Saturday, October 25, 2008

Robert Murphy

UPDATED January 2012


Rick: It was great hearing you back on Q-101 last summer...obviously I wasn't the only one that thought so. Rewind 100 snatched you up.

Robert: After my brief (but totally rockin') stint last summer at the transitioning Q101 (thanks to John Gehron & Joann Genette), the Commandants of Hubbard Broadcasting decided I would be a great fit for 100.3's 80s and 90s format. I had to agree.

Rick: Any trouble climbing back into the saddle?

Robert: Since I had been professionally hibernating for several years, there were some new "teachable moments" but I quickly remembered how much I enjoyed having a daily interaction with Chicago via radio. It's all I have ever done and I was thrilled to get "back in the saddle". I've been provided with a clear set of goals and a great and supportive staff. The only drawback: When I first started getting out of bed at 3:30am to do a morning show, I was in my teens. Now that I am just slightly older, it is just a bit harder. Okay, I'm a lot older and it's a lot harder.

The original interview follows...

Robert Murphy is a legendary Chicago radio personality, most famous for his stint as "Murphy in the Morning" at Q-101.

Rick: The straight jacket. You must be sick and tired of answering this question, but for an entire generation of Chicagoans, when they hear the name Robert Murphy, they think of the straight jacket commercials. Looking back on those commercials now with the benefit of hindsight, have you embraced the straight jacket or are you still (metaphorically) stuck in it?

Robert: Well, "embrace" may be too strong a word, but I am very aware of the commercials positive influence on my career. My initial objection was that it seemed kind of a lowbrow concept ("That Murphy's Cray-zee!) but most of the commercials were exceptionally well executed (such as the original "Bambulance" spot, now popping up on YouTube.)

Though it is inarguable that the straitjacket helped to bring me recognition and thereby bolster my ratings when I first started, I wanted to move on after a while. But No! If there was a smidgen of a drop in the ratings, management whipped that bad boy out again, and I was back on TV, running through Chicago with my arms restrained and my feet bare.

Rick: In the 1980s and early 90s, your show on Q-101 was one of the top rated and most influential radio shows in town. You assembled an incredibly talented team there. I think a lot of people in Chicago radio aren't even aware of how many people in the business worked on your show. Talk a little bit about the contributions of the other cast members, including those behind the scenes.

Robert: One of the earliest and best remembered incarnations of the Murphy in the Morning Show featured Beth Kaye as co-host. Beth and I had a strange and wonderful professional relationship (she strange, me wonderful) and I think we came across on the air as adversaries with an affinity for each other, much like on the show Moonlighting which was big at the time.

Also on the show was Chicago voice-over potentate Pete Stacker whose character voices really brought out the best in the scripts that I wrote. The very knowledgeable Pat Benkowski handled the sports aspect, and all was topped off by our venerable newsman, the intelligent and eloquent Dave McBride.

Later on Joy Masada joined us as producer, followed by Carol McWilliams and Mick Kayler (former producer for Lujack). Later co-hosts were Susan Anderson and Eleanor Mondale. Danger Dan Walker became one of the most popular cast members, using the newly invented cell phone to go out and jack with people. He is one humorous dude! We worked under a gazillion different PDs who passed through (not all of them great, some of them downright damaging to the show) but occasionally some good ones like Randy Lane, Chuck Morgan, and Bill Gamble actually helped out the show

Rick: In one way, I think your show blazed the trail for a show like Eric and Kathy's, in that you were so successful in attracting female listeners. I realize part of that was the format (adult contemporary), but part of that was also your show. When you were on the air did you think of female listeners, or were you just doing your thing, trying to appeal to a mass audience?

Robert: Interesting question. There is no doubt that it was the female ratings that pushed the show to the top, and I would like to think it was my irrepressible charm, brutal good looks, and sexual magnetism that drew them like a moth to a flame, but since I possess none of those attributes, I speculate that the subject matter, along with the style and presentation, were to the female audiences liking (along with the music, of course.)

When I first started in radio, not as much attention was being paid to the demographics of gender, and my goal was a mass appeal morning show. Later, when gender breakdowns became more of an issue, I didn't change the focus too much because what we were doing was working - and though there was a fair amount of sexual humor on the show, it was never presented in a puerile fashion. I know that today, women are targeted with a slew of soccer/hockey mom references and heaps of celebrity gossip. Were I on the air now, I would probably have to make concessions to that end, but the women I know are so much more than that.

Rick: What are a few of your favorite moments from those years?

Robert: As far as just plain fun, I think back to the Q101 switch parties. Every Tuesday night, the whole Q101 air staff would descend upon a club, rewarding those who had "switched" to Q101 (get it?) with free beer while the morning show did a kind of adult club act. It was a great chance to mingle with the audience and learn more about them, plus over the years, it allowed me to visit every neighborhood and suburb in the Chicago area. (Wait a minute, I think we missed Stickney)

Doing the show also allowed me to hobnob with all manner of movie stars, rock musicians, members of royalty, presidents, but the coolest was getting to hang out with Captain Kangaroo. (note to those under 40: The precursor to Mister Rogers and Sesame Street)

Rick: You famously wore a suit when you did your show. First of all, is that true, and if so, why did you do it?

Robert: Okay, you got me! I confess. I frequently wore a suit to work. And if I live to be a bazillion years old, I will never understand the consternation it caused among so many people. (after the strait jacket queries, it is next in line.) So here we have,

The Top Five Reasons I Wore a Suit To Work

Number five: Because I never bought into the fallacious reasoning that because the audience couldn't see you on the radio that you should show up for work looking like some Dickensian street urchin. I still worked in an office.

Number Four: Because I grew up in the Woodstock generation, and had spent enough time in worn out denim, tie dyed shirts and sandals. I wanted to move on

Number Three: Because it made it convenient for someone such as I who had to get dressed at 4am in the dark. Throw on a T-shirt, Toss a suit over it, and voila! You're done!

Number Two: Because ZZ Top is right!

Number One: 'Cause I am one stylin' dude

Rick: After your stint at Q-101, you did two other morning shows in Chicago--including a stint at the 80s channel, WXXY. I've previously spoken to Fred Winston (who also worked there) about those days, and he felt it was a little frustrating because the quality of the radio station's signal didn't quite match the quality of the programming. Do you agree, and what are your thoughts about your time at that station?

Robert: Fred and I get together and commiserate every once in a while over the frustration of working at a station that no one could hear. We had been led to believe that the stations dual tower setup would cover the city, but you could barely pick it up in Morris. It was like talking to Gramps when he had his Miracle Ear turned off. And if I do say so myself, when WXXY unveiled the all 80s format with their great talent lineup, that station was bangin'! But, the two years I spent there were great fun. It got me back to Chicago from Florida, I could walk to work, and we had beautiful brand new studios in the Neiman Marcus building, overlooking Michigan Avenue. I had two great producers there, Scott Straus (now at KISS) and Tony K Kwiecinski (who had produced my show at WLS-FM) who helped me put out what I think were some of my best shows. Too bad you couldn't hear them. I would have stayed but my Spanish is rusty.

Rick: You also anchored the lineup at WLS-FM during the time they tried out the young-talk format. They pulled the plug on that format pretty quickly, despite the all-star lineup (including yourself, Richard Roeper, Turi Ryder, and more). Do you think they gave up on it too soon, or was it just the wrong time or wrong station for that approach?

Robert: Ah, another format squashed by 94.7, The Frequency of Doom. When I took this job I was looking to evolve a little professionally, and thought that we were going to establish a new free form talk format. Jay Marvin was really the only one on board with any conventional talk radio experience, but he was (as Sarah Palin would say, "all mavericky and everything") But once we got started, it seemed management just wanted a spinoff of the AM talk format. I do appreciate my time there because I did learn a few new tricks that helped me out later. Too hard to speculate on whether the station would have ever pulled in the big numbers, but it was never given the opportunity to grow before they pulled the plug. I would have stayed but I look stupid in a cowboy hat.

Rick: Since your last stint on the air in Chicago, you've maintained a residence here. That means you've had a chance to listen to just about everyone who has come and gone on the Chicago radio dial over the past 30 years or so. Who are some of the people that have really stood out to you, past and present?

Robert: Woefully, I didn't get much of a chance to listen to most of the other morning shows, 'cause I was busy doing my own. But to me, Chicago radio is still spelled L-U-J-A-C-K (photo). He is an exemplary talent who knows how to entertain an audience without compromising his own personality. Enjoy Fred Winston also, and I'm glad I got a chance to hear Wally Phillips in his last years on the air. Much could be learned from him. I have always admired Brandmeier's talent though his approach to radio and mine could not have been more disparate. There are a few personality morning shows still on (Eric & Kathy, Drex) but I am really disappointed in the state of radio these days- out of market syndicated shows, voice tracking, and managements who replace personalities with banalities.

Rick: What kind of situation would it take to coerce you back onto the airwaves here?

Robert: Basically, a mutual decision between me and management that my particular talents and the stations mission could forge into a great ratings success, and overcome the obstacles that radio faces in today's climate, obstacles that are legion and formidable. I would also need a guarantee that enough time would be allotted to give us all a fighting chance, and of course a claus that specifies a strict "No Straitjacket" rule. Oh, and I'll need a little bit of money so I can buy some new suits.