Saturday, February 14, 2009

Rick O'Dell

UPDATED 9/10/10


When I interviewed Rick O'Dell last year he had just been let go by WNUA. I caught up with him last week and asked him to tell me more about his new(ish) gig at WLFM...

Rick: I've been at WLFM-LP, 87.7 Chicago's Smooth Jazz, since last December. I'm PD, MD and midday host. It's a unique environment, to say the least, and a major departure from the culture of Clear Channel. We're the only radio station among the media properties of the Venture Technologies group based in Los Angeles. I'm one of a staff of about a dozen people (mainly part-timers), led by GM Pat Kelley, rebuilding a format and building a radio station from scratch. Fortunately, we've gotten help in the programming department from some heritage WNUA talent: Bill Cochran, Loni Taylor and Scott Adams, along with Brian Culbertson and Dave Koz from the Broadcast Architecture Smooth Jazz Network.

We're up against some interesting challenges here (namely a weaker signal than we had at 95.5 and the proclivities of the Smooth Jazz format in the world of PPM), but the outlook is bright. June was our best ratings month, and July was our best revenue month so far. And our listeners' passion for the music we play has never been more apparent. It's all good.

The original interview follows...

Rick O'Dell has been a mainstay on the Chicago radio dial for nearly 30 years; most recently with WNUA, a station he helped put on the map. At the end of January he was a victim of the latest round of Clear Channel budget cuts.

Rick K: There has been an outpouring of good will towards you since the news broke on inauguration day. Everyone from Phil Rosenthal at the Tribune to Ron Magers on WLS Radio has been very outspoken on your behalf. Have you been surprised at the reaction to your dismissal?

Rick O: I didn’t get into this business: a) to be an on-air talent; or b) for the adulation of fans or accolades from critics. I got into it because I loved music and I wanted to learn about radio as a business enterprise--what it takes for a radio station to be successful, in other words. So, anytime somebody writes or says something positive about me or my work, I’m pleasantly surprised. Getting strokes from Phil Rosenthal and Ron Magers is something I’ll always remember. But the most meaningful comments are those that come from listeners. They supported me--and WNUA--for a long time. I owe it all to them.

Rick K: You were quoted as saying your reaction was "40% disappointment and 60% relief." Talk about some of the reasons why you were relieved.

Rick O: Up until the very end, even on January 20, radio was fun for me. It was an exciting way to earn a living. I got up every day and couldn’t wait to get to the station. I loved my job. Because I enjoyed it so much, maybe I became a bit too attached to it, too involved. I gradually took on so many projects and responsibilities that my days were 10-11 hours long, with additional work on weekends. Like the character Martin Sloan said in a famous episode of The Twilight Zone (my all-time favorite episode, by the way), “I’ve been living on a dead run and I was tired.” After working 22 years in radio on a dead run, it’s great to take a break. Also, the underlying philosophy behind operating a radio station seemed to change since the time I got in it and began contributing to my sense of fatigue. In the early days, whenever we were deliberating doing something, we'd ask ourselves the simple question, "Will this make us a better radio station? Recently, that question had become entirely, "Will this make us a cheaper radio station to run?"

Rick K: You and I have a common a radio sense that is. We both got our start at WPGU in Urbana-Champaign. How important has the training and experience you received there been to your career

Rick O: I’m sure you remember WPGU, Rick . . . playing records, splicing tape, tearing wire stories off a teletype--all the while having a ball in the musty old basement of Weston Hall. These were all essential skills we learned at WPGU back in the day. But the most important lesson I learned was that it takes a team effort for a radio station to be successful. A station is bigger than any one individual. (Photo: Rick with the current Illini Media braintrust: Chuck Allen, Mary Cory, and Kit Donahue)

Rick K: You had been at WNUA for twenty years, but you had already been on the radio in Chicago for quite awhile before you were hired. What are some of the highlights (from your perspective) of your pre-WNUA career?

Rick O: Before WNUA, I played Broadway music and show tunes (!) at WKDC in Elmhurst in 1981. Then I did an eight hour overnight shift for more than a year at WAUR/WMRO in Aurora from their remote outpost of a studio out on Eola Road . Then came five years at WCLR. When I started there, I got to be part of an incredible lineup: Phil "Doctor" Duncan, Dave Hilton, Sue Berg, Peter Dean, Mike Roberts, Barry Keefe, Jack Miller. Peter taught me everything I know about precision radio production.

Rick K: The former Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Feder was a very enthusiastic early champion of your show. I know if I were you, I would have brought those articles into every negotiating session with me. "You don't want to pay me more, huh? Hmmm. Let's see what the newspaper had to say about my show today." How do you think his support affected your career through the years?

Rick O: I was blessed with an enormous amount of positive coverage throughout my career from Robert (photo). I never asked for it, so I was grateful for every word he wrote. In the early days, his support helped legitimize my show and the format in general. Later, during the heyday of WNUA, it was all part of a huge, swirling, positive vibe that seemed to carry the station (and me) along.

Rick K: WNUA has gone through quite a few changes in your 20 years. The music has changed quite a bit. The management has changed. The ownership has changed. How did you manage to navigate those changing waters?

Rick O: My dad was a man of few words. He liked to lead by example. His approach was this: show up and do your job; be accountable; be open to suggestions; be aware; be positive. I learned a lot just by watching him. Fortunately, every employer I’ve had seemed to place some value in the approach I learned from my dad.

Rick K: Which WNUA era do you remember most fondly and why?

Rick O: Two eras:
1989-1995 – A time of incredible musical variety and vitality at WNUA: New Age, Pop, Contemporary Jazz, R&B—we played it all.
1997-2003 – The era of WNUA as ratings and revenue powerhouse. All the hard work that went into the early years seemed to pay off.

Rick K: I know you're a Chicago boy--a Lyons Township High School grad. I always like asking this question to jocks who grew up here because it's fun to see how and why Chicago radio evolved. Who did you listen to before you got into the business, and how did they influence you?

Rick O: Tommy Edwards (photo) – the best midday host I’ve ever heard. I tried to model my show after his—make it fun and upbeat without getting in the way of the music.

Bob Sirott – amazingly quick wit, wonderfully entertaining features on his PM drive show.

John Landecker – a high intensity, high energy evening show that taught me early lessons (while I was just a listener) on what “dayparting” was.

Also, the music rotations at WLS and WCFL in the mid ‘70s. I kept a diary of how often the top songs played on both stations. I learned what it meant to play the hits.

Rick K: It might be too soon to ask this, but what are you looking for in your next challenge? Are you planning on continuing in radio or are you looking outside of the business?

Rick O: Contrary to what you read in the press these days, I feel strongly that radio has a bright future. It will weather the current storm. I want to be part of radio’s next phase because, for my generation, radio will always be a part of people’s lives. Radio isn’t going away.

Rick K: I've seen your pictures from Cubs fantasy camp, so I don't have to ask where your baseball loyalties lie. Is this going to be a good year for the Cubs or not?

Rick O: You've heard it before. This is it. This is “next year.” The Cubs actually have another year or two left in their window of opportunity. Like Lou says, “I have a good feeling about this team," although I'm not convinced this is a better team than in '08.