when John came for a smoke, he’d get one of those.  I’m sitting here laughing just recalling that.  John would light up, and then…blam!!!  “Shit!!!!..you son of a bitch!!!!”  By the way, this didn’t happen just once..it happened multiple times.

Don Anderson wanted to win…always.  Being number 2 was just not an option.  Across town, at FM rival WZZM-FM, the Manager George Lyons attempted a direct challenge to WGRD’s superiority in the ratings.  Now this would be like Lithuania going to war against Russia.  Don offered the airstaff a $100 bonus per rating point difference between WGRD and WZZM.  We were fired up.  We were going to kick serious ass.  We gave away his and her Corvettes, thousands of dollars in cash, vacations, you name it.  (even Presto hot-doggers) And when the ratings came out, we bested WZZM by 12.7 shares!  Holy Shit..that meant we all got a $1270 bonus.  We celebrated in the conference room.  I think a food fight broke out too but I don’t exactly recall because I had one or 5 too many rum and coca colas.  Anderson went out and bought a sympathy card and sent it to George Lyons.  It read: “with deepest sympathy on your recent loss” And then Don added in his own handwriting “you SOB”.

Our main competitor in Grand Rapids was WLAV, programmed by John Leader.  WLAV was a great sounding radio station but it was an AM station and the ratings were in decline.  The owner of WLAV was John Shepherd and he also had WLAV-FM.  But John never wanted to simulcast the FM with the AM.  WLAV-FM was an AOR (Album Oriented Rock) radio station at the time and had garnered a decent audience share.  But it never beat WGRD in those years.  Today, WLAV FM is a classic rock station with big ratings in Grand Rapids.

I committed a grievous sin in 1976. For an interminable 7 months I left WGRD to be program director of WZZM.  I had taken a loss of all sense of reality and thought I could beat WGRD.  As I said, it was like Lithuania going to war with Russia.  WZZM was the red headed step child to WZZM TV.  George Lyons didn’t care much about radio anyhow but he liked me.  So I gave it a try..and it took about one day to figure out that THIS WAS A BIG MISTAKE!  The technical sound of the station was atrocious.  I asked the chief engineer, Dale Wolters,  to look into the matter.  Dale was a nice guy but he was also deaf.  I’ll never forget it when he told me “sounds ok to me”.  Good Grief!!

It was during my tenure as PD of WZZM that I needed a new morning disc jockey.  I had heard my old Lima boss was looking.  I contacted Tom Sidwell and brought him on board.  It was a disaster.  The entire sales staff revolted.  The station manager Bob Wohfiel said I had to get rid of him.  Tom just did not sound good on the station.  And so, after only a month, I had to let him go.  Tom saved my butt many times..but I couldn’t  save his.

About 7 months at WZZM was all I could stand.  WGRD needed a new afternoon DJ and  I was back on the phone to Ron begging to go back.  When I told George I was leaving and going back to GRD, he reached into his desk and pulled out a sympathy card he received years before.  “This…this is the kind of guy you want to work for???!!!)  Uhhhh, yep.

WGRD was Grand Rapids number one young adult station throughout the 70’s, and in many cases beat powerhouse WOOD in total audience.  Ron and Don had created a legacy that to this day stands as one of America’s most successful Top 40 stations. 

 

 

#5 Molding the minds of the youth of America 

1968 was a tumultuous year.  MLK and Bobby Kennedy assassinated, Riots at the Chicago convention, Nixon elected 37th President. But for me, the only thing I was focused on was advancing my career quickly. 

I cut my teeth in the late summer, fall, and Winter of 68 at WERT in Van Wert, Ohio. The days went by fast because I absolutely loved what I was doing.  And I learned a lot. There was a DJ at WERT by the name of Larry Rich. He was a clown – literally.  I didn’t know his alter ego was (forgot the clowns name) but you can imagine my shock to walk in the studio to see a clown doing a show. Larry Rich was a showman and not a bad air talent. I always wondered what his story was and why he wasn’t in a bigger market.  

One day Rich asked if he could borrow my car. His was in a repair shop. Being the nice guy that I am I said sure. Rich, being the kind of guy he was, used my car and took a local girl I had started dating to the VanDel drive in..and had his way with her.   He was a scoundrel but I kind of liked him.  

In the late winter of 1969 I got a job at WCIT in Lima. When I was offered the job I damn near wet my pants. I was going to be one of the WCIT “Good Guys”!  Jim Burnside was the program director. Burnside was one of the successors to Adrian Kronauer, The DJ portrayed by Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam.  He’d play me tapes of him signing on in the morning with the signature “Goooooooooooooood Morning Vietnam!!!” 

Burnside brought me on board and was subsequently fired about a week later because he got into a management dispute with the owner, Richard H Riggs. With Burnside out, I thought I’d be next. But Riggs and his partner Paul Bussard liked me. The new program director was one of the DJs – Tom Sidwell. When Burnside exited, Sidwell came to me and said ” don’t be nervous – they like you”. Whew!! Dodged that one. 

WCIT was a top 40 station. We played the kind of music the kids liked.   The air staff  during my 2 years at WCIT consisted of Tom Sidwell –  world most bashful disc jockey, Larry Mox, Jim Wood, Mick Hodges, Tommy Judge (Carl David Hamilton) and myself.  Don Sherwood was our news director.  Sherwood was a newsman’s newsman. He was the stereotypical news hound. If he wore a fadora, it would have had a “press” card in the rim.  There were many days Don would fly into the studios and bang in the window shouting “bulletin”!  My God!!!! You would think the world was ending. But it was normally a city hall beat story. Don relished getting a scoop – especially beating out his news buddies at the Lima News. 

There was one local news story though that was pretty serious. Riots in Lima triggered by an officer involved shooting of an African American female.  It got tense.  The National guard was called in. I offered to cover a press conference at the King Kennedy center in Lima’s mostly black south end. And, I took some brass knuckles to the jaw.  I was taken to St. Rita’s Hospital in Lima and treated for a concussion and hairline fracture to the jaw.   Sherwood said I took one for the team. 

Sidwell was perhaps the most memorable WCIT character.  Tom was “a cool cat”. He was stuck somewhere between Maynard G Crebs and Bob Dylan.  He did the morning show on WCIT and used to make wise cracks right at sign on..before playing the national anthem.     His pride and joy was a 60 Corvette. White with red trim. He also had an orange VW bug that he modified with a big engine in the rear compartment.  I often think of Tom and wonder whatever happened to him.  He did a lot for me in my early years and, unfortunately, I turned out to be a not so loyal friend to him.  

I remember Larry Mox. We became good friends and I was saddened when he passed away of a heart condition when he was only in his 20s. But I have a funny story about Larry. We did a contest on the station called The Good Guys Grand Prix.  I don’t recall the details of the contest but I do remember the program director had put a hand written sign right below the studio clock that said “Good Guys Grand Prix Time”. So, when gave a time check, it was “ Good Guys Grand Prix Time” except Larry read it phonetically and said “It’s Good Guys Grand Pricks Time on the Larry Mox Show”. 

To this day,  each  time we pass the cemetery in Delphos where Larry is buried, Sharon and I always give a shout-out to Lawrence of Delphia. 

This is Skip Essick, signing off for now. 

#4 – LAREAU

There are just some things that stay with you.  Like the items in this picture.  These treasures were made by my daughter over 30 years ago and they’ve adorned my desks from radio stations across America.

Yesterday, as I was having lunch with a bunch of old guys, I got a phone call from Michael O Lareau.  Mike is my mentor.  He, along with Jim White, hired me to program WSPD in Toledo.  Speedy – as it was called, was Toledo’s big news and information station and it was owned by WOOD Broadcasting out of Grand Rapids.  I’ll get into the Toledo years a little later down the road. Mike and I had a nice 30 minute chat on the phone.  He still sounds the same and he’s still very much interested in what I’m up to.  After the call, I decided I would take a little blog detour and write about the man most of us refer to as MOL.

One day, as I was sitting at my desk overlooking South Superior Street in Toledo, Mike called me and asked me if I would move up to Grand Rapids to take over programming of WOOD AM/FM.  Eureka!!!!  I love Grand Rapids to this day.  I had spent nearly 10 years in GR at WGRD Radio (and, I’ve got a lot of great stuff coming about the 70’s in Grand Rapids in later blogs).  So going back “home” was a dream come true.  And, wow, WOOD Radio – the crown jewel of Grand Rapids Radio would be the canvas for my so called radio artistry.  There was one problem.  Mortgage rates in the early 1980’s were hovering around 18%.  I had no idea how I would afford a home.  The home in Toledo was at an 8% VA assumable mortgage.  Mike solved the problem by adjusting my salary to cover the difference between what the house payment in Toledo was to what it would be in Grand Rapids.

Working with Mike day by day was quite a bit different than working for him from 150 miles away.  Lareau was Mr. WOOD Radio – period.  He had made the station what it was with great on air talent like Bruce Grant, Tom Quain, Bill Struyk, Gary Allen, and Mark Roberts.  Plus a news team second to none.  Make no mistake, Mike had his critics.  A lot of people thought he was ruthless.  He was stern to be sure.  But you always knew where you stood with Mike.  No bullshit.

I’m not sure why Mike took a liking to me but he took me under his wing and showed me the ropes.  He had some sayings that have now become a part of my lexicon..like “there isn’t one problem this station has that can’t be solved by increased revenue” or “nothing is easy”.

I always knew I had Mike’s back.  I never worried that he would throw me under the bus.  For instance,  I got into a little riff with one of the owners about programming.  I was “encouraged” to develop a Broadway Musical Feature .  I told Mike I wouldn’t do it and they’d have to fire me first.  Mike defended me and backed me up..and I stayed on at WOOD..but the powers that be wouldn’t let Mike give me a Christmas Bonus.  It would have come in handy because the transmission went out on my car.   Mike suggested I use his mechanic..and, when I went to pick the car up, the bill had been paid.  By the way, Mike never told me he paid the bill.  But that’s the kind of guy he is.

Many years later, when I returned for a 3rd stint in Grand Rapids as the Regional Market Manager for Clear Channel,  one of the stations in the cluster was WOOD.  And it was Mike who helped me navigate through all of the intricacies of being a General Manager.  I’m in his debt.  If anyone who is on the board  Michigan Association of Broadcasters is reading this,  I hope you induct Mike in the Hall of Fame.  He deserves it.

 

 

The Big Break

In the summer of 68 I drove all over Northwest Ohio cold calling every little radio station I could spot by their transmitter towers. Defiance, Celina, Moulton, Kenton, all in my crosshairs. But it was Van Wert where I got my first full time job. W.E.R.T 1220 AM and 98.9 FM. Larry Orchard was the program and sales manager and Donna Wermer was the General Manager. Donna was an extraordinary professional woman. Way ahead of her time.  I did an audition in their production studio and they hired me on the spot. 

I was given the job as traffic manager. At first I thought I had to go out on the Lincoln Highway and report on traffic… but I soon learned that it meant preparing the daily program logs, scheduling all the commercials. It’s an important job because the reconciliation of those logs is what creates your billing.  But I also got to be on the air. I worked a split shift. Mornings 10-noon, then afternoon 2-signoff.  We played what was called middle of the road music…MOR. Real crap. Si Zetner and the Orchestra, Les Brown and his Band of Renown.  Every now and then we would play something really out there – like an orchestral version of a Beatles tune. 

I got to read obituaries on the air. They were sponsored by a local funeral home. And I butchered local newscasts.  Every morning I had to stop at a local bakery and get day old rolls for the station. But they sure tasted good with the swill we called coffee. By the way, most radio station coffee sucks. ( years later, when I was a GM, I installed a Kurig type coffee maker for the staff. Now THAT was good coffee). 

The 1968 election was a busy time. Every possible local politician advertised on WERT. And I had the job of making sure their commercials were scheduled as ordered   I had to keep the D’s away from the R’s. Of course in Van Wert, there weren’t many D’s. 

Election night we did Wall to Wall coverage. Our chief engineer Ray Tanner hung a microphone in the teletype closet.  The mic cable ran along the floor into the studio where we could turn on the mic for the continuous clacking of the teletype. Made us sound like big time news!  My job that night was a runner.  I’d run to the teletype, collect the latest election results, and run them to the announcer in the studio.  As the evening wore on, I went to the teletype closet to collect the latest presidential count and saw the bulletin that Richard Nixon had won. At which point I exclaimed “oh shit” forgetting that there was a live mic overhead. Yep, it went out over the air. Nope, I didn’t get fired. But a big lesson learned.  When you’re around a microphone, you just don’t say naughty words. 

Testing  1-2-3

 I can’t remember wanting to do anything else but be on the radio. My uncle, Lou Essick, was a radio announcer in the Carolinas while I was growing up. As I recall, he drove a Chrysler and had a glamorous wife – a real Southern belle. Neat cars and nice looking women – wow, that’s what radio was all about. 

I’ll admit it. I got into radio to meet girls. I thought they’d be so impressed that I was on the air that they’d overlook all of my shortcomings. And you know what I’m talking about. 

Tom Francis – Big T – was program director of WIMA in my hometown, Lima, Ohio.  At that time I was a senior at Lima Central Catholic High School. I was on the yearbook staff and I bugged the crap out of Big T to buy an ad in our yearbook. I guess he liked my schtick  because he gave me a job working weekends. My big break!!! I got to play DJ for a few minutes before a high school football game. Then I ran the control board producing the game on the air.  There was a weekend DJ on WIMA named Biggy BC Carr. There was a good reason he took that name. He was about the size of Montana. Biggy let me record some ID’s for his show. “Ladies and Gentlemen, your listening to Bill Carr, on Radio Lima – WIMA!”  You can’t imagine the thrill that coursed through my veins when I heard my voice coming out of the radio. Pure Magic!  I was hooked. Soon, I’d be rubbing elbows..or at least I thought..with all my radio heroes on the top 40 station in Toledo. WTOD.  Now, there was a great station. I loved the station jingles -🎵WTOD 1560.  Jingles – the glue that put the sound together.  John Garry, Larry O’Brien, Mike Shaw, Don Patrick Newsbeat”.  I loved WTOD – and I hated their competitor? WOHO. (A prelude of hate to come). I never made it to WTOD. But I did make it to WERT in Van Wert!  They gave me a job as traffic manager. I was excited but I couldn’t figure out why they needed a traffic manager in Van Wert, Ohio. Hell, the only traffic in that town was a slow moving John Deere.  

But that’s enough for now.  Stay tuned because coming up, the 1968 presidential election and my first utterance of a dirty word on the air. For now, this is Skip Essick signing off 

In the beginning

So here it is, the first blog. I was going to write a book but figured nobody would read it. Besides, it would take too much time. I can do this, almost as a stream of conscious thing.

This blog will be about my career in radio. I’ve been doing this now for 50 years and, although I’m now semi retired, I still am addicted to that magic box. Of course things have changed over the years and, as you might expect from an old guy, not for the better.  I may touch on that later.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with and for some of the best broadcasters in America. I owe so much to so many but if it weren’t for a guy named Tom Francis, I might not have gone anywhere.

I also worked for some scoundrels. And, although I like just about everyone, there’s one person – only one – that is a schmuck (IMO).  So stay tuned. All of that and more is coming up. But for now, this is Skip Essick signing off.