Saturday, January 23, 2010

Todd Ronczkowski

Todd Ronczkowski is the program director of WVON and the operations manager of WRLL. Before taking this position he was the long-time producer of the Roe & Garry show (and then the Roe Conn show) on WLS-AM 890.

Rick: First of all, congrats on the new gig at WVON. I've always said that producers make good program directors of talk stations--so prove me right. How has that transition from producer to program director gone for you so far?

Todd: Rick, first of all thank you on the congrats. After producing for 15 years on a top rated radio station, you become naturally groomed to program. My goal has always been to program a talk/news/interactive type of format in Chicago.

The transition has been very natural. Basically, I feel like I did my time in the minor leagues and got the call up to the big leagues. A year and a half ago I would have never imagined Programming WVON, let alone being named Operation Manager of 1450 WRLL Radio Latino. It has been a very smooth transition, almost surreal at times. (Photo: Todd with Rod Blagojevich)

Rick: WVON is obviously an iconic station in Chicago. It's been around in some form since the year I was born (1963), and it's been a talk station since 1986. What sort of a vision do you have for the station going forward from here?

Todd: I have a simple plan; it is to continue to super serve our core audience. At the same time, we plan discussions that are relevant to our listening audience in the suburban metro area and collar counties of Cook. 100% of our topic selection is targeted to the African-American community of Chicago. I think we can get more listeners if we plan more discussions about Americans. It is a work in progress. (Photo: Todd with Al Sharpton).

One of our most popular hosts on WVON is Charles Butler. His show comes from the perspective of a conservative African American. This type of programming is not what one would typically expect to hear on Liberal Urban Talk Radio. In a way, he is considered a shock jock to our core audience. They love to hate him but listen to every word. The same goes for our morning show with Matt McGill and Perri Small. Matt and Perri often disagree on topics close to the African-American community. Our younger listeners tend to agree and sometimes challenge them, but our older listeners find them edgy and dangerous. I like that.

Rick: I know the original owners of the station, the Chess Brothers, were white, but VON originally stood for Voice of the Negro. Has there been any backlash about you programming a station that is mainly aimed at the African-American community?

Todd: Rick this is a tough question. I know my name was mentioned negatively in an editorial in a community newspaper. I did not give it much credence because they spelled my name wrong. I try not to pay much attention to what people say. I do know that my presence at WVON has gotten the attention of many people who support the station. I know that doesn't really answer your question, so here is Melody Spann-Cooper, the President and owner of the station, to respond...

Melody: Hi Rick. Did we not just elect an African-American President? The world is changing and there is a lot of great talent out there. Black, White, Brown…if they can deliver excellence to your product, that is so irrelevant. While very community-based, I cannot allow the community to run the station. I have to make those calls on top talent. Todd has been one of the best I have hired. In fact, I get a big kick out of keeping people perplexed about my decisions. Got a white program director because Clear Channel demanded it, and Radio One’s Chairman Kathy Hughes owns the station. You confused yet? So are they, but it sure in hell keeps the heat off of me.

Todd: I hope that answers your question Rick. Like I said, some days are surreal.

Rick: You've obviously worked with quite a few program directors during your many years at WLS. Which PDs influenced you the most, either positively or negatively, and how did they influence you?

Todd: I can tell you that Mike Elder (photo) and Drew Hayes have been great positive influences. Mike was not afraid to take a chance, and stood his ground in the never ending battle that happens between the Sales Department and Programming. His programming philosophy was well planned out with the promotions department, and he was always great at communicating his vision to the staff. Drew taught me the art of self promotion, and the importance of making things sound larger than life. Both Drew and Mike taught me the golden rule of programming: Know your audience, give them what they want, tell them you are giving them what they want, and be visible in the community you serve.

Rick: People probably know you most for your years as the producer of the Roe & Garry show. You were there for the highest highs and the lowest lows, including the break up. Before I get to the break up, how about talking about some of those high highs--your favorite moments on the Roe & Garry show?

Todd: There are too many to list Rick. Almost every day when we were on top we caught lightning in a bottle. Some of that was evidenced in the series of CD’s I produced and gave away at all the remotes. We put a lot of effort into all the remotes. The remotes were first class with the invited listener’s, guests, and sponsors enjoyment in mind.

I got the most satisfaction from writing on the fly as discussions developed. I loved sharing my social commentary and satire that I was able to communicate to the hosts using IFB, and then hearing my thoughts on the air. I also really enjoyed the rush of breaking big stories and owning the story.

Rick: I've talked to both Roe and Garry about their break up, and I got slightly different stories. You were there for all of that. Let's put it this way; What are some of the biggest misconceptions about the breakup and how and why it went down?

Todd: Can I take the 5th on this question? Ha, I will tell you this, there are about 10-15 people who really know what happened. Each one of those people, including myself, has a different take on how and why it went down the way it did. (Photo from left to right: Garry, Roe, Jim Johnson, and Carnarble Wagon at Abbey Road.)

From my perspective, I can say I get why Roe took the money and decided to stay. I also understand where Garry was coming from as far as how he was treated by ABC management in the negotiation process. That’s all you will get from me Rick, until we collaborate on our new book “Steve and Garry, Roe and Garry: The Break up”.

Rick: To me, the oddest part of the whole thing for you, must have been to still be aboard after the breakup. What was it like during that first year, when the listeners were still clamoring for a reunion, and you had to calm them down on the phones?

Todd: At times I felt like a child of divorce sent to live with one parent even though I love the other parent equally. I had to really screen the calls tight. It was really difficult dealing with callers, who for months were told that Roe and Garry would be back on the air. When the realization hit that the show would not be on the air, listeners felt they were lied to. I honestly believe Roe thought they would be reunited. I had to tell the listeners “Yeah the situation sucks but we have to keep going. The show is different now, there is nothing we can do about it, and we have to play the cards we were dealt."

Rick: Roe and Garry are radio icons in Chicago. You must have picked up a few pointers from working with them (timing, structure, comedy, etc). Give us a few.

Todd: Most listeners of talk radio think hosts just sit there and wing it. Good hosts know the topic and the angle and the emotional buttons they are going to push. Good talk hosts know how listeners will respond on the phone before the first word is spoken on the issue.

Tragedy plus time equals comedy.

Connect with the audience. Know what people are watching on TV (Check the hourly ratings daily for the day before). Be aware of what the latest trends are, especially for children and teens. Try not to sound like the smartest person in the room. It is OK to be curious and learn from a guest or caller. Treat a guest like a guest, and let them talk. Be conversational.

Rick: You're one of those guys that I call radio lifers. That is, you started at the bottom (in high school even, I believe, right?), paid your dues over the years, and worked your way up to the position you're in today. What advice do you have for people who want to follow your lead in today's current marketplace?

Todd: Lifer Huh? When I was a senior in High School I was the station manager of a student run station that was on the air at 7am and went off at midnight in the summer months, and on til 10pm on school nights. (Photo: Todd with Tommy Chong)

I did everything from wiring a new TV studio, to ordering phone lines for remotes, play by play sports, scheduling, programming, technical maintenance, air shift, etc. In the early 80s the FCC decided educational radio stations could do advertising as long as there were no quantitative or qualitative statements in the ad. My senior year I billed over 10k for the radio station with traditional advertising and a promotion that partnered us with one of those coupon books that was mass marketed in the SW suburbs. We only got about 5k from the coupon book but the guy who ran it made 100s of thousands. The day after I graduated high school, I went for a job at WJRC in Joliet. The same guy that scammed us on the coupon book was the GM and he hired me on the spot. Funny thing is, I googled the guy the other day and he is doing time for a scam involving a radio station.

So I guess my advice would be find something you are good at, and like to do, and figure out how to get paid. You either hustle to achieve your goal, or meet a con man to give you a break. Find a mentor, get your foot in the door at a radio station, even if it is a small station.

Rick: If you were given an unlimited budget, the format of your choice, and a 50,000 watt blowtorch, what would be your dream lineup?

Todd: Unlimited budget huh? My plan would have to have an unlimited budget. The reality is I would have to pay out millions that I would never make back, but the radio would be interesting.
Morning: Howard Stern.
Mid-day: Rush Limbaugh local only, not syndicated.
Afternoon: Roe and Garry Local only
Evening: With an unlimited budget I would be able to team up Charles Butler and Cliff Kelley (photo) along with Carol Marin.
Overnight: Imagine Clyde, Turd and Piranha Man doing issue orientated radio as a team.

Rick: Yikes. By the way, speaking of teams, have you heard the new Roe & Cisco show?

Todd: A little.

Rick: Your thoughts?

Todd: I really haven't been able to sample enough to form an opinion. I'm sure like any other new show, it will take time to work out the chemistry and kinks.