Saturday, October 02, 2010

Pat Cassidy

Pat Cassidy is the morning co-anchor at WBBM-AM, Newsradio 78.

Rick: By the dawn’s early light. That’s how I know that I’m listening to Pat Cassidy. What is the origin of your use of that phrase?

Pat: It’s from the national anthem of course, and I’m on when the dawn is just lighting. I was looking for some kind of signature line, and I’m a patriotic guy on top of it all, and just tried it, and it stuck around all these years. I do get ribbed by my co-workers occasionally when I say it when it’s still pitch black outside, like in the winter, but I’ve been saying it now for 35 years. Once in awhile I space out, and forget to say it, and people notice. We get calls about it.

Rick: You’ve been back at WBBM for a few months now. Does your time at WLS seem like the old Dallas episode, where everybody just dreamed that Bobby Ewing was dead for two years? Did you emerge from the shower as if nothing had ever happened?

Pat: (Laughs) Something like that.

Rick: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a radio station hold a slot open for someone like that, hoping they would return. Is it any different the second time around?

Pat: It really is just like it used to be. I fell right back into the pace of things, and the stride of things. Most of the same people are here, and these are people I worked with for years and years. Some I’ve known since the WMAQ days, like my head writer Barb Hillebrand. For the most part, people accepted me. A lot of people said it was good to have me back. There have been a few little comments implying that this is where I belong, not doing that talk thing.

Rick: Since you brought it up, let’s talk about that talk thing for a moment. There were a couple of notable shows when you were co-hosting the show with Mancow on WLS. The one that probably got the most attention was the waterboarding show. What was going through your mind while you were narrating that show in progress? Was that authentic? It looks like it on the video.

Pat: It was authentic. Now, Mancow was not stuck in a cell and not fearing for his life, so that part wasn’t legitimate in those terms. But it was performed by a Marine, and Mancow’s feet really were bound, and there were many elements that were real, including the fact that he caught him off guard by doing it on the count of three instead of five. That really threw Mancow off. He really felt it was torture after it happened. Looking into his eyes, you could see it. He did look very upset.

Rick: Yes, he did, but with Mancow you never know. Are people wrong to doubt his authenticity? Is he just misunderstood?

Pat: No, I wouldn’t say that. I wouldn’t use that word. He’s not misunderstood. He does what he does quite deliberately. He says deliberately outrageous things just to get a rise out of people sometimes. But I will say that having worked with him, and having it seen from the inside, he really does have devoted fans. And yes, he also has his detractors. Seems like there is no inbetween with Mancow. But he is a hardworking, talented, fun-loving guy. I’ve never seen anyone work harder than that guy. He’s doing pretty well with it, but he might consider fine-tuning it a bit to make it more commercial.

Rick: You’ve been anchoring a morning newscast for many years now (at WMAQ and WBBM). I listened to Karl Klockars interview with you about 9/11, which was really interesting by the way. You mentioned something in that interview that hadn’t really occurred to me before. The morning time slot rarely has breaking news. It has the highest listenership, but it rarely has breaking news. 9/11 was an exception to the rule. Were there others?

Pat: The discovery of the bodies at Gacy’s house happened in morning drive. I had a source at the time in law enforcement that called me a few times during the process. At first we only knew it was a body or two, but he called to say “Pat, it ain’t one or two. It’s more like 22. There’s a lot of bodies down here."

That was a breaking news story in the morning. But for the most part, there aren’t too many, because frankly, people are fast asleep. Most of the breaking stories in morning drive are crimes, or fires, or sometimes something happening in Europe, or very rarely, the East Coast—say if the newspapers have a big expose that is getting lots of attention.

I suppose it is a bit ironic that we have the most listeners, but the fewest breaking news stories.

Rick: My wife has your show on every morning as she gets ready for work, and I can name the whole cast of characters with very little difficulty, but I don’t really know much about them because the all news format doesn’t really allow for a great deal of personality to shine through. Tell us a little more about your show mates Felicia Middlebrooks, Bart Shore, and Josh Liss.

Pat: Felicia is a very conscientious and organized individual who is serious about presenting news, but she’s also very compassionate and has tremendous empathy. My attitude is more like a cop’s. I’m slightly jaded. Yes, it’s sad, but we’ve got to move on. Felicia really feels deeply for some of the victims.

Bart Shore (photo) is a rocker, but he’s so conscientious about the traffic, probably more so than anyone I’ve ever seen. He works like a newsman, makes phone calls, and sometimes even breaks news stories. In his heart, though, I think he’s a frustrated DJ that loves his rock and roll.

Josh is a tremendous writer, and knows way more about sports than he’s putting on the air. He’s often very insightful, but for me what sets him apart from the rest is his writing, the turn of a phrase, the way he says so much with a few words.

And the guy who really runs our show is Jim Benes. Jim is a tremendous journalist, with great instincts. He gets in there many hours before we do, and thanks to him, we never miss a story. Never. Not with Jim at the helm, overseeing everything. He’s also my golfing buddy. We live near each other.

Rick: I have real fond memories of the old WMAQ. You were there for so many years, through so many different formats, until the very last moment they signed off the air. What are some of your favorite memories from those years?

Pat: Oh gosh, I have many. I thought of WMAQ as two different stations. It was owned by NBC when I first started there. It was a country music station at the time. This was late 1975. Actually I was hired by NBC to work at WNIS (All news on FM), but that didn’t really work out. It was ahead of it’s time; FM radio wasn't as prevalent as it is now. I was moved over to WMAQ after that. Lee Sherwood was the DJ on that show, Jerry Taft was the weather man, and our sportscaster was Tim Weigel.

I’m not 100% sure about this, but I think that was Tim’s first broadcasting job. He was a sportswriter for the Daily News when we hired him. We were looking for a way to present the sports in a more fun way and somebody heard Weigel clowning around in the press box one night, and thought, whoa—this guy is smart, and glib, and entertaining. So they offered him a job. That show was a hit. Our ratings in the mid to late 1970s were killer. Country music worked real well on AM Radio.

Rick: WMAQ’s gonna make me rich!

Pat: Exactly. WMAQ is going to make me rich. That is one of the most memorable catch phrases or slogans in radio history. I think they made a big mistake by getting rid of it. They dropped it because the lottery came along, and I remember sitting in a meeting, and somebody said that the lottery was going to own the phrase now. So we dropped it. But people still remember it today.

One time we had a contest winner that won $25,000. That was a lot of money in those days. WMAQ made him rich, but only for a few seconds. He got so excited, he went out on the front lawn to tell the neighbors and dropped dead.

Rick: (laughs) Sorry, I guess I shouldn't be laughing.  I never heard that story.

Pat: I believe he lived just over the border, I want to say it was Racine.

Rick: So after the country format, it became a talk station.

Pat: Yes, that’s true. For a brief period of time it did. That’s where I met Drew Hayes for the first time.

Rick: He was on the air in those days, right?

Pat: That’s right. We also had Mort Downey Jr. (photo) and Chet Coppock. I’ll never forget a stunt I saw Mort Downey pull. It was one of the riskiest things I’ve ever seen. He was a right wing screamer and was debating a feminist, and there was no doubt about it, she was getting the best of him.

But Mort had control over the dump button (the delay system). So, to throw her off her game, he unleashed one of the most intense three or four seconds of profanity you’ve ever heard, and then hit the dump button so it wouldn’t go on the air. But the feminist heard it, and it completely froze her. After that he had the best of her and the audience perceived him to be the winner of the debate. It was risky as heck to do, though. If he hadn’t timed hitting the dump button perfectly, if even one of those words made it over the air, he would have been fired on the spot.

Rick: Were you surprised when NBC sold WMAQ?

Pat: Yes. We never would have believed that NBC would sell that station. It was one of the first radio stations in Chicago, and it had always been run by NBC. But Westinghouse bought it, and they had had tremendous success across the country doing the all-news format. So they came in here gung ho to kick BBM’s butt, and they put a lot of money into it. I was the morning news anchor, and the asst. news director, but we never overcame WBBM. I did find out later, when I was at WBBM myself, that we did have an impact on them. They certainly took us seriously. They told me that WMAQ made WBBM work harder.

The last few years at WMAQ we started tweaking and tinkering the format a bit. We were still news based, but what we were doing then is sort of what Greg Jarrett is doing now. Funny thing is, and this happens all the time in this business, it started to catch fire just before they pulled the plug.

Rick: I know you had a new destination already ticketed when WMAQ signed off, but you must have had some mixed feelings about the end of the line there.

Pat: It was bittersweet. I had a lot of memories and friends there. Bill Cameron, for example. I finally got a chance to work with him again at WLS. But I was sad for all the people that lost their jobs, and I was sad that the call letters were being dumped too. It was a legacy radio station, a part of Chicago for decades and decades.

At the same time, I was excited to be joining WBBM. Management wanted me to go to WBBM the very next day and wanted me to say on the air where I was going. They were hyping it up pretty good. I wasn’t actually on when the station signed off for good—that was later in the day—but I was on WBBM the next morning. I’m proud to say that I didn’t screw up the call letters once. I did screw up later in the week, but not on the first day.

Rick: You’re a native of the area, and I trust that you listened to a little radio growing up. What did you listen to, and who are some of your greatest radio influences?

Pat: I listened to rock and roll, WLS and WCFL, some of the early FM stations.

I actually started out as a DJ and as a part of my shift, I had to read some headlines. The boss at the time, a man named Charles Manson of all things, called me in and said, "You know when you read the headlines, you sound like a newsman and you do things to the news, don’t you?" I said, "Yes, I rewrite it a little bit." He said, "You sound great, how would you like to be my morning newsman?" I was just an average disc jockey, and I was always interested in news, so I said yes.

The station later became WBMX, which was an urban station (It’s now WVAZ). They asked me to stay aboard and become the news director, and I remember talking to the new boss on the phone, and said—"I’m flattered, but I’m not, you know...urban myself." He said, "That’s OK, we’d like to have an integrated staff." So I became their news director, the white guy on the urban station. I worked with all of the big names of that era. I remember the first time I met Jesse Jackson (photo). He showed up wearing a light-green suede suit with a matching briefcase.

But as for guys I admired, Lyle Dean and Jeff Hendrix, those were the guys I liked. When Jeff retired, they actually called and asked me to come over there, but the timing wasn’t right.

Rick: Do you have any advice for the radio newsmen of tomorrow that may be growing up listening to Pat Cassidy?

Pat: There’s always going to be a need for broadcasters that can do the news. Keep the faith. Be as well rounded as you possibly can be. The one-trick pony just isn’t going to make it anymore. You’ve got to be able to anchor, report, and do talk. If you can, do sports too. Make yourself as well rounded as possible. The jack of all trades is the man or woman that will be most employable.