Sunday, April 15, 2007

Bob Sirott

Updated 9/16/09

I previously interviewed Bob Sirott when he first got the Noon show at WGN Radio. (You can read that interview here.) I spoke to him again this summer just after he left Channel 5. Portions of that interview appeared in Shore Magazine. The full interview is below.

Rick: Sorry to hear the news about you leaving Channel 5. What happened there?

Bob: I chose to leave the station when I noticed the small print in the new deal said I'd be required to eat tarantulas during the 10 PM News.

Rick: What was your favorite part of that Channel 5 job?

Bob: The favorite part of the job was the requirement that I sit very close to charming, beautiful women like Allison Rosati. (Don't let my wife know--she thinks I'm a lawyer)

Rick: You've been doing this TV and radio thing for a long time now. Of all the people you've met, who have you been most impressed by?

Bob: It's a three way tie: I was impressed the most by Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter, and Paul McCartney. Hard to top a president or a Beatle. The way they handle interviewers is fascinating. President Obama (I interviewed him when he was a Senator--just before becoming a presidential candidate) was exactly the same off the air as he was on. Carter disarmed you with that great, big smile that preceded every answer no matter what the question. McCartney has the ability to turn on the charm as though every interview is his first. You know it's a studied technique, but he's so good at it that you would swear it's 100% genuine.

Rick: You're an institution in this town, which means you probably get recognized wherever you go. What's the most unusual place you've ever been recognized?

Bob: At a funeral for a relative. That wasn't so bad, really. It was the fact that the person wanted an autograph as I was walking out of the chapel.

Rick: Tell us something about you that your listeners/viewers would be surprised to hear.

During the 70's, I rarely listened to the lyrics to any song I played. I knew the first line and the last, but that was about it. Ask me about a record I introduced on the radio ten thousand times and I probably couldn't recite more than two lines.

Rick: You've done just about every job in the media. Is there one job that you'd still like to do?

Bob: I'd love to do Cubs games on the radio. My nephew Judd is living my fantasy.

The original interview is below...

Bob Sirott is the anchor of the 4:30 and 5 p.m news at NBC-5 in Chicago. He also works on special reports for other NBC5 newscasts and develops content for NBC5 programming specials and digital platforms. He got his start in Chicago radio, however, and just this week announced he will be returning to the airwaves to host a new one-hour newsmagazine at Noon Monday through Friday on news/talk WGN.


I started out as a page for NBC-TV and Radio. Both stations were in the Merchandise Mart in those days. I started that job in '66 while I was a senior in high school, continued there while going to college, and in '68 went to work exclusively for the radio station (WMAQ) as public affairs and production director. I wrote but wasn't on the air. I left that job to go on the air at WBBM-FM in the summer of 71 as a vacation fill in..and by the fall of that year they made me the morning drive person.

WBBM-FM 1971-73
WLS-AM 890 73-79
WRCK-FM 94.7 1980 (which later became countless formats on 94.7...I left to work for Channel 2 in the summer of 1980)
WCKG-FM 105.9 Weekend show with Marianne Murciano 2005-2007
WGN-AM 720 Beginning April 30, 2007

Rick: I know you’re a Chicago guy, born and bred. Who were some of the voices on the radio here in the 1960s that inspired you to go into the business, and what was it about their delivery or presentation that you admired?

Bob: The people I liked listening to in the 60's were the WLS and later WCFL personalities. I also idolized Jack Quinlan, who was the Cubs play by play radio voice of the Cubs. He not only had a big warm voice and knew baseball inside and out---he had a great, playful sense of humor. I liked the way he sort of "stepped out" of the usual baseball game announcing format. I also discovered Wally Phillips on WGN around that time. Not many people remember that when Wally first started, he did a mid day show that was quite wacky for its time. Non-stop "drop-ins" and comedy cuts, along with prank phone calls. He hadn't exactly started the "people helping people" concept at that time.

But, for the most part, I listened to Biondi and the other WLS jocks of the era. Each one had a very conversational delivery. They really talked right to us--not at us. It's interesting to go back and listen to some of those old air-checks. Other than Biondi and Art Roberts, those guys didn't talk very much, or do too many special features---they made a name for themselves with a kind of quiet, warm, friendly approach that made us like them and feel like we knew them. Guys like Clark Weber had some sort of mysterious quality to their voices that pulled us right in. Later when Lujack burst on the scene, I was--along with many others, captivated by his groundbreaking "I hate this job and think this format is stupid" persona. His "inside" humor appealed to those of us interested in radio.

By the mid 60's I became enamored of WCFL, with its stable of unique personalities, great jingles, and brilliant production (Dick "Chickenman" Orkin). Ron Britain had one of the strangest, greatest rock radio shows of all time with his "wall of sound" backround--a non-stop barrage of voices and sounds that were constantly thrown at him without his knowledge. His reactions were hysterical. Jim Stagg was one of my favorites. He did a very formatic, tight music show in afternoon drive. He did an occasional interview with a rock star, but for the most part he just kept the format moving and only talked over the music, but from him I learned that if you used every second wisely, put some honesty and "soul" into what you were saying, and really "felt" the music, you could effectively make your mark. Joel Sebastian was another great talent. He had a God-given beautiful, rich voice, but rather than come off as a sterile, unreal, mechanical announcer voice--he used his wit and warmth to captivate listeners.

Rick: You were just a kid when you started at WMAQ. How did that first gig come about?

Bob: I got that job as an NBC page after hanging out in their studios occasionally. Officer Vic Petrolis, a kindly former Chicago cop who had been a traffic reporter on WLS in the early 60's was doing the same thing for WMAQ Radio. I got to know him first when I used to visit WLS as a kid, and after running into him a few times at WMAQ he suggested I call their Personnel Director about an opening on the Guide Staff for a Page.

Rick: In the 70s, WLS-AM owned this town. You were a big part of that—as the afternoon drive personality. Was there a rivalry between shows, a friendly competition, or did it feel like you were all on the same team working toward the same goals? Talk about life in the hallways of WLS.

Bob: Working on WLS in the 70's was thrilling. After all, I was now broadcasting from the same studio where I would watch all those legendary jocks work when I was in the visiting room in the early 60's.

There really wasn't any competition at all--not friendly or otherwise. No rivalry. Not sure why, but we we were all just into doing our own thing. A few of us even spent a lot of time together off the air. JJ Jeffrey (10am-2pm) John Landecker (6-10pm) and myself (2-6pm) used to hang out with each other on weekends, and many times during the week after John would get off the air. What we did is still classified, but will be released to the public after we're all dead! Seriously though, mainly we would just go out for dinner--with our without our respective significant others--many times along with our great production engineer Al Rosen. I think we all kept each other in-line--nobody could get a big head or become too serious about what we were doing on the station because the rest of us would just heckle that person back into his senses.

Rick: Are there any on-air moments or memories from your radio days that really stand out to you even now?

Bob: I guess, since we didn't do them often--it would be some of the interviews. I once somehow persuaded Wolfman Jack to substitute for me while I was on vacation. He turned out to be one of the nicest, most caring humans I ever met. Always wanting to help young jocks anywhere. John Landecker can tell a few good stories about hangin' out with The Wolfman.

The one person who created the most commotion when he visited our studio was not a rock star. It was Peter Falk. At the height of The Columbo craze he was in town on behalf of Easter Seals. I managed to book him for an interview (convincing John Gehron PD that it would be worth it to stop the music for a few minutes for him) and he came up all by himself--no people with him. I still have a picture of him with me in the studio, waiting for a song to end so he could go on. He's wearing a rumpled coat, and has a pile of newspapers in front of him that he was going thru--just like Columbo waiting for his suspect to arrive on the scene.

Gehron also let me do a 15th anniversary tribute to WLS and it's rock format in '75. One afternooon I played the old songs, with the old jingles, and got Art Roberts to be my "guest teen disc-jockey" in the last hour. (That was a feature Art and Dick Biondi had done in the 60's) I still have all but one hour of that show on tape. Anyone out there have the whole thing?

I also have many memories of taking my tape recorder to Wrigley Field in the morning, and doing interviews with Cubs players that had nothing to do with sports. I found out that, while I wanted to be a ballplayer, most of them wanted to play music on the radio! One time when Harry Caray was with the White Sox, we traded jobs for a day. I did a couple innings of play by play on TV (Channel 44 was doing Sox games back then) and Harry came in to host an hour on WLS. You should have heard him giving away Rolling Stones concert tickets to the 15th caller! I had quite a collection of "custom drop ins" from Chicagoans that I used to use back then. My favorites were the ones from Jack Brickhouse, Vince LLoyd, and Lou Boudreau-the Cubs announcers.

Rick: You’ve obviously made a successful transition to television. Would it be wrong to say that a few of your earlier shows, particularly your morning shows on Channel 5 and Channel 32, seemed to be inspired by your radio experience? If so, how did that radio background manifest itself on your television programs?

Bob: Everything I do now, or have done since leaving radio, has been inspired by my work in that medium. Radio people know how to write the way people talk, they know how to say things in a way that doesn't sound formal and phony, and they know how to react quickly to what's on the mind of the public on any given day. Radio folks know how to talk to millions of people one at a time.

Rick: To this day, you still have a radio presence in Chicago. Tell us about the about "The Noon Show" you'll be hosting on WGN starting April 30th, and the weekend show you'll be hosting with your wife Marianne Murciano.

Bob: At this point both the Noon Show and the weekend show I'll be doing with Marianne are coming together with a few new and old ideas. I can tell you that the noon hour will be like a newscast I might anchor on NBC-5; the hot topics of the day, along with what you need to know--headlines, traffic, weather, and sports...and of course Paul Harvey news is part of the mix, and so is Orion Samuelson and Max Armstrong--so there will be a nice business feature every day. We're talking about adding some weekly segments too, things you might find in the Tribune's Tempo section. The weekend show will feature an extended interview with a well known Chicago name most of the time, much like the Friday night show I used to do on Channel 11. It'll allow us to have a longer, more relaxed conversation than you usually get on TV and radio.

Rick: One last question. Are there any other personalities on the air in Chicago that you admire today?

Bob: Too many to mention who are around now that I admire. The successful ones work harder, have it tougher because of all the competition, and are much better in every way than I was back in the 70's.

You'd be hard pressed to find another radio personality in the country who has been as successful as Steve Dahl has in growing with his audience, and having them follow him from station to station for more than two decades. And there can't possibly be anyone in the history of radio who has genuinely cared more about his listeners, been more supportive of rock and roll (and the early efforts of black artists doing what used to be called "race music") enjoyed meeting fans in person, and loved being on the air than Dick Biondi.

And Paul Harvey continues to entertain me endlessly. Many of his stories are quite interesting, but the way he writes them, the way he delivers them, the way he slides in his own "take" on them--well, let me just say you better listen to him every day because when he stops broadcasting that will be the end of an era that will be gone forever.

I found this 1983 Channel 2 report by Bob Sirott on YouTube

Robert Feder also interviewed Bob this week in the Chicago Sun-Times.