Sunday, February 24, 2008

John Calhoun

John Calhoun is the production director of WIND-AM 560 & WYLL-AM 1160, and he is celebrating his 30th year in Chicago radio this year.


WIND-AM 560 & WYLL-AM 1160
Production Director
2006 – Present

WGN-AM 720
Voice-Over Talent/Commercial Producer
1999 – 2006

WJMK-FM 104.3
Part-Time Air Personality
1993 – 2005
Music Director
1995 – 1996
Account Executive
1993 – 1994

WPNT-FM 100.3
Morning Air Personality
1990 – 1992

ABC Radio Networks/Satellite Music Network
StarStation (AC Format on 250 stations)
12N- 4PM CST, National Radio Personality
1981 – 1990

WEFM-FM 99.5
Production Director
Late Nights 10PM – 2AM
1978 – 1981

Kansas City, MO
Morning Drive
1977 – 1978

Oklahoma City, OK
1975 – 1977

Cedar Rapids, IA
1973 - 1975

Rick: I've always said that the Chicago radio community is like a small club, but talking to you about this interview made me realize that radio in general is like that.

John: It's true. I was looking at some of the other radio people you’ve covered. In 1974, Bart Shore and I worked together at KLWW in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Bart Shore saved my life one time. Bart’s weekend shift was 12 AM to 6AM on Sunday. My weekend shift was 6AM – 12 Noon. Part of that was airing pre-recorded church programs. One Sunday morning, after Bart (photo) had left the station, I looked out the back door to check on my brand-new car. Well, the locked, door slipped out of my hand and closed. My car and station keys were inside the radio station. In sheer panic, I ran as fast as I could to the Country Kitchen restaurant about a half mile away. In my mind I was trying to come up with a valid excuse for calling the Program Director from a restaurant, when I was supposed to be at the radio station. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to. Bart was there, just finishing breakfast. Needless to say, he was very surprised to see me. He drove me back to the station and I was able to get the next church program on, right on time. There was no dead air and no explaining to the PD was necessary.

Rick: And you worked with Karen Hand in Oklahoma City too, didn't you?

John: Yes. It was probably a year or two later that I was working at KOMA in Oklahoma City. Karen Hand was there at the same time.

Rick: But you weren't "John Calhoun" in Oklahoma, right?

John: I used the name “Machine Gun Walker” at KOMA. I actually purchased a replica of a Thompson sub-machine gun to use as a prop for appearances and photos. Although it was only a replica and not capable of firing bullets, the gun was very realistic looking. Shortly after purchasing it, I had it lying on the front seat of my car. An Oklahoma City detective, in an unmarked car spotted it. Pulled me over, he shoved his very real gun in my ribs and made me do some explaining. After what seemed like hours, two other cops finally determined that the gun was not real, and I didn’t pose any real danger to the public at large.

3 years later, I had landed in Chicago at WEFM. Late one afternoon, a photographer was taking some publicity shots of me with the Tommy gun. We were in a Chicago alley (named “Calhoun Place”). Well, sure enough, the Chicago Police showed up. The photographer and I explained what we were doing. The cops were very cool about it. They just said that we should call them in advance, the next time we wanted to take some pictures. No strangers to real gangsters and Tommy guns, these were Chicago cops. They knew I wasn’t going to be shooting anybody.

Rick: Let's talk about WEFM. That was always on my presets back in the late 70s and early 80s when you were there.

John: WEFM came on in the spring of 78. I had been in Kansas City doing mornings, and my wife and I decided that we wouldn't move again unless I got a job in her hometown (Chicago) or mine (the Twin Cities). I came to Chicago to interview with Dick Bartley who was the PD at WBBM-FM. They were a soft-rock station at the time. WEFM had just started up too, so while I was in town I dropped off another tape there, and they hired me instead. It was kind of a strange way of getting in the door there.

Rick: How would you describe that station today to people who never heard it?

John: WEFM was owned by General Cinemas, the company that owned all of those movie theatres. They had a bunch of stations out east, but we were their only Chicago outlet. It was a top 40 station at the time, going directly against WLS and WMET. Shortly after we started up, WMET went into an album rock thing.

Rick: And you were the night guy?

John: I did a bunch of shifts at WEFM. I was hired to do 10 pm-2 am, but then it became nights 7-midnight, and then they made the mid-day guy and production director. We had three different PDs during the three years I was there. The PD that hired me was shown the door shortly after I arrived, and Kevin Metheny took his place. He left not too long after that and went to MTV. His replacement was Bill Gamble who had been General Cinema's production director in Philly, I believe. And Gamble was the last PD there because in 1981, the format changed and we all got canned.

Rick: I can't remember what format they went to next.

John: I'm not sure what they called it on the air, but it was known as "Shulke 2", after the guy who created it, I guess. Everything was done by reel-to-reel tape. It mixed all kinds of different formats, and it was pretty wretched. I'm not surprised that didn't last. That frequency eventually became US-99.

Rick: And from there you segued to the Satellite Music Network. You did the early afternoon slot there for a decade, which was a national show on 250 stations. Where those studios located?

John: Studios were in Mokena, and our uplink site was in Frankfort. We were the pioneers in satellite broadcasting. I started at 8-Mid, and went to the noon to four. We were in all 50 states and the Virgin Islands.

Rick: But not Chicago, right?

John: We had affiliates in Elgin, Crystal Lake, and Crown Point.

Rick: A lot of well known Chicago personalities came through those doors at SMN.

John: The biggest Chicago name was King Bee Ron Britain. He was a pleasure to work with, a dear man. It used to frustrate me sometimes because he'd run things by me, asking me if something was good enough for the air or not, and I'd say you're Ron Britain, why are you asking me? He was the exact opposite of the egotistical blowhard stereotype of the big radio star, and one of the greatest talents I've ever met. He went on to do afternoons at WJMK after working with us.

Another personality people would know was one of your previous interview subjects, Dean Richards. He was the last PD based out of Chicago. (In 1990 SMN moved to Dallas.) Dean was a fun PD to work for. Unlike some of his predecessors, he wasn’t quite as restrictive. He actually encouraged creativity. Of course, our paths would cross again about ten years later at WGN.

Rick: Probably your highest profile gig locally was hosting the morning show at WPNT when it was "The Point." After doing nights and afternoons, I imagine that morning show routine was tough to adapt too.

John: I hadn't done morning in years, and my body clock was out of synch, that's for sure. Not only that, but from a creative standpoint, I really wasn't allowed to contribute. After SMN, it was a big change. At WPNT it was shut up, play the music, hit the call letters.

Rick: Was that during the era when they ran that commercial of the guy sitting at the control board with a piece of tape over his mouth?

John: That came a little later, but I was still there.

Rick: That commercial offended me, and I wasn't even working at that station. I imagine you jocks weren't too thrilled with it.

John: As you might imagine. That was a very weird time. We had three or four consultant firms working with us, and when you got a memo, you had to look at who was sending it, and decide whether or not to listen to it.

Rick: After leaving the Point, you had a twelve year stint at Oldies 104.3, WJMK.

John: After PNT, I actually wanted to get out of the business altogether. I started doing automotive sales for awhile, but then I heard about an opening in the sales department at WJMK, and that's how I got in the door there. After awhile I asked the program director (Kevin Robinson) if I could go back on the air, and he made me the weekend and fill-in guy. I really enjoyed my time there. It was a good fit for me. I got to work with some real legends like Dick Biondi, John Landecker, and Fred Winson, and I was having fun on the air again.

Rick: I got a chance to work with you several times when you filled in for John Landecker. If I remember correctly, you were filling in for John the day your daughter was born.

John: That's true. I had to leave to go to the hospital. I think the operations manager of our sister station, WJJD, Gary Price finished the show that day.

Rick: How old is your daughter now?

John: She'll be a freshman in high school in the fall.

Rick: Yikes. After the Landecker show was fired, you held down the morning fort for awhile. What was that experience like?

John: I knew I was only the morning guy on an interim basis after John was cut loose. Ken Cocker and I switched off a week at a time. I would do a week, and then he would do a week, and we did that for a few months, I think. They hired a guy out of Boston named Paul Perry to be the permanent replacement for John.

Rick: And permanent turned out to be a year or so. You were still there when they abruptly changed the format to Jack-FM. Tell me about that day.

John: I had started doing production work at WGN, and was working at both stations at the same time. Dean Richards called me around 1999 to help out with production over there, and I was having fun working there with Dean and Todd Manley, who had been my traffic reporter using the name Roger Wilco when I was on WPNT.

Anyway, Bob Lawson, the APD at WJMK, called me at WGN and told me that I was still going to be coming in to WJMK that weekend, but, by the way, things were going to be a little different. Instead of being on the air, you're just going to be running the board. I was somewhat flabbergasted, but not totally surprised. They had gone to the Jack format in LA a few months before that and Greg Brown had said to me: "Look out, we could be next." He was right.

Rick: For the last few years you've been doing mainly commercial production—first at WGN, and now at WIND 560 AM. I did a tour of the studios over there not too long ago, and it kind of had an unusual vibe. There aren't many people working over there.

John: I guess I've never thought of it that way. Compared to WGN that's certainly true. The sales staff is smaller and we do have a lot of syndicated shows, but it never really struck me that way. It is definitely quieter. It's friendly. It's actually kind of nice because you don't feel like a cog in giant wheel like you feel at some properties. Plus it's a suburban location and there's free parking.

Rick: How is what you're doing now different than what you were doing at WGN?

John: I'm the head of the department here and wasn't at WGN. Our clients do their own commercials more here, and I produce the spots for them. It's basically the same otherwise. If I don't voice it or produce it, I put it in the system.

Rick: You are what I would call "a classic announcer." You have those classic announcer pipes and the smooth announcer delivery, which used to be a standard approach in the business. That's become a pretty rare commodity these days. Why do you think that is?

John: When I got in the biz everybody on the air had a radio voice, but that started changing in the late 70s. Bob Sirott (photo) is the first one I can remember that didn't have that classic kind of voice, the pipes as you called it, and it was a ground breaking thing at the time. He's obviously done pretty well since. I think programmers and consultants got it in their head that people wanted disc jockeys to sound more slice of life or real. It became more about what you had to say instead of how you said it, which I suppose is the way it should be. Of course, if you get someone who has the radio voice and the great content, that is still ideal.

Rick: Thanks for doing this, and congratulations on your 30th anniversary in Chicago radio.

John: (whistles) Oh boy. Don't forget, I was 12 when I started. Chicago is my home now. I've been here longer anywhere else. My kids were all born here, and I don't plan on leaving anytime soon.