#19 – You’ll Luv Louisville 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“hello?”

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

“What happened to Denny?”

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

“Yes…hell yes”

The luck of the Irish ☘️ 

And that’s how it came down. 

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

Stay tuned. 

#18 WOOD FM 105.7

WOOD FM was the first FM radio station in America to go number one in the ratings in a market. I became program director of WOOD FM in 1982 but the real program director was Jim Schulke,  an eccentric radio programmer from New Jersey. I simply put up a schedule of what tapes aired and when they aired. 

 The FM, as everyone in the station called it, boasted a powerful signal. 265,000 Watts. The 2nd most powerful FM station in the United States.  The FM antenna was perched on top of the WOOD TV Tower about 20 miles southeast of the city.  It was a monster signal.  

Enter Jim Schulke, the inventor of the beautiful music format…or as most referred to it: elevator music. Schulke would spend hours picking just the right selection, and the song that would follow. It was what he called “match flow”.  Every song was an instrumental.  There were no vocals. Schulke insisted on non intrusive elements.  Which meant announcers said very little.  “Beautiful music, from beautiful WOOD FM”.  “Always relaxing, always beautiful, this is WOOD FM”.  The music was the star of the show. All announcer elements were pre-recorded.  Commercials were straight voice. No music beds or jingles. Advertising agencies hated placing time on the station because they had to produce separate commercials to run exclusively on WOOD FM.  It was a boring radio station. But it always got great ratings.  Many businesses in West Michigan played the radio station to provide a certain ambiance. The formula worked for years until the mid 80’s. 

I had wanted to move the station into a more foreground format.  Many beautiful music stations we’re going in this direction.  When The former WZZR radio became W-Light, it took a chunk of listeners from WOOD FM.  Schulke saw the writing on the wall and sold his company to his number one competitor, Bonneville Broadcasting.   Bonneville programmers started adding vocals. First 2 per hour, then four, then six. But it was too late.  The format was not going to survive.  When Philadelphia broadcaster Jerry Lee took his station out of the beautiful music format and launched a full scale adult contemporary format, I knew it was over.   Lee was one of those rare guys that invested a lot of money in market research. He understood trends better than most in the industry and he understood his listeners.  

I left WOOD and WOOD FM in 1989.  I didn’t stick around long enough for the eventual format change of the station in 1991. The stations were sold to Bruce Holberg – another Philadelphia broadcaster. Holberg knew all too well about Jerry Lees station. And it didn’t take him long to bid so long to beautiful music and launch the new Easy 105.7.   But it still had that stigma.  The Easy relaxing message still gave a perception of boredom. Holberg got it about 25% where it needed to be. 

A side note – Holberg visited me in Louisville after he bought the stations. He wanted me to return to Grand Rapids to program the stations.  I met him in Grand Rapids a second time and he presented me with a contract.  During this meeting he asked me what I thought of the automation  equipment in the WOOD FM studio.  I told him he should put it out on Division Street and set it on fire. I was being funny but Holberg went off, yelling “ look, this is a new company and you’ll just have to be patient.”  Wow! I wasn’t prepared for that.  After I left Holberg’s  condo in downtown Grand Rapids, I deposited the contract into a trash bin.  

When I returned to Grand Rapids on my 3rd tour of duty – this time as General Manager – I did what I wanted to do a decade earlier. 

Up next – the best job I ever had. 

#17 – On the Road

ROADSHOW

I would be remiss if I didn’t include a posting on Road Shows.  Of course, for decades radio stations did (and still do) remote broadcasts from different retail locations.  Many stations including WOOD Radio did full length programs from places like downtown department stores.  One of the more popular shows from the late 40’s and early 50’s was WOOD Radio’s Glenn and Lenore.  Art Berry did a remote broadcast every day for years on WSPD at Tiedtke’s Department Store in downtown Toledo.  So, while road shows were nothing really new, local radio stations originating broadcasts from places like Dublin, London, Australia, and even Disney World were quite novel.

I’m not exactly sure where we did our first long distance remote but Ireland was one of the first.  In 1986 we originated a special Bruce Grant Broadcast on St. Patricks Day in Dublin.  There was Bruce Grant, broadcasting live on the streets of Dublin during the annual Dublin St. Patrick’s Day parade.  Of course I accompanied Bruce on this journey which essentially began my love affair with the Emerald Isle.  Hey, it was a tough job but somebody had to do it.  Over the years,  including my time in Lousiville at WHAS, I originated St. Patrick’s Day shows in Dublin..and took close to 1000 listeners with us over a 10 year period.  In fact in 1991 I was given an award by the city of Dublin for promoting tourism.  They made me an official citizen!!!  I still travel to Ireland and always make it a point of visiting my favorite place – Dublin.

WOOD Radio also originated broadcasts in London, Rome, and Australia.  Plus a multitude of broadcasts at Walt Disney World.  As I look back on all of that, it may have been a bit self serving.  I love to travel which is why Wayne Perkey at WHAS called me “take a trip Skip”.  But I didn’t go on all the roadshows.  One year we sent Gary Allen to Munich for the big Oktoberfest Celebration.  Gary was accompanied by staff engineer John Kaiser.  I had arranged for Gary to be located in one of the more popular beer halls. But something got short circuited in the communication.  Turns out Gary’s broadcast booth was set up smack dab in the middle of a gay convention venue.

The world is a small place.  I recall walking with Bruce Grant through Heathrow Airport in London when someone shouted “Hey..there’s Bruce Grant”!  Another time, while riding with WHAS Farm Director Fred Wiche on London’s Underground, the train came to a stop..the doors opened, and a lady stepped on saying in her charming Kentucky drawl “why Fred Wiche..what are you doing here”?

My favorite story.  While doing prep work for a show from the Vatican, Cardinal John Foley, who was my host, was taking me on a tour of St. Peter’s Basilica.  He asked me to wait in the sacristy while he met with some priests from America.  I could hear him address the group of priests who were around the corner from the sacristy near the main alter.  He said he was working with “an The American Journalist Skip Essick on a documentary” when all of the sudden I heard a man shout “Skip Essick?”  Around the corner came the pastor of my home parish in Lima, Ohio..Father Lamantia.  The world is, indeed, a very small place.

Coming up in my next blog, I’ll talk about WOOD FM and the demise of the beautiful music format.  Many have asked for me to write about my time at WJR in Detroit.  That’s coming up too.  But for now, this is Skip Essick, signing off.

#16 – Promotions

I think the very best promotion in the Grand Rapids market during  my tenure as WOOD’s Program Director was that of a competitor. 

In 1984 WCUZ put Dennis Sutton up on a billboard. The billboard was an elaborate design by the marketing genius of Greg Hagley at Rogers Department Store.  It actually had a little house where Sutton liveduntil the Detroit Tigers lost a game. That was a championship year for Detroit and Dennis was up on that billboard for a long time.  That promotion generated market wide buzz.  A dream come true to those behind the promotion and a nightmare to competitors. 

We did some good stuff at WOOD too.  Road shows to Ireland and London were highlights. We took hundreds of listeners over the years to Dublin for St. Patrick’s Day. Of course WOODs strong ties with Disneyworld gave us a front row seat to a multitude of new attraction openings at WDW.  We did several broadcasts from various locations at Disneyworld. 

Perhaps the best promotion we did was the brainchild of Gary Allen.  The Baby Boomers Birthday Bash.  We rounded up the markets original top 40 DJ’s and turned the station into a blast from the past on a Friday.  Bill Merchant, and Skip Bell were flown in for the event. Tom Quain, Jim Francis and even Bruce Grant rounded out the lineup. Mel Vandegavel did the news.  We tweaked the audio processing on the station with some reverb and used old 1960s jingles.  That night we capped it off with a dance on the Monroe Mall.  The Kingtones played to a huge crowd.  What a day!!! 

In the end, the promotions that people remember are the good ones.  And my experience is that they really are fairly simple. 

Pictured – top row Skip Essick, Tom Quain. Middle row – Mel Vandegavel, Mark Roberts, Gary Allen. Front row – Bill Merchant, Jim Francis, Gary Bazner, Skip Bell, Chuck Bailey. 



# 15 – The Baz

BAZNER

 

Gary Bazner would often say to me that there are two kinds of people in broadcasting.  Those that have been fired, and those that will be.  He also told me on numerous occasions that he would die young. 

When Bruce Grant informed management he intended on retiring from WOOD Radio, we began the search for his replacement.  The Research Group was hired to conduct a study in the market.  The findings confirmed our belief that WCUZ’s Andy Rent and Dennis Sutton could successfully take over the morning show on WOOD and even grow the audience.  We offered them the job…they turned us down.

We knew that Gary Bazner was a very popular TV personality in the market.  The Baz was TV 8’s head meteorologist and he had a larger than life personality.  Perhaps that would work on radio?  A reasonable thinking person might come to that conclusion.  But there was one problem.  Bazner had a contract.  What happened next set off a chain of events that changed the TV broadcast landscape in Grand Rapids for years.

I had already known that Bazner would be interested in coming to WOOD Radio so we very delicately approached Channel 8 management and asked them if we might approach Gary,  being mindful that any discussions with him without managements approval could be contract tampering.  Much to my surprise, Channel 8 green lighted the idea.  Hmmmmm – that was too easy.   Channel 8 had been in negotiations with Channel 13’s Craig James.  James was numero uno in Grand Rapids.  He was the markets first TV meteorologist and his contract was up. But Channel 8 had a problem..that I helped them solve.  We hired Bazner – they hired Craig James.  And the headlines were huge!  Of course WCUZ wasn’t too happy about all of this and they leaked to the Grand Rapids Press that Andy Rent and Dennis were our first choice.  I thought that was petty. 

Gary Bazner took over the morning show on WOOD Radio in early 1986 and Bruce Grant semi-retired, doing Saturday mornings and filling in for Bazner during vacation time.  Pairing Bazner with the assembled morning team,  which included newly hired meteorologist Peter Chan was a little rough in the beginning.  There were awkward moments of dead air as Gary was learning how to run the control board.  But otherwise, things seemed to take off well.  At least for a while.  Without getting into specifics, it was becoming increasingly clear that this was going to be a bumpy ride.

Bazner had big ideas including doing the morning show from the America’s Cup Race in Australia.  When Gary approached me with the idea, I couldn’t get my mind around it.  But he had already worked it out with America’s Cup Sponsors Amway Corp to fully fund the broadcast.  In February 1986 I found myself with Bazner on the shores of the Indian Ocean in Western Australia.  It was here I first met the legendary JP McCarthy from WJR – also there broadcasting from the America’s Cup Races. I’ll never forget the plane ride over.  The 747 United Jet took a bolt of lightening somewhere over the equator.  The smell of burning electrical components permeated the cabin and people were alarmed.  Bazner was sleeping.  I woke him up – he looked out the window, saw a small fire on the engine, and said it’s no problem..and he went back to sleep!   I was about ready to wet my pants.  I thought this is it..we’re going down.  In fact, were were going down..to dump fuel over the ocean. The captain addressed us over the PA and said we had experienced and “over temperature: and we were landing at Fiji.  We made a safe landing at Nandi on the Fiji Islands and were there several hours while crews worked to repair the engine.  Who knew they could fix a big Rolls Royce Jet Engine on Fiji??!!

As I had mentioned at the beginning of this blog, Baz was essentially a fatalist.  Things like a fire on a plane over the Pacific didn’t phase him.  But a memo from the program director would set him off!

Gary left WOOD radio after I had moved on.  He moved to Detroit and became meteorologist for WKBD TV 50 in Detroit.  He died of a massive heart attack at the age of 49, 22 years ago yesterday, February 2nd 1996.  Seemed ironic as it was Groundhogs day. Wierd. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blog #14 – Digging out

I knew we had to make aggressive changes at WOOD in order for the station to maintain dominance.  There was an inherent attitude that the stations (both AM and FM) were  impenetrable  but I knew otherwise.  I think one of the more brilliant moves that started bringing the station into a new era was when news director Greg Moceri hired Paula Drake to be the morning news anchor.  Moceri was always smarter than me and we both knew it.  Paula, paired with Bruce Grant!  Who would have thought that would work..but it did.  During this time we mounted an aggressive TV campaign called “The Janitor”. created by Chuck Bloor Productions.  In the commericial, the night time janitor goes into the control room and has a fantasy of being on the air.  Out of his mouth are the voices of Bruce Grant, Paula Drake, some WOOD Radio jingles, etc.  I went out to Hollywood to produce the spot.  It worked and we started to see the ratings improve.  Of course things can turn on a dime.  I thought Paula would be with us forever..but she got an offer in a bigger market.

I don’t recall who replaced Paula in the morning news anchor chair, but about this time I cut a deal with the Grand Rapids Police Department to do traffic reports on WOOD.  We set up a little broadcast center at the police department and hired retired Captain Charlie Tichon to do traffic reports on the Bruce Grant Show.  I had to coach Charlie a lot….but eventually the credibility of reports from the police department eclipsed the delivery shortcomings.

Of course, WCUZ was not going to lay down and let this go.  They started a big stink that the police department should not be used for traffic reports unless ALL the Grand Rapids radio stations could benefit from these reports.  So, we just moved Charlie down to the studios of WOOD.  By this time he was already established. So, where he did the reports was of no consequence.

One morning I was tipped off that our contract with WOTV Channel 8 weather services was in peril and that WCUZ had offered them a more generous compensation deal along with promotion to move their weather from WOOD Radio to them.  This meant that one of the city’s popular broadcast personalities, Gary Bazner, would be going to WCUZ.  It also meant that we were without a weather service.  There were, of course, options.  I would have gone with WZZM’S meteorologists.  Craig James and Bill Steffen were considered the tops in town..but they were not available to us.  And I don’t remember why.  There were weather services like Accu Weather, Pinpoint weather, and John McMurray’s weather services.  But I wanted to do something different.

Peter Chan was a brilliant meteorologist who had just graduated from the University of Wisconsin.  I was tipped off that he was looking for his first professional job..and here’s the clincher.  Grand Rapids was his home town.  This was no-brainer..we hired Peter. With the purchase of weather forecasting equipment, including a color radar weather unit, WOOD Radio was arguably the first radio station in the country with it’s own weather department.

With traffic reports, weather reports, more news updates in the morning, Bruce’s show became more of a news wheel.  But Bruce was also sending signals that he wanted to retire.  He felt that many of the things he did..were no being done by somebody else.  We began the steps to replace Bruce and I felt the best option was to hire the WCUZ morning team of Andy Rent and Dennis Sutton.  We made them the offer they couldn’t refuse..but they did.  Back to the drawing board.

Next…bringing a 747 into Grand Rapids..Road Shows…The Baz..post Bruce WOOD..and WOOD-FM changes..and so much more.  But for now, this is Skip Essick, signing off from San Miguel de Allende.

#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.