Sunday, February 24, 2008
John Calhoun is the production director of WIND-AM 560 & WYLL-AM 1160, and he is celebrating his 30th year in Chicago radio this year.
WIND-AM 560 & WYLL-AM 1160
2006 – Present
Voice-Over Talent/Commercial Producer
1999 – 2006
Part-Time Air Personality
1993 – 2005
1995 – 1996
1993 – 1994
Morning Air Personality
1990 – 1992
ABC Radio Networks/Satellite Music Network
StarStation (AC Format on 250 stations)
12N- 4PM CST, National Radio Personality
1981 – 1990
Late Nights 10PM – 2AM
1978 – 1981
Kansas City, MO
1977 – 1978
Oklahoma City, OK
1975 – 1977
Cedar Rapids, IA
1973 - 1975
Rick: I've always said that the Chicago radio community is like a small club, but talking to you about this interview made me realize that radio in general is like that.
John: It's true. I was looking at some of the other radio people you’ve covered. In 1974, Bart Shore and I worked together at KLWW in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Bart Shore saved my life one time. Bart’s weekend shift was 12 AM to 6AM on Sunday. My weekend shift was 6AM – 12 Noon. Part of that was airing pre-recorded church programs. One Sunday morning, after Bart (photo) had left the station, I looked out the back door to check on my brand-new car. Well, the locked, door slipped out of my hand and closed. My car and station keys were inside the radio station. In sheer panic, I ran as fast as I could to the Country Kitchen restaurant about a half mile away. In my mind I was trying to come up with a valid excuse for calling the Program Director from a restaurant, when I was supposed to be at the radio station. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to. Bart was there, just finishing breakfast. Needless to say, he was very surprised to see me. He drove me back to the station and I was able to get the next church program on, right on time. There was no dead air and no explaining to the PD was necessary.
Rick: And you worked with Karen Hand in Oklahoma City too, didn't you?
John: Yes. It was probably a year or two later that I was working at KOMA in Oklahoma City. Karen Hand was there at the same time.
Rick: But you weren't "John Calhoun" in Oklahoma, right?
John: I used the name “Machine Gun Walker” at KOMA. I actually purchased a replica of a Thompson sub-machine gun to use as a prop for appearances and photos. Although it was only a replica and not capable of firing bullets, the gun was very realistic looking. Shortly after purchasing it, I had it lying on the front seat of my car. An Oklahoma City detective, in an unmarked car spotted it. Pulled me over, he shoved his very real gun in my ribs and made me do some explaining. After what seemed like hours, two other cops finally determined that the gun was not real, and I didn’t pose any real danger to the public at large.
3 years later, I had landed in Chicago at WEFM. Late one afternoon, a photographer was taking some publicity shots of me with the Tommy gun. We were in a Chicago alley (named “Calhoun Place”). Well, sure enough, the Chicago Police showed up. The photographer and I explained what we were doing. The cops were very cool about it. They just said that we should call them in advance, the next time we wanted to take some pictures. No strangers to real gangsters and Tommy guns, these were Chicago cops. They knew I wasn’t going to be shooting anybody.
Rick: Let's talk about WEFM. That was always on my presets back in the late 70s and early 80s when you were there.
John: WEFM came on in the spring of 78. I had been in Kansas City doing mornings, and my wife and I decided that we wouldn't move again unless I got a job in her hometown (Chicago) or mine (the Twin Cities). I came to Chicago to interview with Dick Bartley who was the PD at WBBM-FM. They were a soft-rock station at the time. WEFM had just started up too, so while I was in town I dropped off another tape there, and they hired me instead. It was kind of a strange way of getting in the door there.
Rick: How would you describe that station today to people who never heard it?
John: WEFM was owned by General Cinemas, the company that owned all of those movie theatres. They had a bunch of stations out east, but we were their only Chicago outlet. It was a top 40 station at the time, going directly against WLS and WMET. Shortly after we started up, WMET went into an album rock thing.
Rick: And you were the night guy?
John: I did a bunch of shifts at WEFM. I was hired to do 10 pm-2 am, but then it became nights 7-midnight, and then they made the mid-day guy and production director. We had three different PDs during the three years I was there. The PD that hired me was shown the door shortly after I arrived, and Kevin Metheny took his place. He left not too long after that and went to MTV. His replacement was Bill Gamble who had been General Cinema's production director in Philly, I believe. And Gamble was the last PD there because in 1981, the format changed and we all got canned.
Rick: I can't remember what format they went to next.
John: I'm not sure what they called it on the air, but it was known as "Shulke 2", after the guy who created it, I guess. Everything was done by reel-to-reel tape. It mixed all kinds of different formats, and it was pretty wretched. I'm not surprised that didn't last. That frequency eventually became US-99.
Rick: And from there you segued to the Satellite Music Network. You did the early afternoon slot there for a decade, which was a national show on 250 stations. Where those studios located?
John: Studios were in Mokena, and our uplink site was in Frankfort. We were the pioneers in satellite broadcasting. I started at 8-Mid, and went to the noon to four. We were in all 50 states and the Virgin Islands.
Rick: But not Chicago, right?
John: We had affiliates in Elgin, Crystal Lake, and Crown Point.
Rick: A lot of well known Chicago personalities came through those doors at SMN.
John: The biggest Chicago name was King Bee Ron Britain. He was a pleasure to work with, a dear man. It used to frustrate me sometimes because he'd run things by me, asking me if something was good enough for the air or not, and I'd say you're Ron Britain, why are you asking me? He was the exact opposite of the egotistical blowhard stereotype of the big radio star, and one of the greatest talents I've ever met. He went on to do afternoons at WJMK after working with us.
Another personality people would know was one of your previous interview subjects, Dean Richards. He was the last PD based out of Chicago. (In 1990 SMN moved to Dallas.) Dean was a fun PD to work for. Unlike some of his predecessors, he wasn’t quite as restrictive. He actually encouraged creativity. Of course, our paths would cross again about ten years later at WGN.
Rick: Probably your highest profile gig locally was hosting the morning show at WPNT when it was "The Point." After doing nights and afternoons, I imagine that morning show routine was tough to adapt too.
John: I hadn't done morning in years, and my body clock was out of synch, that's for sure. Not only that, but from a creative standpoint, I really wasn't allowed to contribute. After SMN, it was a big change. At WPNT it was shut up, play the music, hit the call letters.
Rick: Was that during the era when they ran that commercial of the guy sitting at the control board with a piece of tape over his mouth?
John: That came a little later, but I was still there.
Rick: That commercial offended me, and I wasn't even working at that station. I imagine you jocks weren't too thrilled with it.
John: As you might imagine. That was a very weird time. We had three or four consultant firms working with us, and when you got a memo, you had to look at who was sending it, and decide whether or not to listen to it.
Rick: After leaving the Point, you had a twelve year stint at Oldies 104.3, WJMK.
John: After PNT, I actually wanted to get out of the business altogether. I started doing automotive sales for awhile, but then I heard about an opening in the sales department at WJMK, and that's how I got in the door there. After awhile I asked the program director (Kevin Robinson) if I could go back on the air, and he made me the weekend and fill-in guy. I really enjoyed my time there. It was a good fit for me. I got to work with some real legends like Dick Biondi, John Landecker, and Fred Winson, and I was having fun on the air again.
Rick: I got a chance to work with you several times when you filled in for John Landecker. If I remember correctly, you were filling in for John the day your daughter was born.
John: That's true. I had to leave to go to the hospital. I think the operations manager of our sister station, WJJD, Gary Price finished the show that day.
Rick: How old is your daughter now?
John: She'll be a freshman in high school in the fall.
Rick: Yikes. After the Landecker show was fired, you held down the morning fort for awhile. What was that experience like?
John: I knew I was only the morning guy on an interim basis after John was cut loose. Ken Cocker and I switched off a week at a time. I would do a week, and then he would do a week, and we did that for a few months, I think. They hired a guy out of Boston named Paul Perry to be the permanent replacement for John.
Rick: And permanent turned out to be a year or so. You were still there when they abruptly changed the format to Jack-FM. Tell me about that day.
John: I had started doing production work at WGN, and was working at both stations at the same time. Dean Richards called me around 1999 to help out with production over there, and I was having fun working there with Dean and Todd Manley, who had been my traffic reporter using the name Roger Wilco when I was on WPNT.
Anyway, Bob Lawson, the APD at WJMK, called me at WGN and told me that I was still going to be coming in to WJMK that weekend, but, by the way, things were going to be a little different. Instead of being on the air, you're just going to be running the board. I was somewhat flabbergasted, but not totally surprised. They had gone to the Jack format in LA a few months before that and Greg Brown had said to me: "Look out, we could be next." He was right.
Rick: For the last few years you've been doing mainly commercial production—first at WGN, and now at WIND 560 AM. I did a tour of the studios over there not too long ago, and it kind of had an unusual vibe. There aren't many people working over there.
John: I guess I've never thought of it that way. Compared to WGN that's certainly true. The sales staff is smaller and we do have a lot of syndicated shows, but it never really struck me that way. It is definitely quieter. It's friendly. It's actually kind of nice because you don't feel like a cog in giant wheel like you feel at some properties. Plus it's a suburban location and there's free parking.
Rick: How is what you're doing now different than what you were doing at WGN?
John: I'm the head of the department here and wasn't at WGN. Our clients do their own commercials more here, and I produce the spots for them. It's basically the same otherwise. If I don't voice it or produce it, I put it in the system.
Rick: You are what I would call "a classic announcer." You have those classic announcer pipes and the smooth announcer delivery, which used to be a standard approach in the business. That's become a pretty rare commodity these days. Why do you think that is?
John: When I got in the biz everybody on the air had a radio voice, but that started changing in the late 70s. Bob Sirott (photo) is the first one I can remember that didn't have that classic kind of voice, the pipes as you called it, and it was a ground breaking thing at the time. He's obviously done pretty well since. I think programmers and consultants got it in their head that people wanted disc jockeys to sound more slice of life or real. It became more about what you had to say instead of how you said it, which I suppose is the way it should be. Of course, if you get someone who has the radio voice and the great content, that is still ideal.
Rick: Thanks for doing this, and congratulations on your 30th anniversary in Chicago radio.
John: (whistles) Oh boy. Don't forget, I was 12 when I started. Chicago is my home now. I've been here longer anywhere else. My kids were all born here, and I don't plan on leaving anytime soon.
Sunday, February 17, 2008
Ken Sumka is the afternoon airborne reporter for WBBM-Newsradio 780 and a weekend/overnight jock at WXRT (93.1 FM).
1984-1988: WGHS 88.5 FM "The Castle That Rocks" Glenbard West HS. Glen Ellyn, IL Sadly they shut it down circa 1989. I was a disc jockey all four years and Music Director in 1986 (A helluva year for great music)
1988-1993: KRUI 89.7 FM Iowa City The Student-run FM station of the University of Iowa. I was a jock, news anchor, did some play-by-play for Iowa Baseball, Administrative Director circa 1990. On 11/1/91, a gunman opened fire at serveral buildings on campus, killing five, severely maiming one and killing himself. Our news staff (including me) happened to be on duty and we ended up covering the tragedy for worldwide media outlets, including CNN, BBC, Reuters, AP, UPI and also WBBM-AM, WLS-AM and WGN-AM in Chicago.
Summer 1991: Interned at WYSY-FM, Aurora, IL (Y108: "Doin' it in the burbs") in the Production Department
Fall 1991-1993: KQCR-FM "Q103" Cedar Rapids, IA Weekend and overnight jock Hot A/C. Used airname Kenny Summers. Played Paula Abdul and Michael Bolton.
January 1993-January 1994: WCBR-FM 92.7, Arlington Heights, IL "The Bear" Afternoon Drive (1:30-6PM) Hired and fired on the same day, one year apart.
January 1994-Present: WXRT-FM, Chicago, IL Weekends and overnights. Sunday-Tuesday: Overnights, Saturday 7PM-11PM.
May 1998-September, 2001--March 2003-Present: Shadow Broadcast Services, Chicago, IL Started out as fill-in then full-time afternoon airborne reporter for WMAQ-AM from 1998 until MAQ became The Score, then was full-time Afternoon Reporter for WBBM-AM from then until 9/11/01, when airborne operation ceased for awhile. During this time, I also did fill-in work in the chopper for WGN TV and radio, WMAQ-TV and WBBM TV and Radio. I also was an in-studio traffic reporter/editor at Shadow for WGN, WBBM, WGCI, WAIT and a News Anchor for WMRO. Then in March of 2003, I came back to Shadow as full-time afternoon airborne reporter again for WBBM-AM.
Rick: The big news this week is that WXRT will be moving from their long-time home at 4949 W. Belmont. As someone who has worked there since 1994, you must have some feelings on the subject. How did you react when you heard the news?
Ken: My first reaction--other than surprise that Michael Damsky was gone--was, "now I'm going to have to pay for parking". We have a really nice, secure lot at 4949 and it's free. And there's a vibe at that building that comes from being away from downtown. There are some unknowns that cause a little worry-like what sort of consolidation might happen with us sharing a space and personnel at NBC Tower. There's always some fear with change and the first thing you think about are the negatives, but I'm sure there are going to be some positive things to come out of it as well. I bet the view's terrific.
Rick: I know you worked at a great little suburban station (The Bear) before you started at XRT. How did you get your foot in the door at WXRT? They have on-air job openings about once a decade, don't they?
Ken: The Bear was a cool place to work, I still keep in touch with a lot of those people. (Photo: Ken with Chris Mars at WCBR) That seems about right though, once a decade at XRT a job becomes available. I was friendly with Marc Alghini, who back then was a record rep for Mute Records and he had amazing Cubs season tickets and he'd take a few of us WCBR jocks out to games. I knew that his wife at the time (Angela Strachan) was a weekend/overnight jock at XRT, so when Marc told me he was being transferred to New York, I asked him if he and his wife could put in a good word for me. They did, Norm called me and the rest is history. Things came full-circle two years ago when Marc returned to the Chicago area and is now a jock at XRT and produces Lin's show and also produces a lot of our remote broadcasts.
Rick: I don't know if other jocks (of a certain age) will admit this, but as a former jock with no current ties to any station, I think I can. WXRT is like a dream destination for music jocks. Having been beaten down by liner cards and tight music lists, we think that it must be different at XRT. Are we right, or does the reality not quite live up to the ideal, especially in this post 1996 corporate owned world?
Ken: I don't know of another commercial station in the country (in market #3 no less!) where the jocks actually pick their own music as they go. We do. When I get to the station to do my shift, it's pretty much a blank slate music-wise. WXRT shaped what I listened to musically, so it's cool to be able to play a small part in introducing someone else to music as well. I've had opportunities to go elsewhere and make more dough but it would've been at the expense of the freedom to choose my music. It also would mean not working with some of the most talented and knowledgeable people in the business. Working at XRT is like going to graduate school for radio and popular music, I figure that at 14 years, I already have the Masters Degree and I'm working on my PhD now. That said, I bet even A-Rod probably has some complaints about his job, so it's not perfect everyday.
Rick: I'm guessing you're a music lover. Let me ask you this. What are some of the songs on your iPod that might surprise your WXRT listeners? Any guilty pleasures?
Ken: Oh jeez, where to begin? I'm a drummer, so I grew up with Rush, so I have all their stuff from about 1976-1986. The David Lee Roth-era Van Halen were huge in my youth, so the self-titled debut through 1984 are all represented, I paid a ton of money for tickets to the Arpil 3rd Van Halen show at Allstate Arena and I cannot wait for that show. I'm a sucker for a good pop song too, so you would also find Madonna, (Early) Michael Jackson, Kylie Minogue, Robbie Williams, stuff like that. I also really dug Britney's single last year "Gimme More", too bad she couldn't hold it together long enough to promote the album, it got good reviews, it could've been the comeback she needed. I've also been throwing a lot of classical/orchestral music onto my iPod lately and the other day the "Summer" movement from Vivaldi's Four Seasons came on and I cranked it.
Rick: In addition to being a music jock, you've been working at Shadow for many years as an airborne reporter. I talked to Bart Shore a few weeks ago and he sent me some incredible pictures from his time in the copter, but I'm guessing that it isn't always so serene up there. Do you ever worry for your safety?
Ken: Oddly enough, the time it will take to answer this question represents the cumulative time I've feared for my life while airborne. I've been through some pretty heavy duty crap with regards to weather and wind but I was never worried for my life, I don't get airsick, I just get headaches. One of our pilots overshot the runway at Hobart Airport and we ended up in some trees at the end of the runway but nobody got hurt and the plane was fine. I've also been up in the chopper on a day when winds were gusting at 45-50 mph, which was a drag. I've been flying for decade, so it takes a lot to scare me.
Rick: How did you get involved on the airborne side of the business?
Ken: I was covering the XRT Rock-n-Roll Fireworks and we were using the Shadow Airplane. As a courtesy, I called Rick Sirovatka afterwards to thank him for letting us use the plane. We got to talking and the subject of working as an airborne reporter came up. I am quite familiar with pretty much the whole Chicagoland area and that coupled with my broadcast experience and love of aviation made it a perfect fit. I trained in the plane for a hour and was doing live reports on WMAQ that afternoon.
Rick: Take me through the typical afternoon at BBM. Once you get up in the air who is making the calls for where to go and what to look for, and do you generally have a regular route?
Ken: We take off at 3:30PM out of DuPage Airport in a Cessna 172. As soon as we're airborne, I call the editor's desk via two-way radio and see what's happening. If it's just standard stuff, we follow a normal route which is primarily the tollways and N/W Indiana. However, when all the Ryan construction was going on, our editors didn't have the traffic flow data they normally get from pavement sensors, so the Dan Ryan became a part of our regular route during that project. In the afternoon we also have two other choppers in the air, so we all coordinate with each other so we don't double up on coverage. And since Kris Habermehl does TV and radio, sometimes he might pass off the radio stuff to me if he gets busy and vice versa, sometimes I'm the first one on a scene and I'll cover it until he can get there with a camera, especially if it's something more visual (for TV), like a fire or a nasty accident. It's funny because of the nature of my job being at the airport and not at Shadow HQ downtown, there are people with whom I work everyday that I've never met face-to-face.
Rick: I know you're a local boy (Glen Ellyn). Who were some of your radio heroes growing up?
Ken: I was a big Larry Lujack fan early on, especially Animal Stories. I also listened to a lot of WGN, Cubs games and Wally Phillips and Bob Collins. Then it was Steve Dahl (and Garry), I still like Steve, he's still great, Garry too. I met Steve once and he said he knew me from my work at XRT and said I did a great job, that meant a lot to me. I was hoping that brief Steve/Garry reunion a few years ago was going to be permanent but at least they are on better terms now, it was sad when they weren't speaking to each other.
On the rock radio side, I used to listen to The Loop and WMET, so I liked Stroud, Skafish and those guys. I was heartbroken when WMET went off the air, so my uncle turned me on to WXRT and I was hooked. Then, all the old XRT jocks became my heroes, I wanted to be one of them someday. (Photo: Ken with Johnny Mars, Marty Lennartz, and Lin Brehmer.) The joke and reality is, all those people are still at XRT, so I work with all my old heroes, then my old favorite at the Loop, Bobby Skafish came aboard for awhile. I am proud to call all of them friends and colleagues.
Rick: Talk about finally breaking into your home town radio market. I know you started out at The Bear, which was an alternative rock station at the time, after you did a hot A/C show in Iowa. What was that experience like?
Ken: Doing Hot A/C was fun but definitely not what I wanted to do for a living. I know and respect people who can do any format because they love radio first and music is secondary but that's not me. The Bear was an amazing opportunity for me, I was doing afternoon drive in (Suburban) Chicago at age 22. I learned a lot. I did interviews every day, one day it was an author, the next a comedian and the next a musician or band, sometimes more than one in a day. Some amazing interview subjects too: Frank Black, Chris Mars (former Replacements drummer), Widespread Panic played an hour of live material three feet in front of me and didn't want to leave. I also interviewed The Straight Dope's Cecil Adams and Studs Terkel. Good times. Then I got fired at the Bear on a Friday and that Monday I had an interview with Norm at WXRT and was employed at my dream station. It felt good to pick up my last paycheck at The Bear wearing an XRT shirt. WXRT has been great. I've fielded countless calls on the request line from old acquaintances and classmates, which is great. That's why I use my real name, it's great to re-connect with people. I do miss the interviews though, that's probably the one regret I have about working overnights, no in-studio guests (Photo: Ken with Cheap Trick).
Rick: If you could chart your dream career course, where do you go from here?
Ken: Well, we all know about the dearth of full-time openings at XRT but that would be the ideal, to have a full-time, prime time shift at XRT. Or on the Shadow side if something managerial came up, that would be a great road to explore. If there was a radio-related role for me that didn't involve putting 100 miles a day on my car and gave me more time to spend with my family, that would be the dream career course.
Sunday, February 10, 2008
Dean Richards does it all for WGN radio (entertainment reporter, weekend show host, production director), and is the entertainment reporter for WGN-TV Morning News.
1975, WLTD, Evanston (I was Chuck Schaden's engineer and got to read the weather on his original "Those Were The Days" show.)
1976, WMRO/WAUR, Aurora (a west suburban version of WGN and an automated FM station where I recorded voice tracks that were always out of sequence with the songs.)
1978, WFYR, Chicago (Evenings during the Fred Winston era at this great full service A/C)
1980, WCFL, Chicago (Evenings. For a Chicago kid, one of my boyhood dreams come true. I was a pimply-faced dork who used to hang out in the viewing room watching the jocks do their shows through the narrow windows at their Marina City studios.)
1984, WCLR, Chicago (Production Director and Weekend talent, A/C)
1986, ABC Radio Network (Program Director of StarStation, their adult contemporary format heard on 225 stations nationwide and midday talent)
1990, WNUA, Chicago (Mornings/Smooth Jazz)
1991-Present, WGN-TV Chicago/National (Staff announcer, Illinois Lottery Talent, in 1999 brought on to “WGN News at Noon” and then “WGN Morning News” as an entertainment critic/reporter)
1994-Present, WGN-AM Chicago (Another boyhood dream come true. Production Director/Announcer, Weekend Host, Weekday fill-in host)
Rick: My first question is, I think, an obvious one. You work on WGN Morning News on television, you do production at WGN radio during the day, you appear on Steve Cochran's afternoon show on WGN, and you have to go out at night to cover events as an entertainment reporter. When and where do you sleep?
Dean: And don't forget the interviews and screenings during the day and the weekend press junkets. If you've ever seen me in a restaurant after a nice meal or in a really dull movie, you know where I get my sleep. I guess you really have to love what you do to keep this pace. It is pretty busy but most days are fun. Thank goodness we have great makeup people and barrels of concealer.
Rick: I saw that the New York Times called you "Tribune Company's Man of Many Hats." Which of those hats is your favorite one to wear?
Dean: Like Dorothy Tillman, I love my hats for a variety of reasons. The "radio hat" allows me to dig into subjects with some depth. WGN is unique in that we have a lot of freedom to choose our own topics and how we present them.
The "TV hat " is what has re-energized my creativity. Learning a whole new way of writing and doing what I've done for 20 years was great. It helped me find my writing voice, not to mention being part of the best morning show in the country.
The "print hat" is the most challenging. I've told stories all of my professional life with audio and video so when I have to rely strictly on words, it's an entirely different kind of expression.
Rick: You've been at WGN for so long that people may not remember your distinguished DJ career (WCFL, WNUA, WFYR). Do you miss doing music radio at all? And what were some of the highlights of those days looking back at it now?
Dean: I don't miss music radio at all, especially in the state that it's in now. Toward the end of my WNUA days, I really had gotten pretty fed up with playing the same old songs, over and over and over. Couple that with the repetitive songs of Kenny G (photo) and Yanni, and you'll appreciate why I was at the end of my rope. It's got to be frustrating for jocks now since most stations are now so tight-listed with very little opportunity for talent to be talent. Most managers don't know how to motivate their talent to do great performances so the next best thing they do is to shut them up and shove liner cards in front of them. It's very sad and probably why alternative sources of music programming are making such inroads.
The best music station at which I worked was WFYR. Every show featured great talent. Don Kelly and Dave Martin were my program directors that really knew how to motivate talent to go for greatness everyday. The management was amazing. The news department (yes, at a music station) was second to none. Plus, being owned by RKO/General Tire, we got great discounts on steel-belted radials.
Rick: You've been in the market for 30 plus years. Who are some of the people on the air that influenced your own style, and who are some of the radio performers you most admire?
Dean: My early radio heroes were the WLS and WCFL top jocks of the day. Art Roberts, Ron Riley, Dick Biondi, Ron Britain and Barney Pip were my first radio awarenesses. I studied their every move. I had a pretend radio station in my basement where I'd do my version of their shows with a phonograph and tape recorder (dork again.) As I got older, it was all about Larry Lujack and Fred Winston (photo). Imagine how excited I was to get to work with Fred and become friends with him. I'd be embarrassed to listen to my earliest airchecks and hear how much of a bad rip-off of both I was. I can't believe someone didn't slap me!
Growing up here, my parents always had WGN on. Their classic talent lineup is still unmatched; Wally Phillips, Bob Collins, Roy Leonard, Eddie Schwartz. I probably developed my sense of broadcast responsibility from them. I also think that every radio person in Chicago over the past 25 years has been influenced by Steve Dahl. You have to admire how he pushed the envelope and opened up new horizons for all of us.
Rick: You regularly interview some of the biggest stars in the world. Who are some of your favorites and who have been some of the most difficult to deal with?
Dean: 95% of the celebs are pretty nice. (photo: Dean surprises Halle Berry with a tin of Garrett's Popcorn) They've got a job to do. They know I've got a job to do and we all co-exist perfectly. Through the years, I’ve gotten to know a lot of them so it's almost like visiting friends than interviewing movie stars. The best have been Tom Hanks, John Travolta, Diane Keaton, Bonnie Hunt (most of the Chicago people, in fact); they're down to earth, nice people. I could easily go on in my life without ever talking to Meg Ryan (condescending), Tommy Lee Jones (nasty), Debra Winger (confrontational) or the always-annoying Helen Hunt again.
Rick: Let's talk about the WGN-TV morning show. I think that's such a talented staff you've accumulated there. Who really runs that show, and who is responsible for creating the atmosphere of fun that comes through on the air?
Dean: It's the management that's smart enough to not mess around (too often) with something that’s working. It's a crew of incredibly talented people in front of and behind the cameras ; all working to make great TV everyday. Our morning show reminds me in a way of the TV show “M*A*S*H.” It's a bunch of constantly exhausted, irreverent, talented people, who know when to be serious and know when it's O.K. to goof around. There's an honesty to our show that seems to make it so refreshing.
We all contribute. We all are heard but Larry, Robin and Paul set the tone around which everything else must flow. Our producers and writers are amazing. My producer, Tyra Martin, is a Godsend. Segment producer, Jeff Hoover (photo) is the class clown who comes up with some of the show’s funniest bits. I also love Ana, Pat and Val. It's really like a family, sometimes dysfunctional, all working toward the same goal. Plus, it's really unusual to have such great talent who happen to also be great people in real life. We're all friends and have each other's backs.
Rick: I know that Randy Salerno was a former colleague of yours. Talk about how the news of his death affected the WGN newsroom.
Dean: There was a tangible shockwave that came over the newsroom the morning when we learned of Randy’s tragic accident. He worked with many of us for 11 years. The entire tone of the show changed as we suddenly had to put our emotions aside and report on the top story of the day, which also happened to be something that affected us all personally. There were quite a few tears that morning. It was similar to the day at WGN Radio when Bob Collins died.
For me, Randy was one of the first people in the newsroom to encourage me in my transition from radio to TV. His desk was across from mine and when our schedules had us there at the sam e time, he'd be merciless when something sucked and tremendously supportive when something was great. His sarcasm and wit were always on, commenting on everything and everyone that came to his mind. His skill and professionalism was contagious. He was a great guy.
Rick: You hosted and co-produced a television show that I think will become a classic for people of my generation: "Bozo, Gar, & Ray ". How did that show come about, and what kind of a reaction have you gotten?
Dean: ”Bozo, Gar & Ray: WGN TV Classics” was the brainchild of George Pappas . Aside from his duties in the WGN-TV programming department, he is the station's unofficial historian. It was George who somehow found and literally screened hundreds of tapes to find the best clips to include in the show. George pitched the show to the station and they realized the value of it. He and I wrote the show. Jeff Hoover and our amazing editor, Terry Bates, added their considerable talents to the show, piecing together what, we're all proud to say, has become a very special program to a lot of people.
The results have surpassed anything we could have imagined. We knew there'd be a nostalgic reaction to seeing all of the old clips but we were especially overwhelmed by the emotional response we received from people all over the country who grew up with these shows. We’ve even heard from people that didn't grow up here, who’ve made the show’s annual airing a holiday tradition of their own. Last year was the third year it’s aired. The ratings and response remain strong. It was a true labor of love.
Rick: Now that you've done it all, I have to ask you--what's left? Where do you see your career going from here?
Dean: Hell, I'm the voice of Victory Auto Wreckers. What more is there for me?
Saturday, February 02, 2008
Drex is the host of the morning show at Kiss-FM 103.5.
Started at Q106(WQXA) York/Lancaster/Harrisburg. Then off to San Antonio to new rocker KXZL...which debuted and beat Heritage rocker KISS in one book! Really. Then to KSJO...Then back to SA to do nights at KTFM, then to KISS in Dallas, then back to SA to be PD/Aft drive, then help Elvis launch Q102 in Philly...then Power 96 (WHYT/Detroit mornings)...then back to KTFM, to drop the music and begin all-talk...then to KISS/Chicago!
Note: This interview was conducted live via video on the Internet—something DreX is calling "DreX-Vizzzion." This is a slightly edited version of our DreX-Vizzzion interview. (For those of you spelling it at home, that's spelled with three z's.)
Rick: So is the deflowering of a new concept?
DreX: It's the soft deflowering. It's still in beta form right now.
Rick: How do you plan on using it?
DreX: I'm just going to turn the camera on in my apartment when big news hits, and let it fly from my living room. It's gonna be totally live, totally voyeuristic, and hopefully, totally addicting.
Rick: Just whenever? How will people know to tune in?
DreX: We'll either let them know with an e-mail or if it's a big story I might call in to the radio station to let people know, but hopefully people will catch on and check it out on their own.
Rick: The website says 1 p.m, Monday through Thursday, but I take it you'll be doing it at other times too (this interview was conducted around 11:15 a.m).
DreX: Whenever I feel like it. I read all this stuff about radio people worrying that other technology will take over radio—but I say you gotta totally embrace the new technology. I embrace it. I love being innovative and changing and I'm all about the pop culture. It can take you to another level if you do it right. This will either be great or the end of my career. (laughs)
Rick: So, can I ask you a question I've wanted to ask since you arrived in town?
Rick: What is the origin of the name DreX?
DreX: Ah, that's an evolutionary process over time. I grew up in Pennsylvania (York-Lancaster), and from the time I was 14 or 15 I knew what I wanted to do. I would listen to Chicago radio through the crackling static, guys like John Records Landecker on WLS, and I always wanted to be in Chicago doing radio. I would do anything to get into a radio station—my first job was emptying trash cans, and once I got my foot in the door I worked my way up. By the time I was a senior in high school I was on the air, using my real name (Kevin).
When I was 19 I got hired by Dave Conway, who was a legendary PD, and I drove three days to accept the new gig. When I got there he told me: "You've got two choices. You'll either be known as 'Toasted Tyrone' or 'Mandrex the Magician.' I didn't want to be either, but I talked to my dad and he said, "You have to give a chance. You drove all the way out there." So, I chose Mandrex the Magician. I worked in San Francisco, and Dallas, and San Antonio, and along the way I dropped "the Magician," and then it was eventually shortened to Drex.
Rick: And the capitalization of the "X"?
DreX: That started in San Antonio.
Rick: So how did you arrive in Chicago?
DreX: That's a long story. When I became program director in Texas, I knew I had to get out of there. I hated Texas because of the heat. And I hated being a program director…it's just not my thang. I went to Philly to do nights, which was great because I was finally close to home. But even though things were going great in terms of ratings and everything, one day there was a big falling out, and everyone was fired. That's when it dawned on me that maybe I should think about saving my money.
I did mornings in Detroit for awhile, and I didn't want to go back to Texas, but they offered me the chance to come back to San Antonio for the same money I was making in Detroit—-plus this time I wouldn't have to play any music. That was an offer I couldn't pass up. By 2000, we were hitting #1 in every demo, and we were doing a morning talk show.
Along the way I befriended John Gehron, and he was negotiating with Eddie & Jobo (photo), trying to get them to move to mornings at Kiss-FM. Gehron told me that if those guys decided not to take it, the job was mine. They didn't, and the rest is history. Looking back, I'm so happy CBS decided to pay them so much money. This situation fits me so much better.
Rick: You've been in Chicago now for a few years (since January 2003) and have built up a loyal following…
DreX: I feel very blessed to have it happen here because so many shows come and go. I must admit, I really didn't know that this would be such a tough nut to crack. Very few non-locals make it in Chicago.
Rick: How would you describe your show to those who haven't heard it before?
DreX: I've heard so many definitions of the show, but I guess you'd call it contemporary talk or progressive talk. It's basically talk radio that's specifically targeted to women.
Rick: But when I listen to your show, I hear a lot of guys.
DreX: That's a talk radio phenomenon. The longer you stay on, the more you get other listeners, and if you don't have music to scare people away, you can attract all different ages and genders.
Rick: But when you choose your topics, you're thinking of a predominantly female audience.
DreX: Yes, but I have so many topics in a show it almost doesn't matter. I change my topics every segment unless it's a huge story. You've got to have the intuition to know when something is working…and when it's not working. It really takes a lot of work and homework to come up with that many topics, and we're on now every morning live until 10:30, so we need even that much more. But that's what makes it fun. I have ADD and so does my audience.
I come in with a huge folder of stuff, it's what I do all day long. I go on the Internet, cruising the web, watching The View, all the mags, all the papers, you name it.
Rick: Do you ever wish you still had songs to play just to get a breather?
DreX: No. To get anyone to hold on the phone during a song is impossible. When I did play music, the music just got in the way. About a month before Christmas our studio computers locked up and froze and we were off the air. We were just sitting there listening to the music, and boy does it remind you how long the show is when that's all you have.
Rick: I asked a friend of mine, who is a loyal listener of your show, to describe you. This is what he said: "He's a fan of the most random things: Notre Dame football, American Idol, The Cubs, stinky cheese, pork chops, and he was once kicked in the head by a pet horse! Oh, and he believes in ghosts." Care to comment on any of those observations?
DreX: (laughs) Yeah, it's not easy to describe me. I have not had one successful relationship in my life, and it kills me when people try to pigeonhole me. Is he gay or is he whatever? As far as my personal life there really isn't any—I'm married to my job. The key to this is really, I'm blessed that I have passion. I have a lot of respect for these guys like John Landecker and Steve Dahl (photo), who have stuck it out for so long, and who always found a way to tap into their passion.
Rick: Doing a personality morning show is a 24-hour-a-day job. There's really never a time when you're not thinking about show topics, bits or guests. Take me through your typical work day, in terms of how you do your show prep, who else is involved in the process, and when you know what you'll be doing.
DreX: There are times when the alarm goes off at 4:00 and I think: "you've gotta be kidding me." But these days we're able to get into the studio earlier, and my producer Smash is there at 4:00, and all of the cuts are downloaded and ready to go by the time I get in there, which gives me plenty of time to grid the show myself. (Photo: DreX being botoxed on the air)
Rick: You do it right before the show?
DreX: No. I've got half of it ready to go before I get there. Like right now (it's 11:30 am), I've got half of tomorrow's show planned out. I work on it all day. I sit here and write, write, write…
Rick: Your show has recently undergone some changes. I know it was hit by the Clear Channel budget cuts (Pete), plus another member of your show (Radio Boy) was arrested. How have those two things affected your show?
DreX: Well, Radio Boy wasn't really part of the show. He was a part-time employee who ran the board for me on occasion when Pete wasn't here. But, Pete, that was a tough one. He had been with me for a long time, and although he had come and gone before, he had become the perfect third wheel—plus he was helping me write the show. But his position was eliminated, and there really isn't anything I can do about that. What it has done is it has changed the dynamic of the show from more of an ensemble to a two-person show. On the other hand, it has proven that Mel & I can do the show on our own, and Mel (photo) has really stepped up. You don't have a choice. You can't go and brood about it—especially on the air. That's not really an option. My producer Smash has also brought in an element of organization. And that has really helped too.
Rick: After all these years in radio you've encountered hundreds of celebrities. Are there any that really stand out in your mind, positively or negatively?
DreX: To be honest, I tend to push a lot of music celebrities away, especially the b-list celebrities. I much prefer involving the listeners, and when we really get a topic going, there's nothing better than when I can step back and let the listeners go at each other. When that happens, I say "Thank you God, This is great." The show is really more about doing that than having celebrities. It took people awhile to get used to doing it this way, but now they know to go for it…and I love that. It gives a whole different texture to the show.
As far as worst celebrity encounters, about two years ago on September 11, I was doing a tribute show for the people that lost their lives. I had somebody on the air who was telling this heartbreaking story about losing a family member. Ludacris (photo) had been offered to me that morning and I had said no—because I had this tribute show planned. But he was trying to sell his new CD, and wanted to be on the air, so he showed up anyway.
Basically live on the air, in walks Ludacris, and I said dude, listen I can't do this today. I asked him if he was willing to talk about September 11th? And he said no, so I basically had to kick him out.
Rick: Where do you see yourself going from here? Is Chicago your final destination?
DreX: I'd love to stay here and make the show bigger, and maybe have the company syndicate the show to other markets, but I love Chicago. This is the greatest city, and I love my job. Being at Kiss feels right to me. I'm so happy it worked out the way it did with Eddie & JoBo. Can you imagine me over there or them over here? I'm just excited about the future, and as long as I keep doing things like DreXVizzzion, I hope to stay on the cutting edge.
VIDEO DREX: Nude Hippo interview with DreX