#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.

 

 

 

 

#23 Fake News

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

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

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

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

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

#22 – Hey Disc Jockey…

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

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

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

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

 

#21.  The stars were aligned perfectly

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

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

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

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

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

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

For now, this is Skip Essick signing off.

 

 

#20 – WHAS – Day 1 

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

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

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

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

Gulp!

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

 

#19 – You’ll Luv Louisville 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“hello?”

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

“What happened to Denny?”

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

“Yes…hell yes”

The luck of the Irish ☘️ 

And that’s how it came down. 

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

Stay tuned.