Friday, May 23, 2008

Paul Brian

Paul Brian is the Director of Communications for the Chicago Automobile Trade Association, and the host of "Drive Chicago" on WLS-AM.


*American Forces Radio and TV in the Panama Canal Zone
*WYEN in Des Plaines
*WCLR afternoon drive.
*KAFM-Dallas, PD
*WFAA Dallas, PD/Afternoon drive
*WGN Radio… early evenings at first, between Sports Central and Milt Rosenberg (7-9), then afternoons riding herd over the Noon Show, and then from 12:30 – 3 pm. Did primary backup for both Wally and Bob.
*Left radio in '89 to work for the Alfa Romeo IndyCar team for 3 years, splitting living between here and Milan , Italy . Drivers in 89-90 were Roberto Guerrero and Al Unser, Sr.; then Danny Sullivan in '91 with Roberto driving the second car in the 500s. Also consulted Amoco Corp in its SuperVoice Crisis Communications programs and consulting
*Helped form IndyCar Radio Network after Alfa left the US and shut down its racing ops. Did the whole series as the color commentator for two years.
*1993 joined the Chicago Automobile Trade Assn as Director of Communications. CATA produces the Chicago Auto Show at McCormick Place
*Started Drive Chicago (the radio show) on WMVP in 1996, moved the show to WLS six years ago.

Rick: I thought of all the people in radio, you'd be the most appropriate to interview on the day they run the Indy 500. Not only because you host "Drive Chicago" on WLS every Saturday morning, but because you've been involved in racing for many, many years. What is it about racing that turned you onto the sport in the first place?

Paul: I think it was that cars offered me equal footing to the jocks when I was a kid, to be honest. It's not that I was a bad athlete, but I was always the funny fat guy who made a great baseball catcher because I was wide. I wasn't very good as basketball, but made a good interior lineman (see "wide factor" above). But the car thing… well that brought everything into equal footing. With the car there, there was an understanding the physics of what was going on, the dynamics of engineering and the plain kick-ass fun of driving.

I think most people think that watching an oval race is like watching paint dry—round and round and round—and who could get excited about that? The fact is that there's as much an inner game to racing (ovals or road courses) as there is in a football, baseball or basketball game. The jock-sniffer broadcasters don't understand that inner game, nor any of the other aspects of the sport, so they treat it like it's a second-class citizen. For one weekend a year, though, they all turn into experts on the Indy 500 and attempt to sound like they know from Shinola about which they speak. Frankly, they're embarrassing to listen to, from the perspective of anyone who knows the truth. It'd be like listening to a fifth grade kid explain the rigors and exigencies of a two-minute drill or a championship that comes down to a final five-seconds 3-point shot.

So for me, the love of cars and racing came with the same intensity as most kids get about stick-and-ball sports. I was also fortunate to have parents who loved cars. Dad (on the surface, a pretty conservative pharmacist) drove Pontiac GTOs and mom's best pick ever was a Chevelle 396 SuperSport convertible. I can remember her dusting off some kids going westbound on 31st St. heading toward Oakbrook and laughing about her lead foot. She was a pretty cool lady.

Rick: Unlike other racing commentators, you're a radio guy who went into racing, and not the other way around. I think it's safe to say that you are best known in Chicago for your years with WGN radio in the 1980s. What would you consider some of your personal highlights from the WGN years?

Paul: I had just returned from four years in Dallas working for the Bonneville properties there. I had started at (then) WCLR and the parent company wanted to plug in that format in Dallas, so they offered me a good position and a nice raise to move to Texas to help them, but the chance to go to WGN was—as it would naturally be for a local kid who grew up with GN on the radio most all the time—was something I wanted to do, and did.

I got the chance to work with some awesome people: Wally, Bob, Roy, Orion, Dr. Milt, Harry, Brick, the list goes on and on. I was a bit in awe of being there and they were all gentlemen, giving mentors and good friends. Dan Fabian was the PD then and gave me two orders: Don't lose the license, and have fun. I remember the Bears championship season vividly. I did all of the pre-game shows from Gate O at Soldier Field for those years and (while a lot of times froze my ass off) had a ball. The coldest I've ever been in my life was sitting on some concrete slab for the Superbowl Championship celebration in Grant Park doing the remote on what had to be the coldest day of the year. There was an electricity that day and during that year that hasn't been matched—even by the Bulls run of championships or the White Sox World Series win.

I got to interview some awesome people, as many of us in this business get to do and sometimes minimize. It's not worth listing them, but it was memorable and perhaps my grandchildren will read about in my notes some day and think that Grandpa had a few moments of note.

Rick: You were there during the days of Wally in the morning, and Bob Collins in the afternoon, and filled in for both of them. How would you describe each of those guys to people who didn't know them personally?

Paul: I think I did their shows a lot more than I did my own! Wally used to take about eight weeks of vacation a year and Bob about six, as I recall. Wally (photo) was pretty protected by his producer, Marilyn. I respected him for his history, but when I'd just blow into his office past her, she'd get all ruffled that I had run her gauntlet. It got to be very fun after a while, actually. Once there, though, Wally was pretty engaging and never dismissive at all. He got pissed at me once for goofing around the night before with a player piano he had delivered to the studio that was going to be a bit. I think he got over it. I know he was a target for a lot of jokes, but I think he knew that if someone had an X on him for humor, it was because he was the leader of the pack. At the end of the day, the guy with the biggest paycheck wins, so on that basis Wally was the winner, wasn't he?

Bob. Bob (photo) was a close, close friend and I miss him a lot. We'd go to lunch at least three times a week and saw each other socially a lot. Bob, contrary to some who only knew him from his radio side, was a pretty sophisticated guy. He had a dinner once and told me he wanted me to come because I was the only guy who could figure out the silverware puzzle for eight courses, but he knew very well all of the subtleties of being a gentleman, which he was. I think most people keep a mental list of the five numbers you want to have in your pocket if you ever wound up in the lockup at 26th and California . Bob was one of the numbers on my list—and I never doubted for a second that if he got that call at 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning, he'd show up. He was a guy you could count on.

Rick: I was Steve & Garry's producer when you were at WGN, and they had a field day giving you a hard time. They created characters named Paul Steve and Paul Garry, turned on the deep voice machine, and talked about racing. I remember booking you to come on the show once as a surprise guest, and it was an outstanding bit--all three Pauls on the air at the same time. How did you feel about that parody at the time?

Paul: I don't recall how that happened, but every time I remember that day I smile. I was never put off by them using the Harmonizer to do my voice. To the contrary, I always found it kind of flattering. I think both Steve and Garry were surprised that I'd do a send-up of myself on their show, but I guess it turned into some pretty memorable radio. It was fun to hear them reacting to me doing all the bits they had done about me. We've been friends for years and I'd share a table and some great steaks with them any time. They were a very talented pair.

Rick: In 1989, you left radio to work for the Alfa Romeo IndyCar team, which launched your second career. Of the two businesses, radio and racing, which is the more rewarding to you personally?

Paul: You've offered me an either/or question and there's another component: the Chicago Auto Show, which has without a doubt been the most rewarding. Can you imagine a better toy to play with every year than being part of the team that produces the biggest auto show in North America? I think all of the racing and radio was preamble to the auto show position. I've been doing this for 16 shows now and every year it gets more fun, more rewarding, more exciting.

I'm blessed to have a board of 18 who give our staff a lot of latitude in producing the show and I think that the results are rewarding for everyone. The public, the manufacturers who bring the displays, the dealers who get a kick start to the winter sales doldrums, the media, it just goes on and on. Remember that the car business in Chicagoland provides more than 50,000 jobs and more than $15 billion in sales. Those are awesome numbers. To be a part of a show that has more than a century of history in Chicago and moves an astounding number of people to McCormick Place every February is a blast. Additionally, I've not left the radio thing altogether, since I've been doing the Saturday morning show on WLS for 11 years now. It's just enough to keep my fingers in the sauce and keeps me in touch with a lot of my radio friends.

Rick: For people who haven't heard your WLS show "Drive Chicago" before, how would you describe it?

Paul: It's an automotive show, but not SO automotive that a non-car person could listen and get turned off. It's not a fix-it show. Hell, I know how to drive them and how to evaluate them (on or off a track), but I don't know from Jack Squat about fixing them. There are people who do that. Why should I get into their job? I'll leave the "Gee, my Framitz is broken" questions to the PBS guys (who are buddies who send great lobsters!)

I try to give people advice about what's new in the market, what's fun, what's fuel-efficient, what's on the horizon, whatever they're thinking about. I'm often asked, "You never say anything about a 'bad car.'" Well, the point is that there really aren't any "bad" cars out there. There are some better than others, but if someone is building a crappy car it's not going to be on the market—or even make it to market. Manufacturers know what a good car is and if it's off the mark, they wouldn't risk bringing it to market and suffering the consequences throughout the rest of their brand line. It makes my job easier, but tougher because there are so many good choices out there.

Rick: Who is going to win the race this year? You'll really be out on a limb here because I'm posting this interview the day of the race.

Paul: Sentimentally, I'd like to pick Graham Rahal since his dad and I have been close friends for about 30 years. (God, that's a long time and a bit hard to admit!) It'd be great to have him win in his rookie year, but I think that Tony Kanaan is looking pretty racy this year. He has three top-five finishes in six starts, highlighted by a second place finish in 2004. He has led laps in every one of his starts, including more than 80 (if I remember right) in last year's. Danica is for real, and it'd be great for the sport if she won, but just being there with two other women drivers is very cool. Milka Duno could surprise some people with a strong run, but I don't think she's got the car. I will go out on a limb and predict that the winner will have Firestone tires.

Rick: Let's go back to the beginning of your radio career, because there are two very funny stories I want you to tell. Talk about the day you got fired from WYEN in Des Plaines.

Paul: Ah… WYEN. Garry Meier (photo) and I worked there together. I did mornings and I think Garry was doing early evenings. We worked for a guy who came out of the old "Beautiful Music" station FM100, Ed Walters. He was another guy like me who had two first names—and for the same reason. He also had a damn near unpronounceable last name and used his middle name on air, as I do.

So anyway, I got a call one day from a listener who asked about the call sign—WYEN—who asked if the YEN had anything to do with Japanese ownership. I told him that it didn't, and that it actually stood for "Where You Earn Nothing," which I thought was appropriate. Well, it seems that the owner's wife didn't quite like that and I'm told was getting kidded about it from friends, and the next thing I knew I was getting "The Talk" which ended in me out of work. It was a blessing in disguise, though, as it opened up the door for me to work with Jack Kelly at WCLR and Bonneville for five good years. Oh! When I was looking for work inbetween I also sold cars, which gave me another automotive resume item, I guess.

Rick: And then my favorite about the day you were hired at WFYR.

Paul: Before I got hired at WCLR, I got hired by WFYR (103.5). The PD was a guy named "Brian" something or other—can't remember specifically—who hired me and asked me to start at a date a week or two down the road, so I showed up at the old 188 W. Randolph Building (where AP, City News, a lot of others were located) to work on the date specified. The only problem was that evidently Brian Whomever He Was had been fired the day before and had somehow neglected to tell anyone that he had hired me, so I showed up to work and they had this blank stare. No one knew a thing about it. I walked out and went home to get back on the phone for a job. I've often wondered about that guy. I'd like to yank him around at the aluminum siding place he's working at now.

UPDATED 5/31/08....

Paul sent me a few photos since the interview was posted. I thought you might enjoy them...

With a 356 D Porsche I used to race with two friends. This was shot at the Grand Bahamas Vintage Speed Weeks. Great fun.... and the 72 as a WGN homage!

With the new Jaguar XF at its launch program in San Diego, May 08