Saturday, November 01, 2008

Spike O'Dell

UPDATED January 2012


Rick: Spike, every time I check out your facebook page it makes me smile. People are supposed to enjoy retirement, and it's so obvious that you're in hog heaven.

Spike: Life is good! We really like living here in Dixie Land. We are in the Nashville area. It is such a fun town with everything you want in a big town, but packaged up in a small town feel! I'm even listening to some country music nowadays! Yee-Haw!

My children live here and they keep us busy with grand kids and going places. (we have 3 grandsons now with a 4th arriving in the spring) I spend my time golfing and doing a lot of photography. Tennessee is such a beautiful place to take pictures.

Rick: Have you been following what's going on at your old station?

Spike: A lot of changes at the 'ol "Love Pump" I see. Change is always going to happen and I know it takes some people a little time to get used to it.

I'm glad the powers that be are returning the station to more of a personality approach and pulling back the elements a little for the talent. It's the right thing to do. I fought the "traffic and weather on the 7's" hard, but to no avail. It was very restrictive and limited your ability as a host to do much of anything but get ready for your next "traffic and weather on the 7's". There were already a couple of stations in town that were doing that...why try to sound like them? I never understood the thinking there.

It will be fun to sit back and watch how the station progresses over the next year or so. Strong personalities are in've got the Cubs and Hawks and great college sports on the radio. Sounds like a pretty solid mix to me.

The original interview follows...

Spike O'Dell is the morning host at WGN Radio. After a distinguished 30+ year broadcasting career, he is retiring in December.

Rick: Are you really going to do it?

Spike: Oh yeah, I'm doing it. Anyone who has worked with me over the past 10-12 years knows that this has always been the plan. 55 has always been the magic number for me, and Karen and I have been planning for it now forever. We packed it away and knew we were going to do it. Now, I will say in all fairness, if I knew what was going happen with the market, I might have stayed another year , but we're gonna be fine. We're absolutely ready to go.

Rick: So, it's not a matter of being sick of the hours?

Spike: I think Rob Feder made a big deal about that awhile back, but that didn't come from me. I really don't mind these hours at all. It's been a lot fun. Heck, for the money they pay, heck yeah, I'll get up in the middle of the night. Now, it's not normal hours, that's true, and it will be nice to have a social life again after going to bed around the time most people get home from work—6 or 7 at night—but the hours really had nothing to do with my leaving.

Rick: And the new ownership team at the Tribune wasn't a factor either?

Spike: No not at all. I know people still wonder about that, but I made this pretty clear to everyone here when I renegotiated my last contract two years ago. I wanted a two year deal, and told them it was going to be my last one. They wanted me to sign for at least three—and I didn't want to do it, so we compromised on a three year deal, with the last year being my option. I even told them I'll be nice enough to give them six months notice if I decide to go...and I did that in July.

Rick: Were they surprised?

Spike: Actually, I think they were-- which surprised me. This wasn't a big secret. I've been talking about it for a long time.

Rick: Did they try to coax you to stay?

Spike: Yes, they did want to me stay, at least for a few more months, but I talked to my wife Karen about it, and we just said, no—this is the time. It's time. But it didn't have anything to do with the new guys at all.

Rick: And it didn't have anything to do with the new clock, either? That must have been a bit of a culture shock to you after so many years of doing the show one way, to suddenly drop whatever you were doing for weather and traffic at the 7s. Did you feel constrained in any way by that format, or do you think it's been a good thing for the show?

Spike: I came up through personality radio and that was my background. Top 40. Personality talk. Whatever you want to call it. Not really news-talk. I'm personally not a huge fan of the strict format we have now, but they did the research and presented it to me, saying that the listeners really wanted this. For me, it takes a little bit of the 'person' out of personality radio, but in all fairness, there's only one way to see if it was a good decision or not, and that's by looking at the numbers after a fair amount of time. If you're asking me my opinion, I'll say this: For years WGN has always had a different sound to it than any other station on the dial, and we took our lumps for that. But we laughed all the way to the bank, because nobody else did what we did and that's what made us so unique. With these strict formatics, it makes us sound like just another radio station sometimes...but again...we'll see if they're right about it. Time and numbers. That's the only way to really judge it.

Rick: I've said this about you for years, and I really mean it. I think you are one of the most underrated and underappreciated radio personalities in Chicago history. Why do you think that people in the industry have been so reluctant to give you credit for your incredible success?

Spike: I don't look at myself as a publicity seeker, and maybe that's a bad thing when you're headlining a radio show. After all these years, I'm not your typical radio person. I don't like the limelight or the spotlight—I really don't. I know that's a little unusual. In this business, most people can't get enough of it. I've always maintained that it's an honor to do a radio show while you're doing it, but six months after you leave, you're lucky if people even remember you. I know I could get headlines by saying or doing something outrageous, but that's really not who I am. It's never bothered me that I don't get the credit that other more outrageous personalities get. I'm fine with that. I've always been fine with it.

Rick: You got the morning slot under some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable. One day Uncle Bobby was the king of Chicago morning radio, and the next day after his tragic plane crash, the microphone was handed over to you. What was it like during those days?

Spike: I was numb to be honest with you. I always felt like I was just filling in for Bob (photo) and it took a long time before that show became mine. I totally understand the cautiousness on the station's part. To start with they wanted me to do it just like Bob—after all, he was the franchise. But after awhile I had to say to them: "Look, I'm not Bob." They finally warmed up to that, and I started doing my show instead of his.

Rick: "I Like Spike" isn't just catchy slogan. When your fans are asked why they listen to you, they usually say that they like you. I know it sounds simple, but that really is your secret isn't it?

Spike: I hope so. I hope that would be part of it. I had a guy back in the Quad Cities who said to me: "There will be days when you're in a bad mood, and don't really feel like doing a radio show, but you know what? The person listening to you doesn't care about that. Why give them a bad day just because you're having a bad day?" I've always remembered that. I tried to be the good neighbor, and if what you say is true about how people look at me, that's a great compliment.

Rick: Looking back over your career now—what are some of your proudest moments, and are there any moments that you would handle differently in retrospect?

Spike: Oh yeah. I've definitely said some things I wish I didn't say. We're all guilty of that, especially in talk radio. You know as soon as you say it, and think to yourself, "what did I say that for!" or "I shouldn't have said that!" and you wish you could reach back into the microphone and pull those words back out. I've been wrong on so many things. But I don't have any specific regrets, because I'd like to think that I've been big enough to say when I was wrong. I've apologized on the air many times.

I also happened to have been on the air a lot when bad things happened. We already mentioned Bob's crash, and it was horrible to be here when that news came in, but I was also on the air on 9/11 when the planes crashed into the towers. And I was on the air when the Oklahoma City bombing story broke. Heck, my first month or two on the air here, Mayor Washington died while I was on the air. None of those were pleasant memories, but in a strange way they were good learning experiences—they helped me develop my craft. Taught me how to handle the toughest situations.

I'll remember all those times, but I'll also remember all the great times...laughing and scratching with some of the greatest people you could ever hope to work with. So many great folks, too numerous to mention, the different crews, like my morning crew now (featuring among others, Andrea Darlas, shown here). And the afternoon crew we had back in those days had an absolute blast every day too. That was free form radio—exploring things and just taking things wherever they went. I'll always remember that time with a smile on my face.

Rick: You've also been around long enough to see radio undergo some dramatic changes. What in your mind is better about radio today compared to the day you started and what is worse?

Spike: Well, the money's better today (laughs). It took me 30 years, but I can't complain about that. That's better for sure. I think the corporate end of the business has made it worse, though. The whole industry has become so corporate. Believe me, that's not just here—it's everywhere. I understand sales is in a tough situation in the current climate, but sales seems to dictate programming in ways that it never did before, and that has taken a lot of fun out of it for guys like me.

Rick: Of all the people you listened to on the radio, or worked with at a radio station, who had the biggest impact on your development as a broadcaster?

Spike: When I was working in a factory on the banks of the Mississippi, I would listen to all of those WLS guys on the Big 89 and the guys at Super CFL. I remember thinking: "Hey these guys are having too much fun." I wanted to do what they were doing. I loved 'em all. Fred Winston was great—he and Lyle Dean. Larry Lujack and Little Tommy with Animal Stories—that was tremendous. But to me, John Landecker (photo) was the best. I listened to him every night—and I still think he is the best rock jock that ever lived. The best of all-time.

Now when I came here to WGN, I really never thought I had a chance of getting this job. I was just this kid from Moline, and thought they'd just give me a tour of the place and that would be that. Just walking the hallways here was humbling. When I got the job I couldn't believe it. Think about some of the people who were working here then. I learned so much from Bob Collins. Just watching him. He was a real mentor to me. (Spike is saluting Bob Collins at this year's National Radio Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in Chicago)

I think another underrated guy in this town was Roy Leonard. He was a class act, a consummate pro—I learned a lot from him too. Not to mention Big O--Orion Samuelson, and Max Armstrong. I also always admired Clark Weber. I don't know him well, but I consider him to be a class act too.

Rick: Do you have any preferences for who should take over for you, and have you been consulted about that decision at all?

Spike: No I haven't been consulted. I thought I might be, and I would like to be, but it hasn't happened. I just hope that they don't bring in somebody who has made a career out of beating up WGN. I hope they promote somebody from within.

Rick: If I call you up five years from now, where would I need to call you, and what do you hope to be doing?

Spike: I would assume that I'll be a couple hundred miles south. We have a house in the Nashville area, and our kids are down there. What will I be doing? I'm not sure. That's a good question. I'm definitely hanging up the headphones. I don't foresee ever doing it again. I know I'm walking away from a good paycheck, but it's time. I told my wife that she's followed me around all these years, now it's my turn to follow her wherever she wants to go. I'm not ruling out going back to school. Maybe I'll work with my son. He's got a couple of businesses there. I'll definitely be doing some fishing.

Rick: No regrets?

Spike: No regrets. I've done radio for 31 years, and worked at 5 different radio stations, and I know this is a rarity in the business, but I've never been fired. Although...I guess I shouldn't say that quite yet. I've still got a few weeks left to go.