Saturday, October 17, 2009

Greg Jarrett

Greg Jarrett is the morning man at WGN Radio (720 AM). He came to WGN this summer (2009) after a long stint at KGO in San Francisco.

Rick: A lot of radio guys grow up in one place and then live all over America moving from job to job after they get into the business. You actually moved all over the country before you went into the business.

And after. I started broadcasting in high school in New Iberia, Louisiana, then continued in college in Lafayette, Louisiana, then on to New Mexico, then Green Bay, Wisconsin...

Rick: But you were in San Francisco for a long time...

Greg: Yes, that's true. Off and on for a very long time. I arrived in San Francisco in 1977 when I was 25 years old. I was the news director at KYA and then I went back in 1986 to KGO, and then stayed there for many years.

Rick: Was it hard to leave San Francisco after finally establishing your roots somewhere?

Greg: My roots were sort of everywhere. When I left ABC News--I was based in Los Angeles covering the OJ Simpson trial and all sorts of other things--I moved my family to Portland Oregon. I had covered floods there in 1996 and just fell in love with the place. So I purchased some property outside of town and moved the family there. I was starting up a new spoken word radio station--actually with Randy Michaels (photo), and that lasted until 2000, when the Clear Channel deal was finalized.

After that I went back to KGO in San Francisco, but my family stayed in Portland. We were doing the whole commute thing, flying back and forth. My wife is an attorney and her client is Nike, so being in Portland was a good thing for her, plus our youngest son was still in high school at the time.

So, anyway, we still own our house in Portland--and that's where my wife is right now--trying to sell it. In the meantime we have a condo here, and we're spending our weekends in the air, going back and forth. Two of my kids have actually come to visit me in Chicago already. My middle one said I need to get a more comfortable couch, because he really likes it here. (laughs)

Rick: Chicago has a reputation of being a provincial town--not too accepting of outsiders. Have you found that to be true in your case?

Greg: Well I've sort of had to cut through that. I have relatives down in Beverly. I'm half-Hispanic and that's where the Hispanic side of the family lives. My wife also has cousins here--from Wheaton to Evanston to all around--so I've been able to experience the real thing, to come hang out in the backyard and barbecue, to watch the kids play soccer games. That's been a big help.

I'd say about 98% of the e-mails and 98% of the greetings on the street have been hugely welcoming, but there's 2% that feel like I'm some sort of an outsider. But then you look at the census report, and you see that 30% of the people in Chicago are from another country.

Rick: It's funny you say that, because my family is from Germany, and they're very protective of Chicago too. I always say to my mom, hey--don't forget--you're not from here either.

Greg: (laughs) Well, I'm getting along just fine.

Rick: Coming into WGN must have been tough too, particularly taking over the morning show, which has been hosted by only four other men in the past fifty years. Did you realize the gravity of that when you came into town?

Greg: Oh yeah, definitely. I've been in radio for 39 years next month, and who in radio doesn't understand the power of WGN? At my first radio job deep in the heart of Louisiana we would turn on the emergency broadcast receivers late at night, and those Chicago stations were booming in our direction. We would listen to guys like John Landecker (photo) at night on WLS, and we'd even get to hear the morning guys when it was still dark outside in the winter. That's how we learned to do radio in the late 60s and early 70s; listening to those guys.

To me it was an amazing opportunity to come in and do this job, but it was also a bit of a stunner. I had been talking to the company about a number of other potential jobs because I had done a lot of different things--I've been a GM, a news director, a newsman, a host, etc--and one day I got a call asking me if I would be willing to do mornings. I said, "Look, I'm in a plumbing supply store right now looking at toilets, can I call you back in a second?" After I hung up, I was a little stunned. The guy in the store came up to me and said 'So, you want the 17-inch' and I interrupted him--'Hold on a second here.' I went back out to the truck, called them back and said "Sure, let's do it."

How many major stations in Chicago hire someone to do mornings that has never even done a shift on their station before? I knew it was a great opportunity, but I also knew I had a mountain to climb.

Rick: I know you're not just a radio host, you're a reporter. I read that you have wanted to be a reporter since you were in fourth grade.

Greg: That's true. We were in Beaumont California at the time. My dad was working for Lockhead--he was in the aviation industry, and I had gotten used to spending my time at this little library. I really got into reading Ernie Pyle, and the Hemingway (photo) stories, and all those other war correspondent stories, and one night I was so into it that I didn't even notice that they had closed the library and shut the doors. They had to come in and get me out of there.

Rick: And then you actually became a war correspondent.

Yes I did. When I was covering the Gulf War, my dad was still alive, and I got a note from him that said, "I don't know many men that got to do what they wanted to do when they were in fourth grade." That meant a lot to me.

Rick: You were also in Somalia...

Greg: Yes, Somalia twice. Bosnia three times. I covered Central America in the 80s. And Iraq, of course.

Rick: What are the memories that come to mind right away from those days?

Greg: People always ask me what I thought of those wars, but that wasn't my focus when I was there. In 2003 and 2005 I was embedded in Iraq, and my focus was to look at the people, to take a picture, and tell that story. I like to think that I'm a raconteur, that I can relate what I'm seeing, and that's what I tried to do with these young people who were dying.

We had a reporter at the Pentagon, and we had a reporter covering the protests on the streets of San Francisco, so that political part of the story wasn't my beat. I was the reporter with these young guys. It was my duty to tell their stories.

The unit I was with, the Purple Foxes, was a brave group of men. They would fly right into the middle of battle and rescue badly wounded people; immediately applying tourniquets and IVs, treating people through a hail of bullets. Then they'd treat them on the flight all the way to the trauma center. That's why the survival rates have increased so much in this war compared to earlier wars. They're being treated by these brave corpsman.

It was horrible seeing some of it. The first two men we picked up were these two Marines that had their legs blown off because they were looking for a place to go to the bathroom. They walked right into a mine-field. After that people starting going to the bathroom within a few steps of where they were slept because there were mines everywhere.

I've had combat first aid training, and after a few missions I realized that I couldn't really report live on the scene, because nobody would have been able to hear me over the helicopters and the machine guns, so I got my hands into it, and started helping out--which immediately changed the whole nature of my presence. Pretty soon it was, "We're going out on another mission, Mr. Jarrett, would you like to come along?" So I got more access. I wasn't shooting anyone, but I was helping to drag stuff onto the aircraft, and fixing bandages, and things like that. You can't not do that.

Rick: With all this experience as a newsman, as a news reporter, coming into a station like WGN with a full news staff like this, must have been a little strange. You have more experience than anyone else working in the news department. How has that relationship been--have they come to you looking for advice, have you taken it upon yourself to give advice, or do you keep those two departments strictly separated?

Greg: We didn't have a news director when I first arrived. Wes (Bleed) had left, and Charlie Meyerson (photo) hadn't arrived yet, so I did have conversations about the stories being covered. I was an aviation correspondent among other things for ABC, and whatever expertise I was able to bring to the table I would share with everyone, but I really have backed off since Charlie got here. Now, as far as keeping people abreast of new technology or new applications that have become available to gather news, I really keep up with that sort of thing, so I will share that information. But I don't try to push it on them. I may have done that a little before Charlie got here, but I don't do it anymore because that's not really my purview.

Rick: Your hobbies are not exactly of the every day variety...skydiving, seaplane pilot, scuba diver...would you consider yourself to be an adrenaline junkie?

Greg: I don't know if it's an adrenaline junkie thing or not. My dad and I were really close, and we would go fishing and hiking, and he was a pilot so we would go flying, and he'd say, "Son, you can eat well. You can avoid drinking too much, and not smoke, but your life is still only going to last so long. You have the ability to make it a whole lot fatter--make it as wide as you want it. Go to a lot of places, experience a lot of things, do as many things as you can, because you have control over that. You can sit in front of the TV all day and watch Star Trek, or you can go out and learn how to fly an airplane. One way makes it wide, one keeps you in a narrow box." He taught me that, and I firmly believe he was right.

I don't want to quit learning. I want to keep learning new stuff, experiencing new things. The day I quit learning is the day they close the lid on me.

Rick: You kind of parachuted into this show on WGN too. The show itself was already intact. All the parts were already there--traffic person (Leslie Keiling), newscaster (Andrea Darlas), producer (Jim Wiser), etc. Have you ever been in a situation before where you were the final part, where you were the one that came into an already functioning show to lead it?

Greg: Most of the stories I've covered have been like that. People enjoy doing things they're good at doing. The reason I enjoy covering disasters and wars is that you can literally drop me into Bosnia with no electricity and no food, and within a few days I'm cooking chicken gumbo, I've got the lights on, and I'm transmitting a signal back. I love being dropped into a completely foreign and unusual situation and making it my home. That to me is what I'm good at, and that to me is why this situation is feeling so good. I'm not part of it yet. I'm not part of Chicago yet, but I'm working as hard as I've worked on anything in my entire life to integrate myself in this society.

Since I started in the business this has been my goal. To come to a major station in Chicago and make it work. Who knew that it would actually happen? When I was a 17 year old kid dreaming of doing a morning show in Chicago, who knew that it would actually come to pass?

Rick: Where do you see the show going in the future?

Greg: Radio is not radio anymore, and that's what's so cool about it. It's a cross platform thing. We're much more informational than this show has ever been, at least that's what I've been told. I haven't listened to Bob Collins (photo) except for a few airchecks, but prior to Bob, it was always a more genial, friendly show. There's a show like that in every market, and they do very well. I'm a little bit of that, but I'm more about giving the listener some information that they didn't have when they woke up that morning.

When we start getting people to listen on something like this (holds up his iPhone), and it's coming, we'll need to have the ability to show what's happening too. Imus is already doing that, and has been for years. Just put a couple of cameras in the studio, and listeners can watch the show too. Then you can add speech to text, which can be like a headline version of what we're doing on the show. That's already happening with Breaking news. If I interview the Governor and he says something newsworthy it's on the breaking news website thirty seconds later, and somebody's getting a text about it because they've signed up for that.

So that's where I see this going. A friendly informative voice that can tell you what's going on right then, and then tell you what's going to happen. For awhile radio was just following newspapers--information that was already twelve hours old. Now your getting it on more than one platform, and you're getting it while it's happening. That's where I see the show going, being on the cutting edge of audio, video, and spoken and written word, all at once. Ambitious, but that's where I think it's going.

Rick: Well, welcome to Chicago. How does it feel so far?

Greg: There are two words that best describe how I feel: excited and tired. (laughs)