Sunday, February 17, 2008
Ken Sumka is the afternoon airborne reporter for WBBM-Newsradio 780 and a weekend/overnight jock at WXRT (93.1 FM).
1984-1988: WGHS 88.5 FM "The Castle That Rocks" Glenbard West HS. Glen Ellyn, IL Sadly they shut it down circa 1989. I was a disc jockey all four years and Music Director in 1986 (A helluva year for great music)
1988-1993: KRUI 89.7 FM Iowa City The Student-run FM station of the University of Iowa. I was a jock, news anchor, did some play-by-play for Iowa Baseball, Administrative Director circa 1990. On 11/1/91, a gunman opened fire at serveral buildings on campus, killing five, severely maiming one and killing himself. Our news staff (including me) happened to be on duty and we ended up covering the tragedy for worldwide media outlets, including CNN, BBC, Reuters, AP, UPI and also WBBM-AM, WLS-AM and WGN-AM in Chicago.
Summer 1991: Interned at WYSY-FM, Aurora, IL (Y108: "Doin' it in the burbs") in the Production Department
Fall 1991-1993: KQCR-FM "Q103" Cedar Rapids, IA Weekend and overnight jock Hot A/C. Used airname Kenny Summers. Played Paula Abdul and Michael Bolton.
January 1993-January 1994: WCBR-FM 92.7, Arlington Heights, IL "The Bear" Afternoon Drive (1:30-6PM) Hired and fired on the same day, one year apart.
January 1994-Present: WXRT-FM, Chicago, IL Weekends and overnights. Sunday-Tuesday: Overnights, Saturday 7PM-11PM.
May 1998-September, 2001--March 2003-Present: Shadow Broadcast Services, Chicago, IL Started out as fill-in then full-time afternoon airborne reporter for WMAQ-AM from 1998 until MAQ became The Score, then was full-time Afternoon Reporter for WBBM-AM from then until 9/11/01, when airborne operation ceased for awhile. During this time, I also did fill-in work in the chopper for WGN TV and radio, WMAQ-TV and WBBM TV and Radio. I also was an in-studio traffic reporter/editor at Shadow for WGN, WBBM, WGCI, WAIT and a News Anchor for WMRO. Then in March of 2003, I came back to Shadow as full-time afternoon airborne reporter again for WBBM-AM.
Rick: The big news this week is that WXRT will be moving from their long-time home at 4949 W. Belmont. As someone who has worked there since 1994, you must have some feelings on the subject. How did you react when you heard the news?
Ken: My first reaction--other than surprise that Michael Damsky was gone--was, "now I'm going to have to pay for parking". We have a really nice, secure lot at 4949 and it's free. And there's a vibe at that building that comes from being away from downtown. There are some unknowns that cause a little worry-like what sort of consolidation might happen with us sharing a space and personnel at NBC Tower. There's always some fear with change and the first thing you think about are the negatives, but I'm sure there are going to be some positive things to come out of it as well. I bet the view's terrific.
Rick: I know you worked at a great little suburban station (The Bear) before you started at XRT. How did you get your foot in the door at WXRT? They have on-air job openings about once a decade, don't they?
Ken: The Bear was a cool place to work, I still keep in touch with a lot of those people. (Photo: Ken with Chris Mars at WCBR) That seems about right though, once a decade at XRT a job becomes available. I was friendly with Marc Alghini, who back then was a record rep for Mute Records and he had amazing Cubs season tickets and he'd take a few of us WCBR jocks out to games. I knew that his wife at the time (Angela Strachan) was a weekend/overnight jock at XRT, so when Marc told me he was being transferred to New York, I asked him if he and his wife could put in a good word for me. They did, Norm called me and the rest is history. Things came full-circle two years ago when Marc returned to the Chicago area and is now a jock at XRT and produces Lin's show and also produces a lot of our remote broadcasts.
Rick: I don't know if other jocks (of a certain age) will admit this, but as a former jock with no current ties to any station, I think I can. WXRT is like a dream destination for music jocks. Having been beaten down by liner cards and tight music lists, we think that it must be different at XRT. Are we right, or does the reality not quite live up to the ideal, especially in this post 1996 corporate owned world?
Ken: I don't know of another commercial station in the country (in market #3 no less!) where the jocks actually pick their own music as they go. We do. When I get to the station to do my shift, it's pretty much a blank slate music-wise. WXRT shaped what I listened to musically, so it's cool to be able to play a small part in introducing someone else to music as well. I've had opportunities to go elsewhere and make more dough but it would've been at the expense of the freedom to choose my music. It also would mean not working with some of the most talented and knowledgeable people in the business. Working at XRT is like going to graduate school for radio and popular music, I figure that at 14 years, I already have the Masters Degree and I'm working on my PhD now. That said, I bet even A-Rod probably has some complaints about his job, so it's not perfect everyday.
Rick: I'm guessing you're a music lover. Let me ask you this. What are some of the songs on your iPod that might surprise your WXRT listeners? Any guilty pleasures?
Ken: Oh jeez, where to begin? I'm a drummer, so I grew up with Rush, so I have all their stuff from about 1976-1986. The David Lee Roth-era Van Halen were huge in my youth, so the self-titled debut through 1984 are all represented, I paid a ton of money for tickets to the Arpil 3rd Van Halen show at Allstate Arena and I cannot wait for that show. I'm a sucker for a good pop song too, so you would also find Madonna, (Early) Michael Jackson, Kylie Minogue, Robbie Williams, stuff like that. I also really dug Britney's single last year "Gimme More", too bad she couldn't hold it together long enough to promote the album, it got good reviews, it could've been the comeback she needed. I've also been throwing a lot of classical/orchestral music onto my iPod lately and the other day the "Summer" movement from Vivaldi's Four Seasons came on and I cranked it.
Rick: In addition to being a music jock, you've been working at Shadow for many years as an airborne reporter. I talked to Bart Shore a few weeks ago and he sent me some incredible pictures from his time in the copter, but I'm guessing that it isn't always so serene up there. Do you ever worry for your safety?
Ken: Oddly enough, the time it will take to answer this question represents the cumulative time I've feared for my life while airborne. I've been through some pretty heavy duty crap with regards to weather and wind but I was never worried for my life, I don't get airsick, I just get headaches. One of our pilots overshot the runway at Hobart Airport and we ended up in some trees at the end of the runway but nobody got hurt and the plane was fine. I've also been up in the chopper on a day when winds were gusting at 45-50 mph, which was a drag. I've been flying for decade, so it takes a lot to scare me.
Rick: How did you get involved on the airborne side of the business?
Ken: I was covering the XRT Rock-n-Roll Fireworks and we were using the Shadow Airplane. As a courtesy, I called Rick Sirovatka afterwards to thank him for letting us use the plane. We got to talking and the subject of working as an airborne reporter came up. I am quite familiar with pretty much the whole Chicagoland area and that coupled with my broadcast experience and love of aviation made it a perfect fit. I trained in the plane for a hour and was doing live reports on WMAQ that afternoon.
Rick: Take me through the typical afternoon at BBM. Once you get up in the air who is making the calls for where to go and what to look for, and do you generally have a regular route?
Ken: We take off at 3:30PM out of DuPage Airport in a Cessna 172. As soon as we're airborne, I call the editor's desk via two-way radio and see what's happening. If it's just standard stuff, we follow a normal route which is primarily the tollways and N/W Indiana. However, when all the Ryan construction was going on, our editors didn't have the traffic flow data they normally get from pavement sensors, so the Dan Ryan became a part of our regular route during that project. In the afternoon we also have two other choppers in the air, so we all coordinate with each other so we don't double up on coverage. And since Kris Habermehl does TV and radio, sometimes he might pass off the radio stuff to me if he gets busy and vice versa, sometimes I'm the first one on a scene and I'll cover it until he can get there with a camera, especially if it's something more visual (for TV), like a fire or a nasty accident. It's funny because of the nature of my job being at the airport and not at Shadow HQ downtown, there are people with whom I work everyday that I've never met face-to-face.
Rick: I know you're a local boy (Glen Ellyn). Who were some of your radio heroes growing up?
Ken: I was a big Larry Lujack fan early on, especially Animal Stories. I also listened to a lot of WGN, Cubs games and Wally Phillips and Bob Collins. Then it was Steve Dahl (and Garry), I still like Steve, he's still great, Garry too. I met Steve once and he said he knew me from my work at XRT and said I did a great job, that meant a lot to me. I was hoping that brief Steve/Garry reunion a few years ago was going to be permanent but at least they are on better terms now, it was sad when they weren't speaking to each other.
On the rock radio side, I used to listen to The Loop and WMET, so I liked Stroud, Skafish and those guys. I was heartbroken when WMET went off the air, so my uncle turned me on to WXRT and I was hooked. Then, all the old XRT jocks became my heroes, I wanted to be one of them someday. (Photo: Ken with Johnny Mars, Marty Lennartz, and Lin Brehmer.) The joke and reality is, all those people are still at XRT, so I work with all my old heroes, then my old favorite at the Loop, Bobby Skafish came aboard for awhile. I am proud to call all of them friends and colleagues.
Rick: Talk about finally breaking into your home town radio market. I know you started out at The Bear, which was an alternative rock station at the time, after you did a hot A/C show in Iowa. What was that experience like?
Ken: Doing Hot A/C was fun but definitely not what I wanted to do for a living. I know and respect people who can do any format because they love radio first and music is secondary but that's not me. The Bear was an amazing opportunity for me, I was doing afternoon drive in (Suburban) Chicago at age 22. I learned a lot. I did interviews every day, one day it was an author, the next a comedian and the next a musician or band, sometimes more than one in a day. Some amazing interview subjects too: Frank Black, Chris Mars (former Replacements drummer), Widespread Panic played an hour of live material three feet in front of me and didn't want to leave. I also interviewed The Straight Dope's Cecil Adams and Studs Terkel. Good times. Then I got fired at the Bear on a Friday and that Monday I had an interview with Norm at WXRT and was employed at my dream station. It felt good to pick up my last paycheck at The Bear wearing an XRT shirt. WXRT has been great. I've fielded countless calls on the request line from old acquaintances and classmates, which is great. That's why I use my real name, it's great to re-connect with people. I do miss the interviews though, that's probably the one regret I have about working overnights, no in-studio guests (Photo: Ken with Cheap Trick).
Rick: If you could chart your dream career course, where do you go from here?
Ken: Well, we all know about the dearth of full-time openings at XRT but that would be the ideal, to have a full-time, prime time shift at XRT. Or on the Shadow side if something managerial came up, that would be a great road to explore. If there was a radio-related role for me that didn't involve putting 100 miles a day on my car and gave me more time to spend with my family, that would be the dream career course.