Sunday, August 19, 2007
Scott Dirks has been a radio personality in Chicago since the early '80s. He is now the Commercial Production Director and Assistant Program Director at WZZN True Oldies 94.7.
WRRG ( Triton College , River Grove , IL ) late 1978 – 1986
WLUP-FM (and WLUP-AM/WMVP) Chicago , IL 1980 – 1996
WRKR Kalamazoo , MI 1988-1989
WCBR Arlington Heights , IL 1995-1996
WXCD/WZZN Chicago 1997-present
(There’s a lot of overlap with the Loop in there – much of my time at WLUP was part-time, so I usually had another job, or two, or three, at the same time, and thankfully the Loop was pretty good about me working at these other jobs as long as it didn’t create any conflicts.)
Rick: You are one of the few radio personalities I know who didn't work his way up the radio ladder by working in smaller markets first. How did you get your first radio job in Chicago?
Scott: One night in the summer of 1979 I was roller skating around the Hancock Building with a friend. Yes, I know, it’s a mental picture that even makes me uncomfortable now. [laughs]
Anyway, I saw this kid wearing a satin Loop jacket standing in front of the building, so I skated up to him and asked him where he got the jacket from, and he said he worked at the Loop. I didn’t believe him – I mean, this kid was clearly younger than me, he looked like he was 16 or so. He told me he was Steve Dahl’s producer. Steve was already huge (photo, with Garry Meier, circa 1979)– this was around the time of Disco Demolition, which I’d attended – and I thought this kid was pulling my leg. I was already doing a show at a college station, WRRG, and thought I was pretty cool, and then this kid tells me he also does a weekend show at The Loop. I still wasn’t quite buying it, so I asked him if I could come up and see the studio. Surprisingly, he agreed, and of course the punch line is that this kid was Greg Solk, who eventually became Program Director of The Loop – at age 21 or 22 if I’m not mistaken – and has had a long and successful radio career that continues in Chicago to this day.
So I go up to the Loop on a Saturday night and hang out with Greg before his Saturday overnight show. I’m thinking, jeez, this high school kid’s on The Loop, the coolest station on the planet as far as I was concerned, and I’m still on a little 100 watt college station in the suburbs…what the hell am I doing wrong? [laughs]
I asked a lot of questions, and found out that The Loop had a student intern program. At the time they had an in-house research department run by Kurt Hansen (who later founded Strategic Accuratings), and they needed people to do call outs, so even though I wasn’t actually a student at the time I eventually B.S.’d my way into an internship at the Loop. I started in December of 1979, and from then on every minute that I wasn’t working at my full-time job as an assistant manager of a stereo store, or doing an airshift at WRRG, I was hanging out at the Loop and trying to make myself useful.
This developed into a Sunday morning 6am to noon board op shift running some public affairs programs plus a recorded oldies show Dick Biondi produced for the Loop for a little while. One Sunday morning a couple of hours of the recorded public affairs programming came up missing, and I had to call program director Max Floyd and wake him up at around 6:55am and ask him what I should do about the missing show that was supposed to start in five minutes. He mumbled, “Just go on the air and play music” and hung up the phone. So I just pulled a bunch of my favorite records – they were still playing vinyl at the time – and went on the air and faked my way through a two hour show. It didn’t occur to me until years later, after I was on the receiving end of a similar call, that that’s probably not exactly what Max had in mind – he probably wanted me to JUST play music, without all my snappy DJ patter - but anyway it wasn’t too long after that that they started using me for some overnight fill-ins and things like that.
Rick: You worked at the Loop through all kinds of eras and regimes. Was a there a favorite time for you? What about least favorite?
Scott: I had so many good times there, over such a long period, I don’t even know where to begin. The early ‘80s “Kick Ass Rock & Roll”, black t-shirt days were a good time to be there. The Loop wasn’t just a choice on the radio dial, it was like a cultural phenomenon.
They went through some unpleasant changes in the mid and late ‘80s…in retrospect it seems like a revolving door of new owners, new PDs, new consultants, and new talent for a few years in there. I suppose a lot of people don’t remember that during that time they were playing things like Madonna, Prince and Sheila E. Nothing against those artists, but it wasn’t a good fit alongside Zeppelin and The Who. Thankfully that didn’t last long.
There was a P.D. for a while named Rick Balis, who decided to take the station’s music head-to-head against WXRT, and that was fun time to be there as a music jock, but that didn’t last too long either.
But probably the most fun was during what I think of as the second heyday of The Loop in the early ‘90s, when the format was basically ‘all morning shows all the time’: Steve and Garry, Kevin Mathews (photo), Johnny B., and Danny Bonaduce. The lunatics really had taken over the asylum, it seemed like the business was booming, and everyone was getting away with everything. Around that time Dave Logan came in as PD, and thanks to him I had some of the most fun I’ve ever had in radio.
The station had pretty much evolved away from playing music, so I hadn’t been getting many shifts, and I talked Logan into letting me try doing a talk show on weekend overnights. He took a little convincing, but from the day he said, “OK”, until the day he left the station a year and a half later, he never said one word to me about my show. Literally not one word of direction – I was completely free to do whatever I wanted, and I did. It was pretty wild at times, but he had so many other things occupying his attention, and I was flying completely under the radar, so I lived out most of the radio fantasies that drew me into the business in the first place. I’m not sure I’d want to listen to the tapes today, but I sure had fun at the time.
Rick: I always like talking to guys like you because you know where all the bodies are buried. Tell us a few stories about your days at the Loop that we've never heard before.
Scott: Can I plead the 5th? [laughs] I’m not sure it’d be a good idea to say too much, since most of the juiciest stories involve people who are still alive. I guess I can make a blanket statement and say that all of the sex and drugs and rock & roll stories that anyone has ever imagined about The Loop are true, or were at one time anyway.
I’ll tell you one funny story that probably won’t get me in any trouble now. When I started out at the college station I became friends with another one of the jocks there, and we followed almost identical paths for a while – he ended up working weekend overnights at WMET, when I was doing the same shifts at the Loop . The Loop and WMET were bitter rivals in a legendary rock radio war, but he and I were friends, and lived not too far from each other. We’d carpool to work together, or meet after we got off in the air in the morning and go have breakfast somewhere. While we were on the air we’d usually get each other on the phone and have these epic all-night conversations to keep each other awake and on our toes through the overnight shift.
One New Years Eve we were both scheduled to start work at midnight , so we met up a little earlier, toasted the New Year with a drink or two, and then went to work. For me it was just a slightly sloppier than usual airshift, but when he got to work, he kept drinking, and eventually decided it would be a good idea to throw the ‘more rock and less talk’ format out the window, and do very lengthy on-air commentary about the state of the radio business, share his thoughts on various other people on the air, his bosses, etc.
I got off the air at 6am, and he was scheduled to be on until 7am, and I’d made plans to drive him home that morning. So as I was driving down the street to WMET, I turn on the car radio I hear him inviting listeners to come on up to the studio, and bring something to drink while they’re at it. I get there, and there are listeners wandering up and down the halls of the radio station, the studio door is propped open and people are just walking in and out, and the unscheduled talk show has taken a somewhat less than G-rated turn.
I tried to get him to cool it, but he just tried to get me to join in the fun. I wouldn’t say a word. So I stood in the studio and basically watched this guy commit career suicide for the last hour of what, as you might imagine, was his last shift in Chicago. The epilogue is that about five years later someone who didn’t even know I knew this guy asks if I want a dub of this hilarious tape that’s been circulating among radio people, it’s a guy who got drunk on the air on New Year’s Eve. A very valuable lesson there - you never know who might be listening…and recording.
One more: there was a guy there doing afternoons in early ‘80s, a good guy and a good jock. The PD at the time was a real stickler for doing aircheck sessions with all the jocks once a week or something like that. This jock was doing exactly what the PD was asking him to do, but the PD was still picking apart every syllable of every aircheck, and one day the jock felt the PD had gone too far and they ended up having some heated words. So the jock took the same aircheck into the production studio, edited out any references to the date, and when it was time for his next aircheck session, gave the PD back the same show. The PD was very pleased, and said, “Now THAT’S what I’m talking about! You should have been listening to me all along.” This guy is still a PD, by the way, although not in Chicago .
Rick: After the Loop , you went up to Kalamazoo for awhile. What did that lesson in smaller-market radio teach you?
Scott: When I took the job in Kalamazoo – I was on the air 10am to 3pm five days a week, and was also production director, all for the princely sum of $18,000 a year – I thought that I was leaving the big city and going to a little Podunk town where I’d be working with a bunch of yokels. That turned out to be a mistaken assumption. There were some very smart and talented people there, both on the air and off. I discovered that the difference wasn’t as dramatic as I thought between a small market and a big market sound, at least in that instance. But there is a difference, mainly in the fine details. There did seem to occasionally be a feeling among people who worked there of, “Well, it’s good enough for Kalamazoo …” I’ve tried to remember that the difference between a small market sound and a big one is in those small details. They’re worth paying attention to, because they do add up, and the end result can be the difference between a small market sound and a big one.
Rick: You've worked on the air, in the production department, and now you're in the programming department. What is your favorite and why?
Scott: Everyone gets into radio to be on the air, and for me that was always the most enjoyable part of the business. I guess I can say it now since I’m not on the air anymore: I can’t believe I actually got paid to do something I enjoyed so much. But I also came to realize that it’s not exactly the most secure job, and as I got older, got married, etc., job security became more important.
I’ve always been a geek for sound and technology – as I mentioned, I was assistant manager of a stereo store when I was first bitten by the radio bug – so production turned out to be a natural fit, and coincidentally also one of the safer jobs to have in radio…as long as a station is running commercials, they’ll need someone to produce them, right? The programming side is also really interesting to me, and strategizing and implementing a format and then hearing the results on the air is rewarding, but I can’t say I enjoy all the meetings and paperwork – I mean, who does? I was the acting Program Director at WZZN for about 14 months after the switch to oldies, and since the beginning of this year, when Michael La Crosse came in as Program Director, I’ve been back in production. These days I do the commercial production and imaging, and I’m also the APD. What was the question again? [laughs] Oh yeah, well, the short answer is that I was lucky enough be in a position to choose the job that’s the best fit for me, and right now that’s production.
Rick: People that follow your radio career might not realize that you are actually a devoted fan of the blues. You even play harp in a blues band. What sparked that love of the blues?
Scott: I’ve been wondering that for years, and I’m not sure I know the answer. I’ve been a pretty serious blues record collector, researcher and writer, and part-time musician for about 30 years. In fact, I googled my name, and there are about 5 pages of different blues related things before you even get to anything about radio! [laughs] You’d think I might have had plenty of time to think about what set me down that path, but there’s no good single answer.
But radio did have something to do with it. I remember a 4th of July afternoon when I was around 14 years old, I was bored and playing around with my radio, and found a little AM station, WIVS in Woodstock , IL that was doing a live broadcast from a 4th of July picnic, and for live entertainment they had the acoustic blues duo Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. It just sounded so cool and exotic, the theater of the mind thing kicked in, and it really made me want to be there. The music just created an atmosphere I could feel.
And WXRT played a role too – around 1975 I heard them advertising a Muddy Waters (photo) gig at a little community center out in the western suburbs, which is where Muddy lived at the time. It was a Friday night, there was nothing else going on, so I talked some friends into going, and I ended up sitting close enough to reach out and touch Muddy while he played. I’d been to some big rock concerts at places like the old Stadium and the Amphitheater, but I can tell you that sitting three feet away from Muddy and his band playing at full throttle in a little room was a WHOLE ‘nother thing. I asked for and got my first harmonica for Christmas that year, started buying Muddy’s records, and really it just snowballed from there. By the way, a crazy epilogue to the Muddy story, 20 years later I ended up playing some gigs with Willie Smith, the very same guy who was playing drums with Muddy at that first blues show I saw.
But I think the seed was planted even earlier than all that. The earliest memory I have of hearing blues music was when I was growing up in Maywood , IL , a Chicago suburb with a large black population. There was a record store called Bop City about a block from my house that carried whatever music was popular on black radio at the time, and they had a candy counter there, so I used to go there to spend my allowance on candy. They also had a big jar of pickled pig’s feet on the counter, by the way. It would make a great story to say I worked up the courage to try one, and from the first bite I knew my fate was sealed as a bluesman, wouldn’t it? [laughs] No, it didn’t quite work that way. But there was always music playing there, and they had speakers blaring outside in front too. I can’t say I was consciously paying close attention – I was like 8, 9, 10 years old – but by the time I was in my teens, I’d picked up on who some of the big names were, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, guys who were still selling some records to a black audience in the ‘60s.
Rick: Now you're helping to program WZZN, True Oldies 94.7. You've gone through quite a few changes at that station in the past few years, first with the adding of live personalities like McKay, Landecker & Biondi, and now with the new ownership. What has that experience been like?
Scott: It’s been interesting. I was at the Loop for sixteen years, and at 94.7 for ten now, so I’ve been through more changes than I can remember. I’ve seen lots of people come and go. So I sort got of used to having things change around me, but I’ve kept my head low and been lucky enough to not have my life completely disrupted by it, as a lot of others have. I used to joke that if you stay in the radio business long enough, you’ll work with everyone else in the business. Then I had to change it to “…you’ll work with everyone TWICE”, because it’s basically happened. I was assistant P.D. at 94.7 when we hired McKay to do the imaging during the Classic Rock era in the late ‘90s, I first worked with Landecker when he did afternoons briefly at The Loop in the ‘80s, and of course my first board op gig was running Biondi’s taped show on the Loop, which sort of counts. [laughs] About the recent ownership change, I enjoyed working for Disney, and of course my 6 year old daughter enjoyed the benefits too, but I’m encouraged to be working for a company now that knows and cares about radio, as Citadel does.
Rick: So, after nearly thirty years of radio, is there something you haven't tried that you'd still like to do?
Scott: I’ll probably regret saying this, but no, not really. I’ve done most of the things I dreamt about doing when I started, and the things I didn’t get to do, I know enough about them to not really want to do them anymore. Well, maybe consulting…getting paid to tell people how to program their station, but not having to do any of the heavy lifting, seems like a pretty cushy gig. [laughs]