Saturday, March 27, 2010
Max Armstrong was a business and ag-business reporter at WGN radio for more than 30 years. He now hosts the syndicated programs "Farm Progress America" and "Max Armstrong's Midwest Digest"
Rick: Last summer you quietly left WGN after 32 years with the station. That must have been a difficult day for you. What precipitated that move?
Max: I was very fortunate. I was just a kid when I started. I was only 24. I was so blessed to work with the industry giants there. I lived my dream. Growing up in a small town a few hundred miles away, and listening to big city radio, that’s what I always wanted to do. But there’s a time for everything, and I decided this was time to move on. About a year ago I got out of my pickup truck at 3:45 in the morning, and looked around at the big city around me from the parking lot by the NBC tower, and just thought, you know what, it’s time. I wanted more time to spend at my farm house in Indiana. More time to try other things. And getting on the road at three in the morning every day for all those years really takes a toll...
Rick: People don’t even realize how much that affects your health.
Max: You’re in a fog all the time. I was in such a fog I said to my wife “I’m staying up to see Carson tonight. Hey, who is this guy Leno and where did he come from?” (laughs)
Rick: I don’t know if you even realize this, but you were beloved by your co-workers there. I mentioned I was interviewing you to a few of them, and they all said: “Oh, Max is a great guy! Tell him we miss him tons!” Do you have any favorite memories from your WGN years?
Rick: I know you’ve followed the many changes that have occurred since you left the station. What do you think of the new WGN this management team is trying to create?
Max: It’s a very different station but it’s a different era. Change is inevitable and I suppose change is what they’re getting right now. It might not be exactly what I would have done, but then again, I worked for eight different program directors and nobody ever in my 32 years there wanted to know what Max Armstrong thought we should do. I think that’s probably right, too. I don’t consider myself a programming whiz. I don’t study the numbers or know the science of the ratings systems. I hear the comments from people that don’t like it, but what do I know? It’s going to be wonderful to watch and see what happens. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out, by the way, that I’m actually a huge Garry Meier fan. That was a change that I really loved. There are also some things they left in place, that are outstanding, including Dr. Milt. There’s nothing like driving around at night and listening to Milt.
Max: Well, actually, no I don’t necessarily disagree with the decision to eliminate an hour of agricultural programming at noon. I can certainly see the point. You never heard Max Armstrong complaining about that. It’s a change that had to be made. Now, the noon show has become something very different. I still think a noon show can be very viable, but I’m not sure it should be about hot dog stands or Chicago architecture—as magnificent as that is--or only things that are going on in the city, but as I mentioned, I’m not a programming guy.
That’s what I hear from small market guys in the little towns all around the country. They ask: “Why does WGN waste 45,000 watts? They could do what they’re doing with 5000 watts.” I understand what those people are saying, but I also understand this is where the audience is. For everyone in a smaller town that doesn’t care about Chicago traffic, there’s someone in Chicago that doesn’t care about hearing the agricultural reports. Although, we really did work hard on making those as interesting as possible to the broader audience.
Rick: I learned about pork bellies from you.
Max: (laughs) There you go. At one time pork bellies were almost worthless, but farmers went to McDonald’s and Burger King, and convinced them to make bacon a part of the breakfast menu, and look at pork bellies now!
And don’t even get me started on organic food. We’ll never come close to feeding the world strictly with organic food. It’s just not possible. But, I digress...
Rick: I remember listening to you and John Records Landecker talk about your days growing up on a farm in Indiana. John’s grandfather was a farmer in the same general area you grew up. You come by your passion for farm issues naturally don’t you?
We had a farm with cattle and soybeans, and my family still owns it. I still get down there every six to eight weeks or so.
Rick: Obviously, you haven’t retired. You’re still heard daily on 100+ radio stations with "Farm Progress America" and "Max Armstrong's Midwest Digest" produced by Farm Progress Broadcast. Are you still based in the Chicago area?
Max: Yes. I have a home studio I built about ten years ago. I did a lot of GN stuff from my home the last few years I was there, and this is where I record my shows today. Farm Progress America is a typical farm show. Max Armstrong’s Midwest digest is more of a Paul Harvey-esque approach—it’s a four minute show that touches on all sorts of issues, including farm stories. Not warehouse fires, or hard core crime stories, but stories that make you go hmmm. We’re on 105 stations right now. Not quite where I want it to be yet, but getting there.
Rick: And you’re also on TV, on “This Week in Agribusiness.”
Rick: You and Orion used to a business show on WGN-TV too, didn’t you?
Rick: One of the things that people may not realize about you is that you’ve been an appointed fire commissioner for the Lisle-Woodridge Protection District. You’re quite proud of that fire department aren’t you?
Max: Yes, I’ve done that for almost 20 years. Approximately 44, 000 fire departments in the United States are rated by ISO, the Insurance Service Office, for their fire supression capabilities, among other things. ISO reviews engine and ladder service companies and their equipment carried, responses to fires, station locations, the water supply and the number of available firefighters, as well as firefighter training.
Of the 44, 000 fire agencies reviewed, only about 65 nationwide carry the ISO 1 rating, and LWFD is one of them. You can probably tell that I have a great passion for this, and I’m proud to be even a small cog in such a great organization. You know (laughs), I’ve been doing it so long now that I think there can’t be more than 5 people in the 120 or so on staff that I haven’t helped hire. The other commissioners have been doing it a long time too. One has been around for 24 years, another one for 18 years.
Rick: And finally, let me ask you this. You aren’t just an agricultural reporter, you’re also a business reporter. There are a few different narratives going around about the business reporting in the lead up to this recession we find ourselves in now. Are you in the camp of people that say the business reporters really missed the boat by failing to report these massive problems with things like derivatives, or were the business reporters sounding the alarm, only to be ignored by the general public?
I will say, that as far this recession goes, it’s not that we didn’t have enough reporters looking into it. We have all these 24 hours news outlets now, and plenty of financial reporting. The problem is partially due to the 24-hour news cycle, which emphasizes the immediate over the long term. But then again, I guess I’ve just exposed myself as being from a different era.
Rick: I guess I’m from that era too, Max.
Max: Well it’s nice to have such distinguished company here.
Saturday, March 20, 2010
I've previously interviewed both Catherine and Karen for Chicago Radio Spotlight, but I thought it would be fun to interview them together. After long and successful radio careers, they are now co-owners of the Chicago Hypnosis Center.
Rick: I heard you on the air with Steve and Johnnie on WGN the other night, and it was wonderful to hear you on the radio again. How was it from your perspective? Is it really like riding a bike?
Catherine: Oh yeah. It was fun.
Karen: I'm more at home in a radio studio than just about anywhere else in the world.
Rick: Do you miss it? Did being in there make you miss it more or less or neither?
Karen: Neither really. I do miss it sometimes when I see something in the paper and I think 'Oh that would such a great topic for a show' but then we come in and entertain each other.
Catherine: It's like a constant radio show in the executive suite.
Rick: I bet that's true.
Catherine: It is. I miss some really really good times we had in, say 1985, but do I miss being in radio as it is today? No, not so much. The people that I know who are still in radio aren't exactly having the time of their lives.
Karen: My daughter sells radio in Sacramento, and she grew up in radio, and she says 'Mom, it's just not the way it used to be.'
Rick: How did you two meet each other?
Catherine: We worked together at WLS.
Rick: Early 80s?
Catherine: (smiles) Yeah, let's say early 80s.
Rick: I'm sure you saw Robert Feder's column this week that mentioned both of you. It was about the dearth of females doing morning radio shows in Chicago. I know both of you were very active in broadcasting organizations for women. You're very aware of this issue, and have been for years.
Rick: I know people in the business that just believe women don't sound as good on the radio as men. They can't drive a show, they can't be a lead anchor. They really believe it. I also have comedian buddies that swear women aren't as funny as men.
Karen: (laughs) And then you have an Ellen DeGeneres...
Rick: Right. Exactly. That's got to be a little frustrating.
Karen: They're stuck in the belief system of the subconscious mind.
Rick: I see what you're doing there.
Catherine: (laughs) Great segue!
Chicago Hypnosis Center, which recently broke away from the Positive Changes Hypnosis Center. Why the change?
(Photo: Rick interviewing Catherine)
Catherine: As they like to say in radio, Rick, we decided to go in a different direction. Ever heard that one?
Rick: (laughs) Once or twice.
Catherine: It was amicable. There were no problems. They just wanted to go in a slightly different direction than we did.
Rick: You joke about radio, but your radio background really does help you tremendously in this line of work, doesn't it?
Karen: Radio was about communication and so is this. One of the big rules in radio is that you have to know your audience. Here we have to know our client, to find out what it is we can do to help unblock them.
Rick: Are there people that are not good candidates for hypnosis?
Karen: Three types. One type is a person who is drunk.
Rick: Uh oh.
Catherine: Rick, you're not gonna like this.
Rick: What's wrong with drunks?
Karen: They can't follow directions. You have to be able to follow directions to utilize hypnosis. The second type is someone with an IQ under 70...for the same reason.
Rick: Uh oh.
Karen: And the third type is a smart alec like you. (laughs)
Rick: So I am the worst possible candidate.
Karen: (laughs) The smart alec isn't a good candidate only because you're trying to prove to yourself and everyone else that you cannot be hypnotized. But the truth is that anyone can be hypnotized. It happens all the time. Have you ever been driving home from work and suddenly realized, wow, I'm home already? How did that happen? That's an example of being hypnotized. You were hypnotizing yourself, and you were wide awake. It happens all the time.
Rick: It's like being in the zone.
Rick: So it's not like the caricature of hypnosis, where you convince someone to cluck like a chicken every time a bell rings or anything like that...
Karen: It's like being in a trance. You do it all the time. When you're with your spouse, you're in a spouse trance. When you're with your friends, a friends trance. You naturally act differently in different situations.You go from trance to trance to trance without giving it a second thought. In radio, perfect example. I've got a little bit of a foul mouth. The 'F' word crosses my mouth several times a day...
Catherine: An hour...
Karen: (laughs) True. And I could be sitting with Eddie and Jobo and we could be talking on the intercom and all sorts of words would be flyin, but as soon as the microphone is keyed, that part of me is completely shut off--without any thought, without any concentration. That is simply the trance I'm in.
Rick: It's funny you mention that, because I talk to friends of mine that struggle with holding their tongues in front of their children, and that's never been a problem for me. Probably because I was used to not swearing in a radio studio all those years...
Karen: You just dropped right back into that trance without even realizing it.
Rick: If you had this knowledge back in the days you were doing radio, who would you have hypnotized, and for what?
Catherine: The other night Steve and Johnnie asked about that and I said Larry (Lujack). But then I really thought about it--and you know, Landecker would have been fun to hypnotize. And Fred (Winston). It would be great for all of them.
Rick: And what would you do to or for any of them once they were hypnotized?
Catherine: That's a good question. See, I'm inclined to think of self serving things, like 'be nicer to me,' but that's not really what hypnosis is about. It's not a magic spell I cast.
Karen: I would say something that would benefit any of them, and all of them, and really anyone in radio or in theater or anywhere else where they're criticized a lot, is a thicker skin. The ability to allow criticism to have less weight. And people do come to us for that. They come to us for self confidence. They come to us to accept criticism in a healthier way...in a more productive way.
Rick: You should recruit clients from radio. Or maybe you do. How do you attract clientele?
Catherine: We'll talk to any old blogger that walks in the door.
Rick: So what is your favorite part of this job?
Karen: I always liked people, and doing whatever I could to help them. I did a talk show for years, helping people with their relationships, and this is similar. When I sit down with a client I get into the zone you talked about. Anything else can be going on in the world, but when I get in the room with the client, I'm completely focused on them. It shuts out the rest of the world. It's a beautiful thing.
Catherine: I love the pre-talk. I like doing the hypnosis too, but we usually talk to them first, to really dig into what they're experiencing, and what they want to be experiencing, and that part is really interesting and challenging and engaging.
Rick: Well best of luck to you in this venture. I can see how passionate you are about this and I have no doubt you'll do very well.
Rick: Oh no.
Catherine: (laughs) Don't worry, Rick.
Karen: Sit back in the chair and close your eyes.
(Fade to black)
Note: I rolled tape on the hypnosis and at no point did she make me cluck like a chicken.
Saturday, March 13, 2010
Chuck Buell was a jock on WLS, the Big 89, in the late 60s and early 70s. He is still working as a voice over artist. (www.chuckbuell.com)
Rick: Those of us that grew up in Chicago during the 60s and 70s have such fond memories of the Big 89. It's hard to describe to people today how big the station was during your time there. How would you describe it?
Rick: You arrived in Chicago during one of the most tumultuous times in Chicago history: 1968. Being one of the most popular jocks on one of the most popular stations for young people at a time when young people were rebelling against authority must have been wild. What are some of your memories from that time?
That same year, Spiro Agnew was elected as Vice President and was quoted as saying that the pop music we were playing was “brainwashing young Americans” by “allowing a creeping permissiveness.” It was a remarkably tumultuous and contentious time.
Rick: Clark Weber wrote a great book about those days, and the thing that sticks out to me after reading the book, was the way the record labels wooed radio in those days. Big time rock stars routinely stopped by the radio stations. Who were some of the people that stopped by to talk to you?
Chuck: One day, a record label rep stopped by to introduce me to a artist they had recently signed and asked me to listen to his new record release. Nice kid, tousled hair, funny glasses, real down to Earth and like me, loved Colorado. We talked on end about how great it was and he shared with me his dream to build a house somewhere up in the Rockies near Denver someday. I asked him if he loved Colorado so much, how come he was singing about going home to West Virginia?! Nevertheless, “Take Me Home Country Roads” became a Number One Song in many parts of the country and, in answering my earlier question, John Denver followed that song up with another Top Ten hit, “Rocky Mountain High,” all about Colorado!
We spent several memorable hours at Hugh Hefner’s Chicago Playboy Mansion while he was a guest there talking on end about so many things. Later on, I visited him where he lived on his houseboat moored at a dock in Sausalito, California. He, in turn introduced me to Dr. Hook, who lived up the hill, and for whom he had written their first hit “Sylvia’s Mother,” following that up with “The Cover of the Rolling Stone!”
Another rep brought in a young girl who was the daughter of one of the partners of a major book publisher, but who didn’t have any interest at all in following in the publishing business. She just wanted to be a singer. And following the initial success of her “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” the legacy of the co-founder of Simon and Shuster Publishing, Carly Simon’s musical career definitely began.
There was also David Cassidy, the “Mony, Mony,” Hanky Panky” boys of Tommy James and the Shondells, Donovan, The Carpenters and many others. One night, as MC at a Chicago area teen club, I introduced the hot local band of the evening, immediately left the stage and headed home. Within a couple of years, “CTA” became better known as “Chicago” and turned out one big hit after the other for decades. And although I was extremely instrumental in introducing “Maggie May” to the world, Rod Stewart and I have yet to meet!
Rick: The other thing I remember from that era was the intense competition between radio stations. It wasn't just a friendly rivalry--it was war--especially between WLS & WCFL.
(Photo: Back row left to right, Larry Lujack, Chuck Buell, Jerry Kaye, Front row, Art Roberts, Clark Weber, and Kris Erik Stevens)
So much so that a few months later, another “young kid,” was brought in to fortify this new nighttime “youth movement,” and (Chuck) Buell and (Kris Eric) Stevens, following the strong lead-in from afternoons, were rockin’ the Windy City back-to-back non-stop for eight big hours every night!
Rick: Some of the greatest radio performers in Chicago history worked during that time, including yourself, Clark Weber, Art Roberts, Larry Lujack, John Records Landecker, and many more. I know that you've heard all of them. All were creative, talented, and fun--but you must have an opinion about who was the best. I'd love to hear your take on your contemporaries.
Ron Riley knew exactly how to fuel a “feud” with Clark Weber and to deliver a dry one-liner. Clark Weber knew Chicago and you knew what was happening just by listening to him. And then there was Lujack. On the air caustic, sarcastic, sharp, penetrating, disarming, intimidating and gut-busting funny! From him, I first learned how to do powerful and meaningful show prep. I never had, nor ever did afterward, work with a guy who put so much into his show before he walked into the studio each day. I built on that valuable lesson from then on, tweaked it, did daily show-prepping in my own style and never went on-air again without knowing what I was going to do that day. It made being “impromptu” so much easier!
Rick: Are you still in touch with any of your former Chicago colleagues?
Chuck: Kris Eric (Stevens) and I will exchange the occasional email, but that’s about it.
Rick: You've been out of the traditional radio business for awhile now. What are your thoughts about what radio has become since you left?
Chuck: People ask all the time if I miss being on the air. I was fortunate to do mornings for the last decade or so that I was on air in great cities like Denver, St. Louis, and San Diego where I could still meet the daily challenges of being personable, relatable, creative, humorous, helpful, informative, involved and the like. After morning shows now though, there’s no longer the opportunity to have fun and, most importantly, be entertaining. Unfortunately, “What I miss does not exist.”
Rick: I know you've been a voice over artist for a very long time, and you've done the voice overs for some of the most famous radio commercials ever. Talk about how you ended up as the voice at the end of the iconic Coca Cola commercial "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing."
I ended up tagging B. J. Thomas, The Brooklyn Bridge and some others, and it was pure luck that I was chosen to do the most famous one of all. It ran for two and a half years! What some people don’t know is that it was a commercial song written especially for the New Seekers first, and became a hit song second.
(VIDEO: The New Seekers performing the song on the Mike Douglas show.)
Rick: What are some of the other famous Chuck Buell voice overs we may have heard over the years?
Chuck: My focus is more on narrative endeavors providing voice for business, medical, commercial, real estate developments, industrial, travel and tutorial presentations. For instance, I voiced Football Hall of Famer Joe Montana’s “RT Trainer,” a device to improve one’s passing skills, PGA Champion Golfer Ernie Els “Rockroller, a teaching apparatus to help develop better golf putting, and, if you work for a nationally-known chain of consumer electronic stores, I may have explained how you can be highly knowledgeable to your customers about a home movie making computer program! In addition to these product introductions, services and training videos, I’m still available for, and do, various radio and TV commercials.
Rick: Chuck, thanks for taking the time for doing this. I still have vivid memories of listening to you on my little transistor radio saying Da-Buell-El-Ess, and it's fun to talk to you all these years later. Is there anything else you'd like to say to your Chicago fans?
Chuck: I certainly appreciated their enthusiastic support. They’re the ones who made it so much fun to be on the radio. To them, I say, “Thanx for listening!” Oh, and you know, that fun still pops up once in a while. Every now and then, I get an email totally out of the blue from someone who used to listen back in the day and just wanted to drop me a line to tell me so! To them, I say, “Thanx for the lette . . . I mean, emails!”
Saturday, March 06, 2010
In the 50s and early 60s everyone in Chicago knew the name of Dan Sorkin. He was an important figure on the radio dial; the morning man at WCFL. He's retired now, and living in California.
Rick: A few years ago I interviewed former WLS great Fred Winston and asked him to put together his all-time dream lineup, and he chose you as his morning man. His description: "Way ahead of his time. Very funny--a true personality." How would you describe your old WCFL show to those that never got a chance to hear it?
Dan: Satirical, whimsical, JAZZ, Big Band, current, relevant.
Rick: People still talk about that old WCFL lineup today, fifty years later. You led off the "all-day personality parade." Putting together that much talent and ego and creativity could have led to some combustible moments. Did it?
Dan: No! My best friend in that line up was JAZZ great Mike Rapchak. We shared an office together.
(Photo: Mike Rapchak from his WGN days--1980-1995)
Rick: One of my former colleagues had a copy of your 1960 book "The Blabbermouths" (co-written by Joe Price, who sadly passed away last year, with a foreword by Shelly Berman). That book was hysterical. I particularly enjoyed your description of the 9 types of disc jockeys. What do remember about that experience?
(Photo: Joe X. Price. Price later wrote another book; a biography of Redd Foxx, and he worked for years as a music writer for the Daily Variety. He was good friends with Dean Martin).
Rick: The late 50s and early 60s was an exciting time in Chicago history. The swinging Playboy Mansion and Club were brand new, but some of that glamorous old Chicago, like the Chez Paree and the Pump Room were still places to see and be seen. You were a young man, well-known around town. You must have some stories from those days. Have any that you'd share with us?
For dinner I had water, she had steak and drinks. I never saw her again.
I conducted Interviews in the Ambassador East Hotel Pump Room. The most memorable was with the Adler Planetarium Director as we dissected the "Big Bang Theory" and Quantum Physics.
Rick: One of your claims to fame was discovering a mild mannered comic/accountant named Bob Newhart. I saw an interview of Newhart a few years ago and he gave you credit for giving him his big break. How did you and Bob initially cross paths?
Dan: Playhouse 90 writer Jim Gallagher and I were friends. Jim and Bob had put together and were selling to radio stations a 5 minute taped comedy "man on the street show" for $5 a show. It cost them $7 a show to produce. The more successful the sale, the more money they lost. I loved the comedy routines and asked Jim to Bring Bob to the WCFL studios for a live interview.
Bob performed several of his routines on air.
(Bob Newhart's bit: Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue)
(VIDEO: Bob Newhart interview. Forward to 21:20 of the interview and he tells the whole story of Dan's influence, and the terror of doing that show live--because he hadn't really performed stand up before)
Rick: Bob later asked you to be a part of his first television show. How was that experience?
Dan: Wonderful. Every Friday after finishing my WCFL Morning Show I would cab to the roof of the Merchandise Mart where a helicopter took me to O'Hare Field in time to Catch a Continental Non-Stop to Burbank where I had a Honda Motorcycle stashed at the air freight office. I strapped my bag to the Honda and drove to the NBC Burbank sound stage where I arrived in time to announce the Bob Newhart TV Show. It was a wonderful year!
Rick: Your life took an unexpected turn, almost literally, in 1964. You were working as a disc jockey in San Francisco at the legendary KSFO when you suffered a terrible motorcycle accident. How did that change your life?
www.stumps.org). Stumps 'R Us is now in 15 countries & 22 states. I also decided to earn an Instrument Flight Instructor's Certificate at age 75 (7 years ago). I teach 2 to 3 days a week at Buchanan Field in Concord, CA using a Peg Leg to fly. My students think it is cool!
Everybody in Stumps 'R Us is either an amputee or the spouse or significant other of one. We meet once every two months to Fly, Ski, roller blade, tour museums, take San Francisco Bay Cruises on an 1891 Scow Schooner named ALMA or simply have lunch or barbecue. The venues are always different but the theme is the same. We socialize & share experience POSITIVELY. We usually have a speaker on anything from Medical Hypnosis to the latest state of the art of Prosthetic design.
(VIDEO: Dan Sorkin being interviewed about his great work with Stumps R Us.)
Rick: I know you're retired and living in California, but you keep busy, don't you?
Dan: Yes. In addition to running Stumps 'R Us, I teach Instrument Flying, teach Computer Science to Rossmoor Residents (where my wife Jody & I live) in Walnut Creek, Ca and play a lot with a Rag Doll cat named Ella, (for Ella Fitzgerald) our cat sings a lot. That & enjoying life with the most wonderful girl in the world (my wife of 30 years Jody) keeps me busy & engaged.