#39 – The Vatican

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The barber asked “what did he say?”

He wanted to know where I got the shitty haircut.

#38 -Things I miss.

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

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

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

#37 9-11-01

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

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

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

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

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

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

#36 Sluggo, Tubby, and Bart.

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

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

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

“Oh really?  Who are they”

“Sluggo and Tubby !!!!

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

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

Oh..who were the other two?

“Sluggo and Tubby!!!!!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#35 Fresno Redux

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

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

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

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

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

And this leads me to a mini rant.

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

End of Rant

#34 – You’re Hired

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

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

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

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

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

#33. You’re Fired

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I decided to take my wife and go to France.

#32 – VIPs.

I’ve met a few big shots over the years. One of the questions I get most is “have you met any famous people” and the answer, of course, is yes. From movie and TV personalities, sports legends, and politicians, I’ve met my share. I think anyone in this business can say the same thing. Most were pretty nice folk too. One was a real jerk and he’s been in the news recently.

Bill Cosby was coming to Grand Rapids and WOOD Radio got the “presents” rights as part of an advertising buy. Gary Allen and I were to introduce Cosby at his DeVos Hall Performance. Gary and I arrived backstage thinking we’d have a short meet and greet with the Cos only to be told a firm no. Moreover, we were told not to look at Cosby. Cosby’s manager said “don’t look at him Mr. Cosby doesn’t like people looking at him. And when you do introduce him, no eye contact. Just introduce him and get off the stage”.

While I was at WJR, the head of news talk programming for ABC summoned all the company news talk programmers to New York City to monitor and critique WABC. We all met at WABC Radio, which is located in Manhattan. There, in all his glory, surrounded by swirls of cigar smoke, was Rush Limbaugh. The other guys knew Rush. I was the new kid in the company and hat not met him in person. I was struck at how shy he seemed. Somewhat quiet, and very nice, he is very typical of a lot of radio personalities. Somewhat of a dud in person but in the solitude and confines of their little broadcast studios, they become someone else.

A side note – while on this trip we had an interesting dining experience. At lunch, our table was next to 3 familiar faces. Al Pacino, Sean Penn, and Robert Dinero. All I could think of was Cosby’s manager saying “don’t look at them”.

G. Gordon Liddy, mastermind of the Watergate break-in, did a talk show that I inherited when I took over as General Manger of WOOD. The program director had invited Liddy to Grand Rapids to do his show live. We made arrangements to broadcast his nationwide show from a large movie theatre. The night before the show, I went to the airport to pick him up. As I watched Liddy walk down the concourse, I wondered if anyone would recognize him. Had he not been wearing a hat, his bald head would have given him away for sure. Liddy was alone and it was just he and I as I drove him to his hotel. That was a very surreal moment for me.

The next day a huge crowd turned out at Studio 28 Theatre to watch The G Man do his show. There was absolutely nothing pretentious about Liddy. He was funny, engaging, gracious, and a gentleman.

As it turned out, that same day there were a bunch of big shots in town for the opening of a major exhibit at the Gerald R Ford Presidential Museum in Downtown Grand Rapids. It was The Watergate Exhibit! I can’t make this stuff up. President Ford, President Bush (41), and several dignitaries were on hand for this big event. I got a call from the Ford Museum people furious that I would have G Gordon Liddy in town on the same day as their Watergate exhibit opening. I pleaded not guilty. Who knew?!! But as I reminded them, there wouldn’t even have been a President Ford had it not been for G Gordon Liddy. Anyhow, things settled down. They had a successful event and so did we.

I’m not much of a Sean Hannity fan. I think he’s put himself in a place he shouldn’t be. You don’t see Rush Limbaugh kowtowing to anyone. Regardless of your politics, Rush Limbaugh has never forgotten that his job is to entertain and grow listeners. He’s not trying to be a presidential adviser. And there’s Laura Ingraham. She’s another one of these conservative talk show hosts who are filled with too much self importance.

When Sean Hannity launched a radio show I jumped on the opportunity to get his program on WOOD. Sean had been a rising star on Fox TV and it just figured that his radio show would be a hit too. The show aired right after Rush Limbaugh. But after a couple of years, the show failed to deliver the kind of ratings we had hoped for. Phil Tower, WOOD’s exceptional program director had a vision of hiring a local show to put in afternoon drive. Not just any local show, but market bad boy and legend Rick Becket. When Phil hit me with the idea I thought he lost his mind. Becket was extraordinarily talented. He had number one ratings at crosstown WGRD. He had all the baggage that goes with it too. He was uncouth, he was difficult, he had personal issues. In other words, he had everything it takes to be a big star. But I wasn’t sure I wanted the liability. Phil Tower convinced me that with Becket and his sidekick Scott Winters, we would finally shed WOOD’s old codger image. To do all this, 3 things had to happen. First, I had to convince Clear Channel that this would be a good investment. Second, Becket and Winters would have to agree. And third, I had to move Sean Hannity off WOOD and onto our other talk station, WTKG.

WTKG is a 1000 watt AM station at 1230 in the dial. It formerly was WCUZ AM but when Clear Channel purchased it, I changed the format and call letters in order to have another station to place programming that I wanted to lock up in the market. It was a good strategy and, sales wise, we could combo sell with WOOD. By putting Hannity on WTKG, it would give that station a marquis program. Everyone thought this was a great idea..everyone except Sean Hannity.

All the deals were done. Becket and Winters were under contract. The syndication company for Hannity agreed to move his show from WOOD to WTKG. And then the shoe dropped. I received a call from my boss, Dave Crowl in Cincinnati. Dave informed me that Hannity was threatening cancellation of his show on Clear Channel’s WKRC in Cincinnati, if we move him off WOO D to WTKG. And Clear Channel wasn’t going to let that happen. I asked Dave “what the hell are we going to do? We’ve already inked a deal with Becket and Winters.” Crowl said “you’re going to have the most expensive midday show in America”. And that’s what happened. We moved Glenn Beck from his 9-Noon slot on WOOD over to WTKG and debuted Becket and Winters 9-Noon on WOOD. Things worked out pretty good nonetheless. Becket and Winters soared in the ratings. It was a success but it chafed my hide that Hannity involved himself in a place he didn’t belong.

A number of years later, when I was in Fresno programming KMJ, Hannity was in town for an event. KMJ carried his show and the Sean Hannity Show producers asked if he could use one of our studios to do his show. As his entourage was walking past my office, Hannity spotted me, and pointing an accusatory finger told the people he was with “there’s the guy that tried to kick me off WOOD Radio.”

It’s nice to be recognized.

Skip Essick signing off.

#31 – People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


#30 – The View from the Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boy, ain’t that the truth.