Saturday, May 30, 2009

Steve Dale

Updated 9/5/09


I interviewed Steve Dale just before my summer sabbatical, and he had just been let go by WGN Radio. He didn't remain on the sidelines for long, and is now back on the air at WLS. I got in touch with him the other day and asked him about his turbulent summer, which included switching stations, having the Mayor declare "Steve Dale Day" in Chicago, and a terrible personal loss...

Steve: I was able to come out of the closet at WLS, and admit that for years I've been listening to Roe Conn. His knowledge base on every topic on the planet is incredible. I spoke with Roe on air about Michael Vick, and he spouted off how dogs evolved - geez, who knows the latest theory on that. He does! Students don't need to go to Columbia to learn to be a talk show host, just listen to him. And Don and Roma are sort of, kind of, today's version of Bob and Betty Sanders. I'm not talking about content, as much as the interplay between them. I met them briefly - if they only knew how thrilled I was. The thing about Don and Roma is that magically they are able to speak to listeners one by one, as if they are only talking to you. It's truly a rare talent. And I also have the pleasure of being a guest with Pat Cassidy, an absolute pro. I'm kind of afraid but hoping to go head to head with Mancow on topics where we don't agree, such as breed bans. I've yet to meet him.

I'm on WLS Saturday afternoons at 2 (for now), but when Notre Dame sports hit, I'll be on at 6 a.m. Saturdays. Well, at least I'll be doing morning drive on a 50,000 watt giant. I'm honored to be at WLS. We've built a ginormous amount of content on our pet pages, with more to come. We even have videos on the site, and link to a Blog - and much, much more. An we do an hour of On Demand radio, available each week, anytime with some of the most noted pet personalities in America, I'm treated well, and most important, I hope I'm able to help individual pet owners, and talk about relevant issues. My challenge is finding a way to communicate to my old littermates at WGN, that I've moved up the dial. We even had billboards around town. That was cool.

Unfortunately, my dad passed away just 2 days after the 'Steve Dale Day' was scheduled. I was staying with him in hospice. I had to phone the Alderman, and explain I could not attend. My dad sparked my interest in animals. Interestingly, when he was around 20, his goals were either to work in radio, or become a zoologist. Well, ever since I was 20 (or even younger, actually), I've worked in radio in one way or another. I never became a zoologist, but I do work with animals. That's why from here on out, as long as I'm on the air, I'll thank my dad at the end of every show.

The original interview follows below...

Steve Dale is a nationally syndicated columnist and radio host. He most recently hosted "Pet Central" on WGN radio.

Rick: Your show “Pet Central” was cancelled recently by WGN Radio after more than ten years on the air, a victim of the weekend restructuring there. How did they let you know they were ending it?

Steve: As a guy who has been fired a few times... I knew a week or two before that something was up, maybe even a month or two. I had that radio radar working. But they handled me with dignity, I have no complaints. They explained why they were doing it, they didn’t beat around the bush, told me it had nothing to do with my show, which kind of made me feel better, and they let me say goodbye on the air, which most people wouldn’t do. I don’t know (WGN PD) Kevin that well, my interaction has been minimal, but I’ll never forget the guy for giving me the opportunity to say goodbye. And we had a good run. You can measure radio years in Labrador years and 12 years is a long time.

Rick: But you’re still doing the show, right?

Steve: Not Pet Central. The two national shows are very different. One is a one minute feature that airs on stations around the country (“The Pet Minute”), and the other is “Steve Dale’s Pet World” which is an hour long show, and is syndicated on like 200 stations. But there is nothing like being on the radio station you grew up listening to (along with WLS and WCFL). I’m really going to miss that.

Rick: Looking back on those WGN years, what are a few of your favorite moments?

Steve: My favorite moments are always when a listener calls and says “you helped me and made my day. That’s why I didn’t give up the dog or cat to the shelter.” Those are always my favorite moments.

When I think about my time at WGN, I fondly remember my Bob Collins (photo) appearances. I would come on his show occasionally, and I would bring in these products, and I chose products that made noise, like a trumpet, and the “talk to me treat” ball, where you record a message for your dog. Bob recorded a message for his dog Booger. Collins, being a morning show guy, normally would have guests on for like 5 minutes, but I would be on for the better part of an hour. That’s how I got the show in the first place.

The news director Tom Peterson was in a meeting with the PD at the time, Mary June Rose, and she said she wanted to do some specialty shows on the weekend. Tom said “did you hear what happened this morning?” (Referring to my appearance). Tom really made it happen for me, and Mary June signed off on it. I knew she wasn’t a pet person, so I brought in a stuffed animal dog (a plush) and said “I understand you’re allergic,” and gave it to her. She laughed and later said that it was the only time bribery ever worked.

The thing I will remember most about the show, though, is that it made a difference in ways that I never would have envisioned. One time a listener called and asked why they didn’t have dog parks in Chicago, and she was calling from a high rise over Foster Ave. beach. She was looking down and it was cold and windy and no one else was on the beach except an old lady with her dogs and the cops were following her, telling her to get off the beach! I had long thought that dogs off-leash needed a place to go. We already had one that was up and running as an experiment. I testified in front of the park district commissioners, and others did too, and my timing was right. I explained why it was a good idea, and then became a part of the committee that created the protocol for dog parks.

Remember when President Bush asked children to send $1 for children in Afghanistan? Well, one listener called to say their Tibetan Terrier Boots Montgomery wasn’t a kid, but they wanted to contribute too. So we created a fund and I had the advantage of promoting it in my newspaper column and WGN radio and we raised thousands of dollars. We gave it all in the name of their pet. It was what the president wanted.

Far more recently, there was a dog attack in Shirley Coleman’s ward, and she went on television to say “If I could ban all the dogs in Chicago I would, but I’m going to try to ban all the Pit Bulls and Rotweilers.” So I called Alderman Coleman and explained why I didn’t agree with that, and I had lots of data to defend my position, and asked if she would come on the radio and listen, and she did. I told the producer, just take the calls as they come in, but let’s be fair and take calls from both sides. Every call but one expressed opposition to banning breeds and she listened. In the commercial break she said “you convinced me.” But then she said “What do we do? We need to come up with something better. You are now in charge of a blue ribbon task force to come up with a solution,” and we did. We rewrote the animal control act.

A couple years later it came up again with another alderman Gene Schulter (photo). The Task Force on Companion Animals and Public Safety, which I created and still co-chair, came up with the recommendations for City Council to consider instead of banning breeds. The aldermen, the directors of the shelters, and a coalition of experts all worked together to explain why breed bans wouldn’t work and the recommendations were passed 50-0 in city council.

You can also dine outside now with your dog in Chicago and it’s legal. It was kind of a gray area for years. I worked with Alderman Schulter to pass that too.

One other thing. After Katrina I spoke to a lady in New Orleans named Laura Maloney from LASPCA. She told me they were underwater. I asked her to tell me about her emergency fund, and she laughed. Of course, they didn’t have an emergency fund. They did get all the animals out, and they were safe, which was the good news, but they needed help.

I got her on the air that weekend, which wasn’t easy to do because it was hard to get a cell-line. We decided to have a fundraiser for her. A listener called up and gave us the name “Marti Growl.” All of us got together to create the benefit. I called the House of Blues hotel in Marina City, which was a pet-friendly hotel, and asked if they would host it. They were very gracious and agreed. The hotel, also had that New Orleans feel to it, the same feel we were looking for. They helped decorate the room, gave us food at no charge, and the money went to the LASPCA. We raised quite a bit. The amount from our benefit alone was $40,000. Hundreds showed up. Because the American Veterinarian Association also mentioned it, we inspired other fundraisers by creating the idea.

Yes, thinking back, it’s amazing to see some of the things we accomplished with our little weekend radio show.

Rick: I think people think of you as primarily a columnist, but your radio background goes way back, doesn’t it?

Steve: Yes it does—all the way back to high school. I remember I got the job to produce this radio show for an Evanston radio station. The host was so nice and knew I wanted go on the air, so he let me do anything that related to sports on his show. He was the nicest, nicest man. His name was Joel Sebastian. Can you imagine working for a radio icon like that as your first job?

We did the show from the Seven Continents restaurant at O’Hare airport. (I had Eggs Benedict almost every day.) My job was to try to get celebrities that passed through the airport. I never got a single one. We did have celebrities on the phone though, and we did play music, and I think the guy who ran at the board at the studio was Dean Richards. That’s how long I’ve known Dean.

Rick: You were a writer for the Tribune for quite awhile, and I know you’ve also written for a ton of other publications, but I wonder if you remember a piece you did about radio producers for a magazine called “Inside Chicago” about twenty years ago. I was one of the producers you featured (along with Jim Wiser). I was almost fired for one of the quotes I gave you. You asked me if Steve & Garry were ever unreasonable, and I said yes. Do you remember that at all?

Steve: Oh no! I never knew that. I’m surprised I didn’t hear about that. I’ve never met Steve Dahl. When I worked at WCFL he poked fun periodically at Bob & Betty (whose show I produced), and he mentioned my name a few times over the years, but I don’t know if he knows me at all. I’ve never met Garry Meier either, although I thought I was going to—we were colleagues for about two seconds. Well, sorry about that. I hope you didn’t get into too much trouble.

Rick: I survived. It actually taught me a valuable lesson: watch what you say to the press.

Steve: (laughs) Yes.

Rick: I didn’t know at the time that you were a former radio producer yourself. I included you in my book “The Radio Producer’s Handbook” because one of the people I interviewed for the book, Fred Winston, specifically mentioned you as the first “real producer” he ever encountered. (The full quote is: “My first encounter with a real producer was when I switched over to mornings at WCFL in 1980. My program director hired a young fellow named Steve Dale. Steve greeted me by informing me that he doesn’t make coffee. We would brainstorm before and after the show, he would contact guests, work press contacts, strip the paper, and contribute to the show on a new level—a higher level.”) How was that experience working with Fred?

Steve: I have been so lucky to work with some of the people I worked with. I’ve picked up something from all those people.

One of the nicest things that happened when this latest news hit the paper (the firing from WGN) was that I’ve heard from several of them. Among them was Tommy Edwards (photo). It was so many years ago that I was intern at WLS. One of the things I did was pull potential animal stories off the wire for Uncle Lar and Little Tommy, and the fact that Edwards remembers that and was nice enough to contact me when I was let go just blows me away. Another person I heard from was my old boss at WLS, John Gehron. Just being there at WLS was a thrill for me. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t getting paid. To be around people like Larry Lujack, that was something. Larry had a certain reputation for the way he treated interns, but the worst thing he ever did to me was turn off the lights when I was working. He always had a smile on his face when he did it too.

As for Fred, I’ll tell you a secret. The real reason I told him I don’t get coffee is because I don’t drink coffee and I didn’t’ know how to do it. (laughs) Truth is, I was happy to get him water. I learned so much from working with Fred. I learned timing from him. I learned how important the tease almost has to be more compelling than the bit itself. I learned how to read a Richter Scale, because his belches registered on it. Fred was intimidating at first and we spent a week or two feeling each other out, but he turned out to be a friend, and I will always treasure our friendship.

Rick: You worked at WCFL for quite awhile, didn’t you?

Steve: 5 years. I was hired because I could produce and write news, and I filled in as both whenever someone was sick or on vacation. I got a lot of hours, because there were two different departments that needed me. I had only been there a few months when I was told that everyone I knew but the engineers were going away (a format change was about to happen), but that they had a secret job for me to do. My job was going through the Whitburn book (a listing of hits from the beginning of rock and roll until the current time) to find songs that would go into the library for this new music format.

You should have seen that WCFL closet/library. That station had been around forever, and it was all stored there. Everything was everywhere—it was like Fibber McGee’s closet. I actually went through all the vinyl, alphabetized it, figured out a system, then worked with the engineers to put every song on cart, and nobody was allowed to know what we were doing. These engineers had been there for the old CFL format, so they knew what they had to do. We had a collection of thousands of carts and we had to hide them.

But I honestly thought I was going to fired along with everyone else when the new format started. Then they brought in Dave Martin as PD, and they brought in Dean to host the show temporarily until they brought in Fred. They kept me because I had a history as a producer.

The format was never really successful, unfortunately. One day I was leaving Marina City and our brand new GM gets in the elevator with me, William C. O’Donnell, who just came over from WBBM. He says “Well Steve it was nice meeting you briefly, and I’m sure you’ll do well in your next job.” It was the first I was hearing about it. I thought—no one will believe this. I got the shaft in the elevator!

They decided to keep me mainly because I knew where everything was. (laughs) My job was to be Executive Producer; to produce Bob & Betty, and keep an eye on the other shows.

Bob and Betty were so much fun. They are the nicest people. They were also a pleasure to work with, but that format didn’t work either. One day we came in and I went to my desk and somebody said “Did you see Feder?” My name was in there. I was fired.

Rick: You grew up in Chicago, listening to the radio here. Who was your radio idol growing up and did you ever get a chance to meet or work with him or her?

Steve: I’m proud to say I’m guilty of listening to Wally (photo) every morning. His humor was a little dated, but in it’s time, no one was as quick as Wally Phillips. I got to work with him, sort of, when I was a log-keeper at WGN radio, back when they were in Bradley Place. My job was to listen to the last hour or two of Wally Phillips, the first part of Roy Leonard, interrupted by farm show, and then more Roy. I got paid for that. That was better than going to school. I never saw their faces, because I was in master control with the engineers. I listened for the commercials; made sure they were played, and then timed them. I hit a little button and listened to the spot, and a red light would go on after the time was up, and that was my job.

Rick: Was that your full time job?

Steve: No. At night I was working in suburban radio. I worked at WWMM (92.7) in Arlington Heights. The PD there (I did 7-Midnight) was Ted Clark. He was the first one that fired me. It was the only time I was fired that wasn’t part of a wholesale change. He just let me go. What bothers me about that was what he said when he did it. He said I would never work in radio, and that I ought to do something else for a living.

Rick: How did you get so involved in pet issues?

Steve: It all happened because of my dog named Chaser, who had issues. I felt if I could help her with her problems, then maybe I could do the same for other people.

Rick: And you’ve obviously done that.

Steve: That’s the most gratifying thing. I’ve got a pile of e-mails here, over a hundred or more, and they tell stories about how I helped them. One woman wrote: “You’re an inspiration to me. I’ve been getting chemo, and your show helped me through it.” She’s the one that’s the inspiration, not me.

Rick: Are you looking for a new outlet for your radio show?

Steve: The reality is that WGN was a part time gig and I will find another platform for it—hopefully in town.

I’ve been gratified by the calls I’m getting, and I’m hopeful that something will work out. I would love a local platform where I can make a difference. Right now there aren’t any shows promoting these issues. I feel badly about that.

(Photo: Steve Dale & Senator Durbin)

Friday, May 22, 2009

Back next week

There won't be a Chicago Radio Spotlight interview this weekend because I'm going to Detroit to visit my little brother.

I will return with a brand new interview next week.

Have a great Memorial Day weekend!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Kipper McGee

Kipper McGee was the program director at WLS-AM for several years. He recently received the Lifetime Achievement Award from Conclave.

Rick: Is there a story behind the name "Kipper"?

Kipper: came from my parents. My dad's name was Cliff, as is my given name. However, my parents had been debating up until the critical moment whether "Kip" would be a nickname or a real name. In fact, my original birth certificiate has everything typed EXCEPT the first name, where "Cliff" was finally handwritten in. I've been known as "Kip" or "Kipper" since birth!

Rick: Congratulations on receiving the Rockwell Award at this year's Conclave. How does it feel to win a "lifetime achievement award" at such a young age?

Kipper: Thanks. I'm thrilled and honored, especially to receive the award from my mentor and fellow Rockwell recipient David Martin. Being a co-recipient with another former colleague and hero, Steve Goldstein makes it all the more special. (I just hope I don't bring down the curve for him too much!)

Rick: You were let go from WLS a few months ago, but I can't for the life of me figure out why. The ratings were stellar. That used to be the only measurement of a PD's success. What reasons were you given when they let you go?

Kipper: I'd rather not comment on that. However, I am proud to have peaked the station at #2 12+, with solid top 10 showings in Adults 25-54 for all weekday dayparts.

Rick: You inherited Don & Roma, Roe & Rush when you came to WLS, but the rest of the lineup was largely shaped by you. Looking back on that lineup now, what do you consider your greatest successes and what moves, in retrospect didn't quite work out the way you envisioned?

Kipper: Getting a lineup of talented hosts all in the same place mentally, focused on the same objective is key. Give them the tools (or try to remove the obstacles) for great performance and get out of their way. How they each attained their respective goal is what brought their unique individuality to the tapestry. The addition of Jerry Agar (photo) and Maura Myles set the stage for a midday resurgence, and the development of "Jerry's Kidders" (with local comedy headliners Dobie Maxwell, Ken Severa and Tim Slagle) was fun. When the opportunity to bring Mancow and Pat Cassidy presented itself, our goal was to move Jerry Agar to early evenings after Roe, but the economics were not in our favor.

Rick: I know you're a student of PPM, the new people meter ratings technique, because I talked to you about it before it was implemented and you had already been studying it for months. What have you learned about it since it became the ratings system in Chicago?

Kipper: There can still be some bounce and wobble, but it is much more reliable than the old diary method. Ironically many of the basics of "Radio 101" remain in play, but for different reasons. Now instead of trying to persuade listeners to 'recall' a certain behavior which they may or may not have done, a station runs similar promos to activate future occasions of listening. It's still about the "Key 3": 1.) Find out what the market wants from your station brand(s) today, 2.) Give it to them, 3.) TELL the prospective consumers that you are giving it to them. Simple, but not easy...particularly in this economy.

Rick: I loved that WLS Rewind weekend you did during the past two Memorial Day weekends. Hearing those booming Big-89 jocks coming through the radio again was a delight. I know that whole idea was your baby. How did that come to be, and do you think the success of that Rewind was responsible for the move of re-naming 94.7 WLS-FM?

Kipper: It was a true labor of love with one strategic goal: to re-enegize the passion and loyalty of "Big 89" listeners currently in the station's talk target, to come back to The Big 89. Period. It was no coincidence that the specials were chock full of promo's about the "Talk" station! The Music radio era was truly a magical time, for management and talent alike, so it was not difficult creating a stellar on-air lineup.

As for the calls to WLS-FM, that idea had been bounced around since the Zone (94.7) was on its last legs. Howevever, this is a case where PPM was the deciding factor. It would have been a statistical nightmare to have two distinct formats on AM & FM with the same call letters at the same time. With PPM, both General Managers John Gallagher and Mike Fowler realized that would no longer be an issue, and when the switch to metered measurement happened in June of 2008, Mike was finally able to make the switch.

Rick: You came from the music programming world before you started at WLS. That's a very different kind of programming. What were the biggest challenges in your transition from music programmer to talk programmer?

Kipper: Actually, a music radio background is quite helpful for talk programmers and talent alike. It creates certain 'internalized' traits like keeping listeners tuned in by teasing good things coming up, hitting your breaks and the general sense of "show biz." However, since many music stations have de-emphasized talent in most dayparts, it has been said that talk radio is like having a whole lineup of 'morning shows'. While I can't argue with that logic, it is ironic that PPM is showing afternoon drive to be the new 'mornings' which brings that whole structure into question. It was helpful growing up as a lifelong fan of WLS. Understanding the heritage and 'roots' of legendary stations is all too frequently overlooked by 'newcomer' management.

Rick: I have to ask you this question because you were working at Citadel, which is one of the most financially troubled radio companies in America. Looking back on the era now, what impact do you think the "age of consolidation" has had on the medium you love so much?

Kipper: All industries are consolidating. When Fiat takes over Chrysler and possibly GM the same week, we know the world is changing. The mediascape is no different. What is crippling some of the larger companies is the humongous debt service. There has been more time, effort and energy put into financial engineering than to energizing the product. At some point those operators will have to pay the piper...some sooner than others. Meanwhile organizations who focused on creating great content, while keeping their appetite for growth within their means, will be much better poised for sector recovery as the economy rebounds.

Rick: What's next for you?

Kipper: That is a chapter that is waiting to be written. I have been blessed with a number of interesting projects in a variety of areas. As "Chief Digital Evangelist" at Kipper McGee, LLC, I remain quite bullish on the strength, viability and saleability of branded media content, through any number of distribution platforms. I have also spoken at a number of group and corporate meetings on "The Future of Radio", and will be debuting my session "How (NOT) to Self-Destruct Your Radio Station" at this year's Conclave. I have also been doing some traditional station projects both domestically and internationally.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Mitch Michaels

UPDATED 10/30/10

Mitch: Rick had ask me to update my activities of late so here goes....I've moved from C Block to D block. The guards are much nicer over here...just kidding, but I guess it's a good thing they can't put you behind bars for things you've thought about doing (can they?) or I'd have heard the loud clank of the cell door slamming and the sound of the key being thrown away, long ago! For most of this year, of 2010, I've been the voice/host of an unique internet channel called Classic Rock Chicago. It's one of several channels available on

This all falls under the umbrella. Stay with me, I'm gonna name names. AccuRadio has over 400 channels and is a Kurt Hanson endeavor. Kurt a fellow I've know for way too many years; very bright and very forward thinking. Kurt has a vision, but you'll have to talk to him about that! There are a variety of musical treats and formats on "our" website with great Chicago personalities to match like Tommy Edwards, Doug Dalhgren, Fred Winston, Clark Weber, Danae Alexander, Connie Szerszen and many more. John Gehron, the man who ran WLS for years, and is radio wizard, is also very involved. It's a very fun and exiting project and we hope people will tune in and enjoy!

In just the past few weeks I have launched a new website called Yeah Baby Tunes ( It features my take on particular tunes with a little twist of personal outlook. We're just trying to have some fun and put out some interesting outlooks on the music "we" all love and grew up with. You can find us on FaceBook and follow us on Twitter. My master web spinner/executive producer/chef Karen Greenstein has done a masterful job on the site (all the way from New Mexico...she's good) and I hope folks will go check it out and enjoy. It's a work in progress and we continue to add new content daily. Yeah Baby Tunes has already been a lot of fun and I'm looking forward to much more fun, as we grow! Yeah Baby.....

The original interview follows...

Mitch Michaels is a Chicago rock radio legend, having worked at just about every rock station in Chicago, including the Loop, WCKG, WKQX, WXRT, and CD 94.7, among others.

Rick: Last summer I heard you do a few shifts on WLS-FM, 94.7, and I thought to myself...this has to be a record for the most different times (and different stations) anyone has worked at the same frequency.

Mitch: Could be. Let’s see...1, 2, 3...that was either the 4th or the 5th time. I’ve lost track myself. I even did a few shifts when it was a country station, and I was production director of WLS, it was like 1994 or ‘95.

Rick: It was like a cursed frequency for awhile...

Mitch: Yeah, I know what you mean. They seem to be doing well with it now though. The ratings are fantastic.

Rick: I think the first time I heard you on that frequency was back in the WDAI days.

Mitch: Yeah, I was there from early 73 until about ’75 or so. (Photo: Mitch at WDAI)

Rick: Do you remember the “Fantasy Park” concert bit? It was a pretty big promotion that got a lot of attention around 1974 or ’75, an imaginary “Woodstock” festival that the station was doing a 24/7 “live” broadcast from all weekend, and LOTS of people fell for it.

Mitch: I remember it very well. It was a package thing that was produced by Rod Serling’s production company. Ironically we did it two years in a row and the second year, just before we did it, Rod Serling died. He was the voice of it, so we had to recut the whole thing with a different voice.

Rick: This week was the 39th anniversary of the Kent State shootings. I know you went to Kent State around that time. Were you there that day?

Mitch: I was. I was working for a radio station in Cleveland at the time, as a board op, and doing some stringer reporting for them while I was at school, and the whole weekend before the shooting had been crazy. There were sit-ins and protests, and helicopters hovering, tear gas in the air, and spotlights, it was like a movie set. The protesters burned the ROTC building on Saturday night. The National Guard members were wearing gas masks and were pounding everyone. They couldn’t see anything out of those masks. I had a press pass, and they pounded me too.

On Monday I was in the car with my wife on the way to the dentist when I saw all the commotion. Police cars, sirens, people running all over, complete mayhem. I pulled over to the side of the road, locked the door, and told my wife not to move, and I went over to see what was happening. I got there just as they were carrying the girl into the ambulance. It was around 12:30 or so. By 2pm, it was completely deserted. They had closed down the campus and sent everyone home. It was eerie.

Rick: So Cleveland is where you got your radio start?

Mitch: Yeah.

Rick: That was during the beginning of the progressive rock era in FM radio. I recently heard it described to me as ‘we gave the kids the FM dial and said see what you can do.’ Were you one of those kids and what was that time like?

Mitch: Yeah, I was. At my station in Cleveland in 1970, there was no format, you said whatever you thought and played whatever you wanted to play, and just did your thing. I went to WMMS-Cleveland from there, and then got hired by Ed Shane to come to WGLD (102.7 FM) in Chicago, and that place was like that too. It was totally crazy. We were a bunch of freaks playing rock and roll on the fifth floor of the Oak Park Arms Hotel, which was an old folks home. (Photo: Mitch 1972, WGLD)

Rick: And from there you went to be one of the first DJs on WXRT too.

Mitch: Yeah. At first Don Bridges was only on the air midnight-6am seven days a week, and he brought me on to handle the Saturday and Sunday shifts because he was getting burned out. I schlepped in my own albums, I had a pretty good record collection in those days, and again, it was play whatever you want. That was a fun time. I was maybe 24 years old at the time.

Rick: I think it’s safe to say that most people in Chicago remember you from your afternoon stint at the old Loop when you were “Doing the Cruise.” People that weren’t around at that time don’t realize just how huge the Loop was in those days. Can you talk about what it was like to be a part of that?

Mitch: “Doing the Cruise” was actually born at WXRT when I was doing afternoon drive there. It was 1975, and the Starship had an album out with a song called ‘Cruisin’ and I sort of adopted that as my theme song, and people seemed to gravitate toward it.

You’re right, it is hard to describe how big the Loop was in those days. It seemed like it was everywhere. I had worked at some big stations, successful stations (KQX for instance had a very successful launch), but nothing like this. I think the marketing plan, the music, the air-talent, everything was just perfect for that time and place. The t-shirts, the Lorelei commercials, obviously Dahl & Meier, and that whole Coho Lips thing, it was just all over the place. I actually found one of those old coho lips buttons in my basement the other day.

WLS was the dominant station when we launched the Loop in 1979, but within two books we were beating them 12+. Sky had a good handle on the music. Jesse Bullett was the PD, and he was this Southern Californian dude, totally laid back. We also had free reign on the air—we could pretty much play what we wanted. I mean there were some new tunes slotted that we had to play, but it was great stuff that we would have wanted to play anyway. Dude, you mean we have to play Dire Straits? OK, done.

I distinctly remember one time I was driving in to work. I was living in Oak Park at the time, and it was this time of year. Everyone had the windows in their cars rolled down. At every single stoplight I pulled up alongside another car that was listening to the Loop. One after the other. It was amazing. Everyone was listening.

Rick: You guys really didn’t know the power you had?

Mitch: Not then, no, we really didn’t. Disco Demolition is a perfect example of that. I remember sitting in the GM’s office for a meeting about that promotion. Jeff Schwartz and Mike Veeck came up with this as a way to get some bodies in the seats at Comiskey, because nobody was going to White Sox games. We had a blackboard, and everyone was asked to predict the number of fans that might show up. I think the consensus was about 20,000. As you know it was way more than that. They sold that place out and there were another 40,000 or so outside who couldn’t get in. Plus, it wasn’t a baseball-type crowd, it was a rock concert type crowd, and they honestly didn’t have the security to handle it.

It’s hard to describe that scene. During the first game, I did play by play for a little while with Harry Caray and Jimmy Piersall, but things hadn’t gotten out of hand yet. Between games, I was in the box, and Steve & Garry came out and did their thing, and the place went crazy. Mike Veeck came in to me and asked me to grab the loud speaker and get everyone to chant like we did at the rock shows—“Back to your seats, Back to your seats, Back to your seats.” It was starting to work when Harry came out to see what was happening. He had had a few buds, and said, “What the hell is going on out there?” He took over, and we lost the momentum of the chant. That’s not to say we would have been successful, but it did look like it was working. Please don’t take that as a slam against Harry, because I loved the guy. He was the best.

Rick: Since those Loop days you’ve been a part of every classic rock station in Chicago...

The only place I didn’t work was WMET, and they offered me a job when I got fired at the Loop. They wanted me to do middays, and I wanted afternoons, so I turned them down.

Rick: But you did middays at WCKG, right? Didn’t you host the rock and roll diner?

Mitch: (Laughs) Yes, by then I had been humbled. The GM was Mark Morgan who I had known for years, and when he came back to Chicago, we had dinner at my favorite place in the world, Twin Anchors. He said to me, I keep hearing that you don’t take direction well. I asked him to tell me who said that about me, and when I heard the names I pointed out to him—“But those guys are all dickheads. You wouldn’t take direction from them either.” I convinced him that Tim Sabean was my guy, and that we wouldn’t have a problem. And we didn’t.

Rick: Which dickheads are you referring to?

Mitch: (laughs) The dickheads will remain nameless.

Rick: Did you have a favorite station?

Mitch: Absolutely. It was CKG. That place was so much fun—it was my favorite time in my radio career. Don’t get me wrong, the Loop had been amazing too, but I was back there for the second time in 1984-1985 doing weekends and fill-ins, and had a bit of a falling out with Greg Solk. I was avoiding his calls because I knew he wanted to fire me, but in the interim I had agreed to go to WCKG. So, when he finally pulled me into the office, I said, “you can’t fire me, I quit. I’m going down the street to kick your ass.” And I did. (Laughs). Greg and I have made up since then. He really is a talented guy, really bright, and you sure can’t argue with his very successful track record. I respect him quite a bit.

Rick: I’ve always wondered this—as someone who is so closely aligned with classic rock, is that what you listen to for pleasure, or is that like going back to work again?

Mitch: That’s still my music. Understand something. It wasn’t always classic rock. I played this when it was the new stuff. These babies were the currents when I started out. Music genres have changed and gone different directions, but you have to admit, this music has incredible staying power. My teenage sons sing along to AC/DC and the Stones.

Rick: You’ve also worked with just about every legendary jock in Chicago over the past few decades. Which ones do you think are the best?

Mitch: You have put Sky Daniels (photo) on the top of the heap. He was a visionary, with tremendous knowledge, and a tremendous ego, and it was a tremendous amount of fun to work with him again at 9-fm. I thought he was right on with what he was trying to do there. Unfortunately his stay was short lived and there were signal issues, but he is still the man. Definitely, if I had to pick one guy it would be Sky. My favorite quote from him—this goes way back, but I’ve always remembered it: “I've laid so much pipe in this town I should join the plumbers union!” (laughs) That was obviously before he was married.

As for other jocks, I have to say that as funny as it is sounds coming from me, John Howell is someone who really turned out to be a personality who uses the breadth and depth of his talent. We worked together at WCKG, and those weren’t great days for him. I had to talk him into staying in town a few times, because that Miller and Howell show was a big-time challenge for him, especially when they weren’t getting along. But he’s really talented.

I never really worked with Brandmeier, except coming on after him a few times, but since he’s been back he’s made me pull over to the side of the road a few times because I was laughing so hard. He really still has it. Lots of energy and variety and I’m glad he stayed at the Loop. I can’t picture him at WGN at all.

Obviously, you also have to look at Dahl and Meier together. Apart, not as much. When they were together, they complimented each other so well, it was amazing. Another guy I always loved is someone you know very well, John Records Landecker (photo). When he did nights at WLS, I was doing nights at WDAI, and Decker and I used to do “show prep” together, if you know what I mean. I also thought Alan Stagg was one of the all-time unique characters.

There are 2 others (off air) that should not go unmentioned. Number 1: Bob Pittman, the most amazing guy I have ever worked with or for. He did the "no commercials" kick off of WKQX Dec. 1976, and he did go on to a little success in NY...MTV, WarnerAmex, AOL co-chairmanship...the guy was a prince of a person and truly the most innovative individual I've ever met. And #2: Tim Sabean, a guy whose resume reads like a Who's Who of rock radio..WLS, WLUP, KLOS, WCKG (where he hired me), WYSP, now Sirius-XM, Howard Stern Network. This guy was the most down to earth lunatic (fun) you could ever want to meet. Very savvy, did his homework, and was the best to his people. He was extremely bright and great fun to be around. He's still one of my dearest friends and I have the greatest respect for him as a person and a professional (Tim, if you read this, send me a ticket for NY).

I’m probably leaving some people out, but those are the ones that come to mind right away.

Rick: What do you think about radio now?

Mitch: It’s in a sad state. Back in the day it had so much more immediacy. You could demand people’s attention because you were the only place they could get the new music and the concert information, but now there are a million other places to get it. Don’t get me wrong, I still like radio. I still listen to it. And I miss doing it.

Rick: Will you ever come back?

Mitch: If the opportunity and circumstances were right, I would love to. There doesn’t seem to be any great situation in Chicago right now, and I’m not looking at leaving town at my age, but if something were come up here in town, I’ve learned to never say never.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Bernie Tafoya

Bernie Tafoya has been the ace reporter at WBBM-News Radio 780 for the past 22 years, and part of the Chicago radio landscape for more than 30 years.

Rick: I always thought you had one of the most interesting jobs in the business, because you aren’t tied to a radio studio.

Bernie: I think so too, I love it. I can do my reports from anywhere. I love being on the street.

Rick: And with the technological advances recently you don’t have to come in at all.

Bernie: That’s true. The only time I really come into the station is to turn in my expense reports. (laughs) I have a small digital recorder about 7 inches by 4 inches that has a mic input, a phone jack, and a USB port. I can record phone interviews or on the street interviews with this thing. I can upload the audio into the computer, edit it, and send it wirelessly into the newsroom. The quality is fantastic, and it really does give you incredible flexibility to cover all sorts of different things.

Rick: I think that all-news radio serves an important role. My fear is that it’s an expensive format to keep on the air, and that the bosses will think that they can cut back on reporting. Without people like you on the street, however, the format becomes nothing more than an audio version of reading the newswire. Do you think the people that run radio understand that?

Bernie: I think they do understand that, especially at BBM. To be honest, when you add in the people we have full time and part time now, I’d say we’re not quite where we were at one time, but we’re pretty close. When a big story breaks, we don’t have use smoke and mirrors to cover it. We can throw all sorts of people onto the story to cover every angle, and experienced reporters, too. I like to joke that even though I’ve been at BBM for 22 years, I’m still only like the middle guy on the totem pole. John Cody has been here 40 years.

Rick: Describe a typical work day for you at WBBM News Radio 780.

Bernie: I get up around 4 am and check my e-mail. My editor and I coordinate via e-mail early—he usually sends me some suggestions, and I’ve usually sent him some suggestions the night before, and he responds to those.

The great thing about radio news is that the reporters don’t just cover one story a day like the TV people do—sometimes we do 2, 3, or 4 stories in a day, and many different versions of those too.

This morning I interviewed a money magazine editor and used it as a feature story, in addition covering the swine flu story. Yesterday I was with Mayor Daley and the Mayor of Bogota Columbia, which was just named our sister city, but I was also at the school in Rogers Park talking to the people there about the swine flu when that story broke.

I started this shift in August of 2000, and it used to be a cops and robbers beat, but very early on my news director decided to use me in a different way. She knew I had sources in all sorts of other areas, like in education or the church, and she let me cultivate those sources and use them. Plus, the main spokespeople of the various different agencies all knew me. I was very happy to be given that role, because the old cops and robbers stuff wouldn’t have interested me nearly as much.

Rick: But you probably have seen quite a bit of the cops and robbers stuff. I’m guessing you’ve seen some things that most of us will never see. Are there any stories that have even shocked the hard-bitten reporter in you?

I don’t know about shock, but I have seen a few things that stick with you. The Amtrack crash, the Brown’s Chicken murder. Believe it or not, though, I still have faith in people. People ask me if I’m ever afraid going into so-called bad neighborhoods, and I’m really not. Most people in most neighborhoods are good people. So-called bad neighborhoods are not to be feared. There are only a few bad eggs.

Rick: Does it help that you grew up in a tough neighborhood yourself?

Bernie: Yes, I suppose it does. I grew up in the CHA projects, but there wasn’t really gunfire at that time, it was more with bats and chains, not that that is much better. To be truthful you do get some street smarts growing up in neighborhoods like that. I’m glad my kids never had to grow up with that—they grew up in the Beverly neighborhood.

Rick: So you’ve never had one of those moments...

Bernie: Well I wouldn’t say that. I’ll give you an example. On 9/11 when the Towers were hit, I was sitting in Dominick’s parking lot in the South Loop and I was listening to BBM. As soon as I heard what was happening, I went rolling to the Sears Tower, and started interviewing people there. I spent most of the day down there, and in the Loop, but then I went to Old St. Pats to talk to people who were looking for a way to find comfort during that difficult time. After I finished reporting, I joined them myself and prayed.

Rick: You’ve also covered some of Chicago’s most historical events. Do you have any favorites?

Bernie: Most recently, I’d have to say the Barack Obama 2008 Presidential election. Reporters have been given a lot of grief about being too pro-Obama, but I wasn’t reporting that story from a pro or anti point of view. It was history. I love history and I was so taken at being in Denver at the convention to witness all that (Photo). I didn’t revel in it as anything more than being an observer to history.

On election day, I was there when he voted for himself for President. That was a big moment too.

Rick: You’ve covered all of Chicago’s mayors since...

Bernie: Michael Bilandic. I use that loosely, though, because I was only a desk assistant at WIND when Bilandic was mayor, and I was really only sent over with a tape recorder a few times. But I’ve legitimately been at City Hall since Jane Byrne (photo) was Mayor. In fact, Mayor Byrne indirectly got me a job with WCLR, because she was so interesting and bound to say absolutely anything that they decided they needed a news staff to cover her so they wouldn’t miss the audio.

Rick: Do you have a favorite Mayor?

Bernie: All of the mayors were unique. Jane was always good for a story. Harold was so eloquent and had a great sense of humor. He was also the one who started the practice of coming into the press room to chit chat with reporters. Mayor Daley does that too sometimes as an off-record kind of thing.

One time I brought my son to work to see what Dad does. He was something like 5-years-old at the time, and Mayor Washington said a few very nice things to him—I have the audio somewhere of that. Mayor Daley can be entertaining too. He has a funny way of saying things.

Rick: You grew up in Chicago listening to Chicago radio. Who were some of the people you listened to that shaped the kind of reporter you became?

Bernie: To be honest I didn’t really listen to news radio, I listened to talk radio and music. I loved Dave Baum (photo) at WIND. And in a weird twist of fate, that ended up being the first place I worked in Chicago. I eventually became his producer, and that was quite a thrill for me.

Rick: You’ve received just about every award in the book: Best Reporter awards from the Associated Press and United Press International, Peter Lisagor Awards from the Chicago Headline Club, and an Edward R. Murrow Award, and a Boyden Award from the Chicago Journalists Association. I’m probably missing a few. Is there any one thing you’ve done professionally that you’re most proud of?

Bernie: I like the awards we won as a group, because we’re a team, but as far as the individual awards, I’m probably proudest of the four best reporter awards from AP, and the three second place finishes. Those are for a collection of your work instead of just one story. They mean you can do a variety of different things, and do them well. Those probably mean the most.

Rick: You have the same disease I have, and I’m not talking about swine flu—although it also doesn’t have a cure. You’re a Cubs fan. Have you ever wandered into the sports reporting arena?

Not per se. At WCLR, one of my duties was not only to cover City Hall by day, I also had to cover Depaul basketball (in the Mark Aguirre days) and Michael Jordan in his first few seasons with the Bulls at night. That was pretty cool.

I never actually covered the Cubs themselves, but I was sent to cover the story in a news-related way in 2003 during the playoffs, getting fan reactions, and that sort of thing. I went to both Atlanta and Florida for those playoff series. Also, I went to the Rose Bowl to cover Northwestern. We carried them at the time, so I was sent out to Pasadena. Those are fun stories to cover.

Rick: One final question. I’ve listened to your reports for years, and I’ve never heard even the slightest trace of political bias. As someone who has worked in newsrooms for decades, do you think the media is biased or not?

Bernie: I think we all have views, but for all the reporters I know in this town, I don’t see it when it comes time to work. We may josh with each other because we’re notorious kidders, but when it comes time to put it on the page or on the air, we’re very serious about being as fair as we can be. We all have our own perspective, based on our backgrounds and our beliefs, and sure, that may shape us to a certain extent. Someone from Kenilworth, for instance, might have a different view than someone like me who grew up in the projects, but I know that everyone I’ve ever seen doing this job, tries their darndest to be fair, and most importantly, get the story right.

Rick: And you love this job don’t you?

Bernie: I do, but you know what is more important? I always considered being a dad my #1 job. My youngest is in college now, and all three of my kids have turned out to be good people. That’s my proudest accomplishment.