Saturday, April 10, 2010
Sherman Kaplan is a news anchor and co-host of the Noon Business Report on WBBM-AM NewsRadio 780
Rick: First of all congratulations on your longevity at WBBM. Last year you celebrated 40 years.
Sherman: Thank you.
Rick: Tell the story of how you first arrived at WBBM.
Sherman: It was by accident really, that I got this job at all. My wife and I were vacationing in Chicago in September 1968 shortly after the Democratic convention, and we were staying at the Holiday Inn (now the W—I believe). At the time I was working at a radio station in Columbus Ohio, and a friend of mine was living in Chicago. He told me that WBBM just went all news and that I should apply. The studio was right down the street from our hotel. I wasn’t really looking for a job at the time, because I was pretty happy in Columbus, and I was pretty secure there--the number two man of a three man staff--but I thought what the heck. Let’s see what the big market guys think of little market me.
So, like all good broadcasters, I had a tape and resume on hand, and I dropped it off at the station. They were very nice and all, but said they didn’t have anything available at the time, which was fine by me. We went back to Columbus and in January they called and asked me if I could start in two weeks. That was probably the hardest decision I’ve made in my life. I decided to give it a try, and came to Chicago.
Five other broadcasters came around the same time, within two or three weeks of me. Len Walter (photo, also still with WBBM) was among them. Dick Helton, who has been the morning co-anchor at KNX for years, was another.
Rick: You were hired as a reporter at first?
Sherman: Yes, general assignment reporter and anchor. My first day was Feb 17, and I had no instruction at all. They never a said a thing to me about anything. Mal Bellairs was my co-anchor. He was a legend in Chicago, but he wasn’t really a news man –he was a leftover from the old format. I believe we hosted from 1-2 pm, and then I covered stories on the street. My first night in Chicago I had to cover an accident on the south side and I had no idea where I was going.
Rick: There was a lot going on in Chicago at that time, wasn’t there?
Rick: Those first few years in Chicago were quite challenging weren’t they?
Sherman: My first year I really hated it. I made an effort to go back to Columbus. I had a very hard adjustment to make here, and I had been expecting to become news director eventually in Columbus, so I really wanted to go back. It’s a good thing I didn’t-- the news director in Columbus stayed another 24 years. (Laughs).
Rick: So no one really helped indoctrinate you into the wonderful world of Chicago—the neighborhoods, the politics, the underbelly?
Rick: You’ve obviously covered every major news story over the past four decades. Are there any that really stand out to you?
Sherman: Oh yes. Most of these stories I covered in the studio, but many of them happened during my show. The crash of the Illinois Central Railroad on the south side. The Nixon resignation. The explosion of the Challenger. I’ll never forget that day. We carried the launch live at 10:30. At that time we had a business report from Len Walter at 20 and 40, and as I threw it to Len, I had my eye on the television monitor and saw something that didn’t look quite right. I mentioned it to my producer in the talkback, and when we came back from Len, I started to describe what I was seeing.
Rick: Before the network knew what happening?
Sherman: Yes, before the network was on it. They cut to it shortly thereafter. There have been so many other memorable days as well. Daley’s death. Harold Washington’s death. Of course, 9-11.
Rick: I was listening to you that morning on my way home from Landecker’s show. We covered it live while it was happening too—everyone did—but switched to network coverage when it became clear how big of a story it was.
Rick: Everyone I know listened to WBBM for part of that day.
Sherman: It’s sad to say, but it’s true. Those are the days that we really shine. That day we didn’t even air commercials. I remember someone told me a few hours after the towers went down that WCBS, the network flagship, was going back to commercials. I said “WHAT?” I couldn’t believe that. We didn’t go back to commercials for a very long time. I want to say it was 24 hours.
Rick: Talk about some of the changes that have occurred with the on-air presentation of WBBM over the years.
Sherman: It's changed quite a bit. When I first began, the staff here was much larger. We had a few dedicated beat reporters, like Bob Crawford, John Madigan, etc, and a handful young reporters. We also had writers and producers and engineers and technicians.
Rick: What about the format itself?
Of course, the downside is that we aren’t often able to explore stories in depth the way we used to do it. When I first started, I scheduled an interview segment from 2:15 until 2:45 or so and nobody stopped me, so I kept on doing it as part of our midday program. Ultimately we got new management in and we changed it more to the way do things now. They wanted us to be more structured, and I can’t say I disagree too much with this approach. It’s obviously been tremendously successful. Our cume is consistently the highest in the city, and every single daypart does well with every demographic.
Rick: A few years ago WBBM physically made the move from its longtime location (at McClurg Ct.) to its current location. Was that a difficult move for you after all those years?
Rick: I know you actually got your start as a disc jockey before switching over to news. What was it that made you switch your career focus?
Rick: I’ve interviewed Ron. He’s quite a character.
Sherman: (laughs) That’s the perfect word to describe him. Dick Purtan, who later became the biggest thing in Detroit, was also there. But I’ll tell you the precise moment I knew I didn’t want to do it anymore. It was November 22, 1963, a Friday, the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. When I came in to work that night, and mind you this was just a few hours after the president was killed, there were a bunch of kids hanging out in front of the station as they did every night. They stopped me and asked me to play some inane song for them—just like it was any other night—and I thought, no—I don’t want to do this anymore.
I left radio altogether and went to work for IBM in Pittsburgh, but after 8 months or so, I got the jones to do it again, but this time I wanted to do news. They hired me in Charleston to do news, but they asked me to fill in as a disc jockey in the interim, until they could replace their morning man. After awhile it became obvious that they were in no hurry to find someone, so I walked in and said: “You brought me in here to do news, I want to do the news.” Only then did I finally get to do news. I had no training. I had no experience. I just learned on the job. It was seat of the pants training. I still consider myself a journalist to this day, even though I was never formally schooled to be one. I have a degree in Fine Arts. (laughs) Although I do have the one thing that a good newsperson must have--natural curiosity.
Rick: Over the last several years you’ve really focused on covering the business world. You probably have as good an understanding about this latest financial collapse as anyone. Why didn’t anyone see this coming?
Rick: Could it happen again?
Sherman: Absolutely. The biggest lesson I’m getting is that there has not been any big financial reform. It could happen soon, but as of now, nothing has changed.
Rick: Do you think there is an over-emphasis on the short term at the expense of the long term in business reporting?
Sherman: That’s the problem with business, investors, and the financial system in general. The next quarter has got to show growth over the previous quarter, and on and on and on. It’s basically driven by greed. In terms of what drives the market now, it’s greed too...and that’s not a bad thing, it’s called capitalism. Yes, there are inherent flaws in capitalism, but we’ve never yet devised a better system.
Rick: I can’t let you go without talking about your love of food. You’ve won every possible radio award over the years, but I’ve heard you say that the one gives you the most pride is the nomination you received for Best Radio Food Program from the James Beard Foundation.
To tell you the truth, I’m much prouder of my children. My son is even involved in the restaurant business. His new restaurant is called Benny’s Chop House and it’s opening soon on North Wabash. I’m very proud of him, and I’m very proud of my daughter too. They’ve both grown up to be fine people.