#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

WIRT+ROWLAND+77+MONROE+CENTER

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.

#28 – Grand Rapids Part 3

In the Winter of 1996 things were beginning to return to normal at WJR.  The drama of the post McCarthy period had pretty much played out and the new shows were on the air – all except Paul W.  We had to wait a few months before he could start due to contractual obligations he had to honor in Philadelphia. It was a cold, blustery March afternoon when my assistant Fran came into my office.

“There’s a Lowry Mays on the phone for you”

I told Fran to put the call in.  Hmmm – what could this be all about?  I picked up the phone and I could hear the sound of an engine faintly in the background, accompanied by some phone static, and the unmistakable Texas drawl of Lowry Mays. He was riding his jeep around on the Mays Ranch outside of San Antonio.

“Skip Essick !  This is Lowry Mays calling you…I want to see you in Grand Rapids tomorrow night for dinner.  Meet me at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel”.

Grand Rapids?  I knew immediately what he wanted.  The next day I left WJR early and hopped on I-96 and headed west to Grand Rapids.  I pulled into the semi circular drive of the swanky Amway Grand Plaza where the valet took my car.  I figured I’d splurge and let him park it, very aware that, as anyone who lives in Grand Rapids knows, downtown parking rates are on par with Chicago.

When I walked into the hotel lobby I spotted Mark Mays along with Clear Channel Austin, TX  General Manager Stan Webb.  But no Lowry.  I was a bit confused.  Mark greeted me with a big smile and re-introduced me to Stan.  I had met Webb a few years earlier at a Clear Channel meeting in New Orleans.  Mark explained that his dad couldn’t be there because of other company business.  As it turned out, that other business was buying radio stations.  The Clinton Administration had just deregulated the radio industry with the Telecommunications Act of 1996.  Essentially this allowed broadcast companies to go out and by up radio stations with essentially  no caps on the number of stations you could own.   And Clear Channel was buying in Grand Rapids!  In fact, they were buying my former stations WOOD and WOOD-FM, along with country giant WBCT FM.  They asked me if I would be interested in coming on board as General Manager.  Jackpot!  Lowry knew of my tenure in the Grand Rapids market and he wanted a “local” who was both familiar with the market AND with Clear Channel.  I would be a good representative of the company in Grand Rapids.   And so, I accepted.  Press releases were sent out, staff reaction was overwhelmingly positive (Skip’s back!!!) and the general market response was great.  I can’t begin to tell you the number of congratulatory notes I received.

In turning in my resignation at WJR, General Manager Mike Feezey already knew.  When I went to resign, he scowled and said “you’re quitting and going back to Grand Rapids”. I asked him how he knew and he gave me the standard “I make it my business to know”.

A few days after I had accepted the job, Lowry called me again and wanted me to come over to Grand Rapids.  He had something for me.   I drove across state from Detroit to Grand Rapids and met him, Stan Webb, and the entire staff, at the station.  It was a bit of a homecoming and a nice little reception.   Later in the evening, Mays called me into what would become my office.  The same office that had been previously occupied by my mentors Mike Lareau and Jim White.  Mays handed me the keys to a 1995 Infinity Q45.  It was the leased car that belonged to Bruce Holberg, the previous station owner.  I could keep the car but would have to turn it in at the end of the lease.  Then Mays asked me to drive them to the airport.  We hopped in the Q45 and drove out to the Northern Air private flight facility at the Kent County International Airport.  The Clear Channel jet was waiting.  It was a snowy night in March and the flurries were blowing all over the tarmac.  We entered the building where Lowry and Stan met their pilot.  We said our goodbyes and I watched them walk out towards the waiting plane with the backdrop of a dark Winter sky and lake effect snow showers swirling all around.  Then, Lowry stopped, turned around, and walked back.  He opened the door where I was standing, grabbed me by the lapels on my coat, and said “50 Million Dollars..don’t F%$K it up”.

GULP.  It was on me now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#27 The Fat Lady Sings

Following the death of JP McCarthy, it was decided that an immediate successor would be inappropriate.  Besides, Jimmy Barrett was doing an excellent job hosting the morning show with the able assistance of Mike Shiels and Russ White.  WJR General Manager Mike Feezey insisted that we continue to rebuild the on air line up with Mitch Albom in the afternoon and a new show in Mid-Day.   JP had died in August and I spent the remainder of the year working on the development of the new Mitch Albom Show and the Ken Calvert Show.  But, always in the foreground of my mind was the morning show.  And anyone in this business knows that so goes the morning, so goes the station.

I had given consideration to several on air talents including WJR’s Jimmy Launce – a fixture on WJR for eons.  And there was Frank Beckman, then the play by play announcer for the Tigers.  Frank expressed an interest.  Jimmy Launce was less enthusiastic.  I even kicked around the idea of putting Mitch Albom in the morning chair.  There were all kinds of suggestions, but the reality is that there were only two contenders.  Dick Purtan and Paul W Smith.  I was firmly convinced that it had to be Paul W.

Many in the building didn’t like the idea of Smith replacing JP.  One sales manager took me aside and said “He’s a JP wannabe” to which I said “Thank God”.  My rationale was very simple.  Paul W Smith had spent a career studying McCarthy.  He understood the art of the interview, the importance of getting out there and shaking hands with just about anyone who is anyone in Metro Detroit.  He was outgoing, gregarious, and just oozed WJR from every pore in his body.  Dick Purtan, on the other hand, would have meant a total change – a complete overhaul of the morning show.  It would not have been a seamless transition.  One other important fact – Purtan was under contract with WKQI.

Management, at least initially, agreed with my argument and that an offer would be extended to Paul W Smith.  A contract was drawn up and I contacted Paul and told him Mike Feezey and I would join him for dinner in Philadelphia.  And so it began.  About an hour before I was to meet Feezey at Detroit’s Metro Airport, Cap Cities ABC Executive Don Balukas called me:

“Skip, where’s Feezey?”

“He’s playing golf Don.  I’m going to meet him at the airport this afternoon and we’ll fly to Philly to meet with Paul and present him with the contract”

“Don’t do that.  Fly down there, keep him on the warm burner, but don’t give him the contract and don’t offer him the job”

“Why?”

“What if I told you we had Dick Purtan”

“How could that be?  He’s under contract.  We can’t touch him”

“Let me worry about that..you just keep Smith in the wings for now and don’t present him with that contract”

When I arrived at the airport, Balukas had already filled Feezey in.  A lot of different scenarios were playing out in my mind but there were two things I knew for sure.  This wasn’t going to be easy..and dinner with Paul W was going to be awkward.

We met Paul at a Ruth Chris Steakhouse in downtown Philadelphia and dinner was mostly a bunch of small talk.  I was uncomfortable.  When Feezey got up to use the restroom, Paul leaned over and said “what in the hell is going on here?”  I told him something at the corporate level was developing but not to despair.  I truly believed that it would work out.   Paul is a very shrewd businessman and he already knew that there was a little dance going on between Purtan’s attorney, Henry Baskim, and Balukas.  Baskim wasn’t going to waste his time with the local yokels..he went right to the top.

Apparently Purtan was unhappy with his employer and believed there was a blatant violation of his contract – so blatant that he could cancel his contract and go elsewhere.  And so began months and months of limbo.  And during this time, Paul would call to ask “has the Fat Lady Sung yet”  – which meant, has Purtan gotten out of his contract and signed with WJR.

Now, the rest of the story….Purtan wasn’t about to cough up the money to pay an attorney to get him out of his deal with WKQI.  And Cap Cities ABC couldn’t pay – that would be contract tampering.  But someone paid.  I can only speculate where the money came from but it’s speculation.  It took months for this process to play out and, almost every week, I’d get the “fat lady call” from Paul W.  Finally, around the first of 1996, a judge ruled in Purtan’s favor that WKQI had indeed violated the terms of his agreement.  Purtan was free to work wherever he so chose.

I had my very first meeting with Dick Purtan shortly after he was free of his contract.  I had never met him before.  Feezey and I met Dick at his home in a beautiful gated community in the Orchard Lakes area of metro Detroit.  I found him to be somewhat reserved, maybe even a little shy.  He was not the funny guy you hear on the radio.  Mostly, he was all business and very serious.  He sure didn’t strike me as someone who was excited about coming to work at WJR.  A variety of things were discussed like how much he would need to pay his staff.  We also talked about where his office would be (he did not want JP’s old office).  Dick was bringing his entire staff with him and we talked about where they would be located in the station.  Dick expressed concern about interviews vs playing music.  We assured him that working with Mike Shiels and Russ White, he would be in good hands and he seemed good with that.   But leaving the meeting I had the queezy feeling that this deal was never going to close.

Menwhile, WJR ushered in 1996 with 2 new shows.  Both Mitch Albom and Ken Calvert debuted their new programs on January 2nd.  Month of planning went into the new programs, especially the Mitch Albom Show.  I worked directly with Mitch on all aspects of the show..everything from who his producer would be, to his cohosts, to promotion.  We thought it would be fun to have a live studio band every day on the show.  I’ll never forget how WJR’s chief engineer reacted to the prospect of a live studio band performing every day on the Mitch Albom show.

Ed Butterbaugh was a legendary engineer.  Ed was the genius behind the incredible technical sound of The Big 8, CKLW..the powerful top 40 blowtorch that dominated Detroit radio ratings from the mid 60’s to early 70’s.  Ed also had a legendary temper and when he blew his top, everyone scattered.  Prior to the first Mitch Albom show, Ed appeared in my office, hands firmly planted on my desk. He was glaring at me, the color of his face had turned to a bright red and the veins in his neck were popping out..  “You just can’t have a band set up in the studio!!!!!  It’s got to be professionally mic’d !!! And who do you think is going to do that??!!!”  I really hadn’t given it that much thought. I tried to reason with him and calm him down.  “Ed, just teach us how to do it and we’ll take care of it”.  But Ed insisted it was an engineering responsibility.  So, everyday an assigned engineer would set up the microphones for the band.   I really didn’t see what the big deal was because there was always a studio engineer on duty 24/7.  I’m certain that all the bluster and hubris was because he wasn’t consulted in the first place.

The Mitch Albom show debuted on January 2nd, 1996.  We had assembled a good cast for the show including Mitch, comedian Ken Brown, and Voice Actor Rachel Nevada.  The show was produced by Joan Isabella who we recruited from Philadelphia.  The studio band sounded great and the show flowed well with a good mix of topical talk and a bit of humor.  I was pleased with the roll out and, although Mitch is very particular and tends to be overly critical, I think he was pleased with the first show.   There were some hiccups though.  Mitch wasn’t disciplined on timing which is why newscasts ran late most of the time.  And he didn’t like the afternoon sports to go any longer than one minute.  Sports Director Chuck Swirsky (who is now the voice of the Chicago Bulls) was outraged when Mitch put the sound of a ticking clock under his sportscasts.  When one minute was up, there was this loud buzzer signaling that Chuck’s time was up, regardless of whether he was done.  It was actually kind of a shitty thing to do.

Meanwhile, the interminable negotiations with Dick Purtan continued into the new year.  One day I got a very strange call from Purtan who was driving from Detroit, across lower Ontario, to Niagara Falls and then into Buffalo, New York.

“Skip, It’s Dick Purtan”

“Hey Dick, whats up”

“I’m driving with my wife to visit my mother in law in Buffalo and I can hear the station all the way over here at Niagara Falls”

“Yes, we have a great signal in that direction”

“I’m listening to the Mitch Albom Show and I’ve got a real problem with the show”

“what’s that?”

“Mitch is doing a bit with some guy doing an impersonation of George Bush.  Who is that?”

“I have no idea.  Why?”

“I do that bit on my show and we can’t have Mitch Albom doing it on his show.  You need to tell him to stop”

“Dick, with all due respect, you don’t work here yet.”

“OK..I get it..I’ll call Feezey”

It didn’t take any more than 15 minutes for Mike Feezey to show up in my office telling me I need to go up to the studio and tell Mitch Albom that he couldn’t do the George Bush bit anymore.

“Mike..you want me to go up to the studio and tell Mitch Albom that a guy who doesn’t even work here is demanding he not do a bit on the air?  You really want me to do that?”

Feezey bummed one of my cigarettes, took a couple of puffs,  and then muttered “I guess not..forget it”.

(phone rings)

“Skip, It’s Paul W..has the fat lady sung yet?”

And now the final act of the Purtan episode.  It happened at the 50th birthday party for Art Voulo, a well known radio historian who has chronicled the history of just about every radio station in America.  Art is affectionately called radio’s best friend.  The party took place at a club, north of Detroit, on the shores of Lake St. Claire.  All of the Detroit radio gentry was in attendance including Elaine Baker, the General Manager of WOMC, Detroit’s powerful oldies station.  Elaine had a great reputation for being a tough but astute broadcaster.  Like me, she knew that if there is one station that Dick Purtan would be a perfect fit for is WOMC.  Anyhow, Elaine came up to me at the party and came right out and said “So, how are things going with Purtan?”  WJR’s negotitions with Dick were the worst kept secret in Detroit by this time.  I took the bait.  “Elaine, I think you already know how it’s going.  You may want to do us both a favor and hire him.”  She gave me a rather sly smile and walked away without saying one more word.

A few days later a very excited Mike Feezey came into my office.  He had a large envelope.  “It’s finally here..the Dick Purtan contract.  I’m heading out to Dick’s house to get his signature.  I’ll call you before the ink dries.”  About 2 hours later Feezey called me from Dick’s house and told me Purtan got delayed and wasn’t there to sign the contract.  “He’ll sign it tomorrow”  The next day, Mike drove back out to Purtan’s house only to learn that Purtan wasn’t there again.  Mike knew that he was used by Purtan’s attorney, Henry Baskin.  Purtan wasn’t going to WJR.  He signed with WOMC – the very same day.  Mike was angry and he said “call your friend in Philadelphia.”  I wanted to make sure I understood what he said.  “Mike, you’re telling me to call Paul W Smith and tell him he’s got the job?  Is that what your telling me?”  “yes…get it done now before the news gets out about Purtan.”

I immediately called Paul W Smith:

“Paul, it’s Skip..the Fat Lady is signing”

“Oh God…tell me”

“She’s singing  (and I sang it in my best Soprano)  Paul..come to Detroit!”

I think it was the best call I ever made.  To this day, 22 years later, Paul W Smith is hosting the morning show on WJR and Mitch Albom is still on in the afternoon.

And that is my WJR story.

 

 

 

 

#26 WJR post JP

The big question that everyone was consumed with is who will be the new morning host on WJR. Following the untimely death of JP McCarthy, it became Detroit Media’s Top guessing game.

I probably contributed to the drama by commissioning a research project. I contacted my good friend Dr. Ed Cohen to work up a study and get it in the field. We put several names on the list and asked respondents a variety of questions regarding their listening preferences and who would be best suited to replace McCarthy.

One person that contacted me through his agent expressing an interest was Soupy Sales. Soupy was a frequent guest on JP’s show and, I believe, was a guest host a couple of times.  Soupy began his TV career in Detroit. So, in many respects, he was a well known Detroit personality.  Anyhow, when constructing the questionnaire with Dr. Ed, I said “just for the hell of it, let’s put Soupy on the list”.  A few days later when I arrived at the office, my normally cheerful assistant Fran Ehlers scowled at me, raising her voice while slamming a copy of the morning Free Press on my desk. “How could you possibly consider Soupy Sales to replace JP!”  There it was – The headline in the newspaper. “Soupy Sales on list to replace JP McCarthy”.  Yikes!!!! I had a lot of explaining to do.  But in reality, there were only two real contenders.

Dick Purtan, was Detroit’s funnyman in the morning.  He had done morning shows in Detroit stations WXYZ,  CKLW, and now was at WKQI. With his cast of characters and Dick’s somewhat wry and dry sense of humor, combined with superb writing,  I used to laugh my ass off when Purtan was doing mornings on CKLW.  I frequently tuned in to hear his antics on my long drives from Grand Rapids to Toledo in the early 80’s.  Although Dick was known for his comedy, he had a serious side too – partnering with many charities raising millions over the years in Detroit.  Everyone in town knew Dick Purtan.  He was the best at what he did.  I was a big fan.

And then there was Paul W Smith.  Paul and I worked together at WSPD in Toledo. Paul was a JP protege and had done morning shows in Detroit at CKLW, WABC and WMCA in New York City, and WWDB in Philadelphia.  Paul had superb interviewing skills and relished rubbing elbows with the shakers and movers.  Paul was not comedic like Purtan, but he did have a keen sense of humor and an engaging personality both on and off the air.   At the time of JP’s death, Paul was hosting the popular WJR Mid-day Focus show while doing mornings at WWDB.  Motor City listeners were certainly familiar with Paul W.

The overwhelming consensus from the staff was Dick Purtan should be the new morning host on WJR.   I recall gathering Mike Shiels and Russ White in my office and soliciting their input.  They felt Purtan would be the best choice.  There was never a question in my mind, not for a nano second, of who that person should be.  My choice may surprise you.

 

#25 – From Studio D 

JP McCarthy ruled the airwaves of Detroit for decades.  Quite simply, he was the most talented radio personality in America. His Rolodex was a whose who.  From Presidents to titans of industry, governors, clergy, royalty, sports legends, you name it.  Everyone, and I mean everyone wanted to be on JP’s show.  I was on it once – when he called me in Louisville and put me on the air to introduce his audience to the new WJR program director.  I was presented a cassette recording of that brief interview by JP’s producer, Mike Shiels.  I wish I could find it but it’s probably in a box somewhere with all of my radio treasures.  I first met JP McCarthy in 1986 in, of all places, Fremantle in Western Australia. We were both there covering the America’s Cup Race.  WJR’s broadcast booth was located directly behind ours (WOOD).   I wouldn’t go so far to say that we were chummy but we did exchange a few pleasantries.  A few years later I had another close encounter of a JP kind at the Kentucky Derby.  JP was doing his show backside on Oaks Day, the Friday before the Derby.  Backside at Churchill Downs is where one finds all the owners, trainers, jockeys, network corespondents and writers, all the horsey people gathering to watch and report on the morning workouts and latest handicapping.  I was there with WHAS’s Wayne Perkey and the Morning Team.  JP was there too and again we engaged in some Derby small talk.  It wasn’t unusual for McCarthy to broadcast from Tokyo to Timbuktu.  He was everywhere.

I’d write more about JP but the fact is, I never really got to know him that well.  Much has been written about JP by Mike Shiels who, as his producer, probably knew JP better than anyone other than his family and close friends.  Shiels, along with Russ White produced the McCarthy Show every day.  Mike lined up the guests and outlined the show.  Russ ran the audio controls and made sure the technical intricacies of the program flowed smoothly.  It was radio art.  I recall my first day.  I got to the station early and went to the studio floor and peered into Studio D to watch McCarthy in action.  He motioned for me to enter the inner sanctum of his radio home.  Shit!  It was like having a private audience with the pope.  I entered the studio and McCarthy said to me “look, those guys out there are the best”.  He didn’t need to say anymore. Michael Patrick Shiels and Russ White were McCarthy’s guys and nobody was going to mess with them.   As it turned out, both Mike and Russ became good friends of mine at the station.  They, along with News Director Dick Haefner and my assistant Fran Ehlers were the people I depended on the most.

Now, what I’m about to write may be contrary to what others recall.  But this is how I remember the sequence of events that began about 6 weeks after I started my new job. I knew that there was something wrong with McCarthy.  He seemed tired to me and there were a few days he was too ill to come to work.  JP’s wife Judy called me one evening and told me JP wouldn’t be in the following morning.  I contacted Mike Shiels and told him we’d need to have someone to fill in.  Of course Mike took care of it and always had someone in the wings.  One day I went up to the studio and asked JP if he wanted me to bring him a bagel from the bakery in the Fisher Building.  He motioned no.  Looking at him,  I couldn’t believe it was JP.  He looked very sick.  But, I dismissed it as the flu or some other virus.  I think Mike and Russ were very worried.  On that same day, Mike Feezey asked me to ride with him for a meeting in Ann Arbor with the Athletic Director of the University of Michigan.  As were were driving, Mike tuned the radio down and simply said “JP is dying”.  Even now, as I write this 23 years later, I get goose bumps retelling this story.   “He has a blood disorder called myelodysplastic syndrome”.  I asked if it was curable and Mike said it would be if JP had siblings that would be an exact match for a bone marrow transplant.  But JP was an only child and his chances were very slim that someone would be an exact match.  Mike obviously wanted this to be kept quiet, at least for now.  I suggested perhaps we might launch some kind of a bone marrow drive to find a match for JP.  Mike, understandably wanted to avoid a circus but he didn’t think it was a bad idea.  But not right now.  Not yet.  Nevertheless, I have no idea what transpired in the meeting at U of M because my mind was reeling..what in the heck are we going to do?  Imagine, you’re about to lose the most important figure in Detroit Radio History.  This was big.  Really big.

Returning with Mike to Detroit, I hopped a plane and  flew back to Louisville, where we still lived.  When I got to Louisville, I went straight to WHAS.  I walked into my old office, now occupied by Rick Belcher, closed the door and said “Rick, JP McCarthy is dying”.  Rick was the only person I told.  But news this big didn’t stay a secret very long.  The following week, in Detroit, news was already out.  The newspaper and TV stations started camping out at the Fisher Building looking for any tidbit of news about JP’s health.  Meanwhile, local efforts commenced looking for a bone marrow match.

I had a meeting with the owners of the Tigers and Red Wings in downtown Detroit one day that week.  I was with Atanis Ilitch, the son of owner Mike Ilitch when I was informed I had a phone call.  It was JP McCarthy.  “Skip, it’s Joe.  I won’t be in the next two weeks because I’m going to New York to see if I can lick this thing”.  It was the last time I spoke with JP McCarthy.  He died about a week later at Sloan Kettering in New York City.  A meteor had hit the Great Voice of the Great Lakes on August 16th, 1995.

The tributes came pouring in.  The day of his death, Mike Feezey had summoned all the department heads into his office.  In attendance was Don Balukas, the head of ABC Radio News Talk Station.  Don was also the General Manager of WABC in New York City.  Mike announced to the department heads that JP had died earlier in the day.  It was the first time we had heard an official announcement from the management of WJR.  But many of us already knew.  News Director Dick Haefner had told me a good two hours earlier that JP was gone.

Later in the afternoon, Balukas and Feezey came into my office to discuss the next day’s programming.  They actually and unbelievably suggested we say nothing.  I asked Mike Shiels and Russ White to come to my office.  By this time I was chain smoking cigarettes.  Mike and Russ strongly argued that we needed to have a big sendoff..one great final JP show with some of the Best of JP from years gone by.  I recall Mike Shiels saying “let’s give JP one more show”  I agreed 100%.  Mike Feezey started to agree too.  And so the project was green lighted.

Shiels and White worked all night with Frank Beckman and Mike Whorf and the tribute which aired starting at 6AM the following morning was the best radio I’ve ever been associated with.  The program was so good, it was preserved for all time on a CD, which I think might still be available today.  Nevertheless, it was a proper tribute to a man who sat in Studio D for 30+ years, entertaining and informing Metro Detroit.   A few years later I recall playing the JP tribute CD for a friend of mine in Grand Rapids.  He listened – with tears flowing.  The picture above is from the cover of that CD.

JP’s funeral was a big deal.  It was held at St. Hugo of the Hills Catholic Church in Bloomfield Township and we broadcast it on WJR.  In attendance were Governors of Michigan present and past, mayors, the major executives of the auto industry, sports legends from the various Detroit teams, even the Vatican had dispatched some Cardinals.  It was really something.  As I peered over this impressive gathering, I could only think of one thing.  Who is going to replace the great JP McCarthy?  Who could possibly step into these shoes and carry on the great traditions of the Great Voice of The Great Lakes?  I knew who I wanted but the odds were stacked against me.  The behind the scenes, backstabbing politics were about to play out.  Secret meetings, secret negotiations, all behind my back had begun.  Everyday I had to be on guard.  But I kept my head down and forged ahead with the rebuilding of WJR.

Dick Purtan, Jimmy Barrett, Frank Beckman, Paul W Smith..Soupy Sales (not really but there’s a funny story here) …who was it going to be?  The amazing, behind the scenes story is next.

 

 

 

 

 

 

#24 From the Golden Tower of The Fisher Building

I was first offered the program director position at WJR in Detroit in 1991. But when I learned management fired legendary Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell , I backed out. General Manager Jim Long asked me to reconsider. He said he had already told his boss I was coming aboard.  I told Jim that I completely disagreed with the firing of Harwell and that it would be a major PR blunder that would distract from the work that needed to be done at the station.   I was right. It was a huge mistake orchestrated by management within the Tigers organization.  You just don’t fire people like Ernie Harwell.  The guy they hired, Rick Rizzs from the Mariners was a good guy but he didn’t stand a chance. Harwell cast too big of a shadow.  The entire matter was a spectacular flop.  Rizzs didn’t last very long and he was eventually replaced by well known Detroit sports announcer Frank Beckman. And Harwell was brought back too, serving as announcer Emeritus with Frank. That was a good move.

Some said I was a coward for not going to WJR in 1991.  Maybe. But I never regretted it.  And so I remained at WHAS and continued to enjoy the best job I ever had…until 1995.

I was in Ireland when my assistant at WHAS contacted me with an important message to call Mike Feezey at WJR in Detroit. What is it about getting job offers while in Ireland. Seems I tasted this cocktail before.

I had met Mike Feezey 4 years earlier in 1991. He was WJR’s sales manager. Now, he was General Manager and I had a hunch why he was calling me.  They needed a program director and Feezey wanted me for the job. When I returned from Ireland, I flew up to Detroit.  Mike picked me up at the Doubletree in Southfield, a suburb of Motown. He was driving a Mercedes. I quipped as I hopped in the car “how is it the General Manager of WJR is driving a Mercedes in Detroit?”  Probably not a smart thing to say.  Feezey  snapped back “I can drive anything I damn well please”. And thus began my relationship with the General Manager of WJR.

Mike Feezey was a young guy, in his late 30’s,  who bore a striking resemblance to actor Jim Belushi.  I didn’t think we would ever be close friends but I thought we could be a good team.  A complicated man, Mike was a combination of different emotions. One could walk in his office and find him reading a bible. Or you could walk in when he was unloading on someone.  Feezey had his critics but you would be hard pressed to find anyone more dedicated to his family, the community, and WJR.

Following a productive Saturday with the management team at the station, I decided to take the job.  It seemed the time was right and for some strange reason, I felt I was being called to the position.  Little did I know what laid in wait for me.  I recall phoning my father from Detroit Metro Airport as I waited for a night flight back to Louisville and told him the news.  WJR – wow.

I grew up in the shadow of two giant Detroit radio stations.  WJR and CKLW.  WJR was the station my grandfather listened to.   I remember riding in his “old man blue” Chevy Impala 4 door, listening to Bud Guest.  And, of course, Ernie Harwell doing the play by play..”here come the Tigahs !!!”  Every summer we would drive into Canada on a 2 week fishing trip and always drive through Detroit, windows down, Gramps smoking non filtered Pall Malls, and WJR blaring out of the radio.  WJR was part of the soundtrack of my youth.

WJR is located in the iconic Fisher Building in an area of the city called New Center, which wasn’t very new.  It was developed in the 1920’s and it sits a bit to the North of Downtown Detroit.  The Fisher Building was built in 1928 and is a testament to art deco.  The ornate, marble lobby with the most intricate mosaic vaulted ceiling is called Detroit’s largest art object.  WJR moved into the Fisher Building in 1928 and is the building’s oldest tennant.  Back in the late 80’s the station decided to move to the suburbs and spent millions building an entirely new broadcast center.  But the public outcry was so overwhelming, Cap Cities (then owner of the station) elected to remain in the Fisher Building.  They ate millions but the PR nightmare they avoided was probably worth it.  I can’t imagine Cumeless or I (don’t have a)Heart doing that today.

I arrived in Detroit the week after the 1995 Kentucky Derby.  My good friend, Rick Belcher was recruited to be my replacement at WHAS.  The same Rick Belcher who, 13 years earlier, followed me at WSPD in Toledo.  Rick, like me, grew up in Toledo and, like me, had an appreciation of the history of WJR.  I would frequently consult with Rick on programming issues.  I found him to be a great sounding board. Still do.  As I rode the elevator up to the 21st floor where my office was located, I couldn’t help but have this lump in my throat and I felt a bit queasy.  I feared the Peter Principle was finally going to apply to me.  I got off the elevator and wandered around looking for my office.

I was met by my administrative assistant, Fran Ehlers.   Fran was a grandmotherly type person who was my greatest ally.  I had known Fran for several years.  In addition to being the administrative assistant to the program director, Fran was the coordinator of WJR’S sports franchises.  I often spoke with Fran, and would meet with her in person several times discussing Detroit Lions and University of Michigan game broadcasts.  Both of which we carried on WOOD in Grand Rapids.  If anyone knew where all the bodies were buried, it was Fran Ehlers.  I always arrived at my desk around 7am and Fran would be there already..with fresh coffee, a bagel, and a copy of the Detroit Free Press.  I used to try and beat her to work but she was always there before I got there, and normally there when I left.   And always..always..would have my back.  She was, perhaps, the most loyal person I ever worked with.

I found WJR to be 3, 4 or even 5 different stations.  Producers were at war with each other, there was little camaraderie, and departments were isolated from each other.  It seemed like there were a lot of empire builders.  The morning show hosted by JP McCarthy was the crown jewel of the station, followed by the news department and then sports.  The other shows were almost non relevant.  My strategy was to build out more shows in the vein of McCarthy’s,  but tweaked younger.  Of course, when you have a show and talent like JP McCarthy, you don’t mess with it.  In fact, one of the big reasons I took the job at WJR was the opportunity to work with JP.   I don’t think there was ever a broadcaster as good.  JP was a master at his craft.  He was a great voice actor, a spectacular interviewer, a good listener,  and one hell of a showman.  He was the rock..the foundation of the station.

On my first or second day at the station, Mike Feezey called me and wanted to meet with me and JP in his office on the 23rd floor.  They had an idea that was exactly in line with where we wanted to the station to be.  An afternoon show hosted by Mitch Albom.  Mitch was a personality on ESPN, a sports writer for the Detroit Free Press, and a celebrated writer.  In fact, all of this was taking place while Mitch was writing his best seller “Tuesday’s with Morrie”.  Mitch was a renaissance man that both Mike and JP wanted on board.

I was in Fantasyland.  JP in the morning..Mitch in the afternoon. What could possibly go wrong?

A meteor was about to hit WJR.