UPDATED January 2012
Rick: Welcome back to Chicago. Are you physically back in town too? I know you're doing two shows a day now, one in St. Louis and one in Chicago.
Rick: How are you liking it over at WIND?
Steve: It's great. The St. Louis people are great and continue to be great, but when this came along, I told them it was something I really wanted and needed to do. They totally understood and helped make it work. Basically, I'm on the radio all day--I'm either A) A complete egomaniac or B) I need to be kept off the streets. I think I'm going with B.
Rick: But you're not ruling out A.
Steve: Good point. Let's make it A and 1/2.
Rick: Your schedule sounds slightly crazy. Take me through a typical day.
Steve: Well, I tape interviews and prep for the early show in St. Louis between 8 and 10, and then I'm on the air there from 10-12. 12-1 is post show stuff, taping promos, that sort of thing. Then I've got a little bit of time between 1-2:30 to get stuff done in my real life. Between 2:30-5, I'm prepping for and recording interviews for the other two shows. Then I'm on the air in Chicago between 5-7 on WIND. 5-6 is only in Chicago, but the 6 PM hour is also the first hour of my night show in St. Louis. That 6:00 hour is on in both cities. Then, I'm on from 7-9 PM only in St. Louis.
Rick: Is it hard to do a show for both markets in that 6:00 hour?
Steve: Well, I don't try to hide it. It's programmed for Chicago mostly, but I've never blown off an audience in my life, and I don't do it now either. Fortunately I've got a great producer here and a great producer in St. Louis too. The producers do have co-ordinate a little, but it's not as hard as it looks.
Rick: So you really are on the air all day long.
Steve: Well, Rick, let me tell you. Some hosts like to do one show and syndicate that to a hundred stations. I like to do a hundred different shows. Keeps me limber and in shape.
Rick: Are they all the same sort of shows?
Steve: Not really. No. Not at all. The morning show is more of a magazine show. It's more comedy. More my foundation. More like the old WGN show before GN went to hell. The 5-7 show on WIND is very political, but we still have our yucks. The trick is doing that show to the hard right audience here at WIND, while respecting the old WGN audience that heard me as more of a middle of the road--sometimes right and sometimes left. This show leans more hard right, but it's done with respect. The night show is a little more sports. It's comedy and sports.
Rick: Wow. That's all over the map.
Steve: This is great for my ADD.
Rick: Do you keep track of your old station and what they are doing these days?
Steve: I don't really because of my schedule. I hear Blackhawks games because I'm a big hockey fan, but that's been about it. I'm a big Brandmeier fan and sent him a congratulatory note when he got the job, but I haven't really had a chance to listen to him because I'm usually working at that time. I've got a lot great friends there and I wish them all well. I really like Garry Meier, but my job now is to kick Garry's ass. This station is the little train that could, the little station that people think "Oh are they on the air too?" But I like our chances. We're very serious about taking this thing to the next level.
The original interview follows...
Steve Cochran is the afternoon-drive host at WGN AM-720
Rick: You have this image as this casual guy who just shows up and does his show. It all seems to come so easily to you. You may arrive just before show time (it was 3pm when we had this conversation), and you sound very casual on the air, but I can tell that you’ve done a ton of show prep. I’ve talked to three of your ex-producers, and all of them said you were the most prepared/hardest working guy they know. It takes a lot of hard work to make it sound that easy, doesn’t it?
Steve: It is true. I appreciate the fact that you get it. I’ve been in the bigs for 26 years now, and I really don’t need to hang around the radio station all day to show management how hard I’m working. I’m doing show prep many, many hours a day. Because I make it so look so easy, and because I’m not around the office, some people get the wrong idea.
You worked in radio many years, and I’m sure you know this is true: There’s no way to get any legitimate work done at a radio or television station during the day. I’m really not that interesting. Why do I need to be interrupted every thirty seconds?
Rick: (Laughs) That’s so true. I had that fight with management many times in my career. I got 50 times more work done at home...even with three little kids.
Steve: Just because they have to stay at the office doesn’t mean we have to. The bottom line is the proof is on the air.
Rick: I can really see the prep work in your interviews. I think you do a great job as an interviewer. You manage to ask the tough questions, but you do it in such an ‘aw shucks’ friendly way that it doesn’t offend your guests. Have you ever had it go badly when you asked those tough questions, and if so with whom?
Steve: Not by asking tough questions, not really, but I have had bad guests. Some were real bad. Robert Goulet had a nice voice in Camelot, but he was a miserable drunk. He was the worst guest ever. He was bitter. He was nasty. I have zero patience for that.
I don’t respect anybody more than anybody else. I treat everyone the same, because everyone is interesting in their own way. That’s the way I see it. I didn’t treat President Carter (photo: Carter in WGN studio) any differently than I treated a guy on the street in front of the studio.
The ones that stick in your head, as bad guests, as difficult interviews, are the ones that are so full of themselves. I interviewed David Cassidy one time, and his publicist came in before the interview and said: “Um, David really doesn’t want to talk about the Partridge Family.” To which I said, “Well, then I guess David doesn’t want to be on the show.” You’ve got to be kidding me. When I worked at Z-100 in New York there were a couple of bands like that too.
Usually, though, in all fairness, you find it’s the front people that are the pain. The paid flacks and PR people can be a royal pain in the butt, but the celebrities themselves aren’t so bad. In fact, I’ve found that the bigger they are, the easier they are to deal with.
Rick: Another thing I admire is that you manage to convey your own political opinions—which I’d say lean relatively conservative—without ‘the-sky-is-falling’ hyperbole. I’ve answered phones at WGN a few times, and whoa, the calls that come in are surprisingly intense, on both sides of the political spectrum. How do you manage to keep it so civil in a country that is so not?
Steve: I find that it doesn’t matter what you say, people hear what they want to hear through their own perspective. Two different people can hear the same thing totally differently—you can be a left wing lunatic or Rush Limbaugh’s best friend. I lean politically right militarily and I lean left socially. I think there are nut jobs on both sides—about 20% on the left and 20% on the right. 60% are in the middle with me, and those are the people that we need to get involved. Right now the people on both extremes control everything.
I’ve been offered plenty to do right wing talk radio or pretend like I’m a liberal. I couldn’t do either one. Look at Olbermann (photo), he’s completely lost his mind. I used to love talking to that guy, but he’s gone off the deep end. And Beck and Hannity, wow—those guys are complete frauds. I don’t know how Hannity, Beck, and Olbermann look at themselves in the mirror. Nobody in their right mind believes that their side is right every single time, or that the other guys are wrong every single time. If you believe that, you’re an idiot.
We had Newt Gingrich on recently, and here’s a guy that wants to be president so desperately he can taste it. But Newt never wants to be questioned on anything in his past; he doesn’t want to be held accountable for anything. He just wants softballs, and he’s used to getting them. When he doesn’t, he comes in and does that tough guy act. That turns me off immediately. I guess that answers your earlier question too. Newt is one guy that didn’t respond well to a tough question. Most people can just deflect those things or say they don’t want to talk about it because they expect it. It’s an interview for cryin’ out loud.
Rick: You’ve been there a long time now. What are some of your favorite moments from your WGN years?
Steve: This is going to sound corny, I know, but to me, the greatest thing about working at WGN is that audience. They are so loyal. I’ve never seen an audience so loyal, even the Loop’s audience during their heyday (mainly because they weren’t sober). That’s the number one thing for me. The audience is special.
When I was working at other stations in Chicago, and Bob Collins was kicking my ass, I never got it. I get it now. The consistency is the reason WGN has been such a great radio station. On paper it didn’t make sense sometimes, and it was all over the map, but that’s what talk radio ought to be. How did Eddie Schwartz (photo) make sense with that high nasal squeaky voice? It worked because the audience accepted him because he accepted them. He was there for them. Everybody on the station on some level got the audience.
Unfortunately, I think that’s what we’re losing now. It’s not just here, though. It’s all over the country and all over the dial. You’ll find the same thing in New York or Los Angeles, because the business is so damaged.
Rick: Last year when Spike retired just about everyone assumed that morning slot would go to you. I believe Robert Feder even predicted it in his farewell column in the Sun Times. It almost happened, didn’t it?
Steve: Yeah it did. I’ve never actually talked about it anywhere before, but yeah, I turned it down. It just wasn’t the right deal.
At the end of the day you have to make a decision. There are all sorts of considerations, including obviously financial ones; yours and the company’s. Believe me, it wasn’t an easy decision to make. But I’ve done that get up at 2 in the morning thing before for many years, just like you did. It ages you, affects your health. Look at this face after all those years of doing mornings; I’m only 21 years old.
John Williams (photo) did the morning show after that, and I still think that if he had been given ample opportunity and support he could have had a nice long run there because of the audience’s loyalty. The new guy, Greg Jarrett, seems like a nice guy, although I don’t really see him too much because our schedules are so different. I do wish him the very best. I hope he has an incredibly long run in that slot.
Rick: I know this may be a touchy subject, but I have to ask it. In the past week or two a few of your program director’s memos have been made public. (Read more about those memos here). What are your thoughts about them?
Steve: I don’t know too many people in my position who are known for their closeness with management. Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be—maybe we’re not supposed to get along. You probably prefer that to the alternative.
The memos kind of speak for themselves. Yes, there’s a micromanagement there, but honestly, that goes on everywhere in this business. It should be common sense. I’ve always believed that the best management hires the best people, and then gets out of the way. There’s no upside to micro-managing an artistic endeavor. That’s what we’re talking about here, what we do is an art form too.
Rick: You’re also a stand up comedian and an actor. Do you consider yourself to be a comedian that happens to be doing radio, or a radio guy that also does comedy?
Steve: Oh, I’m definitely a radio guy. I think I’m as funny as anyone that does this, and I’m pretty good at the information part, but I really enjoy the platform. I love this audience and the history of this radio station. The world is changing and it’s a different business, but there’s one thing common to both radio and comedy.
It’s a tragedy when you become too hip for the room. It doesn’t work anywhere. The risk we take is thinking that everyone really is walking around living off the smart phone, living on their twitter accounts. People that are 40+ are living real lives. They’re the busiest people in the world. They don’t have time to read all of these blogs, spouting all that nonsense...
Rick: With the exception of this blog, of course.
Steve: Yes, except this blog. This is different. You’re not some 19 year old living in your basement.
Rick: No, I’m a 46-year old living in my basement.
Steve: (laughs) True, but you’re going out there finding information. Like this oh so informational interview.
Rick: There are a million questions I could ask you because your radio career is so diverse. I mean, you’ve worked all over the country, and all over the radio dial here in Chicago. When you look back at those various gigs, which one do you look back at most fondly, and which one was the gig from hell?
Steve: That’s a great question. Let’s see, let me think about this. The first one that comes to mind was the Loop. The Loop was probably the most fun because of the incredible line up. I was there at the tail end of it, but at one point it was Johnny, Kevin, Danny and me during the day, and just to be a part of that was great. To work with Jimmy de Castro (photo), who really is a genius, and Larry Wert, that was a heck of an experience.
As for the other end of the spectrum, 100.3 was messed up and it was bad, but I wouldn’t say it was a gig from hell. I guess it’s good that I can’t think of a specific gig from hell.
Rick: What about WCKG?
Steve: (laughs) Oh yeah. WCKG. One day. I worked there one day. I was a big deal in Minneapolis doing mornings, Robert Feder writes a positive column about my arrival, and I’m excited to come there, and then all of a sudden, I get a call from my producer Jimmy Baron. He says “We’ve got a problem—they want you to do all sports.”
That was the first I heard about it. I mean there was already going to be plenty of sports on the show. They had Jay Mariotti doing daily sports and Jimmy Volkman doing extra sports bits, and I had worked at an all-sports station in Minneapolis, but WCKG had no connection to any team, no play by play, nothing. Plus, they wanted to call the show “Steve Cochran and the Rock and Roll Locker Room.”
Rick: Oh my God.
Steve: Exactly. I said, “Fellas, I can guarantee you that’s not going to happen.” But I did agree to try their format. I showed up in the middle of the night to try it out at a time when there weren’t many people listening—1-5am. I did one show.
After it was over I waited around for management to show up, and told them I’m not doing it, I’m going back to Minneapolis. They told me, “If you’re thinking about suing us, we’ve got more lawyers than you do.”
Steve: Of course, the punch line to that story is that they never actually did the format.
Rick: I know your deal with WGN is running out soon. What do you think will happen?
Steve: I really don’t know what’s going to happen. That doesn’t make me unique in the business. I’d love to ride off into the sunset after a lifetime at WGN, but a lot of different things could happen. I’d definitely miss the platform, as I mentioned. There’s something special about it. But then, having said that, we may not be able to figure out a way to make this work. I really hope we can.
As the great philosopher Rodney King once said: “Can’t we all get all just along?”