Saturday, January 29, 2011

Patty Martin

Patty Martin is the program director of WDRV (97.1 FM), The Drive.


Started in college—WRSE, Elmhurst College (did it all-airshifts, PD, MD, Union Board rep, etc)

WXRT: 2 internships, first for Terri Hemmert (public affairs), then for Norm and Bob Gelms in programming (yep, Norm still hired me as MD after knowing me in my college days)

Q101: first paying gig…music research (Thanks to Hemmert for recommending me for the gig)

The Fox, WJKL, Elgin. First post-college on-air gig…nights. The station flipped to big band and I stayed doing 4p-10p. (Again, thanks to Hemmert for the recommendation)

WDEK: started out part time when it was still a cool eclectic rock station, and here’s where it gets interesting. I worked on 4 stations at 1 time. Weekdays I did WJKL + news on its AM (WRMN) then went to DEK to do overnights. Worked both stations Saturdays, slept on the couch at ‘DEK to sign on the “god squad” religious programming on their AM, WLBK Sundays at 7a. I was on-air somewhere 7 days a week, and any hour of the day, putting 700 miles a week on my car. After the “dues paying” initiation, I got full time nights and Asst Promotion Director at DEK. DEK flipped to Top 40 and I got dumped on overnights. My airshift was 7 hours, so I talked them into letting me play an album side at 3am so I could get some of my production done!

KMBY- Monterey- middays, pm drive, nights, morning news and Promotion Director and Music Director (not all at once)
KWAV-Monterey-daytime fill-in
KSJO-San Jose-nights and Music Director
KLOL-Houston-Music Director and weekends
WXRT-Music Director
WDRV-Program Director

Rick: You've been the program director at the Drive now for almost ten years. Take me back to that first phone call from Greg Solk. How did he convince you to come over from WXRT?

Patty: I’d known Greg for years, and every time he saw me he’d tell me he was going to hire me someday. Even back when I was living in CA and TX. I always figured he was blowing smoke! I think it was November ’00 that Greg called. The conversation went something like: How’re they treating you over there?. “Fine.” So you’re not interested in another opportunity then. “I might be…” (it was Bonneville after all, the best radio company to work for.) Greg said they had something in the works, he couldn’t give me any info about it but formatically it was right up my alley. After several meetings, he still wouldn’t clue me in and I just couldn’t make the leap without at least knowing the format. (I believe in trust, but I still lock my doors)

After the stunting, the Drive started the regular format with no jocks, and after hearing an hour of it, I called Greg and told him if he hadn’t found someone yet I was in. Fortunately for me, he hadn’t and I started a couple weeks later, in time for the launch with Bob Stroud

Rick: How has the station evolved musically since you arrived?

Patty: The Drive is an organic living breathing organism that evolves pretty constantly. When we launched, we needed to stand out. So we did that with a whisper (the IDs and much of the imaging was done with Nick Michaels whispering “The Drive”). We were very laid back and sounded very different than anything else on the dial. Plus, there was no one playing the bulk of the music we played.

As time has gone on, we’ve continually freshened our imaging, music and our approach. Successful companies need to evolve in order to thrive. Overall we sound much different than we did at the start, but it’s been a gradual process. These days, many other stations play a chunk of our music, but no one has the intangibles we have between the records. We maintain a deep respect for the music and the listeners in a way the others can’t touch.

Rick: When you look back on your decade of the Drive, what do you consider the highlights of that time?

Patty: Our run has been so amazingly consistent, it’s basically all a highlight! Some of the big feel-goods revolve around listener feedback. Be it in person at an event like the Drive Birthday concerts or via email, they have such genuine passion for what we do! Two others are ratings related…the initial response to the station and when PPM started. We got to see just how many people were actually tuning in. It’s quite a thrill, and quite humbling. When you realize so many people are connecting to what you do on a daily basis it makes you feel even more obligated to do your best for them.

Over the years we’ve developed a very special relationship with our listeners, especially through Drive Advisory Board. They’ve given us great ideas we’ve implemented on-air, and we thank them regularly with unexpected tokens of our appreciation…including a free birthday concert almost every year. It’s such fun to give out every ticket to Rosemont Theatre and see the diverse and passionate audience that embraces this music with us at our birthday celebrations.

Rick: You are blessed with a tremendous air-staff there. There probably isn't anyone on the staff that doesn't have at least twenty five years of radio experience. I'm guessing they don't require a ton of direction.

Patty: So true. It’s an amazingly gifted team, and I look at my role more as a coach. A great team is full of outstanding individual players, but championships aren’t won without coaching to bring that together. There’s always room for growth. The best are the best because they don’t stop trying to improve. Michael Jordan threw hundreds of pre-game free-throws. Players review game video. Our staff is expected to keep focused and give their all every break every day.

The triumvirate of Steve Downes, Bob Stroud (photo) and Bobby Skafish are the core. They have long histories of success, and they want that success to continue, which takes work. No one is allowed to phone it in at the Drive, even though just doing that they’d be better than most of the talent in town! Besides being an outstanding journalist, Kathy Voltmer has as strong a work ethic of any air talent I’ve encountered. Phil Manicki, Greg Easterling and our weekend team of Carla Leonardo, Steve Seaver, Allie Ellison, Marc Vernon, Don Nelson and Jim Foster all have impressive pedigrees, and the high quality of the talent in every hour of every day is something we’re very proud of. We’re also proud that we’re live and local 24/7. There’s never a moment when there’s not a live human being behind the console.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight the contributions of the staff behind the scenes. Full credit for the positive environment in the hallways goes to Jerry Schnacke. He’s now Market Manager, but was our GM for over half the Drive’s 10 years. He created an atmosphere where creativity thrives, and people enjoy coming to work. Drew Horowitz is responsible for giving us the room to develop and grow. We have the 2 most accomplished production wizards in Chicago, Tom Couch and Matt Bisbee, and the unsung hero is Paul Webber. He’s a secret weapon, and that’s all I’ll say about that!

Rick: I absolutely LOVED that history of rock and roll special you aired recently. I think I listened to six hours or more of it. To hear a locally produced and written special of that caliber was amazing. How did that come about? 

Patty:  It was a true group effort. The original idea came from Director of Creative Services, Tom Couch. We passed the overall idea to key airstaff members for thoughts on how it should be flushed out. Skafish came up with the winning idea, and we were off and running. We figured out the “chapters” then the music to include and it was off to production. Downes, Stroud and Skafish wrote their chapters, Tom and Matt Bisbee wrote the connecting pieces. Several months in the making…and we are so happy with how it came out. The audience response was off the charts. It's running again Saturday (1/29).

Rick: I know that working as a PD for Greg Solk is a challenge. He's very hands-on (he told me so himself when I interviewed last year), and in your case in particular, the Drive was his creation. How does your relationship with Greg work on a day-to-day basis? 

Patty: He’s a challenge, but he should be, and he challenges me in a good way. I’m very self-motivating, but he sets the bar very high, and it’s invigorating to work to meet it. Greg (photo) travels a lot, so weeks can go by where we don’t see each other. When he’s on the road I send an occasional update email (nowhere near often enough, if you ask him). If I really need him, he’s reachable (and Fina Rodriguez is key in finding him!) When he’s in Chicago he spends 2 days a week at the Drive. That’s when we joke about him meddling, and doesn’t he have a plane to catch? The Drive is absolutely his baby, and I feel so fortunate that he’s entrusted its daily care and feeding to me! He has a definite vision for its evolution, and is the one who comes up with most of our unique features. I honestly feel that every radio station he touches is better because of his input, so I’m grateful for the attention he gives to the Drive.

Rick: Of course, you also worked for a strong personality at WXRT; Norm Winer. How would you compare and contrast Norm and Greg? 

Patty: They both have an unparalleled passion for what they do. Both are unquestionably responsible for their stations vision. Both love sports analogies. Both have a tendency to nit-pick, but Norm gets the nod there! Greg is much better at time management…he’s never late for a meeting, Norm, not so much! (Greg does have Fina which gives him a distinct advantage, but even if Norm had a Fina, he’d still be late!) And Norm loves playing Christmas music…Greg, not so much!

Rick: WXRT is also a unique place. People that work there almost never leave. I've interviewed a few that have and they said Norm was quite upset with them (at least initially) when they left. How did he react when you told him you were leaving in 2001? 

Patty: Norm (photo) was extremely gracious with me, especially considering the circumstances... I told him I might be taking the job the day before he left on vacation. The deal wasn’t done yet, but it would happen while he was gone and I didn’t want him to return to that surprise. I told him he was going to have to trust me, or he couldn’t go on vacation…(and that he really needed a vacation).

We agreed to keep it quiet and I’d call him as soon as it was done (ask Norm where he was when I called!). Norm got back to town on a Friday which was my cue to go into Harvey Wells’ office to tell him I was taking the Drive job, and was giving my 2 weeks notice…Harvey (as expected) told me that today was my last day (which was good since I was starting at the Drive in 3 days), and off I went. Sorry Harvey…I’m not sure we ever clued you in on that! John Farneda was in on it early on…I needed to train him because there was no way I’d leave them high and dry. Sorry Norm…not sure we ever clued you in on that!

Rick: What are some of your favorite memories from your time at WXRT? 

Patty: Hands down: my private Buddy Guy concerts. My office was the “green room” for any visiting artist, so they’d use it to warm up. Every time he came in (which was often) Buddy would sit in a chair 5 feet away picking away on his guitar, regaling me with stories. People would naturally gather around my door, but Buddy would say this was my private concert and they could only come in if I said it was ok! Another funny time was when the roof caught fire the day Sting was coming in. The place stunk with smoke, so we ran around spraying Ozium and lighting scented candles. It was much better by the time he got there.

Rick: You're a Chicago girl (Elmhurst College, Immaculate Conception), so you're quite familiar with Chicago radio history. Who did you listen to when you were growing up? 

Patty: I was the kid, to quote the Ramones, “with the covers pulled up over my head, radio playing so no one can see it.” It was a Mitsubishi transistor, as I recall, with a painful little ear bud. Early on it was WLS and WCFL, then in 8th grade, after graduating to a clock radio with FM, I stumbled on XRT, and my life changed overnight. Literally, because at the time XRT came on at midnight. I also enjoyed Triad Radio, WSDM, WDAI (pre-disco), WDHF, The WMET/WLUP rock wars, The Fox (out of Elgin, where I later worked).

Rick: The big news this past week was the sale of the Drive to Hubbard Broadcasting. Do you anticipate any changes coming to the Drive after the sale is final? 

Patty: The principals of Bonneville are coming to Hubbard, and we anticipate a very smooth transition. If all goes well, it will hopefully close around mid-May! My big worry is I’ll be in New Orleans at Jazz Fest when that happens. I want to be here for the celebration.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Ron Riley

Ron Riley was a part of the legendary WLS lineup in the 1960s. He also worked in Milwaukee, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Baltimore, but considers his time at WLS the pinnacle of his radio career. He later worked in television for more than twenty years.

Rick: I read somewhere that you got your start in radio by winning a contest when you were in high school.

Ron: I was one of those extroverted high school kids in northeastern Illinois, and WKRS-Waukegan had a contest to get a high school reporter to do high school news. I won that contest, and got to do it once a week, which was a real kick.

After college I got a full-time job there, doing newscasts and playing polka. My heroes at the time were from WOKY in Milwaukee. They had these great guys on the air before WLS played music, and I tried to sound like them. Well, one day I was doing a polka show and reading birthdays on the air, and the engineer said there was a guy on the phone that wanted to offer me a job. I thought it was a joke, so I told him to take a number.

After the show, I called the guy, and it was Jerry Bartell from Bartell Broadcasting. They owned a bunch of stations, and he said he’d like me to come to work for WAPL at Appleton. Are you kidding? And that was my first real morning show/disc jockey job. They had different names for everyone on the air, and the sales manager had just come back from a fishing trip on Lake Riley and he gave me the name Smiley Riley. Appleton was OK, but the whole time I was there, I wanted to go to Milwaukee. I was so excited when they finally offered me a stint as the all-night guy there. They paid me $90, and I said “You’re On!”

Rick: In Chicago, you’re best remembered for your days at WLS. Talk a little bit about your arrival at WLS, and the double-duty you were pulling during that first early stint.

Ron: I was doing the all night show in Milwaukee, but I was in the Reserves and they called me up for active duty. I had to go into the Navy for two years. When I came back from the service I got a job at KXOK in St. Louis. It was a rock station, and those were the stations that were really going to town at the time. But shortly after I started there they got a new program director, and you can probably guess the rest of the story. I was fired in three months.

I went to WJJD in Chicago on a part time basis—they were doing country music at the time. I knew Gene Taylor at WLS (photo), and so I called him to ask about a job. He said he didn’t have anything for me: “Sorry, Ron. I’m all set.” I got a part time offer in Cleveland, but it wasn’t set to start for awhile, so I called Milwaukee, and they asked me if I could do a few weeks of afternoon drive, as a fill-in. “Afternoon drive? Really? Sure.” I was living in Lincolnshire at the time, so it was a no-brainer. I had no sooner set the phone down when Gene Taylor called again, and asked me to fill in on the all-night show on WLS.

I said, “I just agreed to work in Milwaukee!” He told me that I should really think about it—it could open doors for me, and I decided—he was right. So I did both jobs for awhile. I would drive up to Milwaukee, do the afternoon show, drive back to Lincolnshire, sleep a few hours, and then go downtown and do the overnight show on WLS. Luckily, that only lasted a few weeks.

So I went to Cleveland and was enjoying my time there with a great team, and suddenly the Biondi thing blew up. He got blown out for getting into a fight about the number of commercials on his show. Clark Weber called me to tell me about it, and said, “Call Taylor.” So I did. I called him a lot, but he never took my call, and he never called me back. I figured I was out of the running, until Clark called again to say that they had narrowed down the list to two people and I was one of them. I kept calling Taylor’s secretary to leave phone numbers wherever I went (remember this was long before cell phones), and she was getting annoyed, but she did take down the numbers.

I’ll never forget...I was in the barber shop getting my haircut, when the barber said: “You've got a phone call.” It was Gene Taylor. He said “Ron, how would you like to work here?” I was very emotional when I got that call. I can still feel that emotion today when I talk about it. I sat down in the barber’s chair and tears started rolling down my face. The barber asked me if my mother had died or something.

I knew this was my big break. I just had no idea how big of a break it was. None of us knew at the time what an impact we were going to have on people. At one point during my WLS time, I had two secretaries answering all of my mail, because that’s how much of it was coming in from all over the country. The station booked us to do these record hops all over the place. Biondi and Clark would fly to their record hops. I wouldn’t go further than Kokomo, but I still did a ton of them. It’s gratifying even today to see that we impacted so many people. One time a girl in Minnesota sent me six notebooks that were filled with notes about all of my shows, what I talked about, what records I played. It was unbelievable. (Photo: The WLS staff at the time, Ron is in the lower right hand corner)

Rick: You were there for a pretty exciting time in music history; the dawning of the British Invasion. You even got the chance to interview the Beatles.

Ron: That’s true. Art Roberts and I were more tuned into the younger demos at night, and we climbed onto every bandwagon that came along. The people that ran the station had the insight to leave us alone and let us do what we thought was right. We developed our own character within the format, but we were pretty free. If we saw a trend, we could jump on it, and they would back us. The Beatles came on the scene, and the station got the record company to back us, and we got to be the station at their concert at Comiskey Park. They took a silver dollar survey and drew long hair on us, and I became “Ringo Ron.”

Rick: What were the Beatles like?

Ron: They were young kids, and they weren’t real sophisticated yet. They were way over the top. Everything was a big joke to them. They were very distracted. Art Roberts and I did a phone interview with them. They were on the set of A Hard Days Night at the time. They just passed the phone around to each other. “Would you like to speak to John?” Then Paul, etc. We recorded it in the afternoon, and played it back on our respective shows.

Rick: Being a part of WLS in the 1960s, you probably had more than a few memorable brushes with rock and roll greatness. Can you recall any others?

Ron: The record guys were calling all the time, saying they’d bring this band or that band up to my show. I was told by my program director to do what I wanted as far as the interviews went, as long as I didn’t talk too much. I had the Hollies on all the time. I still talk to Graham Nash occasionally. I still talk to Chad from Chad and Jeremy. He lives in Idaho now. We had Herman’s Hermits on. The Hollies would even take calls from the kids. In my mind, we were just putting another dimension to the music by exposing their personalities. That really worked out neat. I remember one time I was talking to Graham Nash, and someone called to say “Mama Cass is here,” and Nash said “Oh god, she’s following me around the country. Hide me.” She arrived with a rose between her teeth. We talked for awhile, and she kept asking about Graham Nash, and I pretended like I had no idea where he was.

Rick: Chicago in the 1960s was the center of the universe for awhile. Hugh Heffner was living in the Playboy Mansion on the north side, making headlines around the world. In 1968, the Democratic Convention came to Chicago, and everybody remembers those police riots in Grant Park. And throughout it all, the soundtrack for the decade was the rock and roll played by WLS. What was it like to have a front row seat to that time?

Ron: You know, it’s funny, all of that was going on in Chicago, but I was really so dedicated to what we were doing and so into it, that I didn’t really look around and take note of what was going on around us. When the riots were going on, Chuck Buell said to me, “I’m going to go check it out,” and he went out there and a cop kicked him, so he came back in pretty fast. I said “What did you expect?”

I guess I never really thought about it. I know that sounds strange now, but it’s true.

Rick: When I talk to radio guys about you, the thing they always mention is the “feud” you had with Clark Weber. When I interviewed Clark a few years ago, I asked him about you, and he joked: “He lives in a radio announcers home for the lame.” You wrote a blurb for his book recently and took a shot at him. The feud continues. How did that all start?

Ron: I was the big Beatles supporter on the staff, and Clark took the other side of the Beatles argument. He was on the side of the other bands—Beatles competitors like the Dave Clark 5. I was called Ringo Ron, so he began to call me Ringworm Ron, just to rip me. (Photo: Clark and Ron in the studio)

I used to take calls from these kids, and had them take shots at Clark on tape, saying things like “Down with Weber,” and I’d intersperse this into the show. I’d pretend to call him at home at night, (it was pre-recorded), and when he answered I’d make a loud trumpet noise, and he’d get all mad, “Riley, don’t you know I have to get up early!”

It was all this silly stuff. I had this character Bruce Lovely, and at Halloween, Bruce would drop pumpkins on Weber. It was just good clean dumb fun. This was ’65 or so. I’ve done twenty-plus years of radio and twenty plus years of television, and this is something I still hear about. A woman came up to me in the supermarket in Maryland just recently and said “Down with Weber!” Isn’t that something?

Rick: While that feud with Clark wasn’t real, the competition between WLS and WCFL was real—and it was fierce. Describe if you can how you perceived that competition, and how you reacted to it.

Ron: I didn’t pay any attention to that. Ron Britain was opposite me, but I made it a point not to listen to the competition and I didn’t really want to hear what they were doing—At least that’s the way I looked at it.

Sure, we were envious that they had Orkin, and we’d hear from the kids about the great stuff that Orkin did, but we weren’t used to sharing the audience. The kids started switching back and forth between the stations, and that changed what it was like behind the scenes at WLS. The fear was that we would lose money to WCFL, and that’s why we brought in a new program director. We did the format change, and went to this fake Drake format, and that wasn’t us--that stifled us a bit. We weren’t quite as innovative anymore after that. I couldn’t change. I did try, but I didn’t like it. And eventually they found a reason to let me go.

Rick: A friend of mine collects radio station records—that is, the promotional records that radio stations used to release. One of them in his collection is a record that you and Clark Weber did for the soldiers in Vietnam. How did that come about?

Ron: We had no real game plan. My whole life was an ad lib, but that record really was ad-libbed. We used to get lots of requests from servicemen in Vietnam for airchecks of our station, and we were sending out all these reel-to-reel tapes. It was getting a little pricey, so Gene Taylor said to Clark and me—“Go in there and do a show, and we’ll press a record.” So we played some hit records, a few beer commercials, and tripped over each other trying to get in some one liners. Mostly we were just putting each other down, kidding around. Occasionally one of those records will show up on eBay. I think I still have one around my house somewhere.

Rick: Another one of the memorable things from your WLS time was your connection to the show “Batman.” That was huge at the time.

Ron: I used to give updates on the air to people listening on the radio. The PR department came up with this idea of the Batman club, and got a Batman suit from Hollywood, and we did a promo at Channel 7. We made up a fan club card, and got bumper stickers, and it was way bigger than any of us thought it would be. Someone sent me a picture of a tank in Vietnam with my bumper sticker on it. I remember when we started, Taylor asked me how many bumper stickers they needed to print up, and I guessed we’d need about 5000, but it ended up being about 100,000 or so.

I even got a cameo on the show. ABC set it up. It was the episode called “Ice Spy” and I flew out to Hollywood with my brother. I had a trailer and a costume and eight words in the script. I was playing an usher in an ice rink, and walked into the box Adam Ward was sitting, and I said, “Mr. Wayne you have a phone call.” I think it’s on YouTube. People send it to me occasionally.

Rick: After you left Chicago in 1971, you moved east, landing in Baltimore. You eventually had an entire second career as a television weather man. How did that come about?

Ron: I was a program director in Baltimore—we were one of the last AM Rockers there, and I could see the writing on the wall—it wasn’t going to last much longer. One day I got a call from the program director at Channel 11 in Baltimore. He said he was a fan of mine from back in the WLS days, and he was doing a local show called “Bowling for Dollars,” and he wondered if I would be willing to audition for it. I hadn’t really done any television other than a few guest spots, but I went to the audition, and I got the job. So for awhile I was doing both the program director job, and the “Bowling for Dollars” show. I did that for four or five years.

About that time Plough Incorporated, the owner of the station, brought in a consultant that knew less than we did, and I figured, that’s it. It’s time to move on before they move me on. They changed over to country, and I was very fortunate that Channel 13 called me. Another former WLS fan was running it, and he asked me if I would consider doing the weather. I had never done anything like that before, but I figured I’d give it a try. Spencer Christian was their weatherman, and I filled in for him. There wasn’t a huge learning curve at the time. We didn’t have all the computer graphics, we were using refrigerator magnets. (laughs). But I kept that up and kept working there, as a weekend and fill in guy.

Oprah worked at that station too. When she got the offer from Chicago she pulled me aside and said “Ron, you’re from Chicago. I got this offer to do a talk show there. Do you think I should take it? Is it a good move?” I was thinking to myself, oh boy, she’s going to get killed in Chicago, so I said “Everybody loves you here. You don’t want to go to Chicago.” Good thing she didn’t listen to me.

I went over to Channel 2 after that, and then I got a call from another former WLS fan, a guy in Washington. He hired me to work at Newschannel 8, an all-news cable station, and that’s when I got my first full time morning television show. I never did get my meteorology degree, but I did get a National Weather Service seal, and I did learn quite a bit about the weather. Although, in all honesty, I was more of a personality, and less of a “metereologist” per se. But I was there for 16 years. I just retired two years ago, and I now I do part-time radio work for WTOP, delivering weather forecasts to the all-news station. I get to work out of my house, which I love.

Rick: Do you ever make it back to Chicago any more? Do you keep in touch with any of your former colleagues?

Ron: Absolutely. I come to Chicago a couple of times a year. We have a lot of relations in town. I was back in August and had lunch with Bernie Allen and Clark Weber, and a couple of record guys, and it was great. I love Chicago.