Saturday, April 25, 2009

John Gehron

John Gehron is a legendary radio executive probably best known for his time programming the Big 89 (WLS) during the 70s and 80s.

Rick: Let’s talk about your most recent job, running Harpo Radio for Oprah. That was your first foray into satellite radio and the world of Oprah. What was that experience like?

John: It was an amazing experience. Remarkable woman, remarkable organization. It was so great working with so many quality people, producing such high quality work. Working in that kind of environment really required you to bring your A-Game every day. Plus, it was nice after years of having to cut cut cut, which has been the reality in most of my previous positions at other broadcast outlets lately, to finally have someone say to you—do it the right way.

Rick: I think your name has been mentioned more times than just about anyone else’s in my previous interviews, from all walks of radio life. Programmers, jocks, producers, and newscasters all sing your praises. I don’t need to tell radio people how rare that is. Other radio executives would love to know how you pulled that off. Is there something about your management style?

John: I’ve never believed that I have all the answers, so I’ve always been very inclusive—consciously trying to include as many people as possible in the idea process. I’ve never felt like my way was the only way. It didn’t matter where the ideas came from, it only mattered that the ideas were good—and the more people that were involved, the more the ideas changed and improved, and the more people who felt like they were legitimately part of the process.

A good example of that is the format. I never believed the format was more important than the people executing it. It just provided goal posts, point A and point B, and it recognized that there were many many ways of getting from point A to point B. Each individual does it slightly differently, and that’s to be encouraged. That’s what makes it interesting to the listeners, and the personalities themselves. It encourages individuality. That’s something that has existed, I hope, at all of the radio stations I’ve worked.

It’s like asking a bunch of painters to paint a waterfront, and then giving them the paint. They know what they need to paint, but each of them will paint it slightly differently.

Rick: During the consolidation era of radio, you have had a unique vantage point to view the effects of it. You were a top executive with the two largest radio companies in the world; Clear Channel & CBS. How do you feel about that era now?

John: I’ve always been a fan of the basic idea of consolidation. The ad agencies we were dealing with at the time were all consolidating, in fact, nearly all businesses in America were consolidating. It’s the natural cycle of business. When radio consolidated too, it put us all on the same platform, allowed us to do business with the same size organizations.

Rick: So you really see it as a net plus?

John: Well, no, not exactly. Many parts of it have been a plus, but there have obviously been some mistakes made. One of the biggest mistakes was using consolidation to cut money rather to improve the product.

Rick: How could it have been used to improve the product?

John: It should have been used to allow best practices to spread. For instance, instead of going head-to-head against everyone, as we all did in the pre-consolidation era, we could have created formats that complimented each other.

Rick: Niche formats?

John: Exactly. Formats that couldn’t be justified as a stand-alone, but could have complimented the other formats within the company or within the market. That could have led to much more diverse programming. Another way of spreading best practices, frankly, is by using your best people in more capacities. Not to overwork them, but to offer them additional challenges if they wanted them. The idea of cutting, cutting, cutting, wasn’t the main appeal to consolidation, and it’s unfortunate that it became so predominant.

Rick: Many people got to know your name during the glory days of the Big-89, WLS. You were at the helm of that powerhouse lineup during much of the 70s and 80s. (Photo: WLS lineup 1975) The Loop replicated that success in the 80s and early 90s. Big time talent in every time slot. Have today’s economic difficulties made it impossible to do that again?

John: Well, yes and no. Clearly companies can’t afford to pay as much as they once did, and in the bigger markets AFTRA requires minimum payment and so on, but broadcasters haven’t utilized opportunities well. For instance, in the early days of FM, many stations were just simulcasting the programming from their AM stations. The FCC stepped in and said you could no longer simulcast, so many of these stations simply handed over the FMs to the youngsters in their organizations, and said: Here you go! Do what you want with it.

There were some mistakes made, but there were also some wonderful things that developed during this era; progressive radio, for instance. Now broadcasters are stymied by group ownership, which is often centralized, and won’t allow that sort of experimentation. In the current economic climate, it’s actually the perfect time to try something like that again. The economic realities may not allow you to have big stars anymore, but there isn’t any reason why you can’t take some chances with younger unproven talent and let them develop.

Rick: Do you feel like radio has done a pretty bad job of that over the last decade or two?

John: Without question.

Rick: Those WLS years were a turbulent time, despite the great success. I was just a listener in the early to mid-80s, but the Steve & Garry years in particular must have been a challenge for you. They were calling you “Scumby” on the air, reading your memos, writing songs about you. How do you look back on that time now?

John: I think we both were learning something from each other at the time. They were really pushing the limits, pushing the envelope. Really, they invented reality radio as we know it today. Meanwhile, I was working for a very conservative company that didn’t quite understand what they were doing, so we had a split in the building. (Photo: John at his WLS desk) There was one group that still believed in the old way of doing things, and one group that embraced this new way of thinking. It came to a head in the end when I wasn’t allowed to rehire them.

Rick: Just speaking as a listener in those days, I think part of the appeal of that show at that time was hearing someone rip their boss like that. It’s unfortunate that it was you, especially now that I know how highly everyone else thinks of you, but honestly, all of us wished that we could talk to our bosses the way those guys talked to you. There was something immensely cathartic about it. I remember one time tuning in and Steve was reading a memo that started with this sentence: “DO NOT READ THIS MEMO ON THE AIR.” That was jaw-dropping.

John: Oh no question, from a listener point of view it was clearly great radio. There’s no doubt that some of that was for show, but very much of it was real. That was what their show was about. Reality. They were really hard on us, but they were also really hard on themselves when they didn’t feel they were living up to their own ideals.

Rick: Do you still have a good relationship with those guys?

I would say so. I think I have a good relationship with both of them. I see Garry pretty often, and I really should get in touch with Steve. We both have a lot more time on our hands these days.

Rick: You’ve worked with virtually all of the major air talent in Chicago over the past 30 years. Tell us a few things that may surprise us about what these guys (and gals) are really like to deal with off the air.

I always found the big stars had an intensity about them, and part of my job was getting out of their way. The good ones knew what they wanted to do, and the great ones had a vision, and I had to give them the freedom to realize it. I have a tremendous amount of respect for talent—for their creativity. I know how hard it is to do what they do, to walk in and create something like that, because I can’t do it.

Rick: Do you think most program directors think that way?

John: The good ones do. Some programmers enjoy the idea of hearing their format executed exactly the way they envision it or draw it up. I never felt that way. If I could have executed it perfectly, I would have done it myself.

Rick: Is there anyone you’ve never worked with that you’d really like to work with?

John: Oh, there are lots of people. I’ve never worked with Eric and Kathy. I think they do an absolutely wonderful job. Bob Collins was a friend, but I never got to work with him either. Steve Cochran, same thing—personal friend, but I’ve never worked with him. I’ve also never had the privilege of working with Mancow.

Rick: I know you’re doing radio consulting work now. What sort of consulting are you doing?

John: (laughs) I’m a man of projects. If people in the business call me and need some advice or help on certain projects, I’m happy to help. I’m working on some ownership opportunities, helping others talk through problems, you name it.

I just got together with about 18 people in the business; consultants, executives, brokers, people like that, to talk about the future of radio, and after two days of talking , I came away very optimistic, very energized about the future of radio and the things that radio can still do.

Rick: Like what?

John: Radio has to embrace digital opportunities. It’s always been a push medium in the past, but we can get feedback opportunities that we never had before through the digital medium. Also, we need to look into the different distribution systems, and see how they are being used by today’s consumers, to find different ways of providing our product to people in ways that they can use them best. Not just streaming, but maybe cutting things up into pieces that can be distributed in different ways, like via the iPhone, or other delivery devices.

Also, radio has to recognize that the times have changed. 30 years ago, the record store and the radio were the only places that delivered music—now there are so many more. We have to move beyond music and realize that our delivery of it isn’t special anymore. Part of what is special, part of what radio can still provide as far as content goes, is personality! We need to seek out peer leaders that speak to particular groups and invite them into the process, to find ways of reaching different groups we’re not reaching now. Not just geographically, but demographically. That’s why I love what Kiss-FM is doing by putting Silly Jilly on the air at night.

We need to make a lot more moves like that. Stop thinking about what we were, and start thinking about what we can be.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Buzz Kilman

Buzz Kilman is a legendary Chicago radio newsman, best known for his long stints working alongside Jonathon Brandmeier and Steve Dahl.

Rick: Radio news has changed quite a bit in the years since you started doing it. What are your thoughts about the changes?

Buzz: To be totally honest, it hasn’t changed that much for me. I’ve really only worked with two guys for the past 30 years, Dahl & Brandmeier, and both of those guys have a specific way they want it done.

I can’t talk to what happened to other news departments, because I’ve always really been a one-man operation. The news itself hasn’t changed. Prioritize the stories, put them together in the format you use for that particular show, and then just do it.

What has changed is the way you gather the news. That’s been a revolution. The technological advancements over the years are just unbelievable, but the final product, that thing I do on the air, that hasn’t changed at all. I just do the news.

It’s really in my blood. I’ve been doing it my whole life, starting at the age of 16 when I became a printer’s devil, back in the days before photo offset printing. After high school I was a copy boy for the Miami News for a Pulitzer Prize winner, and then in college I was an editor for the Campus Conservative at the University of Miami...

Rick: Really? The Campus Conservative?

Buzz: Yeah, I lost the gig when Kennedy was shot. The football team didn’t want to play (to honor him), and I came out in favor of the football players, and that was it. It really was the Campus Conservative. Hey, it was only Kennedy! After that, I was also the editor of the Daily Planet (an underground newspaper in Miami), so I really have spent my whole life doing the news. I’m a news geek.

Rick: The first time Chicago heard you on the air was when you came aboard as the newsman on the Steve & Garry show in 1980, which at the time was already HUGE in Chicago. What was that experience like coming aboard that show at that time.

Buzz: The exposure was phenomenal. I came from a respectable station in Florida (WSHE), but believe me--we didn’t have a Steve and Garry. They were probably the highest profile morning show in the country at the time—this was less than a year after Disco Demolition. But I fit in immediately. When I got here, and started working with them, I couldn’t believe how comfortable it was.

And I couldn’t believe they were doing what they were doing! I wasn’t shocked...I came from a wacky radio background...but still to see it put together and become so hugely successful was incredible. That was the wonderful part of that gig. Steve had a vision, pursued it, and did it! And his vision included an insistence that everyone on the show had to have fun—that was part of the format, so heck, how bad can that be? You have to have fun! OK, I’ll do it.

Rick: You’ve worked with Steve now at 4 different radio stations, if my math is correct, The Loop, AM 1000, WCKG, Jack-FM... How were those experiences at the various different radio stations with Steve different? Has he changed much over the years?

Buzz: Steve (photo) invented the modern morning talk show format, turning real life into a comedic soap opera. That’s a hell of a contribution. Over time, he’s become like a radio father figure; an elder statesmen for the medium.

Rick: Everyone knows you worked with Steve & Garry and Brandmeier, but there were a few years between those two shows. What are your memories of working with RJ Harris and Pat Still (and later Mark McEwen)--before the Loop got it right with this rookie from Phoenix named Brandmeier?

Buzz: And let’s not forget Matt Bisbee (photo) for several weeks. He was the guy on the air right after they fired Steve & Garry. It was like they blindfolded him, put him up against the wall, and handed out guns to everyone. Matt took one for the team. Anyone who knows Matt knows what a great guy he is, and that’s probably why they chose him. They figured he was the guy that would incur the least amount of wrath.

That whole place was free-falling after Steve left, but it was a lot of fun to be there, believe it or not, because you could do absolutely anything. I actually got close to Harris, and we would plot against Still, and we came up with hideous things for him to do on the air, like work in stables hauling manure—things like that (Laughs).

Rick: Did you know immediately that Brandmeier would click?

Buzz: Yes. I recognized Johnny was going to be golden the first 30 seconds I heard him. I was walking by Tim Sabean’s or Greg Solk’s office, I can’t remember which, and they were listening to this tape of his show from Phoenix. I’m huge fan of boxing, and this guy on the tape was framing some surprisingly erudite question to Muhammed Ali, and I was impressed at the way he put the question together—and the fact that he had Ali on his show, so I stopped to listen in the hallway. But when the answer came from “Ali,” it sounded like it came from a 12-year-old white kid. That’s what it was—a 12-year-old white kid. This kid knew everything about Ali and was answering the questions totally seriously as if he really was Ali. That Bob & Ray school of comedy is my favorite—and Johnny was like Bob & Ray on crack—especially in those days when he had free reign on the phones. Brandmeier changed the face of the radio.

Rick: Obviously the success you enjoyed during the Brandmeier years is hard to top. You mentioned how huge Steve & Garry were when you started, but I think Brandmeier was even bigger when you worked with him.

Probably true, yes.

Rick: You also really burned the candle on both ends in those days. I was doing overnights for awhile during those years, and I remember seeing you come in after a night of bar gigs with your band, and I’d does he do it?

Buzz: I don’t know. I was single. You don’t answer to anybody when you’re not married. I was just doing stuff that I liked to do. I loved the radio, and I loved the music thing, and I didn’t see why I shouldn’t do both. Music was sort of new to me. Being in Chicago, with all these great places that had live music, it was like being a kid in a candy store. I was just learning how to play, and that’s what you do when you’re learning. You go all out. It’s true, a lot of nights I’d get home at 1 am, and then I’d get up 4:30, but the hangover wouldn’t hit until 9. That last hour of the show was deadly in those days.

Rick: I must confess-- I was scared of you in those days. I was warned that if something went wrong with the newswires or with the AP audio news feed overnight, that my life would be over as I knew it. I brought in alarm clocks so I wouldn’t forget.

Buzz: I’ve heard that before from others who were equally frightened. I did that on purpose, I suppose, because I was arriving in fragile condition and I didn’t want a setback at quarter to six in the morning.

Rick: So I was right to be scared?

Buzz: Nah. I never actually did anything to anybody. Occasionally I would throw a temper tantrum—just like everyone else in radio, but I was harmless. (Laughs) Although, I do remember one time I chased Greg Solk down the hall after he said something to me... I don’t remember what he said, and I don’t know what I would have done if I caught him, but I did chase him. At the time he was only 19 years old or so.

Rick: When Brandmeier first came back to town a few years ago there were sporadic reports that you were negotiating to return to his show. Were those reports true, and what kind of a relationship do you have with Johnny now?

Buzz: There was some talk, and some negotiating, but the timing was wrong, the contracts were not in synch, so it just didn’t happen. We still have a great relationship.

Rick: You probably get asked about your time with Dahl & Brandmeier a lot, but I also wanted to ask you about two other eras in your career before I let you go. After Johnny left WCKG in the early 00s, you and Wendy Snyder were paired up for awhile in the midday slot. Maybe it was my imagination, but as a listener, you really sounded happy doing that show. Was I hearing that right?

Buzz: In a word, yes. I loved it. I really like doing my own bits on the radio.

One of my talents is my ability to recognize what the DJ is doing and to help it along, because I understand the comedy of it. I understand how to enhance a bit. That’s part of my gig. Don’t worry about me, I’ll be listening, and I’ll help you do it.

But I also liked doing that Saturday night show on the Loop (Another Saturday Night Special), because I got to do some really unusual stuff, and it was so much fun. At CKG, I was doing this great timeslot--the midday show. We got one spring book and I think we were #3 in the demo, which is huge, but then suddenly 9/11 hit, and they brought in a new program director (Tim Sabean), and it was only a matter of time before changes were made. They had Stern in the morning, and Dahl in the afternoon, and that’s when they brought in Kevin, and moved me (and Wendy) to Steve’s show.

Rick: I also personally loved the Drive-In Movie review show you did with Tony Fitzpatrick. The two of you were so sick and twisted, and you really seemed to track with each other in terms of movie tastes. Do you still watch those movies?

Buzz: That’s a life long addiction, those movies. You bet. Now that I’m home and unemployed I’m watching them even more.

Rick: Do you and Tony still stay in touch?

Buzz: Tony (photo) is my 7-year-old daughter’s godfather.

Rick: Have you considered bringing back the show?

Buzz: Sure, I’ve thought about it. If there was someone that wanted it, we’d certainly consider doing it again. (Laughs) My agent is Steve Mandel, by the way, and I am available.

Rick: I saw you on Channel 9 recently, doing a segment on their morning show. Might TV be your next gig, or are you still looking in radio?

Buzz: No, to be honest, I don’t like TV. I love radio. I know the timing couldn’t be worse, so it’s a matter of hanging in there while people make their adjustments, but hopefully, it’s just a matter of time before someone says, “You know who would be perfect for this? Buzz Kilman!”

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Rich Koz

Rich Koz currently hosts "Stooge-a-palooza" and "Svengoolie" on WCIU-TV, but he also worked in Chicago radio for many years.

Rick: I know some people are going to see who I'm interviewing here and wonder: "Isn't he a TV guy?" Not many people realize you have deep radio roots. Among other gigs, you were the sidekick/second banana/general all around goofball on Jerry G. Bishop's morning show at WMAQ in the early 70s. Talk about how that job evolved and the sorts of things you used to do on the air.

Rich: The job with Jerry actually came about when he was leaving WFLD after they cancelled his Svengoolie show (photo)- he was in talks with NBC for both radio and TV, and he thought enough of me to try and get me involved as part of his team for the radio side. He did some fill in at WMAQ, with me filling the afore-mentioned sidekick/producer/goofball role- and, when they brought him in full time- first, in afternoon drive, then in morning drive- I went along for the ride.

It was a great gig, other than having to get up so early for the morning show- we’d ride in, going over the papers, and he’d read something about Dean Martin, and say-“let’s do a bit on this- you be Dean!” I’d write stuff and be about 85% of the characters and “celebrities” that called in- I’d write song parodies for him, invent new bits, and we’d do sponsored commercials as bits- for example, I played the president of a lumber/home improvement chain, playing him as a sort of dopey guy, in a running series of live read commercials, and they went over really well.

Plus, on Monday mornings, when the show started an hour earlier than usual, for a while, Jerry (photo) had me do that first hour by myself! Jerry was the best--very generous, and, as I’ve always said, the guy who’s responsible for me getting into the broadcasting business…so blame him!

Rick: You were also one of the writers of a legendary radio serial called "Chicken Man," starring the legendary Dick Orkin. Some of the younger readers may not understand the impact that series had, but it was appointment radio--it still airs in some markets today. What was it like working on that show?

Rich: When Dick was doing a huge package of different features for the Bicentennial (yes, THAT long ago)- he brought me in to write one of the features- and, I did well enough that he had me write or co-write several others, as well as doing various voices on them. This evolved into me also writing and doing commercials, and other features- so, when he was going to do “Chickenman Returns for the Last Time Again”- the series where the Winged Warrior opened a crime fighting school, with one student- and he asked me to write some of the episodes, I was in heaven!

In junior high, I used to listen to the original series, and think “I’d like to do that some day.” I never realized that I actually would! Working with him was a real “learn as you earn” situation- I learned a lot by just hanging around him, as far as writing, voice work, double-tracking characters, etc.- being able to take his lead on coming up with adventures for Chicken Man was a real honor.

Near the end of the series, we needed some more plots, and I made a list of ideas for him- remember, the original series had gone on for quite a long time- and I remember him going through the list, and saying- “no, we did this- we did this – we did this one, too!” There were a lot of the episodes I had never heard, I guess. Funny that I managed to think of stuff he had already thought of!

Rick: Dick is probably the biggest star in radio advertising history. His commercials are still the best. You worked with him on those commercials for years. What is it about him and his approach that makes him so great?

Rich: Dick (photo) has such a great sense of humor, and can do that low-key yet hilarious stuff so perfectly. He always knew how to keep the funny stuff spread through the whole spot, and still get the sponsor’s message out. I love the fact that he could also come at the situation from a totally unexpected direction- and, he’d start some ads like you were eavesdropping on a conversation already in progress. Plus, he had a way of continuing on after the final punchline that was just frosting on the cake. He was a very kind gentleman, had no huge ego in spite of his great talent, and boy, did he know his stuff.

Rick: In the mid-80s after Son of Svengoolie was canceled you worked on WGN as a fill-in host for awhile and on the Satelite Music Network, and later became the morning man at WCKG. Looking back at that four or five year period when you were more a radio guy than a TV guy, did you enjoy the experience, or were you longing to return to television?

Rich: I really loved doing radio- being able to come up with stuff that’s based on things going on right then, being able to use all the “theatre of the mind” stuff, and having the almost instant feedback that you don’t get on TV- plus, not having to wear as much (uh- I mean- any) make-up! I had a great time, playing off listeners’ calls, being able to ad lib (that’s what we used to call improv, kids) I never felt that doing radio was just a placeholder until I could get a TV gig- I was very happy doing it.

There were times and stations where I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to fit in, what exactly they WANTED me to be, and I think I sometimes made mistakes by trying to be what I thought they wanted. The WCKG gig was a great time- I got to do shtick and basically be myself and do whatever I thought of, while playing “classic rock, baby!”

Rick: You're probably best known for your character Svengoolie, which originally aired on Channel 32 as "Son of Svengoolie" and now airs as just plain old Svengoolie on WCIU. Can you talk about the evolution of that character, and how you grew from young ghoul to man ghoul?

Rich: Originally, in the mid seventies, someone at a local TV station had approached Jerry G. about maybe doing a summer gig reviving his Svengoolie character. At that time, Jerry felt he didn’t really want to do so, part of the reason being that he was thinking that- someday- he might actually want to run for a political office- and didn’t want his opponent holding up pictures of him as Sven saying “THIS is my worthy opponent?!” But- he already felt confident enough in me that he suggested that I could be the Sven character- as “Son of Svengoolie”- and he would produce and write it with me.

We had some false starts on it, and it didn’t really go anywhere- until Jerry was about to leave for the west coast, and asked what I planned on doing. I said I might try to pitch a TV show to local stations- and he said that, if I wanted to try and do the Son of Sven bit, he’d give me permission. It’s a long story, but, it finally ended up at WFLD- with me doing the Son of Svengoolie- in my original audition, I looked exactly like Jerry’s character, but, since they felt that looked too dated, I devised the look that finally premiered.

My character was pretty much based on how Jerry played the character, layered on my own personality, with the accent being, as Jerry puts it “Bela Lugosi crossed with Lawrence Welk!” I did the character there for 6 and a half years- and, even after that, was requested to do the character for appearances, radio and TV guest gigs- right up until I came to WCIU.

When I was taking the job here, Jerry was in town, and we talked about it- I mentioned that, even by the end of my WFLD run, there were people who said “SON OF Svengoolie? Who’s Svengoolie?”-and that I thought I might shorten the name or something. Jerry said –“I tell you what- you’re all grown up now- just be Svengoolie!” It was nice of him to hand over usage of the name to me.

Rick: My sons and I never miss "Stooge-A-Palooza" which is another show you host on WCIU. There's something about boys and the Stooges. I've seen you read the e-mails and letters from women, but let's be honest here. It's a guy thing, isn't it?

Rich: You know- it really isn’t! I first learned that when we started the Stooges show, and did a “man (and woman) on the street” segment- and I was amazed to find, in asking about that very question- that, by our experience- a whopping 80-85% of the women we talked to were indeed Stooges fans! Now, in the course of the show, I constantly hear from women who love those guys.

One lady, a former Honey Bear, wrote that she is a big fan in spite of the fact that she is a “girly girl!” I seem to think that, for a long time, it wasn’t considered “lady-like” to enjoy the Stooges, but now, with women liberated, they can “nyuk-nyuk-nyuk” openly without fear of reprisal.

Rick: I know you've won many awards for your television work, which really is great stuff. I wonder though, now when you look back at your long and varied career, what is it that you are most proud of--first in radio, and then in television?

Rich: As far as radio, I think I’m most proud of the fact that I’ve been lucky enough to work with so many of the people that I grew up idolizing- and had them treat me as an equal-and proved to myself that I could do it. With TV, I’m proud to have had a career that has been acknowledged by my peers as having “made significant contributions to Chicago television”- as the TV Academy’s Silver Circle put it- and- just the fact that the stuff I’ve done really means something to the people who have watched it. When I hear that phrase “I used to watch you as a kid- and now I watch you WITH my kids”- I think that says it all.

Rick: Is there any way you could ever be coaxed into coming back to radio?

Rich: I’m having a great time at WCIU and all our other stations, and love being there- but- I’ve always thought- and hoped- that I’d get to do more radio, somewhere down the line. It’d be a little tough to fit it into my schedule now, but- maybe someday…