Saturday, April 18, 2009

Buzz Kilman

Buzz Kilman is a legendary Chicago radio newsman, best known for his long stints working alongside Jonathon Brandmeier and Steve Dahl.

Rick: Radio news has changed quite a bit in the years since you started doing it. What are your thoughts about the changes?

Buzz: To be totally honest, it hasn’t changed that much for me. I’ve really only worked with two guys for the past 30 years, Dahl & Brandmeier, and both of those guys have a specific way they want it done.

I can’t talk to what happened to other news departments, because I’ve always really been a one-man operation. The news itself hasn’t changed. Prioritize the stories, put them together in the format you use for that particular show, and then just do it.

What has changed is the way you gather the news. That’s been a revolution. The technological advancements over the years are just unbelievable, but the final product, that thing I do on the air, that hasn’t changed at all. I just do the news.

It’s really in my blood. I’ve been doing it my whole life, starting at the age of 16 when I became a printer’s devil, back in the days before photo offset printing. After high school I was a copy boy for the Miami News for a Pulitzer Prize winner, and then in college I was an editor for the Campus Conservative at the University of Miami...

Rick: Really? The Campus Conservative?

Buzz: Yeah, I lost the gig when Kennedy was shot. The football team didn’t want to play (to honor him), and I came out in favor of the football players, and that was it. It really was the Campus Conservative. Hey, it was only Kennedy! After that, I was also the editor of the Daily Planet (an underground newspaper in Miami), so I really have spent my whole life doing the news. I’m a news geek.

Rick: The first time Chicago heard you on the air was when you came aboard as the newsman on the Steve & Garry show in 1980, which at the time was already HUGE in Chicago. What was that experience like coming aboard that show at that time.

Buzz: The exposure was phenomenal. I came from a respectable station in Florida (WSHE), but believe me--we didn’t have a Steve and Garry. They were probably the highest profile morning show in the country at the time—this was less than a year after Disco Demolition. But I fit in immediately. When I got here, and started working with them, I couldn’t believe how comfortable it was.

And I couldn’t believe they were doing what they were doing! I wasn’t shocked...I came from a wacky radio background...but still to see it put together and become so hugely successful was incredible. That was the wonderful part of that gig. Steve had a vision, pursued it, and did it! And his vision included an insistence that everyone on the show had to have fun—that was part of the format, so heck, how bad can that be? You have to have fun! OK, I’ll do it.

Rick: You’ve worked with Steve now at 4 different radio stations, if my math is correct, The Loop, AM 1000, WCKG, Jack-FM... How were those experiences at the various different radio stations with Steve different? Has he changed much over the years?

Buzz: Steve (photo) invented the modern morning talk show format, turning real life into a comedic soap opera. That’s a hell of a contribution. Over time, he’s become like a radio father figure; an elder statesmen for the medium.

Rick: Everyone knows you worked with Steve & Garry and Brandmeier, but there were a few years between those two shows. What are your memories of working with RJ Harris and Pat Still (and later Mark McEwen)--before the Loop got it right with this rookie from Phoenix named Brandmeier?

Buzz: And let’s not forget Matt Bisbee (photo) for several weeks. He was the guy on the air right after they fired Steve & Garry. It was like they blindfolded him, put him up against the wall, and handed out guns to everyone. Matt took one for the team. Anyone who knows Matt knows what a great guy he is, and that’s probably why they chose him. They figured he was the guy that would incur the least amount of wrath.

That whole place was free-falling after Steve left, but it was a lot of fun to be there, believe it or not, because you could do absolutely anything. I actually got close to Harris, and we would plot against Still, and we came up with hideous things for him to do on the air, like work in stables hauling manure—things like that (Laughs).

Rick: Did you know immediately that Brandmeier would click?

Buzz: Yes. I recognized Johnny was going to be golden the first 30 seconds I heard him. I was walking by Tim Sabean’s or Greg Solk’s office, I can’t remember which, and they were listening to this tape of his show from Phoenix. I’m huge fan of boxing, and this guy on the tape was framing some surprisingly erudite question to Muhammed Ali, and I was impressed at the way he put the question together—and the fact that he had Ali on his show, so I stopped to listen in the hallway. But when the answer came from “Ali,” it sounded like it came from a 12-year-old white kid. That’s what it was—a 12-year-old white kid. This kid knew everything about Ali and was answering the questions totally seriously as if he really was Ali. That Bob & Ray school of comedy is my favorite—and Johnny was like Bob & Ray on crack—especially in those days when he had free reign on the phones. Brandmeier changed the face of the radio.

Rick: Obviously the success you enjoyed during the Brandmeier years is hard to top. You mentioned how huge Steve & Garry were when you started, but I think Brandmeier was even bigger when you worked with him.

Probably true, yes.

Rick: You also really burned the candle on both ends in those days. I was doing overnights for awhile during those years, and I remember seeing you come in after a night of bar gigs with your band, and I’d does he do it?

Buzz: I don’t know. I was single. You don’t answer to anybody when you’re not married. I was just doing stuff that I liked to do. I loved the radio, and I loved the music thing, and I didn’t see why I shouldn’t do both. Music was sort of new to me. Being in Chicago, with all these great places that had live music, it was like being a kid in a candy store. I was just learning how to play, and that’s what you do when you’re learning. You go all out. It’s true, a lot of nights I’d get home at 1 am, and then I’d get up 4:30, but the hangover wouldn’t hit until 9. That last hour of the show was deadly in those days.

Rick: I must confess-- I was scared of you in those days. I was warned that if something went wrong with the newswires or with the AP audio news feed overnight, that my life would be over as I knew it. I brought in alarm clocks so I wouldn’t forget.

Buzz: I’ve heard that before from others who were equally frightened. I did that on purpose, I suppose, because I was arriving in fragile condition and I didn’t want a setback at quarter to six in the morning.

Rick: So I was right to be scared?

Buzz: Nah. I never actually did anything to anybody. Occasionally I would throw a temper tantrum—just like everyone else in radio, but I was harmless. (Laughs) Although, I do remember one time I chased Greg Solk down the hall after he said something to me... I don’t remember what he said, and I don’t know what I would have done if I caught him, but I did chase him. At the time he was only 19 years old or so.

Rick: When Brandmeier first came back to town a few years ago there were sporadic reports that you were negotiating to return to his show. Were those reports true, and what kind of a relationship do you have with Johnny now?

Buzz: There was some talk, and some negotiating, but the timing was wrong, the contracts were not in synch, so it just didn’t happen. We still have a great relationship.

Rick: You probably get asked about your time with Dahl & Brandmeier a lot, but I also wanted to ask you about two other eras in your career before I let you go. After Johnny left WCKG in the early 00s, you and Wendy Snyder were paired up for awhile in the midday slot. Maybe it was my imagination, but as a listener, you really sounded happy doing that show. Was I hearing that right?

Buzz: In a word, yes. I loved it. I really like doing my own bits on the radio.

One of my talents is my ability to recognize what the DJ is doing and to help it along, because I understand the comedy of it. I understand how to enhance a bit. That’s part of my gig. Don’t worry about me, I’ll be listening, and I’ll help you do it.

But I also liked doing that Saturday night show on the Loop (Another Saturday Night Special), because I got to do some really unusual stuff, and it was so much fun. At CKG, I was doing this great timeslot--the midday show. We got one spring book and I think we were #3 in the demo, which is huge, but then suddenly 9/11 hit, and they brought in a new program director (Tim Sabean), and it was only a matter of time before changes were made. They had Stern in the morning, and Dahl in the afternoon, and that’s when they brought in Kevin, and moved me (and Wendy) to Steve’s show.

Rick: I also personally loved the Drive-In Movie review show you did with Tony Fitzpatrick. The two of you were so sick and twisted, and you really seemed to track with each other in terms of movie tastes. Do you still watch those movies?

Buzz: That’s a life long addiction, those movies. You bet. Now that I’m home and unemployed I’m watching them even more.

Rick: Do you and Tony still stay in touch?

Buzz: Tony (photo) is my 7-year-old daughter’s godfather.

Rick: Have you considered bringing back the show?

Buzz: Sure, I’ve thought about it. If there was someone that wanted it, we’d certainly consider doing it again. (Laughs) My agent is Steve Mandel, by the way, and I am available.

Rick: I saw you on Channel 9 recently, doing a segment on their morning show. Might TV be your next gig, or are you still looking in radio?

Buzz: No, to be honest, I don’t like TV. I love radio. I know the timing couldn’t be worse, so it’s a matter of hanging in there while people make their adjustments, but hopefully, it’s just a matter of time before someone says, “You know who would be perfect for this? Buzz Kilman!”