Saturday, November 15, 2008
Jeff Schwartz was a key force in shaping Chicago radio stations like The Loop, The Score, WCKG, and ESPN Radio during his 35-plus years in the business.
(Photo by Paul Natkin)
Rick: How did you break into the business?
Schwartz: My first job was working for Van Heusen shirts. Every son wants to follow in his father's shoes, and my dad was a clothing salesman, so I did it too. But they wanted to transfer me to New Orleans, and I just didn't want to move there. So I called up Bob Sirott (photo), who was at WBBM-FM at the time, and has been a great friend since kindergarten. I said "Bob, get me an interview. All I need is an interview and I'll take it from there." And that's what started my radio career in sales. This was in the early 70s, and they told me "You got the biggest list in the business...the yellow pages."
Rick: From there did you go directly to the Loop?
Schwartz: No, actually then I went to WDHF/WMET, and from there I went to the Loop. Les Elias was the GM then, and offered me the job of general sales manager.
Rick: I always thought you were in marketing/promotions at the Loop because of Disco Demolition.
Schwartz: I didn't move into marketing until later. When Jimmy de Castro (photo) started as the GM at the Loop, I had a hard time. I liked Jimmy a lot as a person, but we had a totally different way of selling. I couldn't do it his way. That's when we came up with the idea of my moving to promotions. They created the VP/Promotions job for me then.
Rick: So you were still the sales manager back in July of 1979 during Disco Demolition?
Schwartz: Yes, I was the GSM, but I always involved myself in promotions. I realized it even back then that we weren't just selling numbers. I couldn't sell numbers. I never did. I always sold emotion. And those promotions were part of what I did. Dave Logan was the promotion director in those days, and if you look at the video you can see him running on the field. He got to do the fun stuff. I had to get on a plane the day after Disco Demolition to calm down our biggest client in Detroit who wanted to cancel all of his advertising after witnessing the spectacle.
Rick: I've heard conflicting stories about who came up with Disco Demolition...was it you, Mike Veeck, Steve Dahl, a combination of the three of you?
Schwartz: There wouldn't have been a Disco Demolition if Steve wasn't blowing up disco records on the air at the time. That's where the idea starts. I was having dinner with Mike Veeck (photo), and at the time the White Sox were drawing nobody—maybe 5, 6 thousand a night. Mike said "We're dying here. Do you have any ideas?" They had just put in the exploding scoreboard, and I suggested that we do the promotion with Steve blowing up the records.
After that, it was a bunch of people working together to make it happen. Mike Veeck never said no to a crazy idea, I never said no to a crazy idea, but Steve was worried about attendance, and thought that nobody was going to be there. He thought we would draw maybe 10,000 people, which was better than they normally drew, but it still would have looked like an empty stadium. He wasn't thrilled by that prospect. I'd like to tell you that I knew it was going to be much bigger than that, but in reality, I thought the most that would show up would be maybe 25 or 26,000.
I've always been the type of person that says "Never say you can't do it. Just figure it out after you agree." And that's how it was with Disco Demolition. The event itself was a little overwhelming, but it's really neat now to have been a part of history. When WTTW ran the special about Disco Demolition a few years ago, I got my real reward. My daughter was watching it with my grandchildren, who were very young then, 2 1/2 , 3 years old. And my granddaughter looks up and sees her ZZ Pops (that's what she calls me) on the television, and she walks up and kisses the screen. That's pretty special. That's what it's all about.
But again, nothing would have happened without Steve. There was no idea without him, because he was the one who came up with the whole concept on the air, and he was the one that inspired all the people to show up.
Rick: You eventually left the Loop after Steve lost his job, and started up your own company called Promotional Rescue. You were basically a consultant, right?
Schwartz: Yes, I had an opportunity to leave and start my own business and did that for eight or nine years. It wasn't until I started consulting the Score in their early days that I was dragged back into the business. They talked me into coming back fulltime.
Rick: For the Score and WXRT, right?
Rick: I've always thought that must have been a strange combination of personalities: the mellow dudes at WXRT and the manic Score hosts like Mike North and Dan McNeil. Was that as big of a psychological yo-yo as it sounds?
Schwartz: My nickname is psychological yo-yo! Isn't that what medication is for? (Laughs) The Score side was easier for me because I'm a maniac. The XRT side was harder because it was a totally different culture. I was never a die-hard XRT fan even before I started working there, although the people there were great people...you'll never meet finer people than Terri Hemmert and Lin Brehmer. But it was a different mentality. I was the kind of guy who jumped off the ledge then thought, now what? They were much more analytical. It really got to be a bit too much for me. I went to Harvey Wells and told him that I couldn't do both anymore. Poor Harvey was being pushed into so many different directions at once; he was in charge of XRT, the Score and WCKG. You just can't do all of those jobs at once. It's too much. He made me Operations Director at the Score because he knew that he could trust me to handle it, and take it off his plate. That was my first foray into programming, and it was all because of this multiple managerial stuff, which by the way, I think has been terrible for the radio industry.
Rick: As someone who has been instrumental in both sports stations in town, and is now associated with neither, which station do you listen to, and who do you think is doing a better job covering Chicago sports?
Schwartz: To be totally honest, I don't listen to either one that much anymore. When Mike North (photo) left, I really stopped listening to the Score. I'm not just saying that because I still work with Mike on some of his projects. I just think they lost a lot of emotion. His departure left a big void. The one guy I still think "has it" there is Mike Murphy. He gets radio. Listen to his show and you can hear his emotion coming through the speakers. Same with Dan McNeil at ESPN. I listen to Mac, Jurko and Harry because all three of those guys don't just say it, they feel it. You don't have to agree with them to appreciate what they bring. The listeners really respect their authenticity. The same was true with Mike North. I like Rush Limbaugh for the same reason. I don't agree with him very often, but he is a guy who really understands how to do talk radio. So, I guess to answer your question, if I'm really pinned down, I have to admit that I listen to ESPN more than I listen to the Score.
Rick: After leaving the Score you ended up running the FM talker WCKG for several years, and were reunited with Steve Dahl. I know you were gone from there before it blew up, but I think you probably have better insight than most about what went wrong. What, in retrospect, were the mistakes that led to the demise of WCKG?
Schwartz: When the "end of Howard Stern" happened, they frankly didn't have a plan. I put together a list of things that I thought needed to happen, from air personalities to ways to market them. I talked to Steve a lot before I sent that list in, because I needed Steve to support it. That was his radio station. We needed his audience to endorse this new show. We talked about a whole bunch of different options, but New York just wasn't listening to us. Rob Barnett and the Hollanders thought they knew better. So, when ESPN came to me with an offer, I said, "yup I'm out." The timing was perfect because I knew it was going to fail at CKG, and I didn't want to be there when it happened. Even the name "Free FM" was designed to fail. What the heck does that even mean? Was that a swipe at Howard because he wasn't free anymore?
New York just didn't get that Howard wasn't even the most important voice on our station, Steve Dahl (photo) was. Chicago radio is so much better than New York radio has ever been. We had the talent here...we had all these options, but they didn't understand this market because it's not at all like New York. New York doesn't have the anomaly of WGN—so they couldn't understand it. New York doesn't have an anomaly like Eric and Kathy...where did they come from? How could anyone explain the success of that show to New York? You and I would have been successful if we had millions of dollars in outdoor advertising. I'm obviously talking with tongue planted firmly in cheek, but you know what I'm saying. I think Eric does a real good job—I'm not besmirching him or his show at all. But it takes money to make money. These guys didn't think that advertising worked to sell their own product, which is, ironically, a product based on selling advertising. Does that make any sense? Plus, they actually OWN the companies that OWN the billboards! I never understood why they wouldn't use their own power to promote themselves.
Rick: Your last radio job in Chicago was program director of ESPN Radio. Can I just ask you a question about that organization there? What is the deal with all the suspensions of air talent? I've never heard of a station doling out so many suspensions, and it's not like I haven't worked at radio stations with controversial talent.
Schwartz: Oh boy, that's a tough one. How can I explain it? Hmmm. You know when you were a kid--your best friend's parents may have had a different set of rules than your parents did? That doesn't mean your rules were right or your friend's rules were right. Everyone just looked at it a little differently. ESPN had their own set of rules and those who worked there had to live up to the rules.
Rick: Are you saying that those weren't really your rules, or that it's not the way you would have done it?
Schwartz: Let's put it this way. When you get hired for a job, you don't ask "By the way, what's your suspension policy?" It's just not something you think is going to come up very often. I think it's a matter of public record that the Mac, Jurko and Harry (photo) stuff was not from me. I was caught in the middle of some situations, but those were the rules in place before I got there. I personally think suspensions only hurt, they don't really help much. It's like giving a timeout—and that's not the way I raised my daughter. I just had a different philosophy. That's just my opinion. That's not to say that people shouldn't be reprimanded, especially at a place like that. Doing sports talk, boys will be boys, and sometime emotions get the best of them. In those cases, reprimands may be in order.
Rick: You were also there for the birth of the Oldies station WZZN, which has now changed ownership and become WLS-FM. What do you think of the re-branding of that station, and were you surprised by how well that station is doing in the PPM ratings?
Schwartz: NO! I'm not surprised it's a hit. The WLS re-branding, though, doesn't really matter anymore because of the PPM. That would have helped more in the diary system. But as for loads of people listening to Oldies, no, that doesn't surprise me at all. I once told Harvey Pearlman when he was the GM at Magic, that they should market it as "everybody's second favorite radio station." That's what Oldies is. It's everybody's 2nd favorite. Nobody dislikes the Oldies. Every song is a proven hit that everybody knows. It's like a favorite old pair of blue jeans. Totally comfortable. In radio, finishing second is not like being the runner up in the World Series. Second in radio is HUGE. Having said that though, it will all come down to whether or not they can sell it. Let's wait to see if it turns into dollar and cents.
Rick: What are you up to these days?
Schwartz: That's what everybody asks me now. I've been keeping busy. This past year I've worked with Mike North helping him put together projects after the Score. I believe in Mike, I've worked with him on lots of projects for lots of years, as an advisor and friend. I've known him 26 years. I really don't want to work fulltime anymore, so I've only been doing that in an advisory role recently. When Mike starts up his Comcast show in January, I'm not sure where I will go from here. My wife and I have even talked about maybe moving out West. Right now I'm spending a lot of time with the grandkids.
Rick: Do you still keep up with the radio business?
Schwartz: I still listen to the radio, but I'm sad about what I hear, or more importantly, what I don't hear. It's not what it once was. There are no mom and pops anymore. Every station is owned by a huge corporation and every advertiser is owned by a huge corporation. Now when someone is handed a phone book like they did to me when I started at WBBM, the salesman has got no chance.
Do I miss radio? Sure. I miss what it was, but I really believe that the stock market has ruined the radio industry, and that's a shame.