#9 People and places….

I wish I would have worked for..and one I wouldn’t. 

Throughout my career I’ve had some great opportunities. Back in the day my phone used to ring!  Those were the days when I was making a name for myself as a pretty good program director. For those of you that still get “the calls”, enjoy it!  One day..in the not too distant future..the calls will stop. 

Dan Mason – I would have relished the opportunity.  I interviewed with Dan back in the 80’s when he managed an FM station in Houston. He picked me up in a Mercedes and it had a phone. I was never in a car with a phone. Dan took me to the station where he shared something with me that I still have today. His bone deep beliefs. If nothing else, the trip was worth it just to glomp on to a set of tenets that guided my career from that day on. Dan probably wouldn’t remember me but he had a big impact on my career and I wish I could have worked for him. 

Tom Langmeyer – I think Tom is one of America’s best managers. He is a quality guy and I would have enjoyed working for him. Tom interviewed me twice for the program director job at WGN.  WGN is the one station in America I really wanted to program.   I think I came close but, nuts, I didn’t get the gig.  Although Tom passed me over twice, I still admire him for all of his outstanding qualities. 

Cumulus – First, let it be said that I have a lot of friends who work for Cumulus.  A lot of good people work there.  But as a company….

One day I got a call from a Cumulus suit asking if I had an interest in working for Cumulus.  It was presented to me in a manner that would make you think you’ve just been awarded  the Pulitzer Prize.  “ Wow!!!!  Wowie wow wow!!!  You really want little old me to work for the mighty Cumulus???!!!! “  I told him I wasn’t a big enough asshole to work for them. That was years ago. You get less cocky as you get older. 

3 years ago Cumulus took over the station I worked for.  I remember the CEO coming into my office and telling me “I think you’ll enjoy working for us” I wanted to throw up. 

They fired me.  The most odious,  sniveling person I ever met in my life flew in to Fresno and told me “we’re going in a different direction” and then walked out leaving the business manager to do the paperwork.   Different direction?  Here’s a direction. Why don’t you go straight to hell. Ah, the things I wish I would have said. 

Canned…broomed…sacked…and escorted out of the building like a criminal.  It was 6 weeks after my cancer surgery.  First time ever for me. ..cancer and getting fired.  I knew it was coming.  I had cleaned out my office the night before.  I guess what hurt me most are the colleagues who didn’t even call to say “how are you doing?” I guess, when you get fired, you carry some sort of disease.  

My original thought about Cumulus turned out to be spot on. I’m just not a big enough asshole to work there. 

About a year ago I actually had a lapse of sanity and applied for a job with Cumulus.  I’ve heard it’s a much diffferent company now, sans the  Dickey’s.  Yes, it’s true. When the phone stops ringing, you’re likely to take a call from anyone. 

#8 – 20/20 News

20/20 News was the brand of newscast heard on the Bill Drake programmed radio stations throughout the US and Canada.  I grew up listening to 20/20 news on The Big 8, CKLW out of Windsor, Ontario.  Most people listening to top 40 or rock and roll radio tuned out when the news came on..but not 20/20 news.  The energy, the style, the delivery, the writing was pure entertainment.  A 20/20 newscast had the ability of grabbing your attention and sucking you in.  There was no way you were going to tune out.

At WGRD we did 20/20 News but it wasn’t the real deal. Not like the legends J Paul Huddleston at KHJ in Los Angeles, or Byron McGregor at the Big 8, CKLW.  No, all of us DJs did a two hour news shift under a different name. That was, until 1972 when we got serious about news and hired a real news director. Jeff Wasson came aboard but he wasn’t with us long. Then we brought in Corbett Brattin.   Corbett was an excellent news director and on air news man. But he was picked off by a larger market. Then came Brad Reed.  The guy had a voice like Grant Hudson of CKLW fame.  He was a bit nuts but he was good.  Damn good.  He snarled through the news.  We loved it. For some reason he called everyone “dust”.   I think he was with us about a year before returning to his home in Indiana.

And then there was Bob Hendryx.  I was somewhat surprised that he was hired because he sounded too green.  But not for long because here’s a story that, as God is my witness, really happened.  But caution: there is a little rough language coming but it’s important to the story

Program Director Ron White and General Manager Don Anderson hired the legendary J Paul Huddleston to work with Bob.  But all the DJ’s were required to attend the training sessions.  I was in awe. The real J Paul was actually here!  J Paul was renown for ending his newscasts by drawing out his name. “this is Jaaaaaayyyyyyyyy Paullllllllll Huddleston, KHJ 20/20 News.

First session – J Paul tells us that when he’s done with training, Bob Hendryx would be better known than any of us.   Really?!

Huddleston would bellow.  He wasn’t a soft spoken person.  “You’ve got to F..k the public!  Huh?  “Your copy has to be brief, write like people talk, F..k that wire copy crap. Rewrite everything…redundancy kills”.

Alliterations were big.   The more sensational, the more outrageous, the more flamboyant, all the better. Use of the pregnant pause drove home a point. “F..k the public! “  We were all taught breathing and vocal cord exercises.  I still use those exercises to this day.

J Paul’s prediction came true. Bob Hendryx became the star of WGRD.

As far as I know, only one radio station in America is doing the 20/20 News thing.  It’s on the Bill Drake’s first boss radio styled station – KYNO in Fresno.  Owner John Ostlund and programmer Jim Roberts have recreated the boss radio sound complete with 20/20 news. And they managed to get some old guy out of retirement to do it.

#7 Bruce Grant

Respecting the Talent


From time to time I’ll take a detour from chronology to write about specific people. I’ve worked with some exceptionally talented people in my career.

For the most part, radio’s  morning personalities are a different breed.  I have  my favorites, like Gary Allen, Wayne Perkey, & JP MCarthy.  I wouldn’t say Bruce Grant was my favorite but I do give him credit for teaching me a valuable lesson. I call it “respect the talent”.

Bruce was the legendary morning man on WOOD in Grand Rapids. He commanded an audience share of titanic proportions.  Most people listened to him every morning. Kids were glued to hear the up to date school closing list in the Winter.  For the most part, he was a one man show.  “There’s frost on your stacking swivel this morning”.  Just one of many Grantisms.

With the exception of a news person, Bruce did everything else. Weather, traffic, sports, farm, intermingled with some music which he frequently interrupted.  There was always breaking news on The Bruce Grant show before the term “breaking news” was invented.  This sense of urgency he created was Bruce’s way of keeping people glued to their radios.

(Song abruptly fades midway through play….sound of papers rustling…Grant: “I wouldnt interrupt that song if this wasn’t important but I just got off the phone with the dispatcher at the Rockford post of the Hwy Patrol and…..,”) 

Bruce was a WWII marine veteran.  He was a tough guy and didn’t take crap from anyone, especially young punk program directors.

Bruce would get to the station every morning about 2AM and start putting the show together.  Along with all the information, Bruce had a library of audio clips he’d record from various TV shows. These little bits of audio were used as responses to something Bruce was saying.  As an example, take the well known clip from Gone With The Wind. Bruce might say something like “Well, the boss here at WOOD Radio says I should play this song” followed by “quite frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”. Bruce would frequently use this technique to opine on something without, of course, taking the responsibility. Very very clever. And it worked. Bruce’s voices could be the bad guy…Bruce was always always always the good guy.

Bruce would frequently play the same commercial twice in a row. He would forget to take the tape cartridge out of the cart machine. Most of our recorded audio was on cartridge. Music, commercials, jingles, etc.  As a fail safe, the engineering department made a technical fix to the cart machines.  After a cart would play, you had to remove the cart and reinsert it before it would play again. Of course this was a major inconvenience to the rest of the staff who may want to listen to the audio in cue before playing it on the air.  I had to fill in one day and wasn’t familiar yet with all the jingles. So I listened to it in cue.  Then, following a break, I went to play the jingle and nothing happened…dead air.  An engineer ran in, pulled the cart out, reinserted it and hit the play button. Voila! Audio. I asked what the hell happened and was told it was the Bruce Grant fail safe. To which I said “ that’s a load of crap”. I ordered all cart machines be returned to their original status….and that’s what set up an incident that is legendary in the annals of WOOD radio.

One day, Bruce played Homeward Bound by Simon and Garfunkel.  After the song he did his usual on air routine – some commercials, weather, etc.  Afterwards , he announces “Here’s Simon and Garfunkel with Homward Bound” and he played the entire song again!  I’m in my office listening to all of this thinking “what the hell???”

So, after his show, I went back to the record library where Bruce was filing away his show materials.  I was in the hallway..Bruce was in the library.  I said “Hey Bruce, you played Homeward Bound twice in a row” to which he repled “well, if you wouldn’t have had the cart machine fail safe removed, that wouldn’t have happened” to which I replied (and here it is) “well, if you were paying attention to what you’re doing, it wouldn’t  have hap” but before I finished my words, Grant came flying out of the record library like Leaping Larry Shane (the 60’s wrestling star for those of you who don’t know who Leaping Larry is).  He pounced on me and down we go, on the floor in the hallway.  The only thing I could do is bury my head as Bruce started throwing punches at my back and shoulders.  It took Sales manager Joe Borrello, News Director Greg Moceri, and about 3 or 4 other guys to pull Bruce off me.  I stood up and Bruce was in a rage..his face beet red, the veins sticking out of his neck.  All I could says is “what the hell is wrong with you”.  General Manager Mike Lareau ran out to the hallway and ordered Bruce to his office, and  me to my office.  A short time later Lareau came into my office, asked if I was OK,  and then tells me he sent Bruce home and that he will go out to Bruce’s house later in the afternoon after things have cooled down.  “Should I fire him? ” Mike asks.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, Lareau always had my back but I knew damn well that there was no way we could fire Bruce.  And Mike knew it too.  I told Mike that’s the worst thing we could do..revenues would plunge, ratings would plunge, and we’d have a PR nightmare on our hands.  “No, just ask Bruce to make an apology to the staff in the lobby tomorrow” And that’s exactly what happened.  I was in the right but I sure handled it very wrong.  Respect the talent!  I learned a very valuable (not to mention painful and embarrassing ) lesson that day.  Funny thing, Bruce and I became close after that.  I think he knew I wanted him to be #1.  And, of course, I did.

And now you know the rest of the story.

 

#6 Grand Rapids – part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

#5 Molding the minds of the youth of America 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is Skip Essick, signing off for now. 

#4 – LAREAU

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

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

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

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

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

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

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