Sunday, September 09, 2007
Laura Witek was a newscaster in Chicago during the 80s and 90s, most famously at WMAQ during the beginning of it's all-news format, and later at the Loop on the Kevin Matthews and Steve & Garry shows. She now lives and works in California.
As near as I can remember:
WCFL 1980-1984…started as a desk assistant ended up as mid-day anchor
WLS TV 1984-1986…news writer
WMAQ Talk Radio 1986-1988….news on the Morton Downey Jr. show
WMAQ ALL NEWS 67 1988-1990. Anchor.
WMAQ TV 1989 Weekend “hourly update” anchor.
WLUP/AM 1000 1990-1996. News with Kev and Steve and Garry…and all that came later
WCKG 1996. News with Steve.
Rick: Complete this sentence, and tell me what it reminds you of from your radio career. "Give us 22 minutes, and we'll give you..."
Laura: The WORLD! Okay, that was easy. What do I win????? “WMAQ ALL NEWS 67.” Those call letters are always CAPITAL in my mind. Or maybe it was just the way Jim Frank voiced them.
Rick: You worked with some Chicago radio icons in those WMAQ days (the recently deceased Jim Frank, Pat Cassidy, et al). Can you talk about your WMAQ experiences and any fond (or not so fond) memories from those days.
Laura: I was so sorry to hear about Jim. I worked with him at WCFL, when I first started in the business, and then I was lucky enough to work with him again at WMAQ. He was such a special man. And wait a minute; are you calling Pat Cassidy (photo) an icon? Wow, a LOT has changed since I left!!! (I’m kidding!!!)
I did work with some great people at WMAQ. It was an interesting experience and certainly taught me how to multi-task. It was the first time we were on computers (how old does THAT make me sound?!) and we ran our own boards…again for the first time. When it was a “good” news day, nothing was more exciting. We’d go “wall to wall” with coverage with live shots all over the place. The format was thrown out the window and we were just concerned about getting the story straight and on the air quickly. I felt like an air traffic controller. It was a pretty heady feeling getting through all that. Of course, on a “slow” news day we’d all be praying for floods, plagues and pestilence!
Rick: I remember the day you started working for the Loop. Now correct if I'm wrong, but isn't there a good story about how you were hired for that job involving sharing a cab ride with Larry Wert?
Laura: I was working morning drive at WMAQ at what was the “new” NBC Tower at the time. I was dressed well because I had a commercial audition after work. (Trust me, when you get up at 3:15, you tend to come in very casual!) As I got off the elevator I saw it was pouring. Of course my umbrella is at home so I’m forced to buy one at the NBC Store for about 500 dollars! Running late and freshly extorted, I see there’s a very long line for cabs. I am not in a good mood. There are these two guys in front of me….both young and attractive. They’re talking between themselves, not to me at first, but I couldn’t help but be drawn in. They were fun and funny and soon had me smiling. As we got closer to the front of the line, we all started to talk and we exchanged first names. They suggested we share a cab. They were heading north, I was heading south, but they told me to hop in anyway. In that ten minute cab ride, they had me laughing until I cried. Banter back and forth, quick wit, and some stabs at the oblivious cab driver.
The guy named Larry (photo) asked me what I did and when I told him radio news, he didn’t believe me until I flashed my Police I.D. card. I’m sure he told me he worked for the LOOP, but I just assumed sales. They dropped me off, paid for my ride and improved my mood. All in all a very good day. The next day, right after I get off the air, I get a phone call. The guy on the phone says: “This is Larry Wert, we shared a cab ride yesterday?” I said: “Yes?” A bit tentatively since I was trying to figure out where he was going with this. Then he told me he was the General Manager at the LOOP. I’m thinking yeah, right. This guy was way too young and way too much fun to be a General Manager of anything! Then he offered me a job. I thought: time to get off the phone…he’s delusional. I told him I’d think about it, give him a call tomorrow and I hung up quickly. Then, I sat there for a few minutes – doubt creeping in. Could this guy be for real? I called the LOOP and asked who their general manager was. They told me. Larry Wert. Crap. Then, I called my husband who told me I was completely crazy and to call Larry back immediately….which I did.
I had to actually “interview” with Steve and Garry before getting the final go-ahead. We all had lunch at the Drake Hotel. Obviously, I was nervous but all I can remember about that lunch is laughing. It was a precursor to my life at the LOOP. The rest is history….
Rick: After working at WMAQ, working at the Loop must have been quite a dramatic change. How hard was it to adapt?
Laura: I will never forget my very first newscast on the LOOP….Kevin’s show. I hadn’t really listened to him before, (too busy watching/listening to the news!) but I did my homework in the few days I had before I started. Of course, as I listened to his show I thought he had to have some guests…SOME help. He couldn’t really be all those characters, right? When I got to the studio that first day, I was surprised to find only Kevin (photo). So, I start to read the news and proceed to get interrupted by Jimmy, Devon, Bill Cartwright and Raymond Burr. I remember thinking: I’m not in Kansas anymore.
Actually, my job as a “journalist” was a lot more difficult at the LOOP than WMAQ….as crazy as that may sound. Because I had to know the stories…not just read them. Steve, especially, used to pepper me with questions all the time and he’d catch me more than once. Because he was smart and extremely well read, he forced me to be better.
Funny, there were some people at WMAQ – management included – who thought I was making a huge mistake to leave WMAQ for the LOOP. They told me it was silly and beneath me. I think it’s the best move I ever made.
Rick: Working at the Loop during those incredibly high profile years you must have some memories that immediately come to you. What were some of your favorite moments during those years?
Laura: Oh my Lord, got a few days? My favorite times were at the very beginning…when everybody was there and everybody got along. I knew even then it was a moment in time….a very special and good “perfect storm.” Larry used to call it “high school with money.” My favorite road trip was Las Vegas with Kevin and Steve and Garry. Johnny B met us there. There was one broadcast that they all did together that was amazing. I never heard anything funnier….before or since.
Other magical moments? Every single show in Hawaii, but especially the time when Steve was diving beneath me in the pool and blowing up bubbles from his regulator. We were broadcasting live at the time and it was hard for me to concentrate. Boy, did that tickle! And yes, that’s code! (Photo: Bubbling in progress)
When Kev got me a stripper for my birthday. A female stripper. (Who’s birthday was it?!!) The low fat versus regular Twinkie/Cupcake test when I was blindfolded and Garry fed me. I found it strangely erotic and yes, I could tell the difference! Sports Phone Sex. Aloha Fridays. Going to Sox games with Steve. On stage with Kev at his live shows. Monday Night Football with Steve and Garry. Singing backup for Steve at his concert at Navy Pier. Larry getting a limo and all of us….Johnny, Kev, Steve and Garry…..going bar hopping. I loved the fact that we enjoyed hanging with each other outside of work. I loved that we were friends. I loved that we were a family. Those were such special times. I was just so lucky to be a part of them.
Rick: You were a big part of the Kevin Matthews show in the early 90s. I don't know if you've seen the Wikipedia entry about Kevin's show, but according to Wikipedia, you left Kevin's show because some of his characters, particularly "out of synch man" drove you to leave. Is that a true story?
Laura: It was a programming decision. Steve and Garry were moving to mornings and I was going with them. Though the Wikipedia story is a heck of a lot more interesting! I have to admit there were times in that studio with Kev that I had to close my eyes. All those characters coming out of that one man made me dizzy! But I loved them and love them still. You may not know this but Jimmy (photo) and I get together every time he comes out to California. We surf together. (Did you know he surfs? Do you know how ridiculous he looks WET?!!)
Rick: You were also there for the dramatic break-up of the Steve & Garry show. What was it like to be a part of that show during the tense days before and after the breakup? And by the way, have you heard that they're both working at the same station again and getting along?
Laura: Wow. That was a difficult time. This is only my opinion and it comes with the benefit of hindsight, but I think we crossed the line. And I’m sorry for my role in that. But in our defense, the lines had changed. I don’t believe there was any intention to be mean at the start…..but then it snowballed. Feelings got hurt, pride set it, sides were taken. It became a runaway train and there was no way to stop it. I remember wanting so badly to stop it.
I did know Steve and Garry (photo) are working at the same station and they’re getting along and I’m very glad for that. But I still wonder, as I’m sure many listeners do, what if?
Rick: When Steve left AM 1000 to move on to WCKG, you and Leslie Keiling went along with him, only to leave the show a few months later. What happened at WCKG?
Laura: We were fired. I don’t know exactly why except that Steve wanted a change…he wanted to move in a different direction. Two things bothered me about that then, (well, three if you count actually being fired!) and Steve and I have talked about this since. After we left AM 1000 but before everything was signed at WCKG, I had a chance to take a job in public relations. It wasn’t radio but still it was a great opportunity. I asked Steve if he was absolutely sure he wanted me with him and he said yes. A month later, I’m out the door. Then, the night I was fired we sat in his office and talked and cried, (me – not him) I asked him one favor. If listeners asked what happened the next day, I wanted him to tell the truth. That it was his decision for his own reasons. In the days that followed and in the fallout, there were a number of spins on why. None of which was true. Some of which were hurtful to me. It was easy to get over being fired. It was much harder to get over how it was handled on the air.
Rick: Now that you're not in radio anymore, what are your feelings about the business, and in particular about radio news?
Laura: I do miss radio, but I think I miss what I had for that brief period of time. I don’t know that it could ever be recreated. I knew the business was changing….even then. And since I was always a support player never a headliner, it was even more tenuous for me. I had some pretty good job offers in radio after WCKG, but I think I was just tired.
I don’t much listen to radio out here. Is that weird?
Rick: What have you been up to since you left Chicago?
Laura: We moved to Telluride, Colorado in the Spring of ‘97 and stayed for nearly four years. I actually wrote two suspense novels but couldn’t get them published. (I DID, however, become a pretty good skier!) After living there awhile, we discovered we loved the summers a lot more than the winters….hot and sunny in the day…cool nights. We used to get a lot of tourists from Orange County and they told us if we loved Telluride summers it was like that all year round in the OC. So, we packed it up and moved to Newport Beach. No jobs, no home…just desire. That’s what you can do when you’re young (relatively), crazy (definitely), and have no children! We’ve been living here since 2001 and we love it. We joined a tennis club and play a lot. We bike the hills, walk the beach and share many Duffy boat cocktail cruises in the harbor with friends!
I’ve been selling real estate for five years. I didn’t want to work for anybody – wanted my own business – and figured with real estate, I could get manicures and play tennis all day long. HA! I’ve never worked so hard in my life, but it has its rewards. I’m exercising a completely different part of my brain, I’m meeting clients who become friends, and given the fact real estate here is NUTS, it can be lucrative. Life is good. I’m happy.
Thanks for asking!