Saturday, June 06, 2009

Greg Easterling

Greg Easterling is the overnight host at WDRV, The Drive.

Rick: You've been doing overnights at the Drive now for five years. Every overnight guy has his or her own ritual for staying awake and alert during that time. Otherwise, a "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" or a "Welcome to the Machine" at 3AM could be enough to finish you off. What are some of your tricks of the trade?

Greg: I usually get an evening nap, an hour or two if possible before I head downtown to The Drive. That and a cup or two of coffee while I'm on the air. Y'know, when I first started doing overnights here, I thought I might come downtown and catch a set at Buddy Guy's or Jazz Showcase before my shift but now that's something I rarely do. Without a little rest in advance, there's a point between 3 or 4am when the average person starts to get real sleepy. Obviously I can't let that happen or it's over to the kitchen to splash some cold water on my face! And let's not forget the drive home afterward! Most of the time, I try to get on my way quickly before AM traffic builds. There's nothing worse than driving when you're tired in slow rush hour traffic.

Rick: I've done that shift myself, and the people that call in overnights are just a little bit different than the callers during the day. Do you have any good stories about strange calls you've gotten from listeners?

Greg: I haven't had any calls that were too bizarre over the last five years. No threats and no stalkers! And since the advent of the internet, many of my "calls" are emails. I occasionally hear from third shifters and truck drivers passing through who really depend on us and our music to keep them going. And I've had listeners who set their alarm clocks to wake up in the middle of the night and listen to a particular vinyl album side I'm featuring at 3am. Can you imagine that? Of course, you get your share of stoners or mentally challenged individuals, some more demanding than others. But some of the best messages I get are emails from former Chicagoans who listen online like Peggy from FL or Barb from WI, who's one of the biggest Chicago(the band) fans ever. And there's Paul from Liverpool, UK who keeps me updated on the latest Beatle and Eric Clapton related events over there.

Rick: I've listened to you at several different radio stations now (particularly WXRT, Q-101, and the Bear), and it's always been very obvious to me that you really know the music. I know you've also written about music for years (for publications like "The Illinois Entertainer"). Is the music what drew you into this business in the first place, and do you still have that passion for it today?

Greg: Yes, it's really been all about the music for me and I'm still listening to new releases while rediscovering things I missed years ago or jazz, blues or country that came out before I was born in the mid-50's. Working at The Drive is a continual reminder of the classic rock that got me into music in the 60s. I thought about going into journalism at New Trier and then my first college radio experience was doing newscasts while covering a regular student government beat at the U of I. But once I started playing music on the radio in a progressive rock format, my journalistic aspirations started to decline bigtime! (Photo: former Poco frontman Richie Furay, Greg Easterling & Bob Stern). As you mentioned, I've written about music over the years so I channeled that interest in a different direction; I still blog on many of the vinyl album sides I feature overnight at

Rick: The Drive is obviously a juggernaut in the PPM ratings system. What do you think it is about the station's approach that has made it so successful?

Greg: I hate to sound like a broken record, but first and foremost The Drive's success is based on the music. We're pulling songs from the classic rock years, one of the most fertile periods ever musically. We play The Beatles more than anyone else in town; I just read online where they've sold more albums since 2000 than anyone except Eminem and this is almost 40 years since they broke up! We're pleasing the boomers who grew up with this music...and in many cases, their kids who also recognize and enjoy it. We've also evolved musicially which any great station must do or die. We didn't play "newer" artists like U2 and The Pretenders when we started and now we do because their music sounds good alongside The Beatles and The Stones.

Of course, there were other stations like WCKG and CD 94.7 who once held the classic rock "franchise" in Chicago and somehow bungled it away. So to paraphrase Eric Clapton, it's in the way that we use it!

There's the Drive's thoughtful, non hyped on-air approach that compliments the music. Early on, listeners begged us NOT to have a "funny", personality-oriented show in the morning so Steve Downes has always concentrated on the music in his distinctive, witty manner.

Also, we actually pay attention to our listeners and their comments. That's why we have The Drive Advisory Board which is comprised of listeners. We want to know what they have to say.

Rick: I know I always mention this when I run into another fellow WPGU-alum, but I can't help myself. I'm going to do it again. At the Drive you're actually the meat of a PGU-sandwich. Phil Manicki, who is on before you, and Kathy Voltmer who is on after you, also worked at WPGU in Urbana-Champaign. Why do you think so many of us that came out of that program have managed to make it in Chicago radio?

Greg: I'm proud of our PGU roots too Rick, and the successes our fellow alumni have enjoyed in Chicago and elsewhere. Maybe it was something in the water at Weston Hall! We were the best college radio station of our era....a 24 hour commercial station that played a progressive mix of music staffed almost entirely by unpaid student volunteers. While some of us had high school radio experience at places like New Trier or Lyons Township, many didn't and were mentored by slightly older, more experienced students. While I had some good classes at the College of Communications at U of I, my most valuable experience was hands on at WPGU, especially as Program Director for a year back in the mid 70s.

Students actually showed up for their shifts on time at PGU, a chronic problem for student stations and even an issue at some stations staffed by "adults". Not only did PGUer's "show up", they also performed well on-air.

Rick: I know you were born in Decatur, but you spent most of your formative years in Chicago during the late 60s and early 70s. That was a very exciting time for radio in Chicago. Who were some of the people you listened to in those days, and who had the biggest influence on your approach to doing a show?

Greg: I stated listening to the radio steadily in the mid 60s after my family moved to Northbrook from Central Illinois. I have an older brother named Steve who began listening listening to WLS and WCFL and began buying records so that got me going. I heard personalities like Biondi, Lujack, Joel Sebastian, Ron Britain (photo) and many others. Britain did a show on Sunday nights on WCFL called Subterranean Circus; that's the first place I heard artists like Jethro Tull, Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart's early, best recordings.

Then I crossed over to FM in search of more progressive fare that was on late at night and these individuals were even more influential; Saul on Triad Radio on WXFM, early XRT announcers like John Platt and Seth Mason( a number of years before they were on 24 hours a day) and dj's whose names I barely remember on WVVX, located over the Highland Park Theatre. Several of the VVX folks were nice enough to let me sit in the studio and watch them work even though I was just some punk high school kid who dropped by to say hi. I was impressed with the relatively low key manner in which these FM announcers talked about the music and the interesting, new sounds they were playing.

Rick: After you left Champaign in the late 70s you really paid your dues working in some small markets like Carbondale, Taylorville, and Casper, Wyoming. Do you have any good small market radio stories to share?

Greg: One of my best small market radio stories happened down at WTAO-Murphysboro just outside Carbondale. (Photo: WTAO staff) This was my first job after graduating from the U of I; I'm pretty sure I was replacing a guy who got fired when he turned the transmitter off and went home after the next jock failed to show up in a timely fashion! I did overnights for most of my time at TAO. When I started there, Merle(not his real name), the morning announcer at TAO also did the evening show because he was the owner's buddy and made more than the rest of us. Two shifts a day, and voice tracking wasn't an option!

So on one of my nights off, the next announcer didn't show up on time and we had a midnight album that we tracked. Merle started the album and then left the station to go home and get some sleep for his morning show that began in a few hours! The next announcer never showed and the album just tracked on the final groove on Side 1 on air until a concerned listener called the Murphysboro Police. One of the policemen comes over to the station, comes in through a window after getting no response(obviously), flips the record over to Side 2 and then calls one of the managers whose number he found someplace. Smart guy...and they should have given him a job doing weekends except he would had to look the other way at any number of questionable activities going on there!

Rick: You also do a roots music public radio program called American Backroads at WDCB at COD. Talk a little bit about that show for people who may never have heard it before.

Greg: My long running WDCB show is probably the reason I'm still doing radio at all. After my time at The Bear came to an end in the late 90s, I got the first of a series of non-radio jobs. I still had the urge to do radio even though I'd almost given up on finding a Chicago program director who liked my music oriented approach. I shared my vision of doing an hour long American roots music program with Mary Pat Larue over at College of DuPage and she gave me the green light.

I play all kinds of styles there...electric blues, alternative country, acoustic music and roots rock. Over ten years later, I'm still doing it; it's prerecorded and runs Friday nights at 10 on 90.9FM( We celebrated our tenth anniversary with a concert at Fitzgeralds last summer starring local bluesmen Dave Specter and Eric Noden plus local guitar great and reknowned teacher Louie Zagoras.

Rick: You're stay at WXRT was during an interesting era, when they were also starting to get the Score off the ground. I was over there a couple of times, and I couldn't believe that they squeezed all of you into that little building. It had the weirdest schizophrenic vibe. All these laid back rock dudes and dudettes, suddenly sharing space with these hyper bombastic sports guys. What was that experience like?

Greg: I recall that XRT and the Score got along well. I'm a big Sox, Bears and Bulls fan, other XRT people were sports fans too and original Score hosts like Dan McNeil (photo) were music fans so there was common ground and respect. The facilities on Belmont were cramped as you recall; The Score was crowded into the east side of the building where WSBC, the brokered foreign language station once resided. I used to do production among other things at XRT and I changed my work hours from 9-5 to something like noon- 8p so The Score could use my studio for off-air purposes earlier in the day. Back in '92, The Score had to sign off at sunset so McNeil and Terry Boers would come over to my studio after their show and we'd work on their promo for the next day's show. They liked "Heavy Fuel", a Dire Straits song that XRT was playing at the time and started calling themselves the "Heavy Fuel crew" so we used that song as the music bed for their promos sometimes.

One of my favorite memories in light of recent events was coming back from lunch one day and seeing the late Norm Van Lier standing in front of the station, waiting for a cab. He looked a lot different from the days when I used to watch him play for the Bulls, now minus the big Afro, beard and fierce expression! He couldn't have been nicer as I introduced myself and wished him the best. That was the only time we met; I found out much later that he was a huge music fan, especially of the Rolling Stones. I regret we didn't have a chance to sit down and talk music for awhile.

Rick: Your career has really been interesting and varied with stops all over the dial, and in television, and sales, and seemingly every other part of the media business and beyond. What has been the most rewarding job for you?

Greg: College radio at WPGU in Champaign was the most fun time, perhaps creating some unrealistic expectations that radio would always be that easy and satisfying. But my most rewarding experience has been at The Drive, working with and for some of the best in the business. At most stations when the studio "hotline" rings, you're in trouble but in my experience here at The Drive, it's usually Greg Solk or Patty Martin calling to say they liked something I did. I think you know how unusual and refreshing that is! And I remember taking my family backstage to meet Steve Winwood after a Taste of Chicago concert that the Drive sponsored early on. He took a real interest in my kids, Jeff and Taylor and recommended some music for Jeff, our resident trumpet player to check out. That was a nice moment.