Saturday, July 12, 2008

Cisco Cotto

UPDATED 9/4/10


When I last spoke with Cisco he was the co-host of John Howell's morning show on WIND-AM 560. Since then, he has come back to WLS to co-host the afternoon show with Roe Conn, and then was given the 9-11 AM slot when Mancow and Pat Cassidy were let go. I asked him how he liked his new shift, and if he felt any pressure having to fill the gap between Don & Roma and Rush Limbaugh...

Cisco: Being back at WLS is literally like a homecoming. I was there for 6 years as a news reporter before deciding to try moving into the talk studio. Many of the behind the scenes people are still at WLS so there were lots of hugs when I returned. It may sound silly in an age when radio jobs come and go, but WLS really does have a family feel. Drew Hayes and Michael Damsky are helping to foster this. They see their roles as coaches rather than bosses. They are always asking how they can help us as opposed to issuing edicts. Sometimes I have to pinch myself a bit to make sure this is real. A friendly environment and supportive bosses isn’t what radio is “supposed” to be like. I’m truly having a blast and enjoy going to work every day.

One of the best parts about being back is being able to see Don and Roma everyday. They are two of the nicest and most generous people I’ve ever met in radio. So now, between the end of their show and the start of mine, we get to joke around off the air. Often we’re laughing so hard my producer has to call into the studio, “Cisco, your show started 2 minutes ago. Would you like to talk or should I replay your opening music?”

Why do you think there would be pressure as the show between two local radio legends and the man who single handedly established the conservative talk radio format? Pressure? No pressure! Seriously, it certainly is a responsibility. Both Don & Roma and Rush have big audiences and if I don’t deliver then there’s obviously something wrong with me and not them. But my history with the station made the start of the show easier because listeners were welcoming back a voice from the past. Also, I’ve tried to learn a lot from watching and listening to both Don & Roma and Rush over the years. Every day I remember that I have to be entertaining and/or informative. People aren’t going to tune in just because I have a show. I have to offer them something. I have to talk about things that affect their lives. Sometimes that’s politics and sometimes it’s not.

Though I’m obviously conservative, I think people listening to the show would find that thoughtful, respectful liberals have a fair hearing on the show. That doesn’t mean I’m going to agree with them and I’m going to try to show them the error of their ways, but I’m also not necessarily going to bite their head off. If they’re jerks then I probably will. There’s a lot of politics on the show because what’s going on in Washington, Springfield, and City Hall affects each of us every day. But I go beyond that. Some of the questions I’ve addressed in just the last couple of weeks: Why should a swimmer performing a rescue because the lifeguard didn’t get there in time have to pay his own medical bills? While we don’t sanction domestic violence, wouldn’t everyone understand if Elin took a 9-iron to Tiger? And why in the world is the new Sun Chips bag so darn loud???

The original interview follows...

Cisco Cotto is the co-host of the morning show at WIND-AM 560 every weekday, along with Big John Howell.

Rick: It's too bad there's nothing for a political talk show based in Illinois to talk about this season. How do you manage to find topics?

Cisco: Everyday on the way to work I bite my fingernails to bloody stumps as I worry about finding topics!

Rick: The conservative talk radio audience is fiercely loyal, even in one of America's bluest states. Why do you think that conservative talk radio has been so successful, while liberal talk radio has failed to catch on?

Cisco: For decades conservatives felt as though they didn’t have a voice. They were on the outside and liberals edited many of the newspapers, NPR, and network TV. Then Rush Limbaugh decides to plant his flag on conservative mountain and a new genre is born. Conservatives are still suspicious of “mainstream” media outlets and look to conservative talk radio for checks and balances.

Now, about the liberals. The folks running liberal radio shows took a long time to learn an important lesson: the main ingredient in successful radio is entertainment! The liberal shows came to the microphone simply with hatred for George Bush. Hatred isn’t enough to make good radio. They also didn’t hire radio people to do the shows. Al Franken & Janeane Garofalo are funny people, but they don’t know the nuances of radio. The bosses are starting to come around by making some good hires. Ed Schultz gets it and Stephanie Miller is beginning to.

Rick: You're obviously conservative yourself (your Facebook picture is Ronald Reagan), and you've worked in the media for many years now. Do you think there is a liberal bias in radio too, or is radio essentially excluded when a conservative talks about the liberal media bias?

Cisco: The Reagan picture on my Facebook account was a joke, but no one believes me!

As a news reporter for many years I worked with some of the best in town: Larry Langford, Bill Cameron, Lynn Holley, Jim Johnson, Doug Cummings, Steve Scott, Jennifer Keiper, Susan Carlson, Bob Roberts, and Pat Cassidy (photo). That list just includes the people who worked in the same newsroom, not the people I saw out in the field. I can honestly say I never detected a bias in any of their coverage. They just always wanted to get the story fast and right. I do see more of a bias on the national level in the kind of stories they cover and the way they are covered. Read Bernie Goldberg’s book Bias. It should be required reading in any journalism school. Tim Russert made such a good name for himself because in spite of the fact that he was very liberal in his personal political leanings, he threw hard questions at both sides and was fair. The same can’t be said for some others on the network level.

Rick: I interviewed your morning show partner John Howell last year, and he called you the "compass of the format for the show" because of your years at WLS. I don't want to get too inside here, but if you were advising a newcomer to the format (as you did with John), how do you break it down? What are the key elements of a successful talk radio program?

Cisco: Don Wade (photo, with Roma) once told me that he didn’t become a good talk radio host until he realized he wasn’t going to change the world. He was getting at the entertainment aspect of radio. If you are hosting a show because of some agenda you are going to struggle (See Air America). Instead, every host has to be entertaining! There are so many options for people from 30 different radio stations, to satellite, to I-Pods so they certainly don’t have to listen to you. You have to give them a reason to want to. That means you have to be entertaining and informative.

They have to get something from you that they can get from no one else. Usually this means distinct humor or opinion that makes them think. Keep a focus to the segment so the listener can tell you’re going somewhere. Otherwise the show just sounds like 2 guys talking.

Rick: You've now been a co-host with John Howell for a few years. How do you like your current role compared to your previous reporter role at WLS or WMAQ?

Cisco: Working with John (photo) has been amazing. I’ve listened to him on the radio since I was a kid (he LOVES it when I say that) so working with him has been very cool. Though he does talk quite a bit about missing his early morning backrubs from Ramblin’ Ray.

I was a news guy at WLS and WMAQ and tried my best to keep my opinions to myself (on the air that is!). I loved being at those stations and getting mail, calls, or emails screaming about my “liberal bias.” It meant my conservative stripes were not showing through. Now being a talk show host allows me to say just about anything I want without having to worry about destroying my journalistic credibility. I miss not being at the big story of the day and I don’t see as many parts of the city as I did when I was chasing stories. But doing a talk show has forced me to be creative in ways I didn’t have to before. And I’m trying to prove that I’m not simply a shill for the GOP like many conservative hosts. There are times when the Republicans need to be chastised too.

Rick: You've covered some big stories in your reporter days, and you've conducted some big-time interviews in your current role. Talk about a few of your favorite moments at each of your radio jobs in Chicago.

Cisco: So many little space. My favorite WMAQ moment was my very first. I was an intern and there was a fire at the Allerton Hotel. All of the reporters were out on other stories so the news director, Mike Krauser, handed me a cell phone and said “Don’t screw up.” I was almost convulsing because of the nerves, but I did two liveshots from the scene and mostly held myself together. I must not have screwed up too badly because a month later they gave me a job. I also loved covering Jesse Jackson during his protests in Decatur. During Jesse’s arrest, a guy yelled the “F” word loudly right next to Tressa Pankovits (of WBBM-AM) during one of her live shots. The anchor, Keith Johnson, had to come on the air to apologize. Too funny!

At WLS, let’s see, I fell asleep on the air once and Steve Scott (photo) had to wake me up, Don & Roma coerced me into shaving my head, and another time a beauty consultant gave me a pedicure. What a cake job that was! I liked covering Mayor Daley because off camera and microphone you get to see a different side of him. He is very in control and intelligent. The bumbling fool we see on TV is just an elaborate ruse. But I’d have to say I enjoyed the feature stories most. I got to train as a firefighter, ice fisherman, UPS driver, Schaumburg Flyers baseball player, & NASCAR driver just to name a few. And I called doing those stories “work!”

Rick: Talk about the pros and cons of having your air studios located in the suburbs.

Cisco: It stinks. It really stinks! I understand why WIND has its studios there. Cheap rent and only one local show. But I really miss the energy of the city and feeling like I’m in touch with what’s going on. I live in Oak Park and my wife and I take the Green Line downtown quite a bit, but it’s not the same as being there every day. I really hope to be working downtown again at some point. We keep telling the WIND folks to get a small studio ANYWHERE downtown.

Rick: I visited the WIND studios not too long ago with some broadcasters from Germany, and my first impression was this: It's the quietest radio station I've ever seen. I'm not sure why I was so surprised by that, but I really was. Is it always like that, or did I just happen to arrive there at a particularly quiet time?

Cisco: Moment of honesty here that may get me fired! I hope you’re happy Rick! Most radio stations have the sound of the station blaring through speakers in every hallway of the office. It is their product after all! But WIND shares its facilities with AM 1160 WYLL and no one seems to be able to navigate the tough inter-office political waters to decide which station to pipe through the speakers. So instead of making one station’s staff feel marginalized they just play no station. It’s amazing!

Rick: I've heard you referred to as "The Reverend." Your regular listeners know the origin of that nickname, but some of the readers of this blog might not. Would you mind explaining it?

Cisco: I’m 6 years into a 3 year Master of Divinity degree at Moody Bible Institute. I’m hoping to be done in about 2 years, but part-time is difficult. My wife just graduated from Moody with a Master of Biblical Studies. We met there on the first day of our first class. Who knew theology could be such a turn-on? Jay Marvin thought it was cool that I was going to Moody so one day on the air at WLS he started calling me “The Reverend.” It stuck. Listeners new to the show often wonder if I run a church or perform weddings. Not yet, but if radio ever kicks me out….

Rick: How do you think that Masters of Divinity will change the arc of your career path?

Cisco: That’s the million dollar question. Will I stay in secular talk radio? Move to Christian radio? Switch to church ministry? Go back to work at McDonald’s??? At this point I don’t know, but I’m really excited to see what God will work out.

Rick: Anything else you'd like to add?

Cisco: Not really. I'm just having a blast with this new show. John is great. Our GM (David Santrella) showed great faith in us by really putting his neck on the line to get our show on the air. Everyone working at WIND has supported our show tremendously. This is a great place to be and things are going well.