Friday, April 11, 2008

Barry Keefe

Barry Keefe had been a news anchor at WTMX (and the other call letters that have used that frequency) since 1978. His last day on the air is today (Friday, April 11).

Rick: I think 30 years with one FM station has got to be a record of some kind. What was the station like when you started there in 1978?

Barry: Well...the place was certainly doing well. (Photo: It was WCLR at the time) They’d just had a strong spring book the day I arrived. Jack Kelly was the PD who melded elevator music with pop currents to make what was perhaps the first AC station in America. And with FCC things still in place…there were 4 people on staff doing both news and public affairs. The presentation of news at that time wasn’t much different from what you’d find on AM radio. I was not at all the conversational chum I try and sound like these days. On staff back then were several Mormons, per ownership (Bonneville is owned by the Mormon Church). They were great workers…but that presence in the Midwest has changed a lot over the years.

Here’s a fun-fact. All the GMs in Bonneville were given a Pontiac Bonneville to drive. And they had to drive the Pontiac that happened to have the name of their company on the rear quarter panels.

Rick: As you mentioned, WCLR had an actual fully staffed news department. Do you think that those days are officially over for FM radio?

Barry: Over…Forever (except public radio). Ain’t gonna’ happen. Station management have figured out a way to corral newsies at someone else’s place and let THEIR bosses worry about getting the news out each day.

Rick: Your newscasts have also had to change over the years. Talk about the different approaches throughout some of the different regimes. Your career is almost the perfect example of the evolution of FM news, isn't it?

Barry: I hope they’ve changed. Because I was one of the lemmings back when. Everybody’s news, content-wise, sounded the same. There was no molding to the sound of the station you’re working for. My content for women is now so finely targeted there are lots of days when I run a slew of stories no one else even thought of.

Rick: You've also worked with a multitude of different air personalities, including Eric and Kathy for the last decade or more. When they first started did you sense this show was going to be the juggernaut it eventually became or were you as surprised as some of their critics?

Barry: I told our then-PD Barry James on the Friday of Eric’s first week that this thing was going to blast off. I still remember walking into the traffic office and seeing him and making sure he knew that. When Eric arrived, he and Kathy ignited the phones. And the targeting of women over and above what people had ever imagined before! What the hell did your average radio programmer out there THINK women talked about everyday? Purses, lipstick, cosmetic surgery, celebs and goofy domestic stuff. That’s especially true pre-parenting.

Rick: Do you think that has been the secret to the show's success?

Barry: That, and Eric (photo) comes off as the ‘guy’ he is, too. He can talk pocketbook or sports with anyone, anytime. He’s an exceptional golfer…loves to play cards…and he probably reads that famous ‘baseball abstract’ tome too.

Rick: What have been a few highlights for you during these Eric & Kathy years?

Barry: Well, I once had a lot of attractive nurses dine on my belly ala some famous French cafĂ©. Yes – the guy serves food on his massive torso to women willing to pay for it. We completed the stunt, live on the air…with me doing the news on my back. 60 minutes later, in walks Bruce Reese, the Bonneville CEO. I had no idea he was even in town. He touched me on the shoulder and said ‘Barry…THAT was ‘taking one for the team!’ I also enjoyed Melissa giving me a spray tan. Everyone should be spray-tanned by Melissa.

Rick: Throughout your time at the Mix you've also been a teacher at Columbia College. Between the many colleagues you've worked with at your station and the many students you've taught who have gone into the business, I don't think you even realize how many lives you've touched. When Robert Feder reported you were leaving, I literally received dozens of e-mails asking me to interview you before you left. Have you been besieged with well wishers?

Barry: I cannot lie. I have nearly 100 e-mails right now (we conducted this interview on Tuesday), all from Rob’s column. And not a word has been said on the air about this yet!

Rick: The way your departure was described in Robert Feder's column ("the curtain came down unexpectedly") makes it sound like you weren't quite ready to go. How did they approach you with the news, and were you already planning to step down in the near future?

Barry: They approached me with an HR person present…but I guess that beats approaching me with some little guy in a court jester’s outfit. The HR stuff is law and regs. It was an uplifting meeting, thanks to the care Jerry Schnacke (Vice President/Market Manager of Bonneville Chicago) and Greg Solk (President of Programming/Bonneville) took with a few things. I got a good deal…and having never been one for contracts – I can go and work anywhere ASAP. Our family’s departure for Michigan isn’t as imminent as some may have made it seem.

Rick: Is there anything you'd like to say to your former colleagues, students or listeners that may be reading this interview?

Barry: Don’t be frivolous with money. I hit the age of 55 in a couple of weeks at the tail end of the era of severance and pension. It’s going to be an unfriendly world out there. Young adults just entering the work world would do good to enjoy Burger King’s Tuesday 59 cent burger specials once in awhile. And I’m not kidding. Hey…for only a dime extra you get cheese with that!