Saturday, May 19, 2012

Justin Kaufmann

Justin Kaufmann is the executive producer of midday programming at WBEZ. (Photo credit: Bill Healy)

Rick: I know you're a life long Chicagoan (Wonder Lake). Who did you listen to on the radio before you got into the business?

Justin: When I was 10, it was all Z-95. Best station ever. And my early teens were all about The Blaze. Wonder Lake loved The Blaze. Then I fell in love with talk radio when I hit high school. I remember skipping class to go see Steve & Garry open Gurnee Mills. I was a pretty big Kev-Head back in the day too. I convinced my principal to let me do the morning announcements and I wasted the opportunity by just copying Kevin Matthews. I was quickly removed.

I ended up at Columbia College in the Radio department and was exposed to much more, including WBEZ.

Rick: Since December, you've taken on a much bigger role at WBEZ, Executive Producer of Middays. At other stations that would mean producing one show. At WBEZ, you're overseeing three of them. Please tell me you have a staff of people working for you.

Justin: I have five segment producers, three directors, three web producers and three hosts. So we have plenty to make great radio. It's actually liberating not working for one show. It forces a producer to really own their segment. We would never be able to pull off this kind of system without experienced producers and directors. Can I name them all? Seriously, they need to be named: Robin Amer, Steve Bynum, Joe Deceault, Kate Dries, Andrew Gill, Jason Marck, Eilee Heikenen-Weiss, Katie O'Brien, Alexandra Salomon, Carrie Shepherd and Becky Vlamis. Pay attention to those names. Best staff in radio. It's the public radio equivalent to the Green Bay Packers coaching tree (that makes me Holmgren).

Rick: One of the midday shows is the new Steve Edwards afternoon show, which isn't really a midday show at all, but I digress. I've been a big fan of Steve's for years. How would you describe his new show, and how does it compare to his former work on 848?

Justin: I worked as a producer with Steve on 848, so we know each other well. Steve (photo) was unbelievable on 848, but Afternoon Shift is really his show. First off, Steve was at the table in creating this (he was hired as second host on 848). So he had major input on what he wanted from this new vehicle. Steve is one of Chicago's best interviewers. He stands out because of his knowledge, experience and preparation. There is almost nothing he can't do. He doesn't just do great interviews, but he's a great performer. He treats the show like a performance. And that is seriously refreshing. So it's my job to match that energy and performance by creating segments and booking guests that are going to rise to that level.

Rick: I was a guest on 848 years ago when Steve was hosting the show. Now Tony Sarabia is at the helm. How has the show changed over the years, and where do you see it going from here?

Justin: 848 has been on the air for over a decade now~? It started in 1998. That's unbelievable. And it has seen its share of hosts. Jan Coleman, Steve Edwards, Gabe Spitzer, Richard Steele, Alison Cuddy and now Tony Sarabia. So with each host comes a new wrinkle. I've worked with Tony my whole career. With Tony, we are planning a new style of 848. Live, live, live. Live music, live interviews, live call-in. He is a great host and a great co-worker and you can throw anything at him. Another HUGE part of being a talk show host. Tony goes with the flow and has the experience from covering Chicago news and culture for over 20 years to make great radio.

I would like to see us come up with a new name though. I love the show, hate the name. I can say this because I was one of the founding producers of 848. And the old story goes that it was my idea (the name). So Torey, if you are reading this? Let's come up with something new...without numbers.

Rick: This obviously isn't your first job at WBEZ. You've been there for nearly twenty years. Describe the evolution of your WBEZ career.

Justin: I'll try a quick version: I started in talk radio (Talk of the City with Richard Steele, anyone?) and then produced Metropolis with Aaron Freeman and the John Dempsey Show. I then was a founding producer of 848 and then left that post to produce the short-lived and much loved/hated comedy show Schadenfreude. When that show was canceled, instead of firing me, WBEZ moved me to run their web site. At that time, the site was just directions to the studio and a big "under construction" sign. So my team created the system that started putting all of our produced content online. I then managed and grew the site, created the Vocalo blogs (with Robert Feder) and ran the WBEZ site up to last year. And after all that? They pulled me back into talk radio. End of paragraph.

Rick: You mentioned your group Schadenfreude. If you could pick out just a few Schadenfreude highlights over the years, what would they be?

Justin: I met some great people when I took classes at Second City in the mid 90s. We worked together as Schadenfreude ever since. We do sketch comedy and we still perform today. Highlights? I gotta say - running our Alderman character (Alderman Ed Bus) for mayor after Daley left was a ton of fun. We got a lot of attention and were invited to roast the outgoing mayor at a retirement party. I've never been so scared in my life. And of course, this viral video was a roller-coaster ride. Everyone thought it was real. Kate still gets called out on the street today:

Rick: I've always enjoyed your writing on the WBEZ blog--and the work of people like Claire Zulkey, and Lee Bey. Is part of the plan for the future to further integrate the digital portion of WBEZ with the on-air and vice versa?

Justin: Well, I brought all the bloggers in and now I want to use them on the radio. It's just that simple. Really, they were hired with that in mind. They had to be great performers in multiple forms of media. Claire Zulkey (photo) has a great live show at the Hideout called Funny Ha-Ha. So she knows how to write and perform. Lee Bey has a weekly spot on Fox News Chicago. So we hire bloggers with the goal that they can be used on the radio. We weren't really connecting that way before. It would take a lot of work just to get a blogger on-air, even if their story was great. And most of the time, the shows wouldn't be interested. It was a bit frustrating, especially with some great investigative work going on with our blogs (Feder, DeRogatis, etc). We've changed that. Now I've even taken some of our on-air contributors and made them bloggers. It just makes more sense that way. And more importantly, we are starting to get our producers and editors writing up segments before they air. So creating blog posts to start the conversation before the live radio happens. It creates awareness and a conversation that just continues on air and then keeps going on-line. That's something that would have never happened 5 months ago.

Rick: One of the constant pressures at WBEZ is funding. I know that the government only provides a small percentage of funding to NPR, but what are your thoughts about the current debate going on in Washington?

Justin: WBEZ is a major market radio station. If government funding was cut, we would find ways to survive. But the worry is that a wholesale cut to government funding would destroy smaller market stations. And those stations are really doing great work for their individual communities. Public radio has a mission. It's to serve the public. It would suck if you forced them to air commercials for Viagra and E-Trade and play Katy Perry once every 40 minutes to stay afloat. Right?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Alison Moran

Alison Moran has been part of the Chicago radio scene for twenty years. She is now the women's sports director at SRN Broadcasting. She also writes the Token Female sports blog for ChicagoNow.

Rick: You and Roe Conn have something in common. You both got your starts in radio working for esteemed Chicago broadcasters who just happened to be blind. Roe worked with Don Vogel at WMAQ, and you worked with Bob Greenberg at WBEZ. Tell us how you got your foot in the door there, and what some of your duties were.

Alison: Thanks for asking, Rick! Truth be told. I had prayed for an opportunity to do some kind of broadcasting and I was a volunteer at CRIS Radio, a sub-carrier of WBEZ, in the late 80's. I attended a CRIS fundraiser, and I met Bob there. He told me he was looking for more people who could take him to games and essentially, be his "seeing eyes." It became my post-college internship for a year and a half. Bob worked very hard as a one-man sports show. He was also the Chicago correspondent for KMOX-AM, the 50,000-watt CBS station in St. Louis, and for the public radio station in Champaign-Urbana, so we were feeding game actualities and wrap-up reports until just before dawn. Bob also did a 15-minute show for CRIS Radio called "Sportscene," which he eventually gave to me. Then, he'd go on the air at WBEZ in the early AM. The man never rested! What did I do? Everything! Went inside the locker room to seek out players for him to interview, learned to write the wrap-ups, and splice tape. A few months later, Bob lost his voice, and cleared me to do reports on his behalf. So my voice was being heard on WBEZ airwaves for a month. I also got to cover the Citrus Bowl in Orlando when Jeff George announced he was going pro, and the NHL All-Star Game at Chicago Stadium.

Rick: A few weeks ago I interviewed sports reporter Cheryl Raye-Stout. One of our topics of discussion was the dearth of females covering sports. You were another one in the trenches during the 90s, as a news & sports reporter at UPI. Tell us a few more tales of a woman covering the male-dominated world of professional sports.

Alison: I'm not sure there was a "dearth"--but I was certainly grateful and happy to be one of the pack. Covering Charles Barkley when he was with the 76ers was a hoot. Les Grobstein still remembers exactly what he said when we were covering him playing against the Bulls. It's unprintable even by Internet standards! That was one of my favorite rivalries--trash-talking Charles and, at that time...the "do no wrong" Michael Jordan. Say what you will about Charles and his mouth, but I will say that I was five rows back in the locker room, he let off a stream of obscenities, and noticed me. I have never, ever been fazed by obscenities, but he looked me square in the eye and said "sorry!" Guess Mama taught him right. I told him not to worry about me, and smiled. If memory serves me correctly, he smiled back.

Another: Everyone knows the story of Bobby Knight and the chair, right? I have my own Bob Knight and the chair story...a little different than the others! I was asked by UPI Radio to interview him at Northwestern after he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. Well, I ended up being the last to enter the interview room, and there were literally no seats left anywhere. The room was packed. I was going to do what I usually did--just put the mic on the interview table and dive under it to stay out of camera range. I was also nervous because I was wearing...horrors of horrors--a purple and white dress...Northwestern colors! And I'd never met him before.

So, Bob rose up from his seat, picked up the chair next to him....held it over his head...and placed it gently on the floor right across from him. Then he patted the seat, looked at me, and said. "There's a chair for ya." I sat down and mouthed "thank you, Coach!" You wouldn't expect that from Bob Knight, would you?

(Photo: Alison and Steve McMichael)

The only time I ever had any so-called trouble was a weekend that I was the only woman covering a Cubs-Dodgers series at Wrigley. One of the players--not sure if I should name names here--got upset when he saw me in the locker room and yelled that I should announce my presence before entering. I just mumbled, "okay," and went to interview Orel Hershiser, who was the winning pitcher that day. Even though I was standing far back from the pack, Orel reached out and picked up my microphone and drew it in like the last lily in a bunch of flowers. It was, somehow, a comforting gesture, like he was saying "not everyone doesn't want you here."

The next day, I said "Women!" as I entered the locker perpetrator said "Why don't you just leave?" I turned my back on him and started talking to Daryl Strawberry, then went in to talk to then-Manager Tommy LaSorda. The perpetrator didn't pursue me, so I thought I was safe. The final game, he'd saved the best for last. He'd recruited another player, it seemed, to walk close by me naked with an eaten corncob in his hand....the significance of which was lost on me! Orel again came to my rescue, saying, "xxxxxx (his name)....remember Lisa Olson!" I just didn't react at all. Just pretended like nothing had happened. I got my interviews, and thanked Orel just recently in my "Token Female" column. I've always wanted to do so in person.

Rick: You also covered big news events. What are some of the most memorable?

Alison: I don't like to sound frivolous, but the biggest for me was Princess Diana's visit to Chicago the year before she died. Credentials and security were tighter for her visit, it seemed, than for the upcoming Democratic National Convention. Jay Sapir, UPI's Bureau Chief, had a wife who was pregnant with their first child, and she was having a rough go of it. He had covered the day's events, but had to take his wife to the doctor that night, and asked the credentialers if I could take his pass for the night's gala at the Field Museum. They said fine. At the time, I was in a neck brace, recovering from a herniated disc. If I wanted to see what was behind me, I had to turn all the way around. My family was up in arms, but how many chances would I have to do this? So I attended the big gala, neck brace and all. At the sight of her, I started running up the museum stairs, yelling, "Your Highness, Your Highness," and raced her all the way up the stairs, but she never looked around or at me. Jay had warned me she might not. Okay, I tried!

However, I did get great interviews from Joan Rivers, Marlo Thomas, Phil Donahue (who danced with the Princess at the gala and told me all about it) and singer Gloria Estefan, who arrived a bit late. A Chicago Magazine photo spread of Princess Diana's visit had a picture of me (in the crease, of course!) interviewing my neck brace. The credentialer later told Jay that his reason for sending me must have been dire...after all, he sent a reporter with a broken neck to cover for him!

It's been great to be at the forefront of history-making events, like interviewing Carol Mosely-Braun's headquarters when she was elected Senator. Or, listening to Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan on Savior's Day with General Moammar Ghaddafi on satellite hookup. Being present at Rod Blagojevich' rise to power by covering his run for the 5th Congressional District seat, and him handing me the first question after the election.

Or snagging the only interview that Bill Clinton gave during the South Side Irish Parade in 1992. Or covering candidate Pat Buchanan, walking with the Plumber's Union, in the freezing rain four years later, walking backwards down South Western Avenue with the other reporters, with him staring straight ahead and just saying "We're going to to take our message all the way to the Convention!"

Rick: You've done work with SRN Broadcasting (Sports Radio Nightly) now for more than a decade, and for the past three years you co-hosted a show called "Weekend Report" with Les Grobstein and Steve Leventhal. What was it like working with those guys?

Alison: It's the brainchild of the owner, Steve Leventhal, and he hired me in 2000 to cover college sports and other events. And our show was called "The Weekend Sports Report." (Photo: Steve, Alison & Les)

That was the MOST FUN I'VE EVER HAD IN BROADCASTING! What a mix of chemistries! Les, Steve and I have all been friends and worked together for years at SRN, but this was the first time we were in one room, giving our opinions, talking sports. I was the first woman they'd ever had as a co-host, and it was a lucky coincidence at that. I essentially ran weekends at WKRS, and Steve had wanted the show on a local radio station. With the SRN studios in Lake Bluff, it was a short trip to WKRS' Waukegan studios. For years, I'd told them they needed a woman's voice on the show...never thinking it might be mine! I just wanted gender equity. I was the producer, engineer, and co-host. Later on, Steve added two sports updates to my role, which I wrote and delivered. I felt just like what Ginger Rogers said about dancing with Fred Astaire--"I did everything Fred did...just backwards and in high heels!" And I LOVED IT!!

Everyone knows Les' reputation for being a sports encyclopedia...and it's well-deserved! Working with him every Saturday morning from 7-8 for just about three years was like taking a weekly final in this week's sports. You had to know your stuff. You had to be prepared. And you had to be unafraid to just say what was on your mind. They taught me to do that. Les, Steve and I had many go-rounds, particularly about the placement of women's sports on the program, but in the end, I think we produced some of the most entertaining sports hours in radio. The podcasts are still available on and One of my happiest moments there was finishing first in our NFL Round Table and picking the Giants as Super Bowl Champs this year.

Rick: Is that when you started your blog "Token Female"? I know it's currently part of the ChicagoNow family of blogs, but it's been around longer than that, hasn't it?

Alison: It was actually begun in 2006. Steve is an innovator. SRN was one of the first companies to establish a sports-only blog, on Steve was looking to expand his audience and the type of sports coverage offered on the blog, The Chicago Sky had just finished their first season. There was lots of women's NCAA basketball that wasn't covered in-depth. And a new, professional softball team and women's professional soccer league were coming into fruition at the time. Steve asked me to write a blog about women's sports and women's sports issues on

I like to think of "Token Female" as one of the few places where in-depth coverage of women's sports and women's sports issues takes place. We had a wonderful sports and music writer and editor at yoursportsfan, Stuart Shea, who taught me so much about the art of sports writing and encouraged me in my choice of topics.

Steve encouraged me to bring "Token Female" to Chicago Now a year ago. I 've written about Justine Siegal, the founder of Baseball for All, who pitched batting practice in spring training in 2011. She had a fastball equal to Jamie Moyer's average speed today. Have you ever heard of Eri Yoshida? She was the first female ever a Japanese independent league. She's a knuckleballer, and has also played for the US independent leagues, for teams like the Yuma Scorpions. Tim Wakefield's coached her.

I've also covered sports that don't get a lot of attention, like Chicago Wolves Hockey. Jimmy Greenfield, ChicagoNow's hardworking Community Manager, gives me the same type of free reign Steve initially gave me to choose my topics.

Rick: You once told me that your hashtag in the business should be #oneluckybreakafteranother. Explain why you feel that way.

Alison: I have felt so fortunate in my life to be able to do something I'm so passionate about consistently. From not being allowed to play Little League (no Title IX when I was a kid), to the passage of Title IX, to the lucky breaks I've had in Chicago sports, I've never really gone away from sports or news for all but two of the last 22 years, and that was by choice. Every opportunity I've had led to another. When I was ready for another assignment after learning all I could from Bob Greenberg, I was at the right place (the old Comiskey Park) to meet Jay Sapir at UPI Radio. When the two reporters I replaced in sports came back to UPI, I asked Jay if he needed me, and I covered news for the next six years. Then, I took around two years off for some personal time and went to graduate school.

When I started itching for broadcasting again, I got a chance to be the "third man" in the semi-pro Kane County Eagles booth at Mooseheart, which was broadcast over WRMN in Elgin. I did that for two years, and the final year, I read Drew Walker's website, and learned that WKRS needed a Sunday morning engineer. I'd hadn't done anything with engineering since the WBEZ days, and everything had changed. Big ups to their then-Program Director, Mike Sweeney, and then-Promotions Director (now current Overnight Host) Diane Ebert for being willing to train me and pay me at the same time. And to Libby Collins and Jason Cornell, my Program Directors, for always being in my corner, encouraging me, and keeping my progress and growth rolling forward. I got a chance to do everything--cover breaking news stories, create shows, produce, get trained on the latest equipment available, and learn what it was like to be the person who needed to answer for what went on in the station on weekends. Indeed, #oneluckybreakafteranother!!!!!

Rick: As you mentioned, for the last nine years or so, you've also been part of the late-great WKRS AM 1220. I appeared on that station several times over the years as a guest, and loved the small town attitude there. How big of a shock was it when the owner announced a format change?

Alison: I loved every one of my nine years there (2003-2012), but as far as shock goes--not much of one at all. There had been rumors to that effect for years before the announcement came, so we'd all had ample time to prepare ourselves. And our Program Director was wonderful about keeping us all in the loop prior to that time. As I told Karl Wertzler, WKRS' General Manager, "I feel like I had nine years and nine lives here, and I am grateful for each and every one of them."

Rick: You've been a part of the business now for more than twenty years, and you've had a front row seat for the many changes that have taken place over that time. What are your thoughts about the current state of radio?

Alison: Radio is one of the most intimate forms of communication you can have with listeners. As you said about WKRS, it was a small-town attitude. I remember on one appearance, one woman came up to me and said "Oh, Alison, I thought you and Don "DPlantmann" Guzan were married, because you're just so much like a couple on the air." We weren't, of course, but people felt comfortable interacting with us when we went out on behalf of the station.

The second thought that comes to mind is how personal it is, whether you're talking about music or news/sports/talk format. People choose to listen based on what connects them to what's important to them, whether its a downloadable song from Adele or Usher to their local news and sports to world events. I don't want the industry to lose their sense of connecting to their audience, despite consolidation and flipping formats, and the need for ever-increasing amounts of revenue. One of the most viewed columns on Token Female that I just wrote had to do with Rush Limbaugh's taking off after that girl who wanted her contraceptives covered by her Catholic employer. I received my first actual "hate" mail from that piece, and I was so excited! And the debate continued for a full month after that.

It's very sad that so many great stations have gone by the wayside--like WNUA. And the WLS I grew up with. So many public, "terrestrial" stations have flipped formats, like WKRS, in search of greener dollars. Like newspapers and magazines before, radio will go on...specialized, as it is now. All-sports, all-conservative, all-liberal, all-news, all-local, all-AOR, etc, designed to build and hold audiences that connect with the format. Streaming radio live makes it possible for people around the world to hear us, and connects us to a much larger community that was initially possible.

But now, we have a whole new medium on the Internet. That's the next big thing coming...all--Internet Radio. There have been more than a few versions that started as FM stations, but Steve's pioneering an all-Internet FM station now on, and he's getting tens of thousands of hits daily. If there's a way to marry the intimacy and connectivity of a radio station with the convenience of the Internet, have a way to chat live with thousands of people daily during shifts, and marry social media into the mix....that will likely be the next big thing.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

No Spotlight This Week

I'm not doing a Chicago Radio Spotlight interview this weekend because of my son's math meet in Champaign (Go nerds!), but I'm not quite ready for my summer hiatus yet. I've got a few more scheduled for later this month.