Sunday, April 22, 2007

Ed Schwartz

Eddie Schwartz, long-time overnight radio voice in Chicago, has passed away after a long illness (February 4, 2009).

I knew Ed (we worked together at the Loop). He truly loved radio, and deeply cared about Chicago. He will be missed.

When I conducted the interview below, he was obviously already in ill health, but his mind was sharp as ever...

For three decades, Ed Schwartz was a late night radio institution in Chicago. They didn't call him "Chicago Ed" for nothing.


WLS-AM 890 1965-1966

WIND-AM 560 1966-1982

WGN-AM 720 1982-1992
(See Ed on the WTTW special Radio Faces during his WGN heyday. The show aired in 1989. Thanks to Mediaburn, for the video.)

WLUP-AM 1000 1992-1996

Since leaving WLUP after it was sold, Ed has been a newspaper columnist. He wrote a column for Lerner until 2001, and has been a free-lance writer, mostly for the Daily Southtown, ever since.

Rick: First of all, I know your health has been a concern in recent years. How are you feeling?

Ed: I'm feeling like Sam Zell's Tribune bid: 334 million bucks. With the humor now established let me truthfully say I'm feeling good. About a year and a half back I was stunned to learn I was going into renal failure. That means the kidneys going on permanent vacation. It was a total surprise. No obvious signs or symptoms. There are two basic ways to attend to it. One is a kidney transplant and the other is kidney dialysis. I'm doing the dialysis course at the moment.

Three times a week I buzz over to the Lincoln Park Dialysis Center. It's a 4 hour committment, and is painless. I get to plant myself in a recliner in front of a small color tv equipped with stereo phones and I watch the tube. Also a good time to read or gab on the phone or catch 40 winks. So 12 hours a week are devoted to dialysis. If you follow the program you can lead a fairly normal life.

Rick: Columnists Robert Feder (Friends rally around 'Chicago Ed' in need) and Eric Zorn (Behind the musings: Eddie Schwartz) both put out public pleas for help on your behalf last year. What sort of a response did you get, and how did that make you feel?

Ed: You really find out what kind of friends you have when a really serious situation overwhelms you. Robert and Eric are both long time friends and they used their pulpits to spread the word that a group of my friends and former radio colleagues had joined together to support me. It was much more than raising funds. They were there when I was frightened about the future, worried about the treatment and not sure if I could even handle all that was occuring. I guess I was a bit "shell shocked" by the seriousness of the diagnosis.

Radio friends and special people such as Dave Baum, Clark Weber (shown here), Cheryl Morton, Mitch Rosen and Paul Heinze put together a Radiothon to help defray the costs of setting up a dialysis regimen. The fund they made possible thanks to contributions is what saved my bacon without a doubt. While I'm fortunate to have adequate health insurance the number of dollars for related costs not covered by insurance are pretty large. We sent every contributor a thank you, and it was from the heart.

The results of the Radiothon, a five hour broadcast on WSCR were gratifying. Lots of friends and former listeners called in to wish me well and many sent along a contibution to help me at a most difficult time. When first mentioned to me, the public fundraiser idea made me uncomfortable. I had spent my professional life participating in a number of efforts to aid people with problems and it was difficult for me to accept the fact that in this instance my role would be reversed and I had become the needy one. Dave, Clark, Paul and Mitch kept calling and coming to the hospital to convince me there was no reason not to let them help because if any of them was so afflicted they knew I'd be there for them. So the Radiothon was born, and it saved my keister for sure. Life is all about relationships. Don't leave home without them.

Rick: You made your mark in Chicago as the all-night guy at WIND. You were there for 17 years. Tell us the story about you came to WGN, and how Bob Collins and Larry King tie-in to that move.

Ed: During a very long and successful run at WIND 560 Bob Collins from WGN invited me out to dinner. He shared his hopes for the future. The retirement of Wally Phillips was on the horizon and Bob knew the WGN morning show was going to be his biggest challenge. Replacing an icon like Wally was no small assignment.

Uncle Bobby knew how to read a rating book and he realized that WIND was #1 in both male and female demos and had been so for years. He wasn't looking forward to hitting the air every morning with a competeing station having a larger audience. He knew it would take him longer to get each morning off the ground with a 3 or 4 share when WIND had 12's and 14's. So Bob proposed I join him at WGN and work overnight as his lead-in. I was a bit stunned, but it was something I had always hoped for and didn't know how to make happen. WGN was the home of Franklyn Macormick, Jay Andres, Mike Rapchak and the Meister Brau Showcase. My kind of act had never played there at night.

The opportunity Bob presented came at the perfect time. WIND had just welcomed a new G.M. He was a corporate guy from back east. The station was doing well with all time slots well established and this new dude comes in and tells us it's his station now and we all better get used to his ways. He also told us he was looking at the entire schedule with the possibility of juggling some of us around. I knew at that moment I wasn't going to put my future into the hands of a guy with his poor people skills. I had my agent make a deal and a few days after my WIND contract expired without a new deal ready it was the time to jump. I called a friend with a truck and one night after my show I just moved out and never said goodbye. It was a tough but correct decision.

WIND was scrambling to replace me and Larry King's program which had been on for a while at WCFL with no perceptible audience so WIND made him a pitch and his syndicated show moved into my old slot. King, when asked by Irv Kupcinet in the Sun-Times how he intended to procede said that "He wasn't concerned about me and my program. I spent most of my time interviewing the sewer commissioner."

The next day one of his minions called to "apologize" for the unkind remark and said that Kup misquoted King. He said Larry didn't really mean that. I knew from that point my mission was three-fold. 1. Build an audience 2. Support Bob Collins and 3. Kick King's ass bigger than he'd ever been kicked before. And that is just what I did. He was a total failure on WIND. He is the most ill-prepared interviewer I've ever seen or heard.

Rick: For nearly three decades you were the overnight guy at WIND and WGN. I know it's almost impossible to pick out a few examples or highlights, but are there any moments that really make you look back at with pride all these years later?

Ed: Actually my on-air years included WIND,WGN and WLUP AM-FM for a total of just about 29 years on the radio every day. There are many moments I fondly recall, but I think the most important was the establishment of the "Good Neighbor" Food Drive. It was a very sincere effort to help those less fortunate. Over the years we raised millions of pounds of foodstuffs and several million dollars.

My other prideful feeling comes from just being there every night and developing a bond with the listeners. I have a very personal style and it works. I worked every holiday to make sure my listeners had something dependable when the rest of the world was off I was there. Every Christmas, New Years Eve and all the others. It was well worth it.

Rick: As a rival producer, I was always amazed at the A-list celebrities that you got to appear on your show, and many of them came on quite often. Did you have any favorites? Were there any that you really felt didn’t click with you?

Ed: I was always prepared for my guests. I did my homework and they appreciated that. I would go over biographies, history, and whatever I could find to help bring more out of the guests. They liked to see an interviewer that didn't do it on the fly like lazy Larry King.

Not only did I have some favorites, but some of them became personal friends and because of that were always available to me. Some of the guests who became friends included: Stan Freberg, Steve Allen, Bill Cosby, Phyllis Diller, Myron Cohen, George Carlin, Dennis Franz, Bobby Vinton, and Mrs. Richard J. Daley. I was the only program Sis Daley would ever go on. She was a special friend.

During the campaign for Rich Daley's first winning term I had him booked one night before the election. His people called in about an hour before show time to say he just couldn't make it. I had promoted the hell out of it and wasn't going to let him welch. He knew his mother and I were buds, so I called his campaign manager and I said "I want him here at 11 o'clock or my next call is to Sis Daley." I hung up. Promptly at 11 he walked in and sat down. He waited until a commercial and then said "I hope you didn't call my mother. She'd kill me if I didn't show up."

I was also very close to Prof. J. Allen Hynek the Northwestern Astronomer and UFO expert. I'll tell you a secret that solidifed our friendship and caused him to include me at length in two of his books.

Allen Wrote a fascinating book called "The UFO Experience". It was in this book that he categorized for the first time the important of UFO sightings with the terms: "Close Encounters of the first, second and third kind". You will recall the Steven Spielberg blockbuster 'Close Encounters Of The Third Kind".

This is the rest of the story. Shortly after his book came out and long before any such movie was conceived I was in Los Angeles to tape some celebrity interviews. I bought a copy of the Hollywood Reporter to read when In arrived and in it there was a paragraph of just a few dozen words telling of Stephen Spielberg's next movie project. He was about to go into production of a UFO film and the working title was "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind". I was stunned. Dr. Hynek hadn't told me or anyone that he had sold the rights to his book for a movie. I called him from my hotel that night and asked him when he had made such a whopper of a deal? He didn't know ANYTHING about it. No sale was made, no permission obtained. Somehow Spielberg had come up with that title as if it were in the public domain.

Dr. Hynek wrote down the little story as I dictated it and said he was going to call his lawyer a.s.a.p. As a result of my call to him his book was in fact "bought" by Spielberg, as it should have been. Dr. Hynek not only was given credit for the title, but he was hired as the films technical advisor and he even appeared in the movie too.

I have many stories like this. I think I better write a book.

Rick: You left WGN in the early 90s to join the all-star lineup at WLUP. In retrospect, would you make that move again?

Ed: Under exactly the same circumstances, yes. I loved every minute at WGN, make no mistake. It is a very special place to me. Simply put, when my last contract expired the Loop offered me a job. The facts were presented to my bosses. All they had to do to keep me was was offer me 1 dollar more than the LOOP. They refused to let anything or anybody influence their decisions. They didn't take me seriously because NOBODY ever left. I never expected to myself. I could have put 20 or more years in there easily. I was actually very mad at their stupid gamesmanship. But it also gave me a chance to re-energize myself in a new environment and to work with some great people. I can't say enough about the talent of people like Wendy Snyder, Kathy Voltmer, Johnny B, Mitch Rosen who came with me as producer from WGN and a bunch of other folks who made working there a ton of fun. That includes the former GM and my boss Larry Wert.

Rick: What did you think about Kevin Matthews parody band tribute to you, Ed Zeppelin?

Ed: It bugged me at first. I couldn't figure out if it was meant to be funny or something less kind. When I got to know Kevin (shown here) I realized it was just a put-on. He is a unique talent. His voice work is remarkable. He can conduct a conversation with himself and two or three other character voices without stepping on himself. Seamless work like that is brilliant.

Rick: So many of your former co-workers still work in radio today. Do you still follow their careers and stay in touch with them?

I do keep in touch either by phone or e. mail with quite a few people in the broadcasting community. In fact you would be totally shocked if you knew who several of them are, but I won't tell. Sadly there are far more radio people not working than sitting in front of local mic's. That is a crime.

Rick: Since leaving radio you've become a columnist and writer. I know you were joking about it earlier, but you really are writing a book, aren't you? Tell us a little bit about that...

Ed: I was a writer in grammar school and high school. The college years were devoted to radio but I never lost my love of the word. I write all the time. Space is so tight in the local print community that free lance work really has to be top drawer to get considered. I have had good luck in that regard but it's never enough for me. I could write every day if given the opportunity. My computer skills are now very sharp. I spend many hours on the Internet and the computer. It is totally intoxicating. I'm on my third computer. If I had this technology when I was in high school and college I can't imagine where I might have gone. As to my writing a book, I have a way to go, and who knows if anybody will care about it besides myself? But I've got some funny and yet untold stories, so I hope to get it done.

Rick: Last question. You are known as “Chicago Ed” because you championed local issues. What do you think about the job Chicago radio is doing on local issues today, and is there anyone on the dial who you think carries on your legacy?

Ed: The local elements of radio are about gone. With the exception of WGN and NPR, everything else is pretty homogenized. There are few really strong programmers around anymore. This syndication stuff erases the local importance of radio by eliminating the local coverage of almost everything.

Outfits like Shadow and the other traffic joint have aided the broadcasters in destroying the career path of radio. All these underpaid often inexperienced "news and traffic" voices that rotate thru the market are just more platforms for the sales guys to pitch. Everybody sounds the same, uses the same info and makes the same mistakes.

I love radio and I'm sad to hear what's no longer happening on the dial. I can't think of anybody on here today who does what I did. I'd love to go back tomorrow and show them how it's done. This is not ego talking. It's experience.