Saturday, February 26, 2011

Paul Barsky

Paul Barsky was the morning man at Z-95 (WLS-FM, 94.7) in Chicago in the mid-to-late 1980s. Before and after his time in Chicago he was a very successful morning man in Philadelphia.

Rick: I ask my readers to give me suggestions for people they'd like me to interview, and your name keeps coming up. Considering you haven't been on the air in Chicago for more than twenty years, and you were only here for a short time, you really made a name for yourself in Chicago. What was it about your show that you think people still remember it so fondly today?

Barsky: I really don't know. All I know is that when I first arrived in Chicago, I felt an instant connection. The same thing happened to me when I started in Philly where I spent the majority of my career before and after Chicago. Sometimes personalities click with markets, and sometimes they don't. I got lucky with both Chicago and Philly. The psychology behind why certain personalities have a lasting effect vs. others has always been up for debate. To try to answer your question, I guess I can safely say that I worked hard on the show every day to try to bring something new and entertaining to the listener. Even though off air I was very serious about the show, on air I never really took myself too seriously and had kind of a self deprecating sense of humor. Maybe listeners related to that and thought of me as one of them, I don't know.

In the beginning we were an ensemble cast, myself and three others, and we created some original produced bits that for some reason stuck with people over the years. I also started doing prank calls (called Phone scams) which many shows do today, but back then nobody was doing them on a regular basis so that material might have helped the show to stand out as well. We had a lot of strong benchmark bits which was important to have on a CHR station during that time period. So I think those elements made an impact. And yes, I too still hear from people today on Facebook, who still have tapes of the show etc., and it just blows me away....

Rick: When you first arrived in town you stepped right into a hornet's nest. WLS-FM had been simulcasting Larry Lujack's morning show, but he had decided to move to afternoons, which ticked off Steve and Garry, and the battle between Lujack and Dahl almost came to fisticuffs on the air. A week or so after that blow up, you arrived to take over the morning show. What was it was like to walk into that situation?

Barsky: It's funny you mention the Dahl and Lujack incident. At the time, Larry was still doing mornings and I guess he was still in his office and heard S&G ripping him on air, when he walked in to confront them. It wasn't "reality show" scripted schtick. Lujack was apparently a bit miffed. I think Uncle Lar was getting ready to lay an old school "Clint Eastwood" style beating on the boys. I remember sitting in my hotel room where the company put me up, and I was listening to the station and heard the Luajck/ Dahl blow up live and remembered thinking to myself "Well, working here should be fun."

It was a trip to be in the building at that time, because it was kind of like a soap opera. Both Steve and Larry were superstars in the market and their "in office battle" made for some real compelling radio. And here I was this kid from Philly walking into a dysfunctional radio atmosphere wondering how I was going to make a name for myself and stand out.

Rick: Refresh my memory--is that when it was changed to Z-95?

Barsky: Actually when I started it was still WLS-FM and not Z-95 yet. When ABC decided to discontinue the Lujack morning simulcast,they had someone fill in on the interim basis just playing music, but they knew they needed a show. That's when they decided to hire me for WLS-FM . So Lujack was still on mornings at WLS-AM when I started on the FM side.When he eventually moved to afternoons was around the time we were re branded as Z-95.

Rick: What are some of your favorite memories from your time in Chicago?

Barsky: There are so many, it's hard to pick one. Being an east coast guy, when I first arrived in Chicago, I guess I kind of expected it to be like New York. But it's got a completely different feel and energy. I fell in love with Chicago immediately, especially the people. There's just something special about that Midwestern thing. Down to earth people, but with a somewhat dry, and irreverent sense of humor. Even to this day, when I think of the quintessential Chicago dude, I think Bill Murray. And for women, Bonnie Hunt. I was a former baseball player in my youth, so I know it sounds cliche, but the first time walking into Wrigley Field for me was almost spiritual.

One memory that will always stick out in my mind is my first week at WLS-FM. The station at the time was on Michigan Ave. and I lived on East Ohio street. Since I wasn't that far from the station , I figured there was no sense in having a car and that I'd just jump into a cab at 4:00am. So it's early December and this particular morning , there's no cab outside my building. I waited and waited. Nothing. It was snowing hard and nobody was on the road. Not a single car. So I realize that I need to hoof it. Now mind you, I had just arrived from Philly and had no idea about the Chicago winter so all I had was a leather jacket. And I'm thinking to myself " I'm from the east coast, I went to college in upstate NY , I can handle this , no problem".

Long story short, when I finally arrived to the station after my 20 minute "little trek" down Michigan Ave. which included my first meeting with the sub zero biting wind coming off the Chicago River, I literally had no feeling in my face or hands. My ears were purple.My moustache was completely frozen, I think part of it actually broke off. Turns out it was 25 below with the wind chill. I didn't thaw out till about 7am. I had never felt cold like that in my life. Welcome to Chicago, Philly boy!

Rick: That Z-95 format was a direct competitor of B-96--it was a very uptempo hot hits format. What did you think of the music you played on that show?

Barsky: Well in the beginning, it was your typical straight ahead CHR station musically. Although about a year in, we started to skew in more of a rock leaning CHR direction vs. B-96 which leaned more Rhythmic. As far as my show, we played less and less music as the show gained more traction in popularity. It personally never really mattered what I played on the air, as my concern was more about what I was doing in between the songs.

Rick: Your ratings were pretty solid in retrospect. What happened at Z-95 to force you out?

Barsky: The reason for my departure was a strange one and still kind of a mystery. I've actually heard two separate stories over the years. Here's the first: I was originally signed to a four year deal. When I was hired, the morning show was around 21st place 12+. It took a couple of years to see some results, but eventually we started to see some steady growth. Then halfway into my final year,something popped and the show was really took off and the ratings really shot up as well.

My deal was almost up and I was making pretty good money. According to my agent at the time, his feeling was that ABC knew that we would be coming in for a new deal at much bigger numbers and they felt like they could get another show for much less than they would have to pay me. So they let me go, and (this always happens in radio) that same week the ratings come out and I get the highest numbers ever for the station in the morning, and the rest of the station jumped up as well beating our main competitor B-96.

The second story was that there was someone high up in the company who felt that what I was doing on my show on a CHR station was a bit too edgy for a conservative company like Cap Cities. Bottom line is that there may be some truth to both stories, and in the end they hired a super "family friendly" show to replace me. Unfortunately within a year their new show didn't catch on and went from the top 5, where I left it, back down to 20th. Since mornings was the cornerstone of the station, it really effected the overall station's ratings. That's when the house of cards collapsed and that's when all the stunts like "Hell 947 " etc. took place. Unfortunately for the company,the 94.7 frequency for many, many years never recovered, until a few years back when it put on the current Oldies format.

Rick: A lot of people may not remember this, but one of the newsmen on your show was Wayne Messmer. Wayne is now known as one of the quintessential National Anthem singers in Chicago. Was he already singing in those days?

Barsky: Yes, Wayne had always been a singer and was the PA announcer and National Anthem singer for the Cubs while he was doing the show with me. Listeners would often call the show and ask Wayne to sing the anthem. It got to be funny because we'd be in the middle of something and I'd take an unscreened call at random and there would be the request. And Wayne would sing it every time.It completely stopped the show in it's tracks. And then we'd go back to what we were talking about as if nothing ever happened. In addition to that, since I was able to carry a tune as well, but not even close to Wayne's talent, we'd occasionally take listener song requests on air and instead of playing the songs, we'd sing them with reverb and it became pretty popular bit. What made it fun was that most of the time we wouldn't know the words or melody so we made up our own. Trainwreck radio at it's best.

Wayne was one of those guys who I don't believe ever knew how funny he really was. He once told me a story while I was driving that was so funny I literally had to pull the car off of the expressway from laughing so hard because I couldn't see through my tears. It was the type of laughter where no sound came out because you're gasping for air. That's the only time something like that ever happened to me .Great talent and great guy. The last couple of years of the show it was just Wayne and myself and that's when I think the show sounded the best.

We were also joined by a few different producers who we added to the mix on air. Speaking of "Mix," our last producer was Eric Ferguson who was just beginning his career, and who's been at the top in the market with the "Eric and Kathy Show" for many years now. I'm thrilled for Eric's success. It's always fantastic to see good things happen for good people in this biz.

Rick: You were one of the pioneers of the morning zoo format, at least here in Chicago. I think it's safe to say that your show was the first one in Chicago to use that approach--your show was even called "Barsky's Morning Zoo."

Barsky: My show previously in Philly wasn't the Morning Zoo. It was always the "Barsky Show." John DeBella who was at the legendary Rock station WMMR in Philly in the 80's had the Morning Zoo. The real pioneers of the concept were Scott Shannon and Cleveland Wheeler back in the late 70's in Tampa. The term "Morning Zoo" in the 80's was not so much a set formula or concept, but rather more of a positioning and branding statement for ensemble cast morning shows. Not much different than "Breakfast Club", "Madhouse", "Playhouse" etc.

So here's how my show was renamed the Barsky Morning Zoo. I was hired at WLS-FM by Jan Jeffries (Photo) who was the PD at the time. We were WLS-FM for a short while, and the idea was to drop the WLS-FM moniker because since they were no longer simulcasting Lujack in the morning, they didn't see the need to create any more confusion between WLS-AM and FM. B-96 was our head on competitor, so our station decided to counter with Z-95.

Jan felt that since we were Z-95, the term "ZOO" in the morning would help and enhance the new "Z" moniker. So I was told that it would be called the "Barsky Morning Zoo" from that point on. You have to remember at that time, ensemble morning shows were doing well in other major markets and many of them used the ZOO moniker and branding. Chicago never had that brand in the market, so the station saw the opportunity to grab it and put it in place before any of our competitors. Eventually the name changed back to "The Barsky Show" on Z-95, and we ditched the morning zoo name.

Rick: Do you think the morning zoo format is dead?

Barsky: I think there are a few heritage morning shows in radio who still use the term, like Z100 in NY because it's still very successful. But having said that, the term is kind of outdated and is in many cases part of our vernacular when it comes to what the average Joe uses to describe "those wacky DJ's in the morning." And usually not in such a very favorable light.

Rick: Most recently you were doing sports talk in Dallas. How did you like doing the sports talk format?

Barsky: It was challenging, at times fun and completely different than anything I've ever done in radio. Challenging because truth be told, I was not your typical sports talk guy. Not even close. At the most I was a casual sports fan. But I quickly learned that in sports talk radio "casual" wont cut it. You need to really know your stuff. You need to not only know about your hometown teams, but you need to know the ins and out of every team in every sport. Credibility with the sports talk listener is very important. If you're not on top of it, they'll smell blood and you're toast. So I had to take a crash course in Dallas sports just to catch up because I was on the air with guys who had been doing sports radio for 20 years.

The idea when I was hired was to team me up with a former ESPN sports analyst to bring some entertainment to the show. The station felt like they needed someone like me who was a "morning radio guy" to drive the show. So on paper, it made sense. And because of my versatility in a variety of formats and presentations like CHR, Alternative, Rock, Hot AC, Talk etc. I figured why not give it a go, it's just another format. Not true.

Sports radio is it's own entity and unlike any other radio genre. Most of the personalities in sports radio did not come up in the industry like I did as a music radio morning guy. They're for the most part not "radio people." Most of them are either sports writers, TV sports reporters, former jocks or super sports geeks who got a shot to be on the radio. It's a completely different mindset and approach with it's own nuances. So this experience was a whole new world for me, but ultimately not a good fit. And for the first time in my radio career, I was completely out of my comfort zone which wasn't necessarily a bad thing. I think it's important to challenge and push yourself on occasion. I believe it makes you stronger in every way. You live, learn, and move forward.

Rick: What's next for you? Is there any chance you may re-emerge on the Chicago airwaves?

Barsky: I've only been off the air for a few months and I'm looking at some possibilities to be back on air fairly soon. I'm still extremely passionate about entertaining, but right now for me it's about finding the right fit. I've also been exploring radio station ownership off and on over the years, and I'm currently looking into an opportunity as we speak. But I've learned that it's a process that is often long and tedious to say the least. In fact the last time I did this was right after I left Chicago a little more than 20 years ago, I was part of a group that came very close to purchasing a Boston radio station.

As far as doing another radio show in Chicago, it's something I always thought about because of my love for the city, but for whatever reason the right opportunity never presented itself. So a return to Chicago? In this business I've learned you can never say never.

Rick: Thanks for taking the time to do this.

Barsky: Thanks Rick, I enjoyed the interview and reminiscing about my days in Chicago. It was a part of my career and life that I'll always treasure. And the fact that people still remember my show after all these years is quite humbling to say the least....