Saturday, May 30, 2009

Steve Dale

Updated 9/5/09


I interviewed Steve Dale just before my summer sabbatical, and he had just been let go by WGN Radio. He didn't remain on the sidelines for long, and is now back on the air at WLS. I got in touch with him the other day and asked him about his turbulent summer, which included switching stations, having the Mayor declare "Steve Dale Day" in Chicago, and a terrible personal loss...

Steve: I was able to come out of the closet at WLS, and admit that for years I've been listening to Roe Conn. His knowledge base on every topic on the planet is incredible. I spoke with Roe on air about Michael Vick, and he spouted off how dogs evolved - geez, who knows the latest theory on that. He does! Students don't need to go to Columbia to learn to be a talk show host, just listen to him. And Don and Roma are sort of, kind of, today's version of Bob and Betty Sanders. I'm not talking about content, as much as the interplay between them. I met them briefly - if they only knew how thrilled I was. The thing about Don and Roma is that magically they are able to speak to listeners one by one, as if they are only talking to you. It's truly a rare talent. And I also have the pleasure of being a guest with Pat Cassidy, an absolute pro. I'm kind of afraid but hoping to go head to head with Mancow on topics where we don't agree, such as breed bans. I've yet to meet him.

I'm on WLS Saturday afternoons at 2 (for now), but when Notre Dame sports hit, I'll be on at 6 a.m. Saturdays. Well, at least I'll be doing morning drive on a 50,000 watt giant. I'm honored to be at WLS. We've built a ginormous amount of content on our pet pages, with more to come. We even have videos on the site, and link to a Blog - and much, much more. An we do an hour of On Demand radio, available each week, anytime with some of the most noted pet personalities in America, I'm treated well, and most important, I hope I'm able to help individual pet owners, and talk about relevant issues. My challenge is finding a way to communicate to my old littermates at WGN, that I've moved up the dial. We even had billboards around town. That was cool.

Unfortunately, my dad passed away just 2 days after the 'Steve Dale Day' was scheduled. I was staying with him in hospice. I had to phone the Alderman, and explain I could not attend. My dad sparked my interest in animals. Interestingly, when he was around 20, his goals were either to work in radio, or become a zoologist. Well, ever since I was 20 (or even younger, actually), I've worked in radio in one way or another. I never became a zoologist, but I do work with animals. That's why from here on out, as long as I'm on the air, I'll thank my dad at the end of every show.

The original interview follows below...

Steve Dale is a nationally syndicated columnist and radio host. He most recently hosted "Pet Central" on WGN radio.

Rick: Your show “Pet Central” was cancelled recently by WGN Radio after more than ten years on the air, a victim of the weekend restructuring there. How did they let you know they were ending it?

Steve: As a guy who has been fired a few times... I knew a week or two before that something was up, maybe even a month or two. I had that radio radar working. But they handled me with dignity, I have no complaints. They explained why they were doing it, they didn’t beat around the bush, told me it had nothing to do with my show, which kind of made me feel better, and they let me say goodbye on the air, which most people wouldn’t do. I don’t know (WGN PD) Kevin that well, my interaction has been minimal, but I’ll never forget the guy for giving me the opportunity to say goodbye. And we had a good run. You can measure radio years in Labrador years and 12 years is a long time.

Rick: But you’re still doing the show, right?

Steve: Not Pet Central. The two national shows are very different. One is a one minute feature that airs on stations around the country (“The Pet Minute”), and the other is “Steve Dale’s Pet World” which is an hour long show, and is syndicated on like 200 stations. But there is nothing like being on the radio station you grew up listening to (along with WLS and WCFL). I’m really going to miss that.

Rick: Looking back on those WGN years, what are a few of your favorite moments?

Steve: My favorite moments are always when a listener calls and says “you helped me and made my day. That’s why I didn’t give up the dog or cat to the shelter.” Those are always my favorite moments.

When I think about my time at WGN, I fondly remember my Bob Collins (photo) appearances. I would come on his show occasionally, and I would bring in these products, and I chose products that made noise, like a trumpet, and the “talk to me treat” ball, where you record a message for your dog. Bob recorded a message for his dog Booger. Collins, being a morning show guy, normally would have guests on for like 5 minutes, but I would be on for the better part of an hour. That’s how I got the show in the first place.

The news director Tom Peterson was in a meeting with the PD at the time, Mary June Rose, and she said she wanted to do some specialty shows on the weekend. Tom said “did you hear what happened this morning?” (Referring to my appearance). Tom really made it happen for me, and Mary June signed off on it. I knew she wasn’t a pet person, so I brought in a stuffed animal dog (a plush) and said “I understand you’re allergic,” and gave it to her. She laughed and later said that it was the only time bribery ever worked.

The thing I will remember most about the show, though, is that it made a difference in ways that I never would have envisioned. One time a listener called and asked why they didn’t have dog parks in Chicago, and she was calling from a high rise over Foster Ave. beach. She was looking down and it was cold and windy and no one else was on the beach except an old lady with her dogs and the cops were following her, telling her to get off the beach! I had long thought that dogs off-leash needed a place to go. We already had one that was up and running as an experiment. I testified in front of the park district commissioners, and others did too, and my timing was right. I explained why it was a good idea, and then became a part of the committee that created the protocol for dog parks.

Remember when President Bush asked children to send $1 for children in Afghanistan? Well, one listener called to say their Tibetan Terrier Boots Montgomery wasn’t a kid, but they wanted to contribute too. So we created a fund and I had the advantage of promoting it in my newspaper column and WGN radio and we raised thousands of dollars. We gave it all in the name of their pet. It was what the president wanted.

Far more recently, there was a dog attack in Shirley Coleman’s ward, and she went on television to say “If I could ban all the dogs in Chicago I would, but I’m going to try to ban all the Pit Bulls and Rotweilers.” So I called Alderman Coleman and explained why I didn’t agree with that, and I had lots of data to defend my position, and asked if she would come on the radio and listen, and she did. I told the producer, just take the calls as they come in, but let’s be fair and take calls from both sides. Every call but one expressed opposition to banning breeds and she listened. In the commercial break she said “you convinced me.” But then she said “What do we do? We need to come up with something better. You are now in charge of a blue ribbon task force to come up with a solution,” and we did. We rewrote the animal control act.

A couple years later it came up again with another alderman Gene Schulter (photo). The Task Force on Companion Animals and Public Safety, which I created and still co-chair, came up with the recommendations for City Council to consider instead of banning breeds. The aldermen, the directors of the shelters, and a coalition of experts all worked together to explain why breed bans wouldn’t work and the recommendations were passed 50-0 in city council.

You can also dine outside now with your dog in Chicago and it’s legal. It was kind of a gray area for years. I worked with Alderman Schulter to pass that too.

One other thing. After Katrina I spoke to a lady in New Orleans named Laura Maloney from LASPCA. She told me they were underwater. I asked her to tell me about her emergency fund, and she laughed. Of course, they didn’t have an emergency fund. They did get all the animals out, and they were safe, which was the good news, but they needed help.

I got her on the air that weekend, which wasn’t easy to do because it was hard to get a cell-line. We decided to have a fundraiser for her. A listener called up and gave us the name “Marti Growl.” All of us got together to create the benefit. I called the House of Blues hotel in Marina City, which was a pet-friendly hotel, and asked if they would host it. They were very gracious and agreed. The hotel, also had that New Orleans feel to it, the same feel we were looking for. They helped decorate the room, gave us food at no charge, and the money went to the LASPCA. We raised quite a bit. The amount from our benefit alone was $40,000. Hundreds showed up. Because the American Veterinarian Association also mentioned it, we inspired other fundraisers by creating the idea.

Yes, thinking back, it’s amazing to see some of the things we accomplished with our little weekend radio show.

Rick: I think people think of you as primarily a columnist, but your radio background goes way back, doesn’t it?

Steve: Yes it does—all the way back to high school. I remember I got the job to produce this radio show for an Evanston radio station. The host was so nice and knew I wanted go on the air, so he let me do anything that related to sports on his show. He was the nicest, nicest man. His name was Joel Sebastian. Can you imagine working for a radio icon like that as your first job?

We did the show from the Seven Continents restaurant at O’Hare airport. (I had Eggs Benedict almost every day.) My job was to try to get celebrities that passed through the airport. I never got a single one. We did have celebrities on the phone though, and we did play music, and I think the guy who ran at the board at the studio was Dean Richards. That’s how long I’ve known Dean.

Rick: You were a writer for the Tribune for quite awhile, and I know you’ve also written for a ton of other publications, but I wonder if you remember a piece you did about radio producers for a magazine called “Inside Chicago” about twenty years ago. I was one of the producers you featured (along with Jim Wiser). I was almost fired for one of the quotes I gave you. You asked me if Steve & Garry were ever unreasonable, and I said yes. Do you remember that at all?

Steve: Oh no! I never knew that. I’m surprised I didn’t hear about that. I’ve never met Steve Dahl. When I worked at WCFL he poked fun periodically at Bob & Betty (whose show I produced), and he mentioned my name a few times over the years, but I don’t know if he knows me at all. I’ve never met Garry Meier either, although I thought I was going to—we were colleagues for about two seconds. Well, sorry about that. I hope you didn’t get into too much trouble.

Rick: I survived. It actually taught me a valuable lesson: watch what you say to the press.

Steve: (laughs) Yes.

Rick: I didn’t know at the time that you were a former radio producer yourself. I included you in my book “The Radio Producer’s Handbook” because one of the people I interviewed for the book, Fred Winston, specifically mentioned you as the first “real producer” he ever encountered. (The full quote is: “My first encounter with a real producer was when I switched over to mornings at WCFL in 1980. My program director hired a young fellow named Steve Dale. Steve greeted me by informing me that he doesn’t make coffee. We would brainstorm before and after the show, he would contact guests, work press contacts, strip the paper, and contribute to the show on a new level—a higher level.”) How was that experience working with Fred?

Steve: I have been so lucky to work with some of the people I worked with. I’ve picked up something from all those people.

One of the nicest things that happened when this latest news hit the paper (the firing from WGN) was that I’ve heard from several of them. Among them was Tommy Edwards (photo). It was so many years ago that I was intern at WLS. One of the things I did was pull potential animal stories off the wire for Uncle Lar and Little Tommy, and the fact that Edwards remembers that and was nice enough to contact me when I was let go just blows me away. Another person I heard from was my old boss at WLS, John Gehron. Just being there at WLS was a thrill for me. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t getting paid. To be around people like Larry Lujack, that was something. Larry had a certain reputation for the way he treated interns, but the worst thing he ever did to me was turn off the lights when I was working. He always had a smile on his face when he did it too.

As for Fred, I’ll tell you a secret. The real reason I told him I don’t get coffee is because I don’t drink coffee and I didn’t’ know how to do it. (laughs) Truth is, I was happy to get him water. I learned so much from working with Fred. I learned timing from him. I learned how important the tease almost has to be more compelling than the bit itself. I learned how to read a Richter Scale, because his belches registered on it. Fred was intimidating at first and we spent a week or two feeling each other out, but he turned out to be a friend, and I will always treasure our friendship.

Rick: You worked at WCFL for quite awhile, didn’t you?

Steve: 5 years. I was hired because I could produce and write news, and I filled in as both whenever someone was sick or on vacation. I got a lot of hours, because there were two different departments that needed me. I had only been there a few months when I was told that everyone I knew but the engineers were going away (a format change was about to happen), but that they had a secret job for me to do. My job was going through the Whitburn book (a listing of hits from the beginning of rock and roll until the current time) to find songs that would go into the library for this new music format.

You should have seen that WCFL closet/library. That station had been around forever, and it was all stored there. Everything was everywhere—it was like Fibber McGee’s closet. I actually went through all the vinyl, alphabetized it, figured out a system, then worked with the engineers to put every song on cart, and nobody was allowed to know what we were doing. These engineers had been there for the old CFL format, so they knew what they had to do. We had a collection of thousands of carts and we had to hide them.

But I honestly thought I was going to fired along with everyone else when the new format started. Then they brought in Dave Martin as PD, and they brought in Dean to host the show temporarily until they brought in Fred. They kept me because I had a history as a producer.

The format was never really successful, unfortunately. One day I was leaving Marina City and our brand new GM gets in the elevator with me, William C. O’Donnell, who just came over from WBBM. He says “Well Steve it was nice meeting you briefly, and I’m sure you’ll do well in your next job.” It was the first I was hearing about it. I thought—no one will believe this. I got the shaft in the elevator!

They decided to keep me mainly because I knew where everything was. (laughs) My job was to be Executive Producer; to produce Bob & Betty, and keep an eye on the other shows.

Bob and Betty were so much fun. They are the nicest people. They were also a pleasure to work with, but that format didn’t work either. One day we came in and I went to my desk and somebody said “Did you see Feder?” My name was in there. I was fired.

Rick: You grew up in Chicago, listening to the radio here. Who was your radio idol growing up and did you ever get a chance to meet or work with him or her?

Steve: I’m proud to say I’m guilty of listening to Wally (photo) every morning. His humor was a little dated, but in it’s time, no one was as quick as Wally Phillips. I got to work with him, sort of, when I was a log-keeper at WGN radio, back when they were in Bradley Place. My job was to listen to the last hour or two of Wally Phillips, the first part of Roy Leonard, interrupted by farm show, and then more Roy. I got paid for that. That was better than going to school. I never saw their faces, because I was in master control with the engineers. I listened for the commercials; made sure they were played, and then timed them. I hit a little button and listened to the spot, and a red light would go on after the time was up, and that was my job.

Rick: Was that your full time job?

Steve: No. At night I was working in suburban radio. I worked at WWMM (92.7) in Arlington Heights. The PD there (I did 7-Midnight) was Ted Clark. He was the first one that fired me. It was the only time I was fired that wasn’t part of a wholesale change. He just let me go. What bothers me about that was what he said when he did it. He said I would never work in radio, and that I ought to do something else for a living.

Rick: How did you get so involved in pet issues?

Steve: It all happened because of my dog named Chaser, who had issues. I felt if I could help her with her problems, then maybe I could do the same for other people.

Rick: And you’ve obviously done that.

Steve: That’s the most gratifying thing. I’ve got a pile of e-mails here, over a hundred or more, and they tell stories about how I helped them. One woman wrote: “You’re an inspiration to me. I’ve been getting chemo, and your show helped me through it.” She’s the one that’s the inspiration, not me.

Rick: Are you looking for a new outlet for your radio show?

Steve: The reality is that WGN was a part time gig and I will find another platform for it—hopefully in town.

I’ve been gratified by the calls I’m getting, and I’m hopeful that something will work out. I would love a local platform where I can make a difference. Right now there aren’t any shows promoting these issues. I feel badly about that.

(Photo: Steve Dale & Senator Durbin)