Saturday, April 10, 2010

Sherman Kaplan

Sherman Kaplan is a news anchor and co-host of the Noon Business Report on WBBM-AM NewsRadio 780

Rick: First of all congratulations on your longevity at WBBM. Last year you celebrated 40 years.

Sherman: Thank you.

Rick: Tell the story of how you first arrived at WBBM.

Sherman: It was by accident really, that I got this job at all. My wife and I were vacationing in Chicago in September 1968 shortly after the Democratic convention, and we were staying at the Holiday Inn (now the W—I believe). At the time I was working at a radio station in Columbus Ohio, and a friend of mine was living in Chicago. He told me that WBBM just went all news and that I should apply. The studio was right down the street from our hotel. I wasn’t really looking for a job at the time, because I was pretty happy in Columbus, and I was pretty secure there--the number two man of a three man staff--but I thought what the heck. Let’s see what the big market guys think of little market me.

So, like all good broadcasters, I had a tape and resume on hand, and I dropped it off at the station. They were very nice and all, but said they didn’t have anything available at the time, which was fine by me. We went back to Columbus and in January they called and asked me if I could start in two weeks. That was probably the hardest decision I’ve made in my life. I decided to give it a try, and came to Chicago.

Five other broadcasters came around the same time, within two or three weeks of me. Len Walter (photo, also still with WBBM) was among them. Dick Helton, who has been the morning co-anchor at KNX for years, was another.

Rick: You were hired as a reporter at first?

Sherman: Yes, general assignment reporter and anchor. My first day was Feb 17, and I had no instruction at all. They never a said a thing to me about anything. Mal Bellairs was my co-anchor. He was a legend in Chicago, but he wasn’t really a news man –he was a leftover from the old format. I believe we hosted from 1-2 pm, and then I covered stories on the street. My first night in Chicago I had to cover an accident on the south side and I had no idea where I was going.

Rick: There was a lot going on in Chicago at that time, wasn’t there?

Sherman: Definitely. In early 69 there was still some of that leftover rage from 1968. The Weathermen and a few other militant groups were still around. I remember one night I was on Scott Street a little south of Goethe, and they were just tearing the place up, just for the sake of anarchy. (Photo: mugshot of notorious Weatherman Bill Ayers)

Rick: Those first few years in Chicago were quite challenging weren’t they?

Sherman: My first year I really hated it. I made an effort to go back to Columbus. I had a very hard adjustment to make here, and I had been expecting to become news director eventually in Columbus, so I really wanted to go back. It’s a good thing I didn’t-- the news director in Columbus stayed another 24 years. (Laughs).

Rick: So no one really helped indoctrinate you into the wonderful world of Chicago—the neighborhoods, the politics, the underbelly?

Sherman: There was some subtle guidance, but very little. I’ll give you an idea of how unstructured it was. We would alternate hours during anchor shifts. Dick Helton (photo) and I were the co-anchors for one shift, and Dick was ending one of his hours, and I was beginning mine, and I knew that Dick had just gotten back from vacation. I asked him about it on the air—asked if he had any slides to share. Dick caught on immediately, and began describing his color slides of the vacation. We had a great time with that before I went on with what was allegedly the news. I got a call the next day from Van Gordon Sauter, the news director, who said “Last night the exchange between you and Dick was one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard on the radio. If I ever hear it again, you’re fired.” (Laughs) Honestly, I’ve always been a bit of a square peg in a round hole.

Rick: You’ve obviously covered every major news story over the past four decades. Are there any that really stand out to you?

Sherman: Oh yes. Most of these stories I covered in the studio, but many of them happened during my show. The crash of the Illinois Central Railroad on the south side. The Nixon resignation. The explosion of the Challenger. I’ll never forget that day. We carried the launch live at 10:30. At that time we had a business report from Len Walter at 20 and 40, and as I threw it to Len, I had my eye on the television monitor and saw something that didn’t look quite right. I mentioned it to my producer in the talkback, and when we came back from Len, I started to describe what I was seeing.

Rick: Before the network knew what happening?

Sherman: Yes, before the network was on it. They cut to it shortly thereafter. There have been so many other memorable days as well. Daley’s death. Harold Washington’s death. Of course, 9-11.

Rick: I was listening to you that morning on my way home from Landecker’s show. We covered it live while it was happening too—everyone did—but switched to network coverage when it became clear how big of a story it was.

Sherman: I like to scan around the dial on my way in to work to see what everyone else is doing, and I was listening to WLS on my way in that morning. Don and Roma were talking about a small plane hitting one of the trade center towers and the story was still coming around when I got in to the station. We were all glued to the TV monitors after that, and we watched the towers come down. We were all a little speechless, but we had a story to tell. When Kris Kridel (photo) and I got on the air we were already getting local reaction from our reporters in the field.

Rick: Everyone I know listened to WBBM for part of that day.

Sherman: It’s sad to say, but it’s true. Those are the days that we really shine. That day we didn’t even air commercials. I remember someone told me a few hours after the towers went down that WCBS, the network flagship, was going back to commercials. I said “WHAT?” I couldn’t believe that. We didn’t go back to commercials for a very long time. I want to say it was 24 hours.

Rick: Talk about some of the changes that have occurred with the on-air presentation of WBBM over the years.

Sherman: It's changed quite a bit. When I first began, the staff here was much larger. We had a few dedicated beat reporters, like Bob Crawford, John Madigan, etc, and a handful young reporters. We also had writers and producers and engineers and technicians.

Rick: What about the format itself?

Sherman: It’s become much more formatic. It has reduced us to a headline service, in a way. I don’t say that derogatorily. The positive part of that change is that listeners know exactly when each story is going to be on. One of our news directors once told us that they want people to think of WBBM as a public utility, like the water company, and I’ve come to admit that we are a utility in a way. We offer a fairly concise wrap-up of the news events of the day, with weather, traffic, business, and sports, and our listeners are trained to know when they will hear what they need to hear.

Of course, the downside is that we aren’t often able to explore stories in depth the way we used to do it. When I first started, I scheduled an interview segment from 2:15 until 2:45 or so and nobody stopped me, so I kept on doing it as part of our midday program. Ultimately we got new management in and we changed it more to the way do things now. They wanted us to be more structured, and I can’t say I disagree too much with this approach. It’s obviously been tremendously successful. Our cume is consistently the highest in the city, and every single daypart does well with every demographic.

Rick: A few years ago WBBM physically made the move from its longtime location (at McClurg Ct.) to its current location. Was that a difficult move for you after all those years?

Sherman: Not for me. During the move I was on vacation so I didn’t have the trauma of the actual move. To be honest, the old place was stuck together with chewing gum and glue and we knew it had to be torn down eventually. Plus the idea of getting new facilities with state of the art new equipment was tremendous. I think everyone was pretty excited about it. I know that old building had quite a bit of history—most famously the Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960 (photo)—but I’m not the nostalgic type.

Rick: I know you actually got your start as a disc jockey before switching over to news. What was it that made you switch your career focus?

Sherman: I was a rock and roll disc jockey in Cincinnati at WSAI, 1360 on the dial. One of the seven good guys on Boss radio from 1961-1964, 'Mike Sherman the night creature' was my name. I loved it. It was great fun. Among the people I worked with was Ron Britain.

Rick: I’ve interviewed Ron. He’s quite a character.

Sherman: (laughs) That’s the perfect word to describe him. Dick Purtan, who later became the biggest thing in Detroit, was also there. But I’ll tell you the precise moment I knew I didn’t want to do it anymore. It was November 22, 1963, a Friday, the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. When I came in to work that night, and mind you this was just a few hours after the president was killed, there were a bunch of kids hanging out in front of the station as they did every night. They stopped me and asked me to play some inane song for them—just like it was any other night—and I thought, no—I don’t want to do this anymore.

I left radio altogether and went to work for IBM in Pittsburgh, but after 8 months or so, I got the jones to do it again, but this time I wanted to do news. They hired me in Charleston to do news, but they asked me to fill in as a disc jockey in the interim, until they could replace their morning man. After awhile it became obvious that they were in no hurry to find someone, so I walked in and said: “You brought me in here to do news, I want to do the news.” Only then did I finally get to do news. I had no training. I had no experience. I just learned on the job. It was seat of the pants training. I still consider myself a journalist to this day, even though I was never formally schooled to be one. I have a degree in Fine Arts. (laughs) Although I do have the one thing that a good newsperson must have--natural curiosity.

Rick: Over the last several years you’ve really focused on covering the business world. You probably have as good an understanding about this latest financial collapse as anyone. Why didn’t anyone see this coming?

Sherman: Because there was so much economic enthusiasm. We saw the housing bubble coming—but not the rest. In March of 2007, a British bank named HSBC bought Household Finance which was the biggest distributor and seller of subprime mortgages. They bought it because they thought it was way to get into the business. It turned out to be a disaster not only for this company, but it was the first sign of the subprime mortgage crisis. I’m reading a book by Michael Lewis right now called The Big Short. Lewis says that there were only about 8 or 10 people that really saw this coming, and they shorted the market, and made millions of dollars from the collapse.

Rick: Could it happen again?

Sherman: Absolutely. The biggest lesson I’m getting is that there has not been any big financial reform. It could happen soon, but as of now, nothing has changed.

Rick: Do you think there is an over-emphasis on the short term at the expense of the long term in business reporting?

Sherman: That’s the problem with business, investors, and the financial system in general. The next quarter has got to show growth over the previous quarter, and on and on and on. It’s basically driven by greed. In terms of what drives the market now, it’s greed too...and that’s not a bad thing, it’s called capitalism. Yes, there are inherent flaws in capitalism, but we’ve never yet devised a better system.

Rick: I can’t let you go without talking about your love of food. You’ve won every possible radio award over the years, but I’ve heard you say that the one gives you the most pride is the nomination you received for Best Radio Food Program from the James Beard Foundation.

Sherman: I was just doing a local show, and I don’t even know how that nomination came about, but it was very flattering. Unfortunately I’m not doing the food segments any longer. They ended in November 2007 at WBBM.

To tell you the truth, I’m much prouder of my children. My son is even involved in the restaurant business. His new restaurant is called Benny’s Chop House and it’s opening soon on North Wabash. I’m very proud of him, and I’m very proud of my daughter too. They’ve both grown up to be fine people.