Sunday, March 23, 2008

Joe Collins

Joe Collins is the afternoon traffic anchor at WBBM-AM, Newsradio 780


* Worked as a jock at the college radio station, WSXC, which broadcast to 27 rooms and the cafeteria, when I was at St. Xavier on the South Side

* Got a job as afternoon news anchor on WJOB-AM (1230) in Hammond, starting in January 1981

* Got work as a jock on WKDC-AM (1530) in Elmhurst, the format of which was (believe it or not) Broadway show tunes, in December 1982

* Got weekend work as a Saturday overnights at WBYG (99.9), "The Big One", In January 1983, so I worked during the week at WKDC and Saturday nights at WBYG

* When WKDC shut its doors after bankruptcy in September, 1983, got part-time work for WYEN (106.7) in Des Plaines; format change at WBYG in early 1984 lost me that gig

* Finally got hired at WAUR (107.9) in Aurora for the "All-Gold Weekend" in early 1984; then was hired for the afternoon talk-show shift at their sister station, WMRO (1280) shortly thereafter. Fired (it was inevitable for a broadcaster) from WMRO/WAUR in August 1987.

* Hired by Shadow Broadcast Services on Dec. 31, 1987; did split shift traffic on WMAQ (670) until they lost the station to Metro in 1992; continued at Shadow doing traffic on other stations until getting out of the business to work at Navigation Technologies (now NavTeq) in August, 1994;

* Returned to Shadow to do traffic on WMAQ again in August, 1997; sometime during 1999-2000 (I can get the exact date), became AM drive reporter on WBBM-AM (780); after MAQ folded, Bart Shore moved to BBM mornings and I shifted to afternoons and HAVE BEEN THERE EVER SINCE!!! YIKES!!!

Rick: I think most people in Chicago have heard your voice on the radio over the past twenty years. I get a kick out of the way you like to describe this phenomenon: "reverse celebrity." What do you mean by that?

Joe: When I meet someone and the question comes up, "What do you do for a living?", I always answer "I do traffic reports on the radio." Then they say, "Really? What station?" and when I answer "WBBM", they then ask my name, and when I tell them, they almost always answer. "I've heard you!" Then they start to remember when and where they've heard traffic reports, and usually get very excited about this, thereby elevating me to some sort of celebrity status. Hence, "reverse celebrity."

Rick: You are among the best known and most respected traffic reporters in Chicago. What do you think is the secret to your longevity?

Joe: Thanks! I enjoy it a lot, and I want the listener to know what I'm talking about when I describe what's happening. They don't ask much; they simply want it to be in the same order: outbound is Kennedy, Edens, Ike, Stevenson, Ryan, I-57, Ford, LSD, Tri-State, Jane Addams, Reagan, 53 and the Veterans Tollway, Elgin-O'Hare and the Indiana Roads. I'll change it up and start with the tollways first and go back to the expressways, but it's always in the same order. And I still get a few complaints that we talk too fast, but we only have a set amount of time and I want to get in as much as I can...those complaints have faded because people have been driving for many years and have gotten used to the quick pace. I guess my "secret" is I'm there to make it as simple and accessible for the motorist as I possibly can.

Rick: You've had two lengthy runs in the all-news format (WMAQ and WBBM). Talk about some of the time constraints involved in doing traffic in that format.

Joe: Well, there are definitely times when we can't fit it all in and people blame us, but frankly, there days when we could easily go 3-4 minutes with all the traffic that may be going on, but there are commercials to play, weather, sports, the network news to cut to and reporters in the field talking about all the news. And we're back with more traffic is just a few minutes. Plus, we have a traffic tip line at 312-202-CARS if we haven't mentioned some huge problem. That's a huge help, too; it makes everything more interactive with the listeners, and as a person who has commuted during bad rush hours, I feel their pain.

Rick: I'm sure after nearly twenty years of doing this, you've discovered a few constants in traffic reports. So much so, you could probably do the traffic without even seeing the travel times. Let's say it's 4:38 in the afternoon, you hear the WBBM news anchor coming to you, and you don't have any traffic information in front of you. What would you say?

Joe: Well, this has happened, certainly, when just as you're about to go on, the computer blanks out. But as I've often said, I can do this in my sleep...I often do! (That's a joke, by the way.) Mostly, it's a matter of just remembering what you just said in the last report, so rarely does anything change drastically in the last few minutes. When it does, like an accident is blocking all lanes or something, we're usually aware of it. One of the things I've learned in 17-plus years of doing traffic on WMAQ and WBBM is how to ad-lib and be ready for any eventuality. When things are crazed, the adrenalin rush helps you through that, and I figure I'm best in a crisis. The trick is to sound good...and interested...when it's bo-ring.

Rick: You've also done your fair share of news over the years. What do you prefer doing, traffic or news, and why?

Joe: I did news on WJOB in Hammond in the 1980s when it was a very serious news operation, and news on WAUR in Aurora, and even some news on several stations while working at Shadow/Metro. I kind of fell into the traffic thing when Rick Sirovatka hired me to start on New Years Day 1988--back then I also handled taping race results on a harness racing hotline. Myself and Ken Zurski both started doing the hotline reading results from Hawthorne, Balmoral and Sportsman's and taping Phil Georgeff's stretch call from each race (You know, "here they come, spinning out of the turn"). But traffic was immediate, it was (mostly) exciting, and I got good at it pretty quickly. So I like it!

Rick: You're a Chicago boy--born and bred. Over your twenty years on the air here, there must have been times when you've appeared on radio shows hosted by some of your radio heroes. Talk about a few of your appearances on some legendary shows, and what that meant to you.

Joe: I still remember working with Joel Sebastian in my first radio experience back at Country-Music WMAQ back in 1980 when John Lennon died. Joel was very cool, and because the only Beatles tune we could find at a country station seemed to be "Yesterday," a Paul McCartney song, we played it. Also during that time, one of the "Good Morning Guys" (along with Pat Cassidy) was Tim Weigel, and I used to call him during the show and wake him to give him some of the late-night scores. Also worked occasionally producing Mary Frances and Bill Veeck's show.

On the air myself, I've done traffic reporting with people like John Landecker (one of my first radio idols--it was a real thrill working with him); radio legend Clark Weber, who has been very helpful to me for awhile; truly fun people like Brant Miller, Catherine Johns, Jim Frank, Dean Richards, Steve Dahl (he called me once to find out how the Ryan project would work), Mike North (he told me the best way to get women was to stick a $100 bill to my forehead and say, "How ya doin', babe?"). I also treasure the moments with the people I still get to work with like Felicia Middlebrooks, Pat Cassidy, John Hultman and so many other great folks at WBBM.

Rick: In the mid-90s you actually left the business for a few years. Why did you do that, and what drew you back in?

Joe: I had the opportunity to get in on the ground floor at Navigation Technologies (now NavTeq), a company that produces digital map databases for navigation vehicles. It's obviously grown to a much more affordable product. I enjoyed my time there, but I truly loved doing traffic on WMAQ, so when Rick Sirovatka called me and invited me back into radio, I went.

Rick: When I read your radio-ography, I got a kick out of your 1980s tour of suburban radio--particularly that "Broadway Show Tunes" format. Ironically, that turned out to be a foreshadowing for you, didn't it?
>Joe: Yeah, that was WKDC in Elmhurst, and the second day I worked there Rob Feder's column had an item about how the station had declared bankruptcy. Hello! The station manager was convinced that Broadway show tunes were the format of the 1980s (I think he was about four or five decades too late.) I always enjoyed theatre anyway, onstage and off, and because I still do acting, directing, and producing of a lot of plays at the community theatre level, I took to that format quite easily--until the station closed its doors a few months later. I also worked on radio shows in several languages: Spanish, Greek, Polish and even Gaelic--none of which I speak--mostly at WJOB in Hammond.

I also had my own talk show at WMRO in Aurora, interviewing numerous celebrities like Larry King, Oprah Winfrey (right after she first came to Chicago), Werner "Col. Klink" Klemperer, and Gavin "Capt. Stubing" MacLeod. There was the time I interviewed comic Emo Philips and then had to drive him home to Downers Grove, and he kept making truly bizarre comments on passersby all the way home. WMRO was where I enjoyed one of my fondest memories: broadcasting the Aurora Memorial Day parade in Aurora on WMRO with P.J. Harrigan. And one of the strangest moments, having to follow Joe Bartosch on the air after he was, shall we say, relieved of his duties after nailing himself shut in the studio until the Cubs won another game. Let's just say it hasn't been boring.

Rick: I understand that you're working on a book. What's it about?

Joe: I am in the process of interviewing some of the leading players on WLS and WCFL in the 1960s and 1970s in an effort to create sort of an oral history of a time when there were only two rock-and-roll stations in town. People have been very welcoming and forthcoming, and I hope to speak to everybody who was there in those days, to get their great stories on paper so we can all enjoy them. I first pitched the idea to a publisher about six years ago, but my biggest flaw--among many--is that I put the "pro" in procrastination, so progress had been slow. But I'm excited and working hard on it now, and hope to have a really fun book in a few months. If some of your readers were at all involved in that era, I'd love to hear from them at You know about books Rick, and I really appreciate your allowing me to talk about it.