Sunday, October 28, 2007

John Records Landecker

UPDATED January 2012


Rick: So one day you're doing a talk show on WIMS in Michigan City, and then suddenly out of nowhere, it's the John Records Landecker Music Explosion! How did that happen and why?

John: (laughs) I was doing the afternoon show with Paula Griffin as a talk show and one day she had to go somewhere, and it was just going to be me by myself, so as a joke I brought in a bunch of songs and did the John Records Landecker Oldies Extravaganza! Well, it got a huge reaction. People really loved it...and you know what? I loved doing it. The owner of the station, Ric Federighi, was chatting with me in the hallway afterward, and I said "What if I did that all the time?" He said "We've been waiting for you to do that!"

That's how it started. I re-named it the John Records Landecker Music Explosion, and I played songs off my iPad, and people e-mailed me songs from all over the country--because they were listening online, and it really took off. Radio guys started sending me jingle packages, and customized things, and I played it all. It was a blast!

Rick: Is that when WLS came calling?

John: Yes, but that's not why. The WLS thing was something I had put in motion a year ago or so. I heard that all the Citadel stations had been purchased by Cumulus, and one of my good friends--someone that I had worked for years ago in Chicago, Jan Jeffries--was the guy that ran their programming. I called him up and said: "Look I want back in." I knew that I never should have been let go from there in the first place, and now they were even using the call letters W-L-S again, and it seemed so natural for me to come back.

Rick: But it took quite a while for the sale to go through.

John: It took over a year, and this was no ordinary transaction. We're talking multi-billion dollars. Jan was doing a million things during that time, so I didn't want to bother him, but eventually the sale went through--and then he let me know he was moving to Chicago. And now, amongst his bazillion or so responsibilities, he was actually going to program WLS-FM! We finally met up not too long after that, and hit it off just like we always did. He said, "Why don't you try it out quietly over the weekend to see if you like it, and if you still sound good we'll let you do a weekend shift." And it went great! Now I'm doing weekends and fill-ins. I've been on for Scott Shannon quite a bit over the last few weeks.

Rick: So you're working seven days a week now?

John: Well, that's not going to work, unfortunately. I was on the air last week on WLS, and on Facebook I gave everyone the wrong call letters to listen online. I thought to myself, I can't do both anymore. My last show at WIMS was Thursday.

I loved being on WIMS. I really did. I loved working with Ric Federighi and Johnny Rush and Paula Griffin. They are great people and great broadcasters, and I'll miss working with them. But the opportunity to come back to WLS, working for someone like Jan Jeffries was too good to pass up.

Rick: I can hear how happy you are through the airwaves. Just hearing you say those call just sounds right.

John: It feels fantastic. Unbelievably cool. Just way beyond anything I could conceive of. It's like somebody built a radio station for me to work on. And Jan and I get along unbelievably well. This is his concept, and he's the driving force behind it, and I'm there to have a good time and be the icing on his cake from the WLS music era.

Ever since I left nights at WLS in the 70s, everything has been a challenge. I did different shifts. Afternoons. Mornings. Talk radio. I sought out those challenges, but in all of those situations I never would describe it as being in a comfort zone. I'm glad I did 'em, but this is a party. This is the best thing I've done since coming to WLS since 1972, and I think Chicago is going to eat this station up. I consider this a new beginning.

Updated 9/5/09


I interviewed my old boss and pal John Landecker several times for Chicago Radio Spotlight (and he has even interviewed me). Since we last spoke, however, he has begun broadcasting the afternoon show on WIMS Radio in Michigan City, Indiana (he also does a weekend show on WLS). I called him up the other day and asked him to tell me more about going back to his roots and doing small-town radio...

John: I love it. I love it. Are you kidding? It reminds me of my early days in Ann Arbor at a station in the country under the transmitter, but it’s also totally unlike anything I’ve done before. It’s a talk show, first and foremost. To use a term Paula Griffin (my co-host) coined, it’s “go with the flow” radio. That’s pretty much it in a nutshell, and taking that attitude, it can go anywhere. Any topic, any off-hand comment can lead to a new direction, going on line, Googling things as we talk, finding movie clips. I don’t worry about content. If I want to blast something locally in the news—like the local school superintendent, I do. Or the shooting downtown at Randolph and Michigan—that's what I do.

We don’t take a lot of calls because there’s only one phone in the studio, and it rings while you’re on the air (laughs), but when we do take a call it's kind of reminiscent of Boogie Check in a way because I have no idea who is calling and what they're calling about. That has been so much fun. We get great calls, but it’s mainly us. My co-host is Paula Griffin and she is a native of the area and has worked here in radio for quite awhile. I still do some of the stuff I've always done, like the little quicky parody songs, and what not, but this is local radio so, literally, anything goes. And the commute! The commute is rough. (John lives in Michigan City). There was a truck on the road the other day and it made my commute 12 minutes! You probably can't pick up the signal in parts of Chicago, but you can listen on the internet. Just go to

The original interview follows below...

John Records Landecker is a radio legend. He is a former Billboard Magazine air personality of the year, and has won countless of other awards for his on-air work, including induction into the radio wing of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Until recently he was doing afternoons on WZZN in Chicago, and is still on the air here as a fill-in on WLS AM-890, and as the host of the syndicated show "Into the 70s", which airs on WZZN. (Full disclosure: I produced John's show on WJMK from 1993-2003.)

Rick: What happened at WZZN?

John: When I initially signed the contract, it combined doing afternoons on WZZN and filling in on WLS, and it was a two year deal—but both of us could get out of the second year with 90 days notice. So three months ago, they told me that they wouldn't be needing me anymore, and I was given the choice of going home and collecting the rest of my money, or staying through the end of the first year. I decided to stay on the air instead of leaving.

In my mind, it was a bit of Don Quixote move, charging at windmills looking for a superhero ending, hoping everyone would change their mind. It didn't work out that way. As my agent said in Robert Feder's column, the ratings were good for that station and that daypart and that format…but, well, for some reason it wasn't enough.

The ironic twist is the day after they took me off the afternoon show, they signed up my syndicated 70s program to be on their station every Sunday night from 7 to Midnight.

Rick: Why would they do that?

John: I know you have super intelligent readers and I'll leave it to them to conjure up why situations like that should occur…

Rick: They obviously want to use your name without paying you.

John: But that's not a bad thing for the syndicated show. In fact, it's actually great news for the syndicated show. They did me a big favor in that regard. There are no hard feelings. I have to accept what's going on. I still have a good relationship with everyone there and I still work for WLS doing fill-in…

Rick: With Turi Ryder?

John: Yes.

Rick: How did the two of you hook up?

John: I only knew Turi (photo) in passing at WLS when we both worked there, and then when she was working in Minneapolis in 1991 or so, I was working in Cleveland, and she called me to say that I should give talk radio a try. She talked me into filling in for her. That led to a weekend at WLS which was a total disaster. At the time they were very strident and politically oriented, and I had a bad cold, had been given some medication, and was in outer space. Wow, was that bad.

Anyway, jump years ahead (after WJMK, and WGN), and I had been on WLS with Catherine Johns and Judy Baar Topinka…and those shows were going great. I loved working with both of them. In the meantime, Turi had been making her living the past few years as a national fill-in, filling in on stations all over the country. I heard that she was going to be used by WLS to do a weekend fill-in, and I said to (WLS Program Director) Kipper McGee (photo): "How about trying a show with me and Turi?" I remember my pitch. I said "It might be so uncomfortable that people will listen to it." I knew Turi had never worked with a partner before, and it would be out of her comfort zone, and initially she balked at it.

Well, an opportunity came up a little later, and we went on, and it went great. One show led to four, which led to her admitting to me that this was the most fun she had ever had in the business. We decided that since neither of us had something fulltime, we should start pitching ourselves around. We have airchecks of our shows together on her website The plan is to get out there as fill-in hosts over the holidays. We can fill-in anywhere in the country. All I need is a studio with ISDN line…and she does her part from her house in San Francisco.

I'm actually really excited about it.

Rick: Talking to anyone in Chicago?

John: We're on the fill-in roster at WLS, and Kipper McGee has been very supportive of both of us.

Rick: Let's talk about your syndicated show: "Into the 70s." What do you know about the 70s?

John: (Laughs) I was a street person during the 70s, and I don’t' remember it. Of course, that was my era. That's what people remember the most about me.

Rick: Aren't you sick of those songs yet? Didn't you play them every 90 minutes in the 70s?

Are you kidding? After you've played music from the 60s for 13 years, the 70s are amazingly refreshing. "Baker Street" by Gerry Rafferty never sounded better. It's been a lot of fun. It's a Top-40 show with great music from the 70s. It’s not disco, or hard rock, or classic rock, it's Top 40, just like I used to do.

The show had existed for a few years before I came aboard. When the previous host left, my agent got a call from the syndicator out of Dallas, asking if I would be interested. I was excited to do it. I've never done anything like this before.

It's a different way of doing things, and I'm still getting comfortable with the process, but the affiliates are happy, so we'll see. This week my syndicator TKO productions merged with a bigger syndicator named United Stations, and I'm hoping that's a good thing. I know they have a much bigger marketing and sales staff.

Rick: There's so much to cover about your career that we can't even begin to cover it all. How about if we just go decade by decade.

John: Shoot.

Rick: The 60s…

John: Graduated in '65. Went to Michigan State Univerisity. When I was in college, between my freshman and sophomore year, I got a radio job in Flint Michigan at WTRX. At the time, they were known as "Home of the Jones boys." Everyone who did a show had to use the last name Jones. I convinced the boss there to let me have a weekend show, and he let me use the Jones name I wanted…Dow.

After that I went back to school and got a job working nights at WILS in Lansing. There were some radio geeks going to school there, and unbeknownst to me, one of them taped my show and sent it to a big time DJ named Mike Rivers at CKLW (out of Windsor). He later moved to WIBG in Philly and they were looking for additional DJs, and he played the aircheck to the program director.

So, one night, I got a call to fly out there for a job interview. I took the job, and dropped out of school. They gave me the midday shift, and changed my name to Scott Walker. That was not a good time. It was super strict format, and I wasn't allowed to do anything creative. Luckily, that lasted only a year or so. The station got sold to Buckley broadcasting, and these guys were like cowboys. They brought in Joey Reynolds (photo) to host afternoons, and it went from strict to wide open. They asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I wanted to try this new wide open format, but I wanted to go back to my own name. The next day I was John Records Landecker again, and I was following Joey Reynolds. That was a wild time.

Rick: The 70s…

John: I came to WLS in 1972 just as the Watergate story was breaking. ("Make a Date with a Watergate") Everything started clicking shortly after that. There was 3-4 year span where WLS was in total synergy from programming to air personalities to sales to promotions. We got along. We hung out together. We were actually friends…and the station was super duper successful.

Rick: You're talking the mid-70s.

John: Yeah, and there were some individual high points for me too. I was just thinking about one the other day. It was in the news that the space shuttle took a light saber from Star Wars because it was the 30th anniversary, and it made me think of my Star Wars bit…Radio Star Wars. I don't know how we did it, but we actually got Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher (photo) to participate in the bit. Rick Dees' song "Disco Duck" was a part of that bit too, and I've been talking to his company lately, so I just sent it to him too. It was a great kick to listen back to it. Bob Sirott was in it. The newsman in that bit, Jack Swanson, is now the GM of KGO Talk radio in San Francisco.

Those were some pretty incredible times. One day I was doing something like that, another day I had that memorable afternoon at Woodfield Mall with John Travolta, and another time I was doing the show from the original great America when it was owned by Marriot's. They flew me out there in a helicopter to be the very first person to ride "The Tidal Wave." There was a plaque up there for years.

Rick: What about the 80s?

John: Ugh. Not real fond of the 80s…just generally speaking. Although, it's funny. I run into people now that listened to me in the 80s and say it inspired them to get into the business, and I'm always surprised by that. A guy down in Indy had a complete set of airchecks of my shows from WLS in the 80s. I guess it was just bad timing. The climate had changed, and music radio on AM radio was dying. We didn't really have a chance.

Rick: And the 90s…

John: Pretty good. We had a nice long 10 year run doing mornings at WJMK. We won a few awards locally and nationally, and worked really hard at it. Actually, I had that job longer than my job at WLS in the 70s. The thing that stands out the most from that era to me was hooking up with Legends. We recorded all of those parody songs ("He's the President", "YDNA", "King of *arts"), put out CDs, toured in concert. That was an absolute blast!

Rick: And since then…

John: It's been all talk with the exception of WZZN. I've been priveleged to work at some of the biggest talk stations in the country. WIBC in Indy…WGN and WLS in Chicago …and I love it. I've been working hard at crossing over into being a talk show host…and the crossover is now complete. That's what I would like to do for the rest of my career, although I love doing the 70s show. There's no reason I couldn't do both.

Rick: Let's clear this up once and for all. I know it drives you crazy when people put your middle name "Records" in quotes. It's not a nickname; it's actually your middle name.

John: Yes, I once brought my mom into the radio studio to confirm it for everyone. Her maiden name was Records, and she gave it to me as my middle name.

Rick: I feel like I'm forgetting something important. Am I?

John: Go Blue.

(John grew up in Ann Arbor, Rick went to U of I in Champaign)

Rick: Shut up. I mean about your career.

John: (laughs) Oh. Right. Well, I'm very anxious to work. So if anyone reading this is a programmer, contact me through this website. Rick knows how to get in touch with me. I'm ready to go on the radio….

Rick: And you're doing an event this week for AFTRA.

John: Yes, I've talked to them, and I know it's coming up. When is it exactly?

Rick: (laughs) It'll be at Columbia College's 'Film Row Cinema' @ 1104 S. Wabash, 8th flr, from 6-7:30p on Friday Nov. 2nd. It's an evening with you, Fred Winston, and radio Hall of Famer Dan Ingram, and it's being moderated by Doug James.

John: Yes, exactly. See you there.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Ian Punnett

Ian Punnett is the host of Coast to Coast AM on WLS Radio in Chicago, and "The Ian & Margery Show" in St. Paul/Minneapolis. In the early-to-mid 90s he was a talk show host at WGN Radio.

Rick: I knew you in college at the University of Illinois, but you were already a professional radio guy. How did you get started in the radio business?

Ian: I started at New Trier High School WNTH (88.1) The Big Noise from Winnetka! 3 of my 4 high school years I did a show there, and was the host of the big Saturday night show. I went to Lake Forest College for my first few years of college, and the whole time I was there I was also working in radio to help pay the bills. At first I worked at WVVX-Highland Park. That was a wild time, because that station was so strange. Half the airtime was brokered, so you'd hear two hours of oldies, then Indian music…then German polkas with Renate Schuler speaking in German…and then me.

After VVX, I went to WXLC in Waukegan, and then after my scholarship money ran out, I transferred down to U of I, and took a job at WLRW in Champaign. I was using the radio to pay for college, but after I graduated, I decided to stay in the business.

Rick: You grew up in the Chicago area. Who were some of your big radio influences?

Ian: John Landecker! (photo) Loved John Landecker alllll the way home. When I was in high school I was more into the FM scene, and I loved this overnight guy named Peter B. Collins on WLS-FM. He was totally cool. He did this overnight talk show. He was the first guy I heard who used bumper music to come back into a talk show…that was so wild to me at the time. I still remember the time he played the Spirit song "Nature's Way" to bumper into a discussion of teen pregnancy. I was so impressed.

But when I decided to go into radio, that's when I really began to study John Landecker. He was my music radio idol. I listened to every single break and studied how he did it. I also listened to Dahl, and Wally Phillips, but Landecker was the guy for me.

Rick: You came to WGN in the early 90s after doing some pretty edgy shows in the Quad Cities, and Nashville. Do you think that WGN just wasn't ready for your kind of show then?

Ian: I guess it wasn't. In the Quad Cities and Nashville, those were really hard-rock radio stations, even though I was doing a personality/talk radio show that just happened to play hard-rock records. I think when I came to WGN it was a culture shock for both of us. The problem with WGN was the culture kept changing at the top, philosophically-speaking, and it was hard for me to keep up with it. I was kind of like a sacrificial lamb for the inevitable change there.

I stayed in touch with some of the managers after I left, and they told me I became like this measuring stick for the listeners. Every time they brought in someone new they'd hear things like "this new person you have stinks as bad as that Ian Punnett" or they'd hear "If you're gonna change and go this route, why didn't you stick with the guy who was doing it right?" I was the scapegoat of change.

Rick: Ironically, you'd fit right in, now.

Ian: (Laughs). Since I have a masters degree and I'm studying for a PHD, maybe I'll come back to do Milt's show when he retires.

Rick: What are some of your fondest memories from those WGN days?

Ian: I loved working with Roy Leonard and Milt Rosenberg (photo) and I learned a lot about radio by listening to the other personalities like Kathy & Judy—who were really doing some great things. Overall, it was a great experience, but it's funny, when I talk to people now who say "I used to listen to you on WGN," I think "Oh yeah, that's right, I worked there, didn't I?" I've almost forgotten about it.

Rick: You're doing a morning show in St. Paul/Minneapolis now. How do you like it there?

Ian: I really like it. St. Paul is like an old school town—much like Chicago, and then Minneapolis is more cosmopolitan. It's fun to be a part of both of them. I love St. Paul, which is where we live. St. Paul is the opposite of a transient city where people come and go. People that live here have been here for generations. There isn't a lot of turnover on the radio dial either, which means it's tough to break in something new.

FM 107.1 (WFMP) is a new radio station with a brand new format, so it's nice that people are accepting us. We're an FM talk station which is geared toward women, but it's not one of those silly gossipy radio stations without substance. It's a serious station, that also has fun and looks at the world through the view of women.

Rick: And your wife Margery is the co-host, isn't she?

Ian: Yes, she is.

Rick: What's it like to work with your wife every day?

Ian: It's tricky to be wrong all the time…at home and at work. She has a studio in the house, and does her part of the show from there. She actually leaves the show every morning for about twenty minutes to drive the boys to the bus-stop. When we first started the show it was called "A Balanced Breakfast with Ian and Margery" and we decided it wasn't enough to say it, we had to live it too. We don't call it that anymore, but we still live it. It really is great having that balance. Both of us get to spend a lot of time with the boys, and that means everything to us.

Rick: You're also doing the show Coast to Coast AM, which was created by Art Bell. How would you describe that show to the uninitiated?

Ian: It airs on Saturday nights from midnight to 4 a.m (on WLS in Chicago), and I also fill in pretty often for George Noory. (Photo: George Noory, show creator Art Bell, and Ian) It's a show that explores alternative philosophies and medicine and really alternative anything, including the paranormal. I really enjoy it. It's a good fit for me. It makes me appreciate different perspectives. Oftentimes, I talk to people without knowing whether or not they are right or wrong, and it forces me to listen with an open mind.

Rick: You have a Masters of Divinity, and you're in the ordination process in the Episcopal Church.

Yes, that's true. I'll be ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Church in the spring of '08.

Rick: How does your faith influence your radio career, and vice versa?

Ian: My divinity education actually dovetails very nicely with my radio work on Coast to Coast because it's all about spirituality, and on Coast to Coast we do a lot of talking about alternative religions. But my religious training has also helped me become a better listener, and that has helped me in all of my radio work. Being a good listener is one of the most important skills a talk show host has to develop.

Rick: So do you ever hear from your old Chicago radio buddies?

Ian: Yes, I do, and I love it when they check in. I just talked to (WCKG Producer) Dan Falato the other day and caught up with him. I also talk to my buddy Joe Bartosch (photo), who I've known ever since my Waukegan days. I love hearing from my friends in Chicago. When the Bears beat the Packers a few weeks ago it was one of the best days of the year for me.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Matt Bisbee

Matt Bisbee is a radio production wizard. For twenty seven years his instantly recognizable voice was a regular presence on the Loop, WLUP. When the Loop was sold to Emmis Broadcasting a few years ago, he remained with previous owner Bonneville, and his production work is now heard on the company's other Chicago properties: The Drive, The Mix, and Love-FM.

Rick: After twenty seven years of being associated with one radio station, the Loop, how strange has it has been these past few years with the Drive, the Mix and Love-FM?

Matt: I thought it was going be a rough go because I was so identified with the Loop and AM 1000 for so many years. When I started with the Drive, though, it didn't feel strange at all. Those Drive promos were actually pretty similar to the kind of rock promos I did at the Loop in the early days.

And then, when I was being worked in at the Mix, that wasn't a difficult transition either, because I started out doing personality promos for Eric and Kathy. After doing similar promos for years on behalf of Brandmeier, Dahl, and Kevin, doing the Eric and Kathy promos felt very comfortable for me. I think it was stranger for listeners. A lot of people came up to me and said things like "Hey, I heard you on the Mix and it sounded so weird." But I haven't heard that in a long time now. It seems totally normal. As for the Love-FM stuff, soul music just happens to be my favorite music in the world. Greg Solk (VP of Programming for Bonneville/the company that owns all three stations) knew I loved it too, and knew I'd be excited to do work for that station. Right now, I can't imagine having a better job. I really love it here.

Rick: When I asked if I could interview you, you jokingly said that "If someone wants to know how to do a kick ass Def Leppard Sweeper, I'm your man!" I know you're just being humble, but you're actually one of the two or three most famous production guys in Chicago radio history. Why do you think people know you and what you do?

Matt: I think it's because I'm trying to touch the person listening in their car in some sort of emotional way. Whether it's a serious promo, or a humorous promo, I really try to connect in a human way. The stuff I’m known for is the humorous stuff, but those started out because I was poking fun at the guys on the air. When you make fun of them, it makes them more human. Listeners love to know that the personality isn't taking himself too seriously.

In that regard I was really lucky, because Dahl, Brandmeier, and Kevin Matthews were always encouraging. They could have been prima donnas about it, but they weren't. They loved that I was poking fun at them, and encouraged me to do it more.

Growing up I always admired Dick Orkin (photo), and he was like that—it seemed like he never took himself or his characters too seriously. But other than Orkin, not too many people were doing that back in the day, and maybe that's why my stuff stood out a little more.

Rick: You were at the Loop a very long time, through so many different eras, different owners, different program directors, different general managers, different formats, and different co-workers. Was there an "era" that you look back at more fondly than the others, and if so, why?

Matt: They were all important in my career. I learned so much during those early days. Dave Logan taught me production, and I always remind him of that every time I see him. He was very important to my development.

The fun days were probably the 80s. It seemed like everyone we added to the puzzle made us better and better. Bob Stroud, Bobby Skafish and Patti Haze! Some of the best jocks of all-time. Brandmeier, Dahl & Meier, Kevin Matthews—man, what talent. It was a special moment in time that you couldn't recreate if you tried…although I guess they're trying now. It's hard to restart that fire, though, because it wasn't just the great on-air talent. With Decastro walking the hallway, and Greg Solk, and then later Larry Wert, even the management was well-known, entertaining, and special. The producers we had in those days might be the best ever—Wiser with Brandmeier, you with Dahl & Meier, Shemp with Kevin Matthews. It was an unbelievable collection of people, between the AM and the FM. People are what make a radio station great, and we had great people.

Rick: At one point, you were the midday guy at the Loop, and Stroud was the production director. Then, one day, the two of you just switched jobs. How did that transformation go down?

Matt: I was always more comfortable doing the production thing, once I got a handle on it. I was able to lose myself, create a character, and I loved it. That's the sort of stuff I did when I was kid in my room at home, with my little tape recorder. I was never as comfortable being on the air.

Stroud (photo), on the other hand, never had the passion for production. It's funny, because Stroud is one of the best production directors of all time. He was able to do some incredible things in a production studio. Just watching him, I learned so much. In fact, when the Loop first hired him from WMET, I was even a little intimidated by his talent. But he never loved it. He had a theater background, and was more of a performer. He loved being on the air, and he loved doing his Rock and Roll Roots show.

Gradually, over time, I started spending more time in the production studio, and he started spending more time on the air, and we had long heart to heart talks about what made us happier. So, we both thought, let's switch. We presented it to Greg, and he said, "Sure, why not? Let's do it."

Rick: Here's a totally unfair question. Is there one rock jock and/or personality from those Loop days that you consider the best?

Matt: Wow, that really is unfair. I guess if you pinned me down and made me pick a rock jock, I'd pick the guys I watched when I was first starting out. Sky Daniels. I watched him when I was 21. I couldn't believe how he sold those records on the air. He would caress the record with love and affection, like it was his child. Whether it was the Cars, the Romantics, or the Boomtown Rats, he really sold 'em. He was the ultimate rock jock. I would try to sell my promos like he sold his records. I learned that from Sky. Another guy I learned a lot from in my early days was Mitch Michaels.

Now as far as personalities go, that's even tougher. I can't pick one. I mean, they were all so incredibly good—and they were all really good to me. As far as the fun factor, though, I'd have to say Kevin Matthews (photo). He actually made me a part of his show. He would call me up and say something like "I'm going to pretend like I'm eavesdropping, so pretend like you're working on free lance projects for Spike O'Dell," and then he'd hang up the phone, and we would just wing it. He really let me play. He was really generous. Dahl was great too…he was always encouraging me…and Johnny too. He let me do all the promos for his concerts.

Rick: You've also been known as someone who helps out youngsters in the business. What general advice do you give to kids trying to making it in the business today?

Matt: I always tell kids when I go to speak at a college or a high school or whatever, that the most important thing to remember is that you have to be yourself. Don't try to be someone else. Sure, you can let someone else influence you, but go with what you know, and you'll find your path. If you try to be someone else, you won't make it.

That's especially true in production. A few years ago a guy named Keith Eubanks started that "talking through the telephone" sound, and within months everyone was trying to do that. It wasn't original anymore. Do it yourself, do it your own way…

I think back to the production guys I looked up to early in my career, those big voice guys like Gary Gears (photo), and Chuck Britton. Man, those guys were great, but I realized that I didn’t have one of those booming voices, and I knew I couldn't do what they did. I did, however, take that whole "deep voice guy" thing, and make it into a character. I was working with Jim Volkman one time, the guy who does that great Harry Caray impersonation, and he said "Every time I hear you do that deep voice character, I picture a guy name Walt Dove." Ever since then, every time I do the character, that sort of edgy-angry-big-voice guy, that's who I think of too. That's his voice. That's Walt Dove.

Rick: You have won more awards over the past few decades than anyone I know in the business. Are there any awards that mean the most to you?

Matt: It's funny, at the end of the day, the one award that means the most to me is the one that I got from The Make A Wish Foundation. These kids would come into the studio, and I would look into the faces of their parents, and I thought, my God, I am so blessed. If there was anything I could do at all, no matter how small, to make their lives a little better, the kids and their parents, I would do it. And so I did some promos for them, and I put my all into it. They were totally serious, but like I mentioned earlier, they were made with real emotion. I felt a little weird when they gave me an award for it, because what I did was nothing compared to the great work those people do at Make A Wish, but I must admit that award probably means more to me than any of the others.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Len O'Kelly

Len O'Kelly worked in Chicago radio for the better part of two decades, and is now the morning host and program director of WFGR in Grand Rapids


It all started on a 250-watt station...

1987-88 WLRA (Lewis University)
1988-89 WJTW Joliet
1989-90 KRVR Davenport, IA (From there, part time stops to WJEQ/Macomb, back to WJTW, and then WCFL-FM/Morris)
1990-91 WXLP Davenport, IA
1991-92 WLLI Joliet
1992-94 WCFL-FM Morris
a brief cup of coffee at WQQL/Springfield, IL in '94
1994-95 89FM Gisborne, New Zealand
1995-96 WYSY/Chicago
1996-98 WJMK/Chicago
1998-2000 WODJ/Grand Rapids, MI
2000-01 WROK/Rockford, IL
2001-02 WERV/Aurora
2002-03 WZFS/Chicago
2003-06 WRLL/Chicago (also "cyberjocked" for WOOD-FM/Grand Rapids and WBXX/Battle Creek, MI during that time)
1/1/07 to now - WFGR Grand Rapids

Rick: You were in Chicago radio for many years as a jock and a programmer, and now you're a jock and programmer in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Kevin Matthews recently got a little heat when he said that the Grand Rapids market was even more competitive than Chicago's market. Was he right?

Len: This won't make me any friends in Chicago, but he was absolutely right. There is some outstanding talent in this market. The guys down the hall from me, Free Beer and Hot Wings, syndicate OUT of GR into Philadephia, among a number of markets. Heritage morning shows that come here, build a following, and stay put. The "Dave and Geri" show here just left the airwaves after 20+ years in mornings.

Not only is it more competitive, we have to work a hell of a lot harder. Grand Rapids is a "big small town." The first time I came here from Chicago, I naively figured I could just build a great sounding radio station and win with it. Wrong! You MUST get out there and get involved, meet listeners and clients, join organizations and committees - be a part of the city. It's all but impossible to do that in Chicago.

Rick: You were the music director of WJMK when it was an "oldies" station, the production director of Real Oldies (1690AM), and now you're programming an oldies station in Grand Rapids. What have you taken from those two Chicago Oldies experiences to WFGR?

Len: I had an amazing opportunity to work with some of the most legendary names in the business. Landecker. (photo) Biondi. Uncle Lar & Little Tommy. Herb Kent. Guys whose headphones I shouldn't be holding, let alone working on an airstaff with. Just watching how seriously these guys took the business gave me a tremendous respect for what I do, and I remember that each day.

I started at WJMK on my 27th birthday. I was less than half of the age of guys I shared the stage with, and learned an awful lot. With maturity does come education. Now, I have a young staff - there are kids on the promotions staff that are younger than my career - and I wear the mentor hat.

For better or worse, "Jack" changed how I think we have to look at the Oldies format. At WJMK, it was my job to get the "You play the same songs over and over" calls. Our slogan at WFGR is "1,000 Different Oldies Every Week." I count the titles, get to a thousand... and still get calls complaining about the repeats. You simply have to go deeper and jog the memories of the folks in the Oldies target - there is no room for complacency. So far, it's working: with adults between 45 and 64, we won the Spring book here outright. It means I have to keep finding "new" oldies.

Rick: WJMK dropped it's Oldies format, a decision I'm sure they now regret, especially since True Oldies is in town now and they can't go back to the format like WCBS did in New York. What are the attributes of the oldies format that the suits in New York just don't understand?

Len: Funny you ask that - I found an old article from Billboard when I was at WJMK. Here I am, quoted as saying that "within a few years, the agencies will have to adjust their targets to buy stations delivering 35-64 year olds as the Baby Boomers age." It didn't happen - oldies stations got "too old," and companies like Clear Channel and CBS dropped those folks like rocks.

Here's the secret - those folks have all the money. Generation X will not do as well as its parents. It's been a real education for me to sit down with young sales reps and explain that the format can sell products other than nursing homes and cremation services. My listeners are spoiling grandchildren rotten! Sell 'em the same stuff you attempt to sell the parents! I don't think that the larger companies have the patience to adjust their sales training. It's easier to dump an airstaff and go automated.

I had a sales rep in Chicago the last go-around that didn't recognize Ringo Starr. Not "who's the guy in the picture?" - the question was "what did he do?" No wonder they couldn't sell time on the station. This format is all about passion, and that has to start at the corporate level.

Rick: You were also the program director of the River here in suburbs for awhile. Tell us a little bit about the whole suburban radio experience, the challenges, the rewards, the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time stories.

Len: One day I got a little frustrated and blurted out, "Well, I always wanted to go back to college radio..." The guys there never let me forget it.

The River was a fun time, actually, and my only regret was in the pocketbook. We put together, I thought, a decent-sounding radio station that took some musical chances I wasn't hearing coming out of downtown. Had Arbitron consented to make Aurora-Naperville an embedded market (which it ought to do), I think we'd have made a killing.

The biggest challenge? There's just not much money in suburban radio. I got a lot of calls from a lot of great talent who I scared away when it came to talk cash. We were able to get some great results from people who were willing to work hard and not mind the bathrooms (which scared away at least one jock). I found myself in a more unusual role - I had gotten used to the quirks of veteran talent. I had to re-adjust to the quirks of a young staff - dating, breakups, etc. Being the "old married guy", I seemed a little out of place. (Note: The baby in the photo is not on the WFGR staff)

Rick: You are originally from Chicago. Who were some of your radio heroes when you were growing up?

Len: Most of the ones I got to work with! I grew up within a short distance of the WLS tower in Tinley Park, and could listen over the telephone some days. I was one of those who had the radio under the pillow listening to Landecker and Captain Whammo. As I got older, I gained an appreciation for Fred Winston (photo) and Lyle Dean, as well as Steve and Garry. I wore a S&G t-shirt on picture day my sophomore year of high school. Any other Andrew alums out there besides Andrea Darlas?

Once I got on-air, I realized I didn't have the "crazy" gene like a Johnny B had. I took more to the sounds of Bob Stroud, Bobby Skafish, and Scott Dirks on the Loop instead, trying to picture myself in that lineup.

Rick: You're the morning man now in addition to being the program director. In your nearly twenty years in radio as a host and a programmer, you've probably met some of your heroes. Are there any that stand out to you?

Len: Huh. Twenty years. Where the hell did THAT go?

Most of that time I've been in Oldies, so those are most of the acts that I have met. Guys like Freddy Cannon, Peter Noone, and Bobby Vee are among the nicest guys you'd ever meet - it's as if they actually appreciate still having the ability to play after all this time. Frankie Avalon and Dick Clark were very nice as well. The Monkees were nice if you kept them separate. (photo: Len & Davy Jones)

On the rock side - Billy Squier and Aldo Nova were very cordial. And the guys from Great White were very low-key; this was years before the club fire.

Most interesting? Jim Bolger, the Prime Minister of New Zealand. He had just returned from a trip to Chicago and gushed about Richie Daley, hot dogs, and the Blackhawks game he attended. We got along well.

Rick: I know you're a die-hard White Sox fan. You once told me that you come from a Cubs family too. I'm guessing that you've heard from your family this season.

Len: Of course! I heard from them in 2005 trying to "downplay" the World's Championship. One of these days, I'll be able to return the favor - maybe. (As for me - I'm becoming a more rabid West Michigan Whitecaps fan... back-to-back Midwest League champions!)