Sunday, June 10, 2007

Greg Brown

UPDATED 5/30/08


Greg was named the afternoon drive personality at WZZN a few months after I interviewed him. I asked him how the new job has been going...

Greg: So far, it’s been an absolute blast being at 94.7 fm. I can’t wait to get into the station each day…I am blessed to do what I love for living! I get to work in the greatest city on the planet, playing the greatest music ever recorded and I get to see Dick Biondi every night! It doesn't get much better than that!

Ever since Mike Fowler arrived at WZZN as General Manager, he’s gotten things firing on all 8 cylinders. He continually finds ways of encouraging his staff and creating a great working environment. He’s also brought in Brant Miller for mornings which has been a great addition to our staff.

Our Program Director, Michael La Crosse, has to be one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met…and that’s been pretty inspiring. He makes a point of coming out to some of our appearances and talking with the listeners that show up…he has a desire to take them from just “listeners” to making them “fans”.

I’ve got two features that take some work preparing every day but it’s been fun doing the research…you won’t believe this Rick, but I’m now smarter than I ever have been. One feature is the Greg Brown Beatle Break at 4:35pm and the other is the Greg Brown School of Musicology at 6:35pm every day. Maybe you could take some time away from all of your book signings and listen.


Now here's the original interview...

Greg Brown is one of Chicago's quintessential music jocks. He's worked at nearly every music station on the dial, most recently at WJMK Oldies 104.3. He now fills-in occasionally at True Oldies WZZN in Chicago and weekends at WMIL in Milwaukee.


1970 WSTK-Woodstock
1971 WJMU-Decatur (Milliken Univeristy--I was the first voice on the air there, and the first program director)
1971-1972 WVFV-Dundee
(I also worked briefly at WYEN-Des Plaines and WJOL-Joliet)
1973--WGLD (Now WVAZ) overnights and mornings
03/74-11/76 WBBM-fm – soft rock – mornings – 2 ½ years
11/76-04/79 WMET (now WNUA) – top 40 – mornings – 2 ½ years
06/79-10/92 WKQX – hot ac – middays – 13 ½ years
01/93-04/94 WTMX – hot ac – afternoons – 1 ½ years
06/94-07/95 Y107.9 – 70’s – afternoons – 1 year
07/95-07/06 WJMK – oldies – middays – 11 years

Rick: How did you get your very first radio job?

Greg: Well, I grew up in Crystal Lake which is about 50 miles northwest of Chicago…I grew up listening to all the great Chicago radio and it was just like magic to me. It motivated me to want to be in radio as well. I thought, and rightly so, that if I wanted to really do this that I ought to get a job IN radio to see if I was any good or not. One night while listening up and down the dial, I came across this little fm station in Woodstock, Illinois called WSTK.

There was a kid on the air on a Sunday night, maybe a high school student, who was playing records and talking. And every now and then he would play his tuba…on the air!? It was so bad and weird and I remember thinking, ‘if this kid can get a radio show, so can I.’

So later that week I went out to that station! Just showed up. It was a small building sitting on somebody’s farm or something. You could see the cows walking around…you could smell the cows walking around…very weird. This building was probably the size of somebody’s living room. It was divided into 4 areas…one section was the studio…one section was the bathroom…one section was a work area for the engineer…and the last area was for the manager or Program Director or whatever he was.

Well, I walked in and kind of caught him off guard and asked to talk with him about joining his station. He asked me if I had any experience. I thought to myself, ’you’ve got to be kidding! Experience to work at the station that has high school kids on the air playing tubas?? Give me a break!’ But, I said that I had none and that that is why I was there…to gain some experience. He responded by going into great detail about how important it was for someone to have experience to work at his radio station and that he couldn’t just hire anyone and blah blah blah.

I thanked him for his time and was getting up to leave when the jock on the air stuck his head in the office and said to the Program Director, ‘By the way, today is my last day! I’m going in the army Monday!”

This Program Director freaked out and seemed panicky for a moment and then he looked up at me and said, “You want a job?” I said, “Ya!” And he said, “You start on Monday!”

It was like a “God thing”…right place at the right time.

That station today, by the way is owned by NextMedia and they have that station cooking. The signal is stronger and the on-air product sounds great. They have a new building that houses that station and Y103.9. Tons of sales people and promotion people…it’s in a whole different league now!

Rick: In 1973, you got your big break in Chicago working at WGLD (which is now WVAZ). I know that was quite a roller coaster ride for you. Tell us how an upset stomach led to you getting the morning job.

(Photo: Greg with the original members of Styx)
Greg: Well, it was weird! I was hired by the famous Art Roberts of WLS fame. I was hired to do the overnight show. Art told me that I was going to have to call myself “Norman In The Morning”. I asked why, because I wanted to be me, Greg Brown. But he told me that the station had just bought new jingles and that the overnight guys’ name was Norman Fleckles or something and that I had to use his first name so they could use the jingle. I was pretty unhappy about that, but I was finally working in the big city and didn’t want to mess that up…so I was “Norman In The Morning”.

I hated it because I would get request calls saying, “Hi Mr. Morning, I wonder if you could play such and such for me.” I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs that my name wasn’t MR. MORNING!!

Well, one night the General Manager got up at about 2 or 3 in the morning with an upset stomach and turned on the station and listened to me for a while. I guess my show was more soothing than Pepto-Bismol…anyway…he liked what he heard and the next day told Art that I should be the new morning man. So within a couple of weeks I was setting my alarm and getting up early to do the morning show…and best of all…I could be me!! I got to be Greg Brown again!

Rick: You spent the entire decade of the 1980s as the midday jock at Q-101. If memory serves, there were a few very big stories that broke during the midday in the 1980s. President Reagan was shot. The Challenger exploded. Harold Washington died. Do you have any memories or stories about those days or other days big stories broke during your show?

Greg: You think of Walter Cronkite telling the nation about John F. Kennedy’s death or, Howard Cosell telling the Monday Football audience about John Lennon being shot. So it’s a little bizarre to me to think that I was the one to break the news of those events that you mentioned to several hundred thousand people.

It’s always awkward on a music station because you’re doing a show meant to be fun and up and some sort of escape from people’s work day or life or whatever…when all of a sudden you have to bring the show to a screeching halt and share this bit of bad news.

The Challenger was difficult for me because I saw the Challenger blow up on TV and I thought that those poor people were killed instantly. That broke my heart, as it did everyone’s and I was now supposed to go talk about that after I came out of some song about dancing. How do you capture that into words and express that on air in a sensitive way…and then return to another song about breaking up with your girlfriend so that I could run down the hall way to grab some copy from the news wire?

We didn’t have news people around at that time of day who could come in and sound more official about the story or who could be getting more details to break in through out the show and that kind of thing. It was just me …running down the hall between songs…ripping stuff off of the wire….or trying watch the stations television for more info. Surreal!

Rick: In the 80s you followed Murphy in the Morning. In the 90s you followed John Records Landecker. Having watched both of those guys operate up close, what can you tell us about them that the average listener might not realize?

Greg: Murphy wore an Armani suit to work everyday while Landecker wore t-shirts and jeans! (laughs)

Murphy (photo) was always personable but a little guarded. Seemed to be protective of his image. Back in the Q101 days, he was a hot commodity and everybody seemed to want something from him, so I didn’t blame him for being rather careful.

Murphy was always well prepared for every show. He is a great writer! He really crafted each of the bits and skits for his show. But he was also very quick witted and seemed to see something funny in a situation right away…a very good ad-libber. I always felt a great reward when I could get the Murph to laugh.

With Landecker, I noticed that John lit up whenever his daughters were around. He seemed most happy when there was some kind of family event going on in his life.

John (photo) was always well prepped for his show as well. But it also seemed as if he liked to work in the moment. When we started doing our crosstalk each morning at about 9:45, I would come into the studio a few minutes early and say hello to you, Vince and John. John didn’t always acknowledge me. At first I wasn’t sure if he liked me or was angry with me or what? He would sit at his mic quietly, I would sit at my mic quietly…it felt a little awkward…and then as soon as we went on the air “POW”, the electricity began! He was warm and kind and funny. So I later figured out that he didn’t want to spoil those first moments on the air together. You know the old adage, “save it for the air.”

I think we had some very funny exchanges. We had built-in differences. We were the real Odd Couple. He was the kind of burned out ‘Dr. Johnny Fever’ type showing up to work with “bed-head” hair and wearing his t-shirt and jeans while I was the buttoned-down preppy, life-is-great type. Fun-friction was already built into our conversations. I had to constantly remind him that he was alive in the 70’s and that he worked in Chicago on the radio back then. He constantly made fun of my starched shirts by calling me “Starchy Bunker.”

Rick: You've done just about every music format...Hot AC, Soft Rock, Top 40, Oldies, Beautiful Music, Alternative rock, and now you're doing country. When you're not on the air, what is the kind of music you like to listen to?

Greg: Well, like with anyone, it depends on my mood. It’s the iPod thing. I like Big Band music sometimes while other days I like to hear the bass thumping from the Stones ‘Satisfaction’.
(Photo: Greg Brown with Mayor Byrne at ChicagoFest)

But I must say that since I’ve been doing some weekend work at the heritage country station in Milwaukee, WMIL, I’ve really been digging the country stuff. I love the clever twists and turns in some of those songs. Every song has a great story to it like “The Dollar” by Jamey Johnson. In fact, you should check out that one …being the dad of 3 sons I think you’d like it.

Rick: You really are one of the ultimate Chicago music jocks. Are there any music jocks that you emulated?

Greg: Wow! Thanks!!

As I had mentioned earlier, I grew up listening to Chicago radio. Dick Biondi was the first disc jockey that I ever heard and was blown away with how crazy he was on the air. I also loved the creativeness of Ron Brittain…all of his sound effects and the fun that he seemed to bring to every break. But, it was probably John Landecker that inspired me the most when he did nights on WLS.

John (Photo) had such energy and such clever things to say. He started his show with that crowd chanting and then he’d come in with some funny joke or comment and slam into one of those great WLS jingles and the show was off and running!! The way he would swim in the music…the song was all around him when he talked, it made him sound larger than life. It was just magical!

Rick: How do you feel about jock-less formats like Jack-FM? Do you really think that's what the listeners want, or do you think it's a financial decision?

Greg: What radio can be for people is a companion. Good local radio can be fun and entertaining and can give listeners something they can’t get on their iPod. Live human beings entertaining them and informing them with unique content about the where they live and work!

It’s what we’ve been talking about here today. When the music is right and the personality is cooking, people can bond with that jock and that station. You heard it on Memorial Monday when WLS did their Big 89 Rewind. The great personalities from the 70’s and 80’s and the great music from then as well! That’s a killer combination!

When WJMK dropped the oldies format for the “JACK format, listeners were upset. The first day that I was back on the air again, albeit on the internet, people called to tell me how much they missed hearing me. Several people told me that they had tears in their eyes when they heard my voice on the air again. I know Fred and Dick had similar stories about that as well.

There was an emotional attachment that folks felt for us.

One guy told me that he was listening to , what turned out to be my last show on WJMK-fm before the format change, when he took his car into his auto dealer to be repaired. When he picked up his car an hour and half later he turned on the radio to listen to the oldies only to find that the station had changed to the “JACK” format. He thought someone at the dealership had messed with his radio doing something that didn’t allow his radio get the oldies anymore. He immediately turned his car around and went back to the dealer and started yelling at the manager about this when his wife called, in tears, to tell him that their favorite radio station had changed formats. He then realized what had happened and apologized to the dealer. When the dealer heard about the station, he too got angry about the change.

My point is this… that these people were bonded to this radio station. Partly because of the music but also because of the personalities who had built relationships with these listeners over the years.

So to answer your question, I think that some radio companies are so concerned about the bottom line that they are forgetting what brings an audience to them in the first place. Many have gone public and now have stock holders to pay or they’re trying so hard to spin off these stations…they keep trimming down the staff to the point where it really hurts the product.

Rick: After the Oldies format was blown out by WJMK you continued doing it for awhile on HD Radio. You may have as good an insight into HD Radio as anyone. Do you think it will ever catch on with the public?

Greg: Sure. But to be honest, what will really help push HD radio is better content. Really unique, quality programming. Something they can’t get anywhere else.

Plus, I think that when people hear how much better things sound on HD radio they’ll be willing to upgrade. The price of the radios is coming down and it’s getting easier to find them.

I recently read where starting in July Sony will begin selling a $100 in-car receiver and a $200 table top unit. Getting Sony involved with HD radios is huge!

There was one of our listeners that complained about the price of the radios, about $500 at that time. But after she got it and really had a chance to listen to it, she just raved about it. I asked her on a scale of 1 to 10 how she would rate the sound? She said she would give it a 500. She said that it was worth the money, and that now that she knows how great it sounds, she would have paid that and more!

And Rick, you may want to jot this down to keep in your file for future reference…I was the first live DJ on HD radio. August 12th, 2005.

I’m sure you could write a whole book about that. Like, ‘Just when you thought Greg Brown couldn’t sound any better…along comes HD radio to bring out the brilliance of the pear shaped tones of his voice’. You know, something like that!

Rick: (laughs) After nearly 40 years in radio is there anything you still haven't tried that you'd like to sink your teeth into?

Greg: Uh…Rick…could we make that 37 years, please? I’m not that old! O.K.!

Um, I would like to write a book about a morning man whose station owner wants him to quit so they won't have to pay his severance and his resistance to the company's increasing attempts to make him too miserable to continue. I would call it, “Hey! You Owe Me Two Weeks Pay For Every Year That I Worked Here!”

However I understand that another author has ripped off my idea and called his book, ‘Severance’! Oh well…

Seriously, I would love to do more with theatre. I love to act. You use your whole body to create some character not just your voice. I have also enjoyed doing television. As you know Rick, I have lived with these good looks all of my life and maybe it’s time to share them with the rest of the world.

Rick?…hello…are you still there?...hello? Is this one of those ‘dropped call’ moments? Rick…hellooo!