Saturday, November 21, 2009

Jake Hartford

Jake Hartford hosts a Saturday morning talk show at WCPT (820 AM)

Rick: I feel like a moron because I used to call you at Channel 2 when I worked with Steve & Garry and you were Walter Jacobson’s producer. I never realized that Jim Edwards (TV) and Jake Hartford (Radio) was the same guy until a few months ago.

Jake: One and the same.

Rick: That’s funny to me. Your radio name, Jake Hartford, sounds like a real name, and your real name, Jim Edwards, sounds like a fake radio name. A typical radio thing is to use your first and middle name as your radio name if your last name is too ethnic. When I first started in radio, a PD tried to convince me to do that, but my middle name is James, and Rick James just wouldn’t have worked. What is the origin of the name Jake Hartford?

Jake: I was at Channel 2 and Roe Conn (photo) was there at the time too. When WLS went to talk, Roe was doing stuff for them part time, and he asked me to come over and do a few shows with him. This was at a time when networks were really protective of their staffs, and didn’t like the idea of their people working for two different networks, even if one was radio, and the other one was television.

The WLS GM Tom Traddup and the PD Drew Hayes were OK with it, but they thought that WLS-TV people might be upset, so I used a family name on the air as my pseudonym. It was only supposed to be a couple of times, radio was supposed to be a lark, so I didn’t think it would be a big deal. Plus, I later found out that I couldn’t be Jim Edwards because there was another one at AFTRA.

So, anyway, they started liking what I did there, and they asked me to do more and more, and by then people at WLS knew me as Jake Hartford, so I had to retain that brand. I mean, eventually people at Channel 2 found out about it, and they didn’t care. It seems the only ones that did were the WLS-TV people.

Rick: I heard that the name Jake was a play on Jacobson.

Jake: That’s true. They even called him Jake at Channel 2.

Rick: You were on WLS Radio for nearly twenty years (1989-2008), working seemingly every shift on the station at some point or another. One of my favorite bits was the spring forward/fall back scam you pulled every year...intentionally telling people the wrong time. What are some of your favorite moments from your WLS years?

Jake: That Spring Forward bit started as an accident when I was doing Saturday nights. It confused some people, and others thought it was a bit, so I started doing it twice a year. I got tired of it and was going to stop doing it, but management wouldn’t let me stop. They looked forward to hearing it.

When I think of WLS, I think of Linda Mitry. She was my radio wife. She did the news, weather and traffic. She was with me for a few years, and then left. Came back and left again. We were reunited at WCPT until this past June when she married and moved to Detroit.

The problem with remembering specific moments is that I tend to remember the bad moments instead of the good. For instance, I had William Shatner on once, and everything was going great, when Michael Garay—who I think is one of the best tech producers out there, played Shatner’s version of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds coming out of the commercial break. I asked him: “What in the world were you thinking when you did that?” It went south from there...and fast.

I'd say Clarence Thomas was the biggest topic. All lines were taken when I walked into the studio at midnight, they were full all night, and full when I walked out.

The show I don't remember doing occurred in February of 1993. It was a Saturday night and I was on from 8pm to midnight. Right at 8pm as the news started, my wife called and said that son number 2 was on his way. He was born right before midnight.

WLS always had a reputation as being WGOP, because of Rush and all that, but politically I was all over the map. People kind of heard what they wanted to hear, and through their own perspectives. There were times when I filled in for Don & Roma, and if I was on with air with someone who was way to the right, I’d be considered Leon Trotsky. I’d be considered right of Attila the Hun if I was on with someone liberal.

More than issues of left vs right, the listeners became like family to me. They'd hear stories of our two kids growing up during my years at WLS. They would keep me informed about their lives. You wouldn't believe the number of emails I've received over the years from people who were having a real tough time in their lives...loss of jobs, illnesses in the family and even deaths. They would tell me that the time spent with me on Saturday morning was an oasis from their troubles. That is truly touching.

Rick: You were one of the people let go on that Leap Day bloodbath last year. The ownership situation at WLS, with Citadel in deep deep financial doo-doo, has obviously had a dramatic impact on that place.

Jake: Other ABC/Citadel managers around the country handled the cuts better. The Chicago team took the easy way. Neither the GM nor the PD is there now.

You know, if I had a dollar for every time someone asked me why I was fired, and it was the only time I was ever fired in my entire career by the way, I’d be a rich man. I honestly don’t know.

The PD called me and asked me to come into the station around 4pm because he had something he needed to talk to me about. I said, “Listen, it’s rush hour, I don’t exactly live around the corner, can’t we just do this on the phone?” He told me they were getting rid of the whole weekend lineup. It was a short conversation, less than a minute. There was no thanks, no nothing, after nearly twenty years. And then, it turns out that they didn’t get rid of the whole weekend after all. They still had to have a body in there to do what I was doing. The whole thing made no sense at all.

Rick: I loved your line about moving to WCPT. You said you were just moving a little left...(from 890AM to 820AM, and from right-leaning political talk to left-leaning political talk). Is this new radio home a more or less comfortable fit for your politics?

Jake: (Laughs) Let me put it this way. I got calls from three different people when I became available, which was flattering. Harvey Wells called me first, and he was very nice. He actually listened to my show on WLS, and said “I like what you do. I don’t want you to change.” Harvey and the people I work with are completely OK with me. Some of the listeners are not OK with me, because of the WLS years. They see things that aren’t there.

One of the first guests I had on my show on WCPT was Lanny Davis. He’s a very liberal guy, he worked for Bill Clinton, but he wasn’t liberal enough, apparently. You would have thought I had booked Newt Gingrich. For the first few months that sort of thing bothered me, but it doesn’t bother me at all anymore. I just go in there and do my thing.

Rick: I think it’s hard to describe your show to the uninitiated. How would you describe it?

Jake: Quirky yet refreshing. Some listener penned that a few weeks ago. I like that. It’s not predictable. It’s not for everybody either. In the history of Chicago radio, if you look up the most popular radio personality of all time, you’ll find that more people didn’t listen to him than did. You have to keep that in mind.

Of course, we’d love to have more listeners. That’s always a goal, and it does get a bit frustrating sometimes. We’re thinking of taking up a collection for a billboard. Many of my WLS listeners have found me here, thanks to Rob Feder’s nice mention in his column, so I do have a lot of my old listeners, but if I could only take out a 30 second spot on WLS, I’d love to get the rest of them.

Rick: Why do you think liberal talk has had such a hard time gaining a foothold when conservative talk is so pervasive?

Jake:When I sample the national shows, they seem to be fixated on Limbaugh, O'Reilly, etc. The ones I hear from the right hardly ever, if ever, mention Hartman or the others. On a local level, that would be like me going after Mr Fix-it (WGN) or Paul Brian (WLS.)

Where's the upside for me? Say what you will but WLS does have a ton of Dems as guests as well as Republicans. Give me the big tent.

Rick: You were with Channel 2 for many years, working with Walter Jacobson. Did you see the recent Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobson reunion on Channel 2, and if so, what did you think of it?

Jake: Yes, I saw it. They were a little rusty because it’s been awhile, but you have to remember, even though they were back on together, the surroundings were completely different. It’s a whole new building.

Bill is the consummate professional. You could wake him up at 3 in the morning, give him a script, and he would do a great job. Walter was a little rusty, and his Perspective could have been a little sharper, but it was great to see them again.

Rick: You actually used to do the Perspective with him at Channel 2, didn’t you?

Jake: Yes, they went through quite a few producers before I got there. When I came in, I did more of a hard hitting style, more investigative pieces, and they really liked those. Unfortunately, when it came time to move on, they wouldn’t let me, because it was clicking. I ended up doing it for ten years.

Rick: One of my good friends is Dane Placko at Channel 32. He used to sit next to Walter in the Fox newsroom. When Dane was on the phone the people on the other end of the line would hear a strange noise in the background, and couldn’t believe what they were hearing. It was a typewriter. Walter was still using a typewriter. What was it like working with Walter?

Jake: (laughs) You don’t have enough time for that. Wait for my book. Walter can be very smart, and Walter can be very na├»ve. Sometimes he would have a hard time concentrating, he would get distracted. He was very nice, I got along fine with him, but he was also a little mercurial. I’m sure that being taken off as an anchor really bothered him, and he’d love to use the success of this night to vault himself back on the air.

Rick: I think as a former news producer you have a unique perspective on the devolution of radio news. News departments have been cut back (with a few notable exceptions) to a ridiculous level; it’s been outsourced to national news-gathering organizations or traffic/news services, or it’s been eliminated altogether. What do you think is the future of radio news?

Jake: I think it’s bleak. One of my big complaints at the old place was, get it right, and if you don’t, what’s the point? The traffic/news service on the weekend would pick strange news stories, and I would think: Why in the world did you choose that one? Sometimes the traffic was just completely wrong. There were times I would leave on Saturday mornings, and there were entire streets blocked off that nobody had reported. I don’t see it getting better anytime soon.

Rick: What about your future plans?

Jake: I don’t have any. I don’t think about it. There are so many big name people, really talented people, that aren’t even on the air now. I did a show recently with Buzz Kilman (photo), and it was so much fun. I’d love to do a show with Buzz. How in the world is that guy not on the air somewhere? There are too many others.

At least I have a show. I’m taking it one show at a time.