#13 – Grand Rapids Part 2


Spring 82 I was recalled to Grand Rapids to program the company’s flagship stations WOOD and WOOD FM.  Program Director Bill Struyk was stepping down after a long and successful run at the stations.  He was purchasing his own stations in Grand Haven, Michigan.

Times were changing. WOOD 1300 was facing a serious direct challenge from WCUZ, a country station that took some pages out of the WOOD playbook. WOOD Broadcasting President Mike Lareau asked me to come back and take the programming helm.  A look at the ratings and there was no doubt WOOD AM was in deep trouble. WCUZ had mounted a direct challenge to WOOD’s seemingly impenetrable news department. They also brought former WOOD personalities Andy Rent and Dave Randall on board. Rent was teamed with Dennis Sutton and the pair began chipping away at Bruce Grant on WOOD.  Of course it didn’t hurt that WCUZ carried the Detroit Tigers.  For the first time in my relatively young career, I was about to get beat.  

For two years I was pretty much a caretaker PD. I wanted to make big changes on both the AM and FM.  The AM was old sounding.  The FM even older playing elevator music.  But the owners of WOOD broadcasting were not about to support any big change.  There was too much concern about music.  It seemed that music dominated every program discussion about WOOD AM.  But the ratings success of nighttime’s Talknet and our weekly Sunday Morning Talk Show clearly showed the strength of news and talk.  Still, the charge was to program middle of the road music mixed with personality chit chat, news and information.  At one point I was ordered to develop a broadway music feature. The wives of the owners were a part of a music committee that apparently had a penchant for that sort of thing.  Meanwhile WOOD FM continued to chug along playing instrumental “beautiful music” produced by Jim Schulke out of New Jersey.   Schulke’s “matched flow” format had unbelievable success. WOOD-FM was the first FM station to be number one in a market…and they did it with elevator music, limited commercials, and non intrusive production. I really wasn’t the program director of WOOD FM. Schulke was.  Every time the ratings came out I’d go into the master control room at pat the automation machine saying “nice job.”  But even the FM started showing erosion. The audience was literally dying off. 

And WOOD AM was on a downward spiral. 1984 was serving up a cocktail I didn’t like the taste of.  WCUZ FM, helped with a winning Detroit Tigers, and a lot of brilliant promotion, kicked my ass.  

Next – digging out. 

#12 CONSULTANTS

IMG_2769Like many industries, broadcasting has a lot of consultants and I’ve worked with quite a few. There are legendary guys like Mike Joseph, Bill Drake, and Paul Drew.  Some others that come to mind are Tim Moore, Gary Berkowitz, Ron White, Dave Lange, and the always impeccably dressed Mike McVay.  I worked with most of these guys but my favorite was Lee Bayley.

Lee Bayley was the consultant for WHAS in Louisville and was very instrumental in my hiring at what I consider the best job I ever had.  Lee and I had talked off an on over the phone for several years before I actually met him in person.  Our friendship developed over long phone conversations about radio.  Lee had a background working with and for broadcast legends Bill Drake and Gene Chenualt.  He knew his stuff.   When I was up for the WHAS PD job in 1989, Lee tracked me down in Ireland to let me know I got the job.  I have no idea how he found me but I will never forget the call.  I had been touring the Ring of Kerry with my family on a rainy late Winter day.  Returning to Killarney’s Great Southern Hotel, the receptionist told me I had a call from “a Mr. Lee Bayley in America”.   Wow!!!  Lee and I worked together for nearly 7 years and I always enjoyed his visits.   I was saddened to learn of Lee’s death a few years back.  He passed away of a sudden heart attack after enjoying a day of golf.  He was only 73.

Mike Joseph was arguably the most influential programmer in American top 40 radio.  His ratings conquests are legendary.   Joseph programmed the legendary WABC in New York City in 1960. as well as stations in just about every major market in the United States.  He also consulted a number of stations in the Midwest including stations in Grand Rapids. Ft. Wayne, and Toledo.  His usual MO was to lure competing talent in markets he had stations.  I was called by Joseph twice while I was at WGRD in Grand Rapids.  He was setting up stations in Hartford and then Providence.  I had no desire to move to the east coast so I passed.  But Joseph was a really big deal.  Here’s an interesting story:  One day, while I was working in Toledo, I received a phone call from my godfather – Donny Francis.  Donny is my fathers’ best friend from high school.  They’re best of friends to this day.  Anyhow, Donny invited me to his home for dinner.  During dinner he said “I don’t think I ever told you this but my first cousin is in radio.  He’s always bragging about how important he is.  Ever hear of Mike Joseph?”  My jaw must have hit the floor.  “Donny, yes I have.  And he IS a really big deal”.  Mike passed away in April 2018 at the age of 90.   He was A BIG DEAL. 

Paul Drew had left his position with Drake and had ventured out doing one day seminars with programmers and managers.  Mike Lareau and Jim White from WOOD and WSPD respectively invited myself and WSPD programmer Rick Belcher to join them in a one day seminar with the legendary Paul Drew.  I was in awe.  Drew was intense.  His seminar was about management..not programming.   To this day there is one thing he said that has stuck with me.  “When it comes to business..don’t trust anyone”.  I remember asking Drew “what do you do about problem employees?”  He said “don’t hire them”.

The day of the independent consultant has somewhat disappeared.  Large broadcast companies hired a lot of the consultants and use them internally.  Homogeneous formats that are cranked out of corporate programming offices have zapped a lot of  individuality out of local radio.  But I have a feeling that’s about to change soon as some companies will be forced to divest as a part of their debt restructuring.    I’ll keep my fingers crossed.  Who knows..maybe someone out there can use an old war horse to inject some good old local show biz into their operation.  You never know..but, then again, when it comes to business….

 

 

#11 – WSPD

I arrived in Toledo the same night Team USA beat the Soviets in Hockey during the 1980 Winter Olympics.  I was told to go directly to a hotel – and not the station.  I surmised that a mass firing was going to take place. General Manager Jim White and company president Mike Lareau terminated the employments of the program director and the sales manager. The chief engineer elected to retire. 

The next morning I arrived at the WSPD studios on South Superior Street ready to go to work. I met both Jim and Mike at the station around 7am and they gave me a brief tour.  The studios were dark and dumpy with very old equipment. The offices were 1950 colonial decor. The previous owner, Storer Broadcasting, used Williamsburg style colonial on all their properties.  The outside of the building kind of looked like a Bill Knapp’s Restaurant. 

As staff started arriving at the station they quickly knew something was up. New faces in the building!  We were called “ the Grand Rapids mafia”.  But, after an early morning staff meeting in which I was introduced, things settled down to business as usual. 

I inherited a mixed bag of staffers.  Some were very good, some had to go.  But I wasted no time in getting the station back on track.  Morning personality Jack Mitchell was key to our success. Getting Jack to buy in was my first goal.  Jack and I spent a lot of time talking about the overall programming and then, more specifically, his show.  In keeping the basics of Jack’s show in tact, we began adding other information elements like a weather service and more local news updates.  A new morning news anchor was hired.  Mary Beth Zolick came on board and it wasn’t long before Jack started bringing Mary Beth more into the show.  By the way, I had real concerns about the chit chat going on between the two of them  but Jack insisted that it was going to work. He was right!  Jack and Mary Beth became household names for almost 30 years in Toledo.

Mid days on WSPD were hosted by Bill Stewart. We hired Bill from WRFD in Columbus.  Bill was (still is) a creative on air talent.  These were before the days of talk radio.  The shows were a mix of music and information and Bill was obsessed with his headphones and getting a 10 share or higher.  About the headphones: our chief engineer Bill Rossini literally went thru dozens of  headphones, looking for a pair that Bill liked. To this day I’m not sure if we ever found the right set of phones for Bill.  I recall vividly Bill telling me he would get double figures in the ratings.  I was skeptical. After all, WSPD hadn’t enjoyed ratings like that for years. But after about a year, Bill Stewart pulled it off.  

Afternoons were handled by Paul W Smith. Yes, the same Paul W who now anchors mornings on WJR in Detroit. Smith is an amazing radio personality that has outstanding interview skills and an acute intuition on what people are interested in.  And the amazing thing is that he does it with such ease. Many people criticized Paul for being a J.P. McCarthy wanna be.  JP was the legendary morning personality 60 miles north of Toledo at WJR.  My answer to that was “what’s wrong with that?” and it’s the number one reason why I hired him 15 years later as the successor to JP, who tragically died in 1995. More on that in a later blog..and you won’t want to miss it. 

WSPD had the personalities and it had the sports and news franchises.  Who could ever forget the legendary Jerry Kyle, WSPD’s sports director. But WSPD’s ratings were anemic.  Something was missing and I knew what it was.  There was nothing gluing the station together. Essentially it sounded like a lot of different stations.  Working on the basics, developing cohesion among the staff, working on consistency, focusing on news, instilling the attitude that everyone on the station is a news person, seemed to do the trick. And then I created an on air marketing campaign to match our external “Heard the News” concept.  Jingle creator Ken R Deutch developed an ID package using the Heard the News theme. 

During this time, crosstown WOHO owned and managed by Lew Dickey Sr. was mounting a serious challenge against WSPD. If it’s one think Dickey wanted, it was to beat WSPD in the ratings.  He came close.  He had a solid morning show, his news effort was substantial, he was courting Paul W Smith almost daily, and he put the new NBC Talknet on the air with Bruce Williams and Sally Jesse Raphael. I was stupid and passed on it when it was offered to WSPD. To this day I don’t remember why.  With the exception of our new nightly sports talk show hosted by Jude Lacava, our nights on Speedy were weak.  Nevertheless, WSPD’s ratings began to increase. And after one year,the station  was generating healthy ratings. Lew Dickey commented that you should never count WSPD out.  

Note: about a year after I was gone from WSPD, my successor Rick Belcher was able to right my wrong and get Talknet on WSPD.  

While things were going well at WSPD, things started to soften at the company’s flagship station, WOOD in Grand Rapids. It was almost two years to the day when I got a call from Mike Lareau. He asked me to come back to Grand Rapids to program WOOD.  And so, Grand Rapids part 2 was about to begin. 

The one thing I know for sure. It takes a staff of great talent to get ratings. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time nudging them along. That’s really about all it takes. 

 

#10 Holy Toledo

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In late 1979 I had heard that WOOD Broadcasting was purchasing WSPD Radio in Toledo, Ohio while listening to a newscast on WOOD in Grand Rapids.  At that instant, I knew I was going to be their program director in Toledo.  Of course, how to do this would take my very best PR efforts because I really didn’t know the upper management team at WOOD.

Toledo?  Why Toledo?  I was born in Toledo and lived there until I was 12 years old.  My parents were born in Toledo and my maternal grand parents were born in Toledo.  A lot of family history there.  And radio in the early 60’s in Toledo was the best.  WTOD, WOHO, and WTTO all battled it out with each other and the Big 8, CKLW in Windsor.  It all made for great radio.  WSPD, or as it was nicknamed back then “Speedy” was Toledo’s first radio station.  In fact, it was Ohio’s first radio station.  The call letters stood for Speedene gasoline, the name of the company that owned WSPD.  Years later I would joke that the call letters stood for Where Skip’s Program Director.  The mascot of the station was a Frontiersman character with a coon skin cap – emblazoned on the front “Speedy”    Growing up in Toledo I can remember my folks listening to Art Berry and Jim Ubelhart on Speedy.

On a couple of occasions during the 70’s I applied for an announcing position at WSPD but my top 40 style didn’t fit the format of the station.  Nevertheless, over the years I had paid particular attention to WSPD, their line-up, format, news, etc.  And I also tracked their ratings, which were deteriorating.

I had sent a letter to both Jim White and Mike Lareau expressing my interest in the station and requesting a meeting.  Jim White was WOOD’s General Sales Manager and he had been named the new General Manager of WSPD.  Mike Lareau was President of WOOD Broadcasting.  It didn’t take long and I received a call from Mike Lareau wanting me to meet with both he and Jim.  My intuition told me they were not happy with the existing programming team at WSPD and wanted someone more familiar with the WOOD way of doing things.  I certainly was familiar with the WOOD-way.  Easy middle of the road music, topical announcers, and – most important – strong news.  WSPD was going in a different direction.  More top 40 type music (like Greeneyed Lady by Sugarloaf, and a de-emphasis on the news.  My pitch:  Soften the music, strengthen the news,  improve the overall production value of the station, require show prep from the announcers, work on the technical sound of the station, and contesting.  I loved doing radio contests.  Cash Call, The Phrase that Pays, Radio Bingo, all a bit corny, and certainly not original, but people loved playing contests.  Especially the people that participated in ratings.

I got the job.

WOOD Broadcasting’s head honcho and Mr. 51% was Bill Schroeder.  Schroeder was in his late 60’s or early 70’s at the time but he was exceptionally contemporary.  He drove around in a Porsche with a British driving cap. Schroeder had very specific ideas about WSPD too and he and I agreed on the need to strengthen news and musically make the station sound more compatible with a mature audience.  Schroeder, along with his ad agency pal Charlie Johnson developed a brilliant outdoor billboard campaign called “Heard the News”.  It was a about 1/3rd of a mans face with a huge ear on the left side of the poster with large letters “HEARD THE NEWS” and the station call letters and dial position.  That’s all it said.  Damn, it was good stuff!  My job was to take that campaign and bring it to life on the radio – not only in what we said, but what we did.

In April, 1980 I took over the reigns of programming Ohio’s Pioneer Station.  And my career in news/talk programming had begun.

Next week – putting it all together.

#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.