Saturday, September 18, 2010

Orion Samuelson

September 26th, 2010 will mark Orion Samuelson's 50th anniversary with WGN Radio.

Rick: First of all, congratulations on 50 years at WGN radio. That’s an amazing accomplishment. Has it seemed like fifty years to you?

Orion: No, no, it certainly hasn’t, but I am proud of it because no one has ever done it before, and the way the business is these days, I suspect no one will do it again for a very long time. I’m very appreciative that WGN has given me this opportunity.

Rick: Where did you work before WGN?

Orion: Well, I’m a Wisconsin farmboy; my family owned a farm in La Crosse. I got my start in radio in 1952 as a polka disc jockey on WKLG. It later became WCOW, which certainly makes sense in that region, but now I believe it’s WKLG again. In 1954, I moved to Appleton to become a teenage telephone DJ, taking requests and playing the records for kids. The owner of that station also owned a television and radio station in Green Bay Wisconsin, and knew I was a farm kid, so when one of the farm broadcasters left, they brought me aboard.

I really enjoyed Green Bay. I was a big fish in a little pond, and had just built a new home there. WGN called me because their farm director, Norm Kraft, had resigned on the air and walked out of the studio—announcing that he had joined the campaign of Senator Kennedy. I suspect that he thought he would be named Secretary of Agriculture if Sen. Kennedy won. Kennedy did win, but Norm didn’t get the Secretary job.

As for me, I loaded up my 1949 Chrysler New Yorker Deluxe with 80,000 miles on it, and drove to Chicago. Remember, there weren't any expressways in those days. It was a long drive on highway 41, but I figured it would be a fun trip to the big city. I knew there were far more qualified people than me, so I didn’t think anything would come of it. I met the GM,Ward Quaal (photo), and Wally Phillips-who was doing evenings at the time, and Eddie Hubbard—the morning man, and Jack Brickhouse, and was very impressed. I was shocked when they offered me the job. I really thought long and hard about it. It took me ten days to make the decision. I look back at that now, and shudder to think how close I came to saying no.

Rick: When you started at WGN in 1960, Chicago was the center of the media universe. The first Kennedy-Nixon debate took place at the old Channel 2 studios at McClurg Ct. the same week you started. I’m guessing it didn’t take long to realize that you had hit the big-time.

Orion: (laughs) No, no, it didn’t. It was a little intimidating. I went from big fish in little pond, to little fish in big pond. And I feared any little mistake would send me packing. WGN was very impressive thanks to Ward Quaal. He was an icon in the industry. He turned WGN around when he took over in 1956. He took paid religion off the air, and he put traffic copters in the air to get better traffic reports. He was an outstanding broadcaster.

Rick: You’ve covered an incredibly broad range of stories in those fifty years. There must be a handful of them that are most memorable to you. What are they?

Orion: Well, I’ve also done a television show for many years too, and with my crew we’ve gone to forty three countries. That’s one thing.

I’ve been asked about this a lot in the last few weeks, and I suppose the one that comes to mind is the day that Senator Kennedy came to Green Bay in May of 1960. He held a press conference in the Northland Hotel, and I asked him several questions about farm and dairy issues. After the press conference was over, a gentleman in a suit came over to me and said, “Senator Kennedy would like to speak to you privately.” He wanted to learn more about farm issues. So we sat in the bar of the Northland Hotel and discussed farm issues for about twenty minutes.

Then, on November 22, 1963, I happened to be on the air when the news came over the wire. I was in the middle of a weather forecast, and I remember it was a warm and rainy day in Chicago, when the yellow teletype was handed to me. I thought it was a joke at first, because of course, that’s the sort of gag we liked to pull on each other, but when I saw the faces in the control room I knew it was for real.

You have to remember, this was before we had the internet, and before we had computers—we were totally reliant upon UPI and AP to give us the news. That was all we had. At 12:33, all I had was this one or two sentence bulletin stating that the President had been shot. I didn’t know what to do. The program director was at lunch, so we couldn’t ask him. The record turner was at lunch, so we couldn’t go to music. So I just went back to reading my forecast, then read the bulletin again, then went back to the forecast. Finally, someone found the record turner, and we went back to music. Walter Cronkite announced that Kennedy was dead around 1:00. I’ll certainly never forget that day.

On the other end of the spectrum, another highlight for me was being the announcer on the WGN Barn Dance. I grew up listening to WLS, the Prairie Farmer Station, and the Barn Dance was a regular Saturday night feature, and had been since the 1920s. They held it at the old 8th Street Theatre. Well, on April 30, 1960, WLS signed off as a farm station, and the next day they became a rock and roll station. This infuriated every single farmer in the Midwest. I said to Ward Quaal, that it would be a shame to let the Barn Dance die, and he agreed. We brought it to WGN, and from 1960-1969, I got to meet some of the greats of the business, including Johnny Cash, and boy you name it, they were all on the show.

I still talk to 4-H clubs with some regularity, and I always tell young people, if you don’t remember anything else I’ve said, remember this: You can’t dream big enough. As a kid sitting on a three-legged milking stool in Wisconsin, I never would have believed the life I had in front of me. Thanks to the power and influence of WGN, I’ve met seven presidents. I even went to a dinner at the White House once when Richard Nixon was president. I never would have believed that could happen to me.

Rick: One of the things I enjoyed about working in radio was the chance to meet so many talented people. You’ve seen some of the greatest come and go—who would you rate as the best of the best—and who have been some of your personal favorites?

Orion: Wally Phillips (photo) had the fastest mind of anyone I’ve ever known. It used to absolutely amaze me—listening to him on the phone calls, his quick comebacks were incredible. Just sitting there and watching the system work was an education. In those days all of these voice cuts he played were put on a disc. There were tons of discs, and his record turner did a tremendous job.

When Bob Collins arrived, I honestly thought it was the end of WGN. He was so unlike Wally, so unlike Roy Leonard. He had that raucous cackle and laugh. He wasn’t smooth. He didn’t have a good radio voice. I didn’t like him for a good six months. But we got involved in a cow milking contest once, and we hit it off. On the day he died he was my closest friend at WGN. His talent was that he could go from something very silly or stupid, to talking about an important issue like abortion or gun control, in the blink of an eye, without missing a beat, and without losing his credibility. That’s a rare talent.

Spike O’Dell was great too. He was put in one of the most difficult situations any broadcaster had ever faced—he had to replace Bobby, and talk about it, and report it, on the air. I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t able to discuss it without breaking down. I’m still amazed that Spike handled that so well. He was a great guy too. What you see is what you get from Spike.

And Roy Leonard, in my book, is the best celebrity interviewer of all time. He did the research, he prepared, he read their books, and it showed. I’ll always appreciate Roy for the gracious way he introduced me to these big stars when I came into the studio to deliver my reports. He didn’t have to do that, but he always went out of his way to introduce me to people like Gregory Peck, and one time, I even got to shake hands with Sophia Loren. That’s a moment I’ll never forget. (laughs) That was definitely a highlight.

Rick: We’ve already touched on this briefly, but I want to ask you a little more about agricultural reporting. It used to be a mainstay of big AM radio stations throughout the Midwest. Is radio making a mistake by eliminating or downplaying agricultural news?

Orion: Yes, they are, but you have to realize that most of the managers of the big city radio stations have no knowledge of the food industry’s importance to our daily lives. Their upbringing was probably in the city, and they don’t really understand what happens west of the Tri-State Tollway. I can understand that, I really do. But I try to educate our sales people that rural people are just like them, they buy refrigerators and cars just like city folks do.

Another thing that has emerged to diminish the power of the Big AM stations to deliver the farm news is that local stations have emerged to fill that void. Before they came around, at night time you really didn’t have any other contact with the world besides us. We would cover the nation and a good part of Canada. We were a natural resource because we could get information to everybody in the country. Now there are other ways to do that. And now WGN isn’t even a clear channel station anymore. Now there’s a 720 in Las Vegas and Connecticut.

We had an interesting moment during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. President Kennedy wanted to send a message to the Cuban people that our dispute was not with them, but with their government. He came to several of the big 50,000 watt clear channel radios stations, including WGN, and asked us to deliver a message at midnight every night in their native tongue. And we did. And they could hear us all the way in Cuba. But, the Cubans took action to block us. Within six months they started a 200,000 watt station on the same frequency, and that really blasted us out of the air at nighttime. In the south all you could hear on 720 was Cuban radio. It took us twelve to fourteen years of intensive negotiating through the Swiss Embassy (because we didn’t have direct relations with Cuba) to finally reclaim the frequency in that direction. When I met Mr. Castro in 2000, I was really tempted to bring it up, but I didn’t.

Rick: The radio business itself has obviously changed dramatically during your time on the air. In what ways do you think it’s better or worse than it once was?

Orion: Well, with the instant access we have today, we’re able to do a better job covering stories. If we had all this information at our fingertips in 1963, I wouldn’t have been forced to read weather forecasts the day the president was assassinated.

But there have also been a few changes for the worse, and I fully realize my take on this is probably partly due to generational differences. I’m bothered by the language. I’ve always believed that if you can’t make your point without using four letter words, you’re obviously not able to make your point. I also don’t think we’ve improved the world with some of the formerly taboo topics that are now covered.

Obviously, consolidation is another thing that hasn’t been good for radio. Local radio was really battered by that, but I do think we’re slowly recovering from that. I’ve done local radio and I know how important it is to the community—we did birth announcements, and funeral announcements—the sort of community involvement that all but disappeared in places like Minot, North Dakota, where one company owns eight radio stations.

Rick: And the changes at WGN?

Orion: Look, every kind of change is difficult for all of us. The changes here—I don’t like them all, but I’ve always believed that if you don’t own the radio station, it really is out of your hands. You only have two choices. Go away or stay. I’ve obviously stayed.

Rick: You’ve been rumored to be running for office many times over the years. I know you’ve been active in Republican politics. Has that ship sailed or is there still a chance we could see Orion for Governor signs in our front yards someday?

Orion: No, I’m 76—nobody will vote for someone my age now. But I’ve always been intrigued by politics. When Reagan was elected I was on the list of potential Secretary of Agriculture nominees. I think I would have been a good one, but many people pointed out to me that I could make an even bigger impact on the agricultural community where I was. Once you become the secretary, half the people hate you—the people from the other party.

I did have an interesting five days of almost going into politics when President Obama was running for the Senate. Jack Ryan had won the primary, but had to back out after a scandal emerged.

I got a call from Channel 7 saying that they wanted to interview me about possibly becoming the Republican candidate, because they were hearing rumblings that I was being mentioned as a possible replacement. I told them there was no story there, I hadn’t been contacted. Then Channel 2 called and told me that I was being mentioned downstate in the newspapers there.

The next five days were fascinating. Suddenly I was hearing from people all over the state, offering to hold fundraisers or contribute to my campaign. Denny Hastert’s office called me and set up a meeting at his house. Dennis (photo) was there, along with his campaign treasurer, and the head of the party, and Denny’s wife too—so Gloria had someone to talk to.

Suddenly this was becoming very serious. They asked me about my positions, and I admitted that I had some views that wouldn’t be popular with the base, including my stance on gun control and abortion. I’m all for hunting, but I honestly don’t believe hunters need automatic weapons. Denny admitted that a few would take issue with that stance, but that he could live with it. Then I told him that I really thought a woman should have the right to choose what happens with her own body, but I also said that I have two children, and they’re both adopted, and I wouldn’t have been so blessed if their mothers had chosen abortion. He seemed to think that was a reasonable position to take.

We even talked about what it would take from a financial perspective to run for office. He told me that most candidates need to spend $4 million just to become known, but that I wouldn’t need that because I was already known. He said I’d need about $10 million altogether, and that he could get me the first million. Well, that left $9 million more, which seemed daunting. But he pointed out that I wouldn’t have to run in a primary, and that was another plus.

I left his house thinking I was ready. My wife was ready. Denny Hastert was ready. But since I had a serious health condition (involving my throat), I said that the final decision would have to be made by my doctor. When I got him on the phone, he said: “Samuelson, what the hell are you thinking? Are you crazy?” (laughs). I took that as a no.

That ended my never political career.

Rick: But your radio career is still going strong, so let me ask the question I’m sure you don’t want to answer—are you planning on retiring soon?

Orion: No, not at all. Randy Michaels and I have had a few conversations about this. We went to lunch a couple of times and chatted. He has a love of radio history—give him a call letter and he can tell you where it is. He asked me if I was planning on retiring, and I said no. Randy said to me: “As long as I’m president of this company, I want you on the air.”