Saturday, March 10, 2012

Ken Cocker

Ken Cocker is the Saturday and Sunday afternoon jock at K-Hits, WJMK, 104.3

Rick: This isn't your first go-round at this frequency. (Ken was part of the lineup at Oldies 104.3, WJMK in the late 90s/early 00s). How is it the same or different this time around?

Ken: I think this time around the difference is the music. I know it's similar, but at the old JMK we were jerking back and forth between the decades. Sometimes it was 50s and 60s. Sometimes was 60s and 70s. Sometimes all three. Sometimes they'd throw in a Billy Joel song or something. And we shifted gears a lot. But this station is so solidly focused on this sweet spot of music; it's the 60s, 70s and 80s. That 70s era is really my wheelhouse, and that's really our middle ground. Plus we play my favorite stuff from the 80s, songs like "Cars" by Gary Numan and "867-5309 Jenny" by Tommy Tutone. I really appreciate that consistency.

Rick: I don't how many people know that you were once a professional baseball player. What position did you play and who did you play for?

Ken: I was drafted out of high school (Hersey High School) by the Red Sox organization. I was a pitcher.

Rick: Who was your pitching hero?

Ken: The pitcher I tried to emulate as much as possible was Bob Gibson. I threw real hard like he did, and had the same kind of personality. There was no giggling and goofing off when I was on the mound. I got pissed. Sandy Koufax was another one. Although he was a lefty. I loved the power pitchers.

Rick: Talk a little bit about your minor league days.

Ken: I started out in A ball in Sumter, South Carolina. I had a good season, so the next year I played Double A at Winston Salem, but in the offseason I still came home and worked at UPS. Hell, they paid $11 an hour (laughs). That was good money then! I still had to make enough money to fill up my Pinto.

Rick: So what happened? Did you hurt your arm?

Ken: No, I hurt my leg playing basketball. In those days there were no health clubs, so the teams would make you play basketball games to stay in shape. You were only allowed to miss two games and if you missed a third, they told the big club you weren't showing up. Well, I enjoyed the company of the ladies, and that had already caused me to miss my two. One night, I was in the middle of a date when I remembered I was supposed to be playing a basketball game, and it was going to be my third strike if I didn't get my butt over there. So, I got there late, and didn't warm up properly, and rushed out onto the court, and sure enough, I blew out my knee. It was my pushing-off leg too. Poof. Just like that (snap) my baseball career was over.

Rick: How did you go from baseball to broadcasting?

Ken: My dad said to me, "You better find a job." (laughs) I called the team and they said they could use help at the radio station in Sumter, South Carolina. That's where I had played my A-ball. They didn't call it this at the time, but they needed a color man for the games, so I did it. After the season ended, I didn't know what to do. (Photo: ballpark in Sumter)

They had a music station not too far away, so they said: "Want to try that?" I thought, "Sure, what the heck." But they also told me that I needed to keep sending out tapes to move up the ladder, so I took that to heart. I worked in a town called Camden, then I went to Orangeburg, then to Charleston, then Savannah, and from there, Indianapolis. All of that in a year and a half. I wanted to work in Chicago so I was always looking for the next opportuntiy.

Rick: I started listing all of the stations I've heard you on in Chicago over the years and there's quite a list, isn't there? WMET, The Point, US-99, The River, WCPT, The Loop. Am I missing any?

Ken: I think that's all of them.

Rick: I'm sure there are some great stories from all of those stations, but let's start with the Mighty Met, WMET. That's the first time I remember hearing you.

Ken: That was my first job in Chicago. I was only 21 at the time, and I was working the afternoon shift in 1978-1979. Greg Brown was the morning guy at that time, and Captain Whammo was on right after me. I can confirm that sleeping story he told you a few weeks ago. When I did the afternoon shift and Captain Whammo worked at night, he would go to the Cubs game in the afternoon, and remember, in those days all of the games were in the afternoon. After the game he would come into the studio and sleep behind the transmitter rack. I said to him: "I need some decibels to do this right. You know that, right?" He said "It's OK, man." And I'm not kidding you when I say I cranked the music. The walls were rockin' with Kiss' "I wanna Rock and Roll all night" and Captain Whammo would be there behind the transmitter rack, sleeping through the whole thing.

Rick: You had a nice long run at the Point (WPNT), as I recall. People came and went in that morning slot, but you stayed in afternoon drive for many years. What do you remember most about that station, and that time of your career?

Ken: I started out doing nights, then shifted to afternoons, and it's true, I stayed there for a long time. They rolled through people quite a bit in the mornings. John Calhoun, who I've worked with now at a few stations, was one of them. There were lots more, including Fred Winston.

That was a big thrill working with Fred (photo). I had listened to him in high school, and was a big fan. One time we did a promotion where Fred picked a golf team and I picked another one, and we had a friendly on-air competition. I'm a good golfer and Fred is not, so I was pretty sure my team would win huge. Little did I know that Fred had picked a bunch of ringers, so they kicked my butt.

But Fred was a great guy, and fun to work with. You know I've worked with a lot of these legends now, and each time I was worried that they were going to be full of themselves and hard to deal with, and none of them are. Dick Biondi--great guy. Landecker--great guy. Tommy Edwards is too.

Rick: So what happened at the Point?

Ken: I was there until the station was bought by the forerunner of Clear Channel, and then Bonneville took it over, and they flipped formats, and got rid of all of us. But I have to say, they were real good about it. It was all handled very professionally--we all got our proper severance and everything.

Rick: What was your favorite radio job?

Ken: If I had to pick one, I'd probably pick the one I have now. Maybe it's just that I'm at an age where I'm comfortable with myself, and I know and love the music so much, and maybe it's just the kind of personality I have--I tend to be forward looking, and enjoy living for today. But this is probably my favorite.

Although, I would be remiss if I didn't also mention US-99. I was the first voice heard on that station when we flipped from WE-FM back in 1982. To have that still going strong 30 years later is incredible. We really began with a modest operation. I mean modest. We had one three-deck cart machine and three reel to reel machines, and that was it! We had to play the songs from reel to reel tapes, which was a real pain. No records, no music on cart. There were lots of gaffes because of that.

I remember one time they did a $10,000 contest, which was a TON of money to give away at the time. The premise was that if they didn't play at least four songs in a row, someone would win $10,000. Now, this obviously wasn't supposed to happen for awhile, but because of the set up we had, somebody screwed up almost right away. The first week or so. After that, they put the music on cart, and got a locking cart machine. Once the first song started, it couldn't be stopped until all four carts fired. Of course, wouldn't you know it, a cart blew up, and another $10,000 was out the window. We gave out twenty grand in the first month, and that was our budget for the whole year.

Rick: What years were you there?

Ken: I was there from 1982-1990. Had a great time.

Rick: Still like country music?

Ken: I still listen to it occasionally and enjoy it. I used to date the girl that eventually married Trace Adkins. She's a Hersey High School grad too. There's a bunch of us around. Amy Jacobsen. Jeff Joniak. Dave Corzine. All Hersey grads.

Rick: When I was researching for this interview, I saw a great article about you from 2007. It was about your time at WCPT. I know you were the operations manager there, but the article was mostly about one of your other duties at the time...feeding the cows in the field next to the radio station. That must have been a trip.

Ken: That's a true story. They had cows out there because they had to maintain the agricultural zoning of the building, so they had to have at least two farm animals. They owned two cows. I'm an animal lover, so I volunteered to feed them. Loved those cows. I remember their names. Lollipop has since passed on, but Elsa is still living, and there's a new one now, and his name is Junior. I visit from time to time. I keep in touch with my cows.

Rick: You've worked with just about every conceivable Chicago radio personality over the years, some of whom you've already mentioned. You also grew up in Chicago, listening to Chicago radio. So let me put you on the spot. If you were told to put together the all-time great Chicago jock lineup, living or dead, regardless of cost or availability, who would be on your station?

Ken: How many do I get?

Rick: Let's go with seven.

Ken: OK. Seven. Hmm. Well, Larry Lujack for sure. That's obvious. And of course Tommy Edwards. Let's see. Connie Szerszen. She'd have to be on there. Naturally, Dick Biondi. Fred Winston for sure. I get two more, let's see. John Records Landecker. He's a must. And you know, here's one that not a lot of people mention, but I'm going to say J.J. Jeffrey. I loved him on the air. He was just fantastic!

Rick: Thanks for doing this Ken. I know you're a PGA golfer, and the weather's nice today, so I'll let you go so you can hit the links.

Ken: People will get the wrong idea when you say PGA. I'm not on the tour or anything. I'm only a club pro. People hear that and think "You must be great!" Not really. I'm not as active as I once was. But I am ready to get back out there. I'm waiting for the snow piles to melt, we still have a few out here in the boonies, but if it stays nice like this, that's where you'll find me.