Saturday, May 01, 2010

Greg Solk

Greg Solk is the Senior VP of Bonneville International, which owns WDRV, WILV, and WTMX in Chicago, and many other stations nationwide. He is one of Chicago’s all-time most successful programming gurus, who among other things, programmed the Loop AM & FM during their heyday.

Rick: You were just a teenager when you started at the Loop in the 70s. I’ve known you for twenty five years now, and I don’t think I’ve ever asked you this before: How did you get your foot in the door?

Greg: I was 15. It was 1977, and I was in the building because my father owned an ad agency in the Hancock, and I was hanging out at his office, and exploring the building—wandering around—and lo and behold, I found the Loop studios. I looked into the window, and Dave Logan saw me in the hallway, invited me in, and gave me a tour of the place. Within a week or so I was working there as an intern.

Rick: And less than two years later you were Steve & Garry’s producer. How did that come about?

Greg: Again, this is the same kind of story. I interned weekends and summers in 77 and 78, and again, purely by chance one weekend morning in early 1979, I just happened to be at the station when a guy knocked on the door carrying a big box of tapes. He said: “I’m Steve Dahl, and I’m going to be the morning guy starting on Monday.” And I helped him carry his stuff in, and get his tapes ready, and during the process Steve asked if I had any interest to work as a producer on his show. I started right away – and got paid!

I was very lucky to work with him. I was still in high school, and here I was working with Steve Dahl. I learned more about radio from him than I learned from anyone, before or since. He taught me the genius of connecting “on an emotional level” with the audience. He’s the smartest radio guy I’ve ever met.

Rick: You mean you produced his show in the morning before high school every day?

Greg: Yeah, I worked out a deal with my high school, Niles North, that I didn’t have to start school until 11 if I took my classes straight through the rest of the day, which is what I did.  I got to the station at 4:30 or so—and helped set up the studio while Garry Lysol-ed the place and swept the floors...

Rick: (laughs) People will think you’re kidding, but he really did do that, didn’t he? He was still doing that when I produced that show seven or eight years later.

Greg: It’s true.  He did.

Rick: I’m still thinking about you doing that job while also going to high school. My son’s going into high school this year. I can’t imagine him waking up at 4:30 in the morning for any reason at all...

Greg: I had to be there at 4:30. I left my house in Skokie at 4. The show started at 5 in those days because it was syndicated in Detroit, and I stayed there until the show ended, and then went to high school.

Rick: That’s a long day.

Greg: Yeah, it was a long day, and to be totally honest, I do remember sleeping through my last class every day—which was Social Studies. I was dead tired by then.

Rick: I was in college radio when I read that you had been promoted to PD at the Loop, and you were something like 21 years old at the time. I was blown away by that. How difficult was transitioning into such a position of authority at such a young age?

Greg: You’re right, I had just turned 21.  It was the winter 1983. At the time, I was so young and so dumb, I really never considered it a problem. You have to remember this was a different time, too, and that the station was unique in the way it was run. Jimmy deCastro (photo) was the GM. He was (and is) the ultimate showman, and he never did anything in the conventional way.

I suppose looking back on it now, when I think about myself handing over the reigns to one of  our stations to a 21-year-old, it doesn’t seem like such a great idea, but back then it honestly didn’t seem that outrageous to me. I lived and breathed that station. I loved it. I had already been working there for six years for a who’s who of program directors including Jay Blackburn, Lee Abrams, Max Floyd, Mitch Michaels, Tim Sabean (Kelly), and I was already the assistant PD by that time—doing a lot of the actual programming work, so it wasn’t such a big deal. You have to remember—I lived there at the station. I didn’t have a social life. I didn’t have a normal life. Working there was all I ever wanted, and all I ever needed – so I thought.

Rick: But handling the talent must have been a big challenge at your age.

Greg: You know, it never really was.  I think they all had known me as the intern and the Assistant PD and knew of my love of that place, which was genuine, and the work ethic. I was there 20 hours a day, and at least they felt there was someone watching over it, someone that really loved the place, and really cared. I believe my hard work outweighed the negatives.

When I became PD the lineup was Matt Bisbee in the morning, then Patty Haze and Bill Evans were on, and then Sky Daniels. I know there were some issues with Sky. I ultimately fired Sky—after idolizing him in my teenage years, but it really was done with his best interest in mind, that’s all I will say about that.

Rick: So Brandmeier (photo) hadn’t started in Chicago yet?

Greg: Right. DeCastro had already hired him, but there was a contract issue that needed to be resolved. He started the following spring. I was his first PD in Chicago.

Rick: I always think of the 1980s as the Loop’s hey-day, and you were there that entire decade. It’s not like those personalities at the Loop during the 80s were an easy to manage bunch, especially during the years when you ran the AM and the FM. It’s hard to believe there was so much talent in one place at one time—but with talent, comes ego. How did you manage their egos and which one of those big Loop stars was the easiest to deal with, and which was the most difficult?

Greg: Steve and Garry were not difficult. They were actually very supportive of me—probably because we were friends, and they knew they had an ally, and probably figured I was their puppet, which I might have been for a little while. Although, as you know, I do have strong opinions. But honestly I never really had any big problems with Steve and Garry. I loved working with them – although Steve has spent decades “killing me” on the air -  I still contend it’s out of love, although that may be just in my head!.

I also never had an argument with Brandmeier, because he refused to argue. Every time I had to convey an issue or directive from ownership, like—hey you can’t put people on the air without telling them first, or when I had issues with songs played or not played, he always did the same thing. He would say: “Oh, man, I’m so sorry. I’m such a dummy. I can’t believe I did that.” He would literally be backing out of my office as he said it.

And then, of course, he just went ahead and did whatever he wanted, and we had the same song and dance the next time. “Oh, man, I’m so sorry. Did I do that again? I’m such a dummy. I can’t believe I did that.” He did that on a daily basis. It was brilliant!

But you have to remember, he could do no wrong in those days. None of them could. The ratings were so huge, and everyone was making so much money, that it really wasn’t an issue. I remember the funniest part of dealing with Johnny is that he only communicated by Fax – he was a trip!

Rick: The thing that is most amazing to me about that time was that the talent wasn’t just confined to drive time, or even on the air—you had the best production talent, the best producers, the best promotion department, sales, marketing, administrative, you name it. Who are some of the unsung heroes from that era in your opinion?

Greg: You’re so right about that. It really was the A-team, across the board. Kevin was brought in to do nights on AM 1000. On the FM, we had great talents like Johnny B, Stroud, Skafish (photo), Patty, John Fisher and Dave Benson. It was 24-hours a day live and local—even late nights on AM 1000 we had Chet Coppock, and a guy named Ed Tyll. And most of those shows had producers, and sidekicks, and newspeople. We’ll probably never see a time like that again—we were very fortunate to be able to run our properties like that at the time.

As for unsung heroes, there are too many to name. We tried to do this a few years ago and came up with literally hundreds of names. Some of the best of the best at everything.  But if I really had to pick a few names out, it would be three people I still work with today.  Matt Bisbee—we’ve never not worked together—and he’s still with us now at Bonneville and does incredible work at several of properties. I could not do what I do without him. My assistant Fina Rodriguez has been with me for thirty years (she’s a saint), and so has Kent Lewin, who is still our chief engineer. Those three I see on a daily basis, and they’re very special to me. We’re all still here together, and that’s great.

But back in the Loop days, I will say our number one unsung hero was Sandy Stahl—she was the marketing director there, but she was so much more than that. She was the heart and soul of the Loop in the glory days. She was the sun, the moon and the stars…She made that place work. A unique human being. A wonderful person. Sandy passed away not too long ago. To all of us that knew her, that was a huge loss. I loved her dearly.

Rick: Me too. You're so right about Sandy. I want to ask you about one more thing from that era. You were also there on the ground floor of WMVP’s launch as an all-sports station.

Greg: I actually came back to Chicago to start that up. I needed a break from the Loop in the early 90s, (and I’m sure they needed a break from me as well) and I went to San Francisco to program a great radio station KFOG for two years, but in those two years, Jimmy DeCastro and Larry Wert kept in touch with me. In 1993, they asked me to come back and launch WMVP—going up against the Score. Jimmy wanted to steal all the sports teams and all the talent at the time. Jimmy’s the ultimate salesman and he convinced me to come back and do it. I was excited about the project—it was new for me because I had done mostly talk and rock, but I was totally into sports. Looking back at where the station is today, and everyone that has worked there over the years, what an unbelievable array of talent. It was loaded.

Rick: There were some difficult times in those early days going head to head against the Score. What did you learn from that experience?

Greg: The big lesson I learned was that the first one in, really wins. They did a great job launching the Score and had a really good product with McNeil and Boers and North and Jiggetts, and we really struggled because we were the second one in. We had a bumpy start. I was still in my temporary condo downtown, unpacking my things, thinking that Howard Stern was lined up to be our morning show, when I found out that because of an FCC infraction, it wasn’t going to happen. Then, Steve and Garry broke up, so Steve was put on the AM as our morning host—teamed with Bruce Wolf (photo). But I always thought we had some great talent on that station, broadcasters and former athletes. There were some tough times, but I really loved it.

Rick: When the Loop was sold to Bonneville a few years later, you and a select few members of the staff remained aboard. What was that transition like—going from the Evergreen Loop to the Bonneville Loop?

Greg; You’re right, that really was a transition. Going from the DeCastro era, and you probably remember the way he described those days, high school with money, to suddenly working for a Mormon Church-owned company. I made the decision to stay at the Loop with Bonneville out of the respect that I had for Drew Horowitz, who was the market leader for the company. Hearing the love and admiration he had for the station, just as a competitor and observer—he recognized what it could be. He wanted to restore the luster to the station, which had fallen on hard times, and I decided that I loved the station so much that I wanted that challenge. I’m very lucky I made that change. Joining Bonneville was the best decision of my professional life.

Rick: During that same era you launched one of the most successful new formats in Chicago radio history—the Drive. I just looked at the ratings, and wow. The Drive is a ratings juggernaut—even more so in the PPM world. It’s the #1 or #2 station in Chicago for men 25-54 in every major daypart. To what do you attribute that success?

Greg: Well actually Rick The Drive is usually top 3 in ADULTS as well, but I digress.. Success at The Drive comes from 3 things. 1) An AMAZINGLY talented staff 2) a real connection to the audience 3) Lots of Luck. Can you believe it’s been nine years since we launched that thing? It’s been joyful. We launched it as the 4th Bonneville music station at the time. When they told me that we were going to get this frequency, they asked me if I had an idea for a format—and I did have this idea of doing a format that was respectful of the music, with a slightly older focus, that didn’t rely on the usual radio hype and tricks to get ratings, and it really did work. It’s been unbelievably exciting. My boss Drew Horowitz was the genius behind naming “THE DRIVE." I can tell from your tone of voice that you were a little surprised by how dominant we are, because we tend to fly a little under the radar, really not often noticed by the world, but I’m very proud of what we’ve done. Look at the who’s who of  Drive jocks – Steve Downes, Bob Stroud, Bobby Skafish, Phil Manicki, Greg Easterling, Steve Seaver & Carla Leonardo. There must be 200 years of Chicago radio experience between them. What a staff.

Rick: There’s something else I’ve wanted to ask you for a few years. About six years ago the Loop switched owners once again, and this time you stayed with Bonneville and left the Loop behind. You’ve already talked about how much you loved that radio station—everything about it, down to that physical space in the Hancock. It had been a big part of your life twenty plus years. How hard was that for you to leave behind?

Greg: At the time I was stunned. I hadn’t been given much notice. I was only given 24 hours to process the whole thing. I was definitely in a mourning period for a little while there. I know it sounds nuts, but I thought about that place as my baby, and that feeling was very real to me. The first few weeks were extremely difficult, but I could see pretty quickly that it was a very wise decision for the company, because of the stations we got in return in Phoenix. You know, it’s been six years, and life went on, I survived, and I’m in a very good place right now. I love these stations I’m working with now, and I’ve been really blessed. I have real kids, which in the big scheme of things is obviously way more important. But I must admit, in my basement I still have a bunch of Loop t-shirts and jackets that I just can’t rid of, and probably never will.

Rick: It certainly doesn’t hurt that you have Chicago’s #1 morning show in your purview these days too. I’ve mentioned this to you before, but I believe that the Eric and Kathy show doesn’t get enough credit. To maintain those ratings, and the numbers are really staggering, for this many years is truly remarkable. If it’s not a record—it has to be close to one. Why do you think that show is such a success?

Greg: Thanks for noticing, and yes, I think you’re right. It’s probably the best run of mega ratings for any entertainment show in Chicago history. Of course, I can't take credit for that show. Barry James is the one that put it together. The secret to them, I’ve always believed, is that they are the perfect match of show and radio station. Sometimes great shows are on the wrong station, and sometimes great radio stations have the wrong show, but in this case, Eric and Kathy just fit hand and glove to the style of the radio station. They’ve also done a great job of tailoring the show to the audience, and changing over the years with the times as the audience has changed. We’ve moved with the times musically too. It’s a well oiled machine. The pieces of the puzzle are all excellent—from Swany in the producer’s booth, to everyone on the air. Eric runs the show unbelievably well. I can’t compliment him enough. I know Eric grew up and listened to some of those Loop shows we’ve already talked about. He’s used some of those lessons he learned, tailored them to a female oriented show, and the results speak for themselves.

Eric and Kathy don’t get as much attention, and haven’t got as much attention over the years as the Mancows and Sterns and Dahls, because they aren’t as outrageous. They don’t get slapped with FCC fines, or lawsuits. Which also means they aren’t as sexy to write about. They do a clean show—a mass appeal show. Therein lies the beauty. That’s why it has ratings, while others have gone away. When you reach the masses you’re probably not doing the things that get attention—because some of those very things also tend to drive people away.

Rick: I know you aren’t necessarily involved in the day to day operations of the Chicago Bonneville properties anymore—your job is more company wide. What exactly do you do these days in your new role?

Greg: Your question isn’t quite right, because I actually do spend quite a bit of time with the day to day operations of the Chicago properties.  I also spend time at our other stations around the country, and that does involve a good deal of travel to our stations in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Seattle, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Salt Lake City, - where I work closely with the programmers on our tremendous products, but I’d say about half of my job is here. I don’t program the Chicago stations day-to-day—I’ve got some great PDs doing that, Barry James at WILV, Mary Ellen Kachinske at WTMX, and Patty Martin at the Drive, but I work with all of them on a daily basis and do all I can to help all three local stations stay on target and evolve appropriately.

Rick: I know you’re still a young guy (you’re my age—I have to say that)—but you’ve accomplished so much in your career. Looking back on your thirty plus years in Chicago, what are you proudest of?

Greg: I’m proud to still be making a difference in the industry that turns me on... The same love of radio I had when I was 15 still exists in me today. (Photo: The Loop staff, circa 1979) . I’m thrilled to play in this playpen everyday - and I still feel the same excitement every time I turn on the radio. But I’m most thankful for the hundreds of people that I’ve met and got to work with over the years. The list of people is really unbelievable, and I still consider them all friends. I really treasure those friendships. That’s probably the most gratifying thing in my career.