Saturday, February 28, 2009

Maura Myles

UPDATED 9/13/10

Maura Myles now co-hosts the morning show at WLS-FM with Dave Fogel. I caught up with her to ask how she likes the new gig...

Maura: Would have to say it's been surreal, to reach what I had always thought of as my dream job... mornings, on (I can hear the jingle in my head!) "Musicradio WLS" - and in the Catherine Johns position (I had just idolized her - and the way she represented that a girl could grow up to do something so cool). So honored that Scott Shannon and Michael Damsky let me do it.

It's also been a fun change, after listening to very much political discourse (on the AM)... and very much, only one side of the issue, each time.

But, I have been surprised, for both better and worse, to find that the big hits, which we grew up with, still rock us, so well (old and young!)... but the way in which they are packaged is still so very guy-announcer-oriented... almost like Mad Men, if they had continued on in advertising, virtually unchanged by time... LOL.

The original interview follows...

Maura Myles is the midday anchor and traffic reporter at WLS Radio. She also co-hosts the weekend show "Women of Mass Discussion" with Wendy Snyder on WLS.

Rick: First of all, I have to ask you about your WLS weekend show because I love the name of the show so much...Women of Mass Discussion. You co-host it with Wendy Snyder. How would you describe that show to people who haven't heard it before?

Maura: Do you love the name? Pretty creative! I can't take credit for it - only the concept. Wendy (photo) is one of the top Chicago talents, ever - and underrated, & underutilized, I believe. And you really can't let Rick Kaempfer interview you, without mentioning or crediting Wendy Snyder... it's tradition, right? (laughs) I was a big fan of Wendy & Buzz, middays on the old 'CKG. I will admit that's the only show I ever called in to, besides Bob Sirott on WLS, when I was a kid. And that's radio love, right there.

Kipper McGee came up with the name, while he programmed WLS... kind of like a secret weapon, right? Always grateful that he took a chance on us. And it conveniently stands for Wendy, Maura, Dorothy, as well as Weapons of Mass Destruction or Women of Mass Discussion. Dorothy is still one of my closest friends - such a doll - and a tremendous talent, in her own right. She's actually a brilliant content-producer and manager, hiding behind the cutest voice ever.

If you haven't heard us before, I'd say you're in for a mess - a yummy, odd, intriguingly good mess! It's really very much like a favorite of ours: the Roe Conn Show on WLS... or like Seinfeld's "show about nothing"... the conversations you end up having, while you're trying to have the first one. And it's that table at the bar you want to walk over to... we're having fun. Or we're really, really into something.

It's also a little rebellious, without meaning to be... it's just that you rarely hear a show without a male lead... don't get me wrong - I LOVE MEN! It's just that Kathy & Judy, and my dear friend Melissa Forman, are about the only female leads in this mega-market. Isn't that odd? Women are half the population, and make most purchasing decisions for households... but aren't yet heard on radio here, as much as they are in real homes or offices or stores. Silly.

Rick: As you mentioned, that show was put together by previous program director Kipper McGee. How are things going these days with the new sheriff in town; former WGN program director Bob Shomper.

Maura: You know, it's funny, and it's true - after several years working here, you mostly know everyone in our little Chicago radio business, or your close friend knows the person you don't. It's like that with Bob (photo) - old friends like Mary Vandevelde or Leslie Keiling have gotten to enjoy working with him, but I've just met him - and heard only good things.

When you get to the level where you run a WGN or a WLS, you've shown you have some kind of a big clue about how this all works - and it shows. That's true with Bob as it was/is with Kipper. Great guys. I like when the programmers program, and they let us anchors ank... Or hosts host... you know? On top of programming, he's great with guidance and organization and diplomacy - that's all you can ask for. It's an honor for me, to work at my favorite station ever, with the folks who know their stuff.

Rick: Anyone who listens to WLS, even occasionally, has heard your voice on the air there. You do the local inserts on Rush Limbaugh's show, but you're also a part of the Mancow & Cassidy show. Mancow & Cassidy are still getting their sea legs beneath them, but that really is a radio's oddest couple. I know you're not physically in the studio with them, but how do you feel that show is developing, and how has that transition gone for you personally?

Maura: I love Mancow & Cassidy. I never would have put them together - I'm not sure they would have, either! But they are truly the Odd Couple. I was so honored, well, first of all, that they pulled me into this - still am. Then, I was tickled-to-death to hear them use the Odd Couple theme, that first day... because I told Kipper that's all I could hear in my head, when I heard Erich and Pat together. It's brilliant - like peanut butter & jelly or Burns & Allen or the northwoods and Tab.

Plus, I've had the pleasure and honor of working with Pat (photo) at WMAQ - it's WONDERFUL to get to hear what he actually thinks of the news, now... the insightful and brilliantly informed questions he can ask, now that he's not mindcuffed by "newsradio" formatics. Didn't you always wonder what Pat actually thought of this world, as he told us all about it?! I sure did. He brings welcome, laid back common sense to any discussion.

And Erich is symphonic-conductor-genius. If you've never seen how a fully-involved, morning-show type of shift is actually orchestrated, you'd be amazed at what's accomplished, behind the scenes. But "Mancow" takes this to a truly sophisticated level of engineering, theatre, personnel management and timing - both literal and comedic. He's firing on 12 cylinders while the rest of the world prides itself on 8.

That makes each day fun for me, because I'm challenged to keep learning, and to "play up." Just like tennis, the best way to improve your game, and really have fun, is to play with the folks who play better.

And I've been blessed to work with Jerry Agar (photo), as well. He brought WLS to the number one position on the AM dial, in middays. Though we disagree, generally, politically, I love that guy. Jerry's got a great heart, a passion for people - he really wants to make this world better.

Rick: I appeared on the Jerry Agar show a few times while you were co-hosting. Whenever the Democrats did something he disagreed with (which was often), he brought you on to defend it because you were the official show liberal. Did working on that show sharpen your debating skills, and how politically interested were you before you started working with Jerry?

Maura: Rick, WAS I REALLY THE OFFICIAL "SHOW LIBERAL"?! (laughs) Oh, that's so sad - because I would have LOVED to have taken that on, for real. Good manners, protocol, old fashioned decorum - pick whatever you like - have kept me from "bringing it," when the show doesn't bear my name. That was Jerry's show - on a conservative station - so, my roll was simply to 1) foil, 2) report news, or 3) offer comic relief...all good.

But, yes, Jerry and WLS have indeed sharpened my skills, I believe (and "miles to go, before I sleep"! - still / always improvement to make!). I confess I've always been politically interested, but hadn't thought I'd move into political debate as part of my career in my beloved radio.

Rick: I interviewed Melissa Forman a few years ago and she mentioned you as one of her radio idols. Her exact quote was: "She was the first great female co-host I heard who wasn't a giggly side-chick, and she had great chemistry with her partner. I wanted her job, I wanted that feeling." Is there anyone in radio that inspired you similarily when you were first starting out?

Maura: Melissa Forman (photo)- what a great talent she is, and a sweet person. As with so many of the performers who prove really great, tested & true over time, Melissa has that gift of bringing real smarts and skill to a huge and high-pressure task, while making it seem effortless, natural and just plain fun. For Melissa to say that I inspired her in any way is a happy honor. She inspires me, too - she did when I first heard her work, about 18 years ago.

Though we're only a couple of years apart, she came on as an intern with WLRW in Champaign, while Steve Grzanich (now WBBM) and I were working with John McKeighan. It was clear to all of us that she was incredibly talented. When I had to quit "John & Maura in the Morning" to start married life, she was the only person I could wholeheartedly recommend for my job. And Saga had flown in some "co-hosts" (translation: female radio hosts) from much bigger markets, to interview, but Melissa shined brightest - even back then.

I wonder if folks realize how many truly great women help them laugh or learn something each day, thanks to radio. I'd love to get friends like Melissa, Kathy Hart (photo), Bonnie Greene - I could go ON & ON & ON - all together, for some really fun WMD shows... but contracts will not allow that. Ah well.

I'm just thrilled that I get to sit in the same seat as my favorite Catherine Johns once filled for WLS, and try to honor her, and Karen Hand, and all the great women who've inspired me. Guys have, too! It's just that, when I was 7, and first loving BTO's "Takin' Care of Business," and falling in love with radio, I didn't hear a lot of roles for girls. So the voices of these amazing women were keenly heard by my heart.

Rick: You've been in radio now for more than 20 years, and you've worked in just about every different format; from the Loop (with Pete McMurray in the mornings) to the Fish (Christian rock/with my good buddy Tom Sochowski) to US-99 (as a country music jock) to WLS-Talk radio. Which format has been the best fit for you over the years?

Maura: Wow, Rick, you couldn't just soft-pitch it, could you? (Laughs) What a tough question. Sometimes, I felt challenged to have to keep wearing different hats to stay employed - but mostly I feel blessed that I've gotten to enjoy so many different ways of trying to encourage, inform or bring laughter.

Pete, MY BUDDY, will always be treasured - LOVE working with him. Talk about a talent - in the form of Brandmeier - phenomenal.
And I've been blessed to work with over 30 different top-notch hosts, from Big John & Ramblin' Ray to Steve Downes, to Dave Fogel, to Pete, to Jerry, to Wendy & on & on.

My heart is so happy when I can share my favorite country music with you from inside the big speakers at US 99. And I hold dear the public trust in me to bring unbiased, concise news of the day. But my most rewarding work of all, has absolutely been to host mornings at "The Fish" (Bloop, bloop!). Talk about great people to work with: Tom, Abby Ryan, Eric Zapchenk and the rest - the best. And though I am simply a spiritual deist who wants us all to be good to each other - as opposed to what some folks call a "thumper" - I was humbly thrilled to try to provide respite or laughter or thoughtful consideration to any one who may have needed that little bit of encouragement, that particular day they heard me try to offer it.

Rick: Do you have a few favorite radio memories from your various different stops along the radio dial?

I treasure so many - but flubbing my own name, on WMAQ, because I felt my first baby (Dillon - who's now a "Baby Van Halen" at 14) kick for the first time... that's one of them. Or when Jim Frank (God rest him) announced my second baby's birth (Quincy - who's now a "Baby Urlacher" at 11) with the TV theme "Quincy M.E."... that's another. I sure loved laughing with Fogie on the Mix.

I even loved when Steve Dahl would roast me, almost daily, at about 2pm... he challenged me to do better work... and he's just really, really smart and funny.

But maybe the best of all is this one:
About 20 years ago, my father was a regular contributor to Don & Roma, on WLS. He suggested they name their sailboat outing the "Gotta," like slang for regatta... so they thoughtfully included him; and he thoughtfully included me, as his daughter-date. I had just been picked by Nick Farella (God rest him) for an internship at WXLC in Waukegan - but hadn't yet really started my radio journey. Well, I was simply mesmerized by the masterful work of the Wades on the waves. And then it happened. Roma called me to the microphone, put her arm around me, and offered me a beautiful poem to read ON WLS...WLS!!! I'll never forget it, as long as I live... and I can't believe that moment - thanks to the love and thoughtfulness of others - has brought me full-circle to this moment, when I may treasure my own work on WLS, still treasure Don & Roma on WLS (tremendous!), and hopefully honor the treasured memories of my great dad.

Rick: Over the years you've done your part of the show live in the studio with your co-hosts, and remotely from the Metro studios. When I interviewed Leslie Keiling about this a few years ago, she said she kind of liked not being live on site during her Steve & Garry days, but that it was challenging from a performance standpoint. What are the pros and cons of each from your perspective?

Maura: You know, Leslie's got it right, on both counts, I think. Plus, when you're removed from the simmering inside-politics of these high-profile stations, there's a little more job security. But you're also not fully immersed in the work. When you love what you do, that matters much. I should point out that Metro Networks and Shadow Broadcast Services provided lots of talented folks with good, regular work, when deregulation began to seriously take that away, about 15 years ago. Some people think that's a relatively new problem... it's not... it just finally made it up from the trenches to the mega-managers. Now we're all multi-tasked to the gills.

Rick: I mentioned this to you when I asked you to do this interview, but it really is strange isn't it? We know all the same people, and we've worked at some of the same stations and markets for twenty plus years, and we've even been on the air together, but we've never met.

Maura: It's the strangest - yet it's become modus operandi for so many of us... The whole time I worked with Steve Downes (photo), each time I've gotten to work with Kevin Matthews, John Landecker & so many other great people (including you!), I never laid eyes on 'em.

But that's the great thing about radio, isn't it, Rick? You create the whole picture in your head, anyway! So, our friendship (yes, we may claim it!), may be one of the most rewarding and entertaining BECAUSE we have not physically met... I can remain tall and blonde - or whatever I am for you... and you can be that fabulously sexy brain & brawn which I have concocted. Deal?

That's, I think, what got us into this whole beautiful mess, in the first place.
; )

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Bruce DuMont

Bruce DuMont is the founder/CEO/and President of the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago. He also has had a distinguished broadcasting career himself (in radio and television), and currently hosts the nationally syndicated "Beyond the Beltway" radio show.

Rick: The board of the Museum of Broadcast Communications voted to sell the half finished building on Kinzie, and I read your statement on the website about it. The bottom line on that story...Governor Blagojevich promised the money ($6 million), and then didn’t come up with it. Is that right?

Bruce: Right. The initial promise was $8 million, then down to $6 million, but it did not come. While we were waiting for that to materialize, we had raised an additional $11 million, and then the economic downtown hit, which was really the final nail in the coffin. The requirements during the economic downturn changed, the banks changed their loaning rules, and we saw the writing on the wall. We’re in the process of selling the building now, and we’re looking for an owner that will still house the museum on the 2nd & 3rd floors. (It’s 4 floors). We’re not sure at this point how it will all shake out.

Rick: Is it possible that the funds will come from the new stimulus bill? I keep hearing the term “shovel-ready”? Isn’t this a project that could meet all those requirements?

That’s definitely a possibility. We could get up and going again in as little as 3 weeks, and it’s something that somebody can cut a ribbon on in ten months. It’s a project that can employ people during the building, and after it’s completed, and it could be an attraction that draws people and revenue.

Rick: I often recommend that people check out the website ( It’s a really well done site. I would have killed to have this available when I was still producing a show. Is your goal to eventually have all of the material in your archives up on the site?

Bruce: Honestly, that’s several years away because you have to go from the raw material in analog format, and you have encode and digitize it, and put it online. That’s an extremely costly and time consuming process. We have about 7200 assets now on-line, but that’s just a small fraction of what we have. We have more than 50,000 other assets.

Rick: I really don’t think that a lot of the current members of the media realize that Chicago was the center of the media universe in the early days of network radio, and even in the early days of television. Talk about some of the big-time shows that originated from here.

Bruce: You’re so right about that. A number of the radio dramas originated here, and some of the most famous "Fibber McGee and Molly," and of course "Amos & Andy," which is controversial now, but in the 1930s it was the be-all and end-all.

Chicago was also the home to "Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club." (Photo: Don McNeill 1948) What people now know as the Tonight show format was created by Don McNeill. Everything from the orchestra, to the guests, to entire concept of the show. You have to remember that radio was used much differently in those days, it was essentially a prime-time medium. He had to prove in 1935 that people would listen to radio in the morning. He created the concept of morning radio, and in so doing created the concept of the variety-type show that lives on in that Tonight Show format.

As you mentioned, Chicago also pioneered some of the early television as well—the wrestling explosion started in Chicago (when it aired on the DuMont network). We also had "Super Circus," "Kukla, Fran & Ollie," "Mr. Wizard," the introduction of animals in television, and we had Dave Garroway. "Garroway at Large" evolved into the Today show. There’s a lot that has come out of Chicago.

And we’re still a powerhouse today. Chicago also has Paul Harvey. He is the most listened to man in radio history. And we have Oprah too. She is obviously one of the most legendary television personalities of all-time, and arguably television’s biggest star. These two legends broadcast only three miles away from each other. Trumpeting Chicago’s place in media history isn’t just hometown boosterism.

Rick: Every year when the Radio Hall of Fame announcements are made, I hear the usual grumbling about who was or wasn’t nominated. I don’t think people realize that they can nominate people to the Hall of Fame themselves...

Bruce: Anyone who wants to make a recommendation can do it. All they need to do is send the steering committee a letter along with some background information on the individual. Once we receive that, we go back to the state broadcasting association that is most closely associated with the person in question, and ask them if they want to second it, and when they do, those names go onto the roster for the steering committee to discuss.

Once you’re on the roster you can be discussed year in and year out. Four names are selected from the recommended roster in each category, and those names are moved to the nominated list. Those names go on-line, and anybody can vote. Again, that’s another way for people to become directly involved. Out of that process comes four winners, and they become the inductees.

In addition to the inductees that go through that process, the steering committee picks someone who is not an on-air performer and that person becomes the fifth inductee each year.

Rick: What happens to those that don’t make it?

Bruce: They go back in the pile and can be nominated again (up to 5 times).

Rick: And the induction ceremony is broadcast nationwide, isn’t it?

Bruce: Yes. This year the broadcast is November 7th, and the Premiere radio network is doing the show. Westwood did it last year. We rotate it every year.

Rick: You were also the chairman of the Peabody awards for awhile. I see Stephen Colbert holding his Peabody up for the camera nearly every night.

Bruce: (laughs) You’re right. The proudest winner of that award has to be Stephen Colbert! I found the deliberation process the most enjoyable thing I’ve done in my entire career. It’s not publicly controversial like the Radio Hall of Fame, but there is plenty of controversy behind the scenes. Getting a Peabody award really is a big deal. If people knew the process, they’d appreciate it even more. The winner must be unanimous. The vigor of the debate is brutal. When you get one, you’ve really earned it.

Rick: I’d like to talk a little bit about your background in the business. You worked with some of the biggest names in Chicago radio and television, who for some reason or another, are not really discussed much anymore: Howard Miller, who was a very controversial radio host, and Lee Phillips, who was the queen of Chicago television. Why do you think they aren’t top of mind these days considering the considerable influence both of them have had?

Bruce: People grow old, move on, and the new generation that comes along does not take the time to see who walked before them. That’s happened in every generation. David Letterman to Steve Allen to Ernie Kovacs to radio before that.

I was on WIND the other night talking about Eddie Schwartz, and he’s another example. Eddie, Bob Sirott, Pat Sajack, and I were all at Columbia College together, and Eddie was the first one of us who broke into the business. It was a big deal when he got that job at WLS. Now that he’s been off the air for awhile, people simply forget how much of an impact he had.

Howard Miller is an even better example of a radio giant who is overlooked as time marches on. He was #1 in Chicago for 21 years. #1! He was the top music disc jockey in America. He could make or break records because he had such a huge audience. When he left WIND in the morning because of something he said in 1968 (he was technically suspended), in the very next book—all of Howard’s audience vowed not to listen to WIND ever again, and they didn’t. They defected en masse to WGN. It happened in one book. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since. Howard’s audience simply went to WGN and Wally Phillips.

I produced Howard in 1970 when he had moved to WGN drive time (after his hiatus), and what he was doing in 1970-1972 is very reminiscent of what Rush Limbaugh is doing now. Miller was the preeminent conservative talk show host in America—when no one talked politics, and certainly no one was talking conservative politics. He also did a one hour TV show every night. Howard Miller should be in the Radio Hall of Fame someday, but unfortunately, in every market in the US, there is someone similar to Howard. We have to be sensitive to that.

By the way, just as a side-note, that one ratings book I was talking about happened at the same time WBBM went all news (May 4, 1968), WIND launched a talk show, and WGN created extension 720.

Rick: Was Milt the first host?

No. Extension 720 initially had five different hosts and five different producers. It was not too long after the College of Coaches the Chicago Cubs tried, and for several months, WGN tried it too. They soon decided to have one host, and one producer, and I became the producer. The first full-time host was Dan Price who had been fired at WBBM. One of his frequent guests was Milt Rosenberg.

Rick: You were also the original producer of Chicago Tonight with John Callaway. Tell us a few things we don’t already know about John Callaway.

Bruce: Oh boy, let’s see. He’s a voracious reader, and an obsessive prepper, but I’m sure everyone already knows that. I’ll tell you one thing. He’s very funny. Very very funny. We had editorial meetings every day, and the humor going back and forth made it so much fun. Those meetings were rollicking.

He was also gracious about sharing the spotlight and sharing the microphone. When he approached me I was working on a documentary series with Harry Porterfield at Channel 2 in 1982. He approached me at a luncheon, and said he had been following my work and asked me if I would be willing to come over to Channel 11. I told him that my goal was to do on-air work, and he was very gracious about making that happen. I made the move based on that promise, and he delivered.

Rick: And this was before Chicago Tonight existed, right?

Bruce: Right. In December 1982 I left WBBM and went to Channel 11, not knowing what the show was yet, and what timing! Along came the legendary 1983 Mayoral campaign (Harold Washington, Jane Byrne, Richie Daley), and the first thing I did was negotiate the mayoral debate. I also did some on-air work on the race to city hall. We later produced a show called “Callaway” in 1983, and then in December 1983, they told me they were launching Chicago Tonight. It premiered in the spring of 1984. (4/24/84)

Rick: Let’s talk about your radio show, Beyond the Beltway, which is a nationally syndicated Sunday night show. (It airs here in Chicago on WLS). That show also airs on television (Sunday WYCC, Channel 20, and on the Comcast cable system.) When you’re doing it, do you think of it more as a radio show or a television show?

Bruce: It’s a radio show that happens to be filmed. It’s evolving a little the other way, but in my heart, philosophically, it’s a radio show. We’re on about 45 stations around the country, plus XM and Sirius. The fact that I’m sitting in the XM studio on the West Side of Chicago and I hit a button and I’m talking to someone in Fresno, or Massachusetts, or Atlanta—that’s still magical to me. It’s still fun. It’s what I always wanted to do.

Since I was 10 years old, I wanted to work in television and radio. On my 10th birthday I had a chance to have a special relative-tour of the DuMont studios (my uncle was the founder of the network) in New York. I met all the stars of the DuMont network. I was a little surprised all the sets were made out of cardboard, but it was still magical to me.

After that, in those days of large refrigerators and ranges, I’d ride around the alleys looking for old boxes and pull them out of the garbage. I’d makes sets out of them and pretend I was on television. My whole world of imagination—from 10-16 was all about that magical world of television. Then at night I would put a transistor radio under my pillow and listen to the ball games (I heard Harvey Haddix’s perfect game). One thing I’ve discovered meeting all of these inductees to the Hall of Fame is that this kind of childhood experience is a real common denominator among everyone in this business.

Rick: The show has been on the air now for more than twenty years. Do you have a general philosophy of what “Beyond the Beltway” is trying to achieve?

Bruce: Yes, the name of the show is the philosophy of the show. We don’t have the usual professional-type pundits from Washington; we’re hearing the opinions “Beyond the Beltway.” The idea emerged out of the Inside Politics program I started in 1980 on WBEZ. That was the year of Reagan, and Ted Kennedy facing off against Jimmy Carter, and I said I would like to do a show for and by political junkies. I told them that people only casually interested in politics, wouldn’t enjoy it. There wasn’t anything on the air for us political junkies, and I wanted to change that.

Rick: Which is funny, because what was considered radical in 1980 is now commonplace—hard core politics is probably the number one subject of many talk shows.

Bruce: True—on TV and Radio. Not so in 1980, believe me. By 1991 that had changed. That’s when we first offered the show nationally. It was initially on about seven or eight public stations. Then, in another piece of good timing, about 3 weeks later, the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings started.

Rick: Is that when you renamed the show?

Bruce: No, not yet. In that first national show I used the term “Beyond the Beltway,” but I didn’t rename the show for awhile. It wasn’t until the Republicans took control in 1994, that I decided it was the time to do it. In Jan ’95 it became “Beyond the Beltway.”

Rick: How do you feel about the way politics on radio/TV has evolved?

Bruce: In some cases I’m happy about what it’s become, mainly because it’s become so popular, but in some ways I’m not. The passion was real when we started—the arguments were robust and spirited, but now it seems like people are faking it. It’s become somewhat of a mockery. Some of these characters are saying outrageous things on purpose. It’s moved from theater to circus.

Rick: I take it your show wasn’t a part of Governor Blagojevich’s latest media blitz.

(laughs) Ahhh, no. Rod has never been on the show. His father-in-law Dick Mell was a regular for many years though, and so was Rahm Emmanuel.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Rick O'Dell

UPDATED 9/10/10


When I interviewed Rick O'Dell last year he had just been let go by WNUA. I caught up with him last week and asked him to tell me more about his new(ish) gig at WLFM...

Rick: I've been at WLFM-LP, 87.7 Chicago's Smooth Jazz, since last December. I'm PD, MD and midday host. It's a unique environment, to say the least, and a major departure from the culture of Clear Channel. We're the only radio station among the media properties of the Venture Technologies group based in Los Angeles. I'm one of a staff of about a dozen people (mainly part-timers), led by GM Pat Kelley, rebuilding a format and building a radio station from scratch. Fortunately, we've gotten help in the programming department from some heritage WNUA talent: Bill Cochran, Loni Taylor and Scott Adams, along with Brian Culbertson and Dave Koz from the Broadcast Architecture Smooth Jazz Network.

We're up against some interesting challenges here (namely a weaker signal than we had at 95.5 and the proclivities of the Smooth Jazz format in the world of PPM), but the outlook is bright. June was our best ratings month, and July was our best revenue month so far. And our listeners' passion for the music we play has never been more apparent. It's all good.

The original interview follows...

Rick O'Dell has been a mainstay on the Chicago radio dial for nearly 30 years; most recently with WNUA, a station he helped put on the map. At the end of January he was a victim of the latest round of Clear Channel budget cuts.

Rick K: There has been an outpouring of good will towards you since the news broke on inauguration day. Everyone from Phil Rosenthal at the Tribune to Ron Magers on WLS Radio has been very outspoken on your behalf. Have you been surprised at the reaction to your dismissal?

Rick O: I didn’t get into this business: a) to be an on-air talent; or b) for the adulation of fans or accolades from critics. I got into it because I loved music and I wanted to learn about radio as a business enterprise--what it takes for a radio station to be successful, in other words. So, anytime somebody writes or says something positive about me or my work, I’m pleasantly surprised. Getting strokes from Phil Rosenthal and Ron Magers is something I’ll always remember. But the most meaningful comments are those that come from listeners. They supported me--and WNUA--for a long time. I owe it all to them.

Rick K: You were quoted as saying your reaction was "40% disappointment and 60% relief." Talk about some of the reasons why you were relieved.

Rick O: Up until the very end, even on January 20, radio was fun for me. It was an exciting way to earn a living. I got up every day and couldn’t wait to get to the station. I loved my job. Because I enjoyed it so much, maybe I became a bit too attached to it, too involved. I gradually took on so many projects and responsibilities that my days were 10-11 hours long, with additional work on weekends. Like the character Martin Sloan said in a famous episode of The Twilight Zone (my all-time favorite episode, by the way), “I’ve been living on a dead run and I was tired.” After working 22 years in radio on a dead run, it’s great to take a break. Also, the underlying philosophy behind operating a radio station seemed to change since the time I got in it and began contributing to my sense of fatigue. In the early days, whenever we were deliberating doing something, we'd ask ourselves the simple question, "Will this make us a better radio station? Recently, that question had become entirely, "Will this make us a cheaper radio station to run?"

Rick K: You and I have a common a radio sense that is. We both got our start at WPGU in Urbana-Champaign. How important has the training and experience you received there been to your career

Rick O: I’m sure you remember WPGU, Rick . . . playing records, splicing tape, tearing wire stories off a teletype--all the while having a ball in the musty old basement of Weston Hall. These were all essential skills we learned at WPGU back in the day. But the most important lesson I learned was that it takes a team effort for a radio station to be successful. A station is bigger than any one individual. (Photo: Rick with the current Illini Media braintrust: Chuck Allen, Mary Cory, and Kit Donahue)

Rick K: You had been at WNUA for twenty years, but you had already been on the radio in Chicago for quite awhile before you were hired. What are some of the highlights (from your perspective) of your pre-WNUA career?

Rick O: Before WNUA, I played Broadway music and show tunes (!) at WKDC in Elmhurst in 1981. Then I did an eight hour overnight shift for more than a year at WAUR/WMRO in Aurora from their remote outpost of a studio out on Eola Road . Then came five years at WCLR. When I started there, I got to be part of an incredible lineup: Phil "Doctor" Duncan, Dave Hilton, Sue Berg, Peter Dean, Mike Roberts, Barry Keefe, Jack Miller. Peter taught me everything I know about precision radio production.

Rick K: The former Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Feder was a very enthusiastic early champion of your show. I know if I were you, I would have brought those articles into every negotiating session with me. "You don't want to pay me more, huh? Hmmm. Let's see what the newspaper had to say about my show today." How do you think his support affected your career through the years?

Rick O: I was blessed with an enormous amount of positive coverage throughout my career from Robert (photo). I never asked for it, so I was grateful for every word he wrote. In the early days, his support helped legitimize my show and the format in general. Later, during the heyday of WNUA, it was all part of a huge, swirling, positive vibe that seemed to carry the station (and me) along.

Rick K: WNUA has gone through quite a few changes in your 20 years. The music has changed quite a bit. The management has changed. The ownership has changed. How did you manage to navigate those changing waters?

Rick O: My dad was a man of few words. He liked to lead by example. His approach was this: show up and do your job; be accountable; be open to suggestions; be aware; be positive. I learned a lot just by watching him. Fortunately, every employer I’ve had seemed to place some value in the approach I learned from my dad.

Rick K: Which WNUA era do you remember most fondly and why?

Rick O: Two eras:
1989-1995 – A time of incredible musical variety and vitality at WNUA: New Age, Pop, Contemporary Jazz, R&B—we played it all.
1997-2003 – The era of WNUA as ratings and revenue powerhouse. All the hard work that went into the early years seemed to pay off.

Rick K: I know you're a Chicago boy--a Lyons Township High School grad. I always like asking this question to jocks who grew up here because it's fun to see how and why Chicago radio evolved. Who did you listen to before you got into the business, and how did they influence you?

Rick O: Tommy Edwards (photo) – the best midday host I’ve ever heard. I tried to model my show after his—make it fun and upbeat without getting in the way of the music.

Bob Sirott – amazingly quick wit, wonderfully entertaining features on his PM drive show.

John Landecker – a high intensity, high energy evening show that taught me early lessons (while I was just a listener) on what “dayparting” was.

Also, the music rotations at WLS and WCFL in the mid ‘70s. I kept a diary of how often the top songs played on both stations. I learned what it meant to play the hits.

Rick K: It might be too soon to ask this, but what are you looking for in your next challenge? Are you planning on continuing in radio or are you looking outside of the business?

Rick O: Contrary to what you read in the press these days, I feel strongly that radio has a bright future. It will weather the current storm. I want to be part of radio’s next phase because, for my generation, radio will always be a part of people’s lives. Radio isn’t going away.

Rick K: I've seen your pictures from Cubs fantasy camp, so I don't have to ask where your baseball loyalties lie. Is this going to be a good year for the Cubs or not?

Rick O: You've heard it before. This is it. This is “next year.” The Cubs actually have another year or two left in their window of opportunity. Like Lou says, “I have a good feeling about this team," although I'm not convinced this is a better team than in '08.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Back next week

There won't be a Chicago Radio Spotlight interview this weekend. I'm on vacation with the family. Coming in the next couple of weeks: Rick O'Dell and Bruce DuMont.

Have a nice weekend!

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Sad News

Eddie Schwartz, long-time overnight radio voice in Chicago, has passed away after a long illness. WBBM News Radio just reported the news.

I knew Ed (we worked together at the Loop). He truly loved radio, and deeply cared about Chicago. He will be missed.

I interviewed him not too long ago for this website. At that time he was already having major health issues. You can read that interview here.

Robert Feder wrote the obit in the Chicago Sun Times.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The day the music died

It was 50 years ago today. They call it the day the music died; February 3, 1959. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash.

Over the years, I've talked to some people who were affected deeply by that crash.

Bob Hale was the MC of their last concert.

Bob Dearborn became the go-to-expert about "American Pie" by Don McLean--a song inspired by that day.

Read their stories today if you get a chance. It will help you get a feel for what this day meant to them.