Saturday, February 26, 2011

Paul Barsky

Paul Barsky was the morning man at Z-95 (WLS-FM, 94.7) in Chicago in the mid-to-late 1980s. Before and after his time in Chicago he was a very successful morning man in Philadelphia.

Rick: I ask my readers to give me suggestions for people they'd like me to interview, and your name keeps coming up. Considering you haven't been on the air in Chicago for more than twenty years, and you were only here for a short time, you really made a name for yourself in Chicago. What was it about your show that you think people still remember it so fondly today?

Barsky: I really don't know. All I know is that when I first arrived in Chicago, I felt an instant connection. The same thing happened to me when I started in Philly where I spent the majority of my career before and after Chicago. Sometimes personalities click with markets, and sometimes they don't. I got lucky with both Chicago and Philly. The psychology behind why certain personalities have a lasting effect vs. others has always been up for debate. To try to answer your question, I guess I can safely say that I worked hard on the show every day to try to bring something new and entertaining to the listener. Even though off air I was very serious about the show, on air I never really took myself too seriously and had kind of a self deprecating sense of humor. Maybe listeners related to that and thought of me as one of them, I don't know.

In the beginning we were an ensemble cast, myself and three others, and we created some original produced bits that for some reason stuck with people over the years. I also started doing prank calls (called Phone scams) which many shows do today, but back then nobody was doing them on a regular basis so that material might have helped the show to stand out as well. We had a lot of strong benchmark bits which was important to have on a CHR station during that time period. So I think those elements made an impact. And yes, I too still hear from people today on Facebook, who still have tapes of the show etc., and it just blows me away....

Rick: When you first arrived in town you stepped right into a hornet's nest. WLS-FM had been simulcasting Larry Lujack's morning show, but he had decided to move to afternoons, which ticked off Steve and Garry, and the battle between Lujack and Dahl almost came to fisticuffs on the air. A week or so after that blow up, you arrived to take over the morning show. What was it was like to walk into that situation?

Barsky: It's funny you mention the Dahl and Lujack incident. At the time, Larry was still doing mornings and I guess he was still in his office and heard S&G ripping him on air, when he walked in to confront them. It wasn't "reality show" scripted schtick. Lujack was apparently a bit miffed. I think Uncle Lar was getting ready to lay an old school "Clint Eastwood" style beating on the boys. I remember sitting in my hotel room where the company put me up, and I was listening to the station and heard the Luajck/ Dahl blow up live and remembered thinking to myself "Well, working here should be fun."

It was a trip to be in the building at that time, because it was kind of like a soap opera. Both Steve and Larry were superstars in the market and their "in office battle" made for some real compelling radio. And here I was this kid from Philly walking into a dysfunctional radio atmosphere wondering how I was going to make a name for myself and stand out.

Rick: Refresh my memory--is that when it was changed to Z-95?

Barsky: Actually when I started it was still WLS-FM and not Z-95 yet. When ABC decided to discontinue the Lujack morning simulcast,they had someone fill in on the interim basis just playing music, but they knew they needed a show. That's when they decided to hire me for WLS-FM . So Lujack was still on mornings at WLS-AM when I started on the FM side.When he eventually moved to afternoons was around the time we were re branded as Z-95.

Rick: What are some of your favorite memories from your time in Chicago?

Barsky: There are so many, it's hard to pick one. Being an east coast guy, when I first arrived in Chicago, I guess I kind of expected it to be like New York. But it's got a completely different feel and energy. I fell in love with Chicago immediately, especially the people. There's just something special about that Midwestern thing. Down to earth people, but with a somewhat dry, and irreverent sense of humor. Even to this day, when I think of the quintessential Chicago dude, I think Bill Murray. And for women, Bonnie Hunt. I was a former baseball player in my youth, so I know it sounds cliche, but the first time walking into Wrigley Field for me was almost spiritual.

One memory that will always stick out in my mind is my first week at WLS-FM. The station at the time was on Michigan Ave. and I lived on East Ohio street. Since I wasn't that far from the station , I figured there was no sense in having a car and that I'd just jump into a cab at 4:00am. So it's early December and this particular morning , there's no cab outside my building. I waited and waited. Nothing. It was snowing hard and nobody was on the road. Not a single car. So I realize that I need to hoof it. Now mind you, I had just arrived from Philly and had no idea about the Chicago winter so all I had was a leather jacket. And I'm thinking to myself " I'm from the east coast, I went to college in upstate NY , I can handle this , no problem".

Long story short, when I finally arrived to the station after my 20 minute "little trek" down Michigan Ave. which included my first meeting with the sub zero biting wind coming off the Chicago River, I literally had no feeling in my face or hands. My ears were purple.My moustache was completely frozen, I think part of it actually broke off. Turns out it was 25 below with the wind chill. I didn't thaw out till about 7am. I had never felt cold like that in my life. Welcome to Chicago, Philly boy!

Rick: That Z-95 format was a direct competitor of B-96--it was a very uptempo hot hits format. What did you think of the music you played on that show?

Barsky: Well in the beginning, it was your typical straight ahead CHR station musically. Although about a year in, we started to skew in more of a rock leaning CHR direction vs. B-96 which leaned more Rhythmic. As far as my show, we played less and less music as the show gained more traction in popularity. It personally never really mattered what I played on the air, as my concern was more about what I was doing in between the songs.

Rick: Your ratings were pretty solid in retrospect. What happened at Z-95 to force you out?

Barsky: The reason for my departure was a strange one and still kind of a mystery. I've actually heard two separate stories over the years. Here's the first: I was originally signed to a four year deal. When I was hired, the morning show was around 21st place 12+. It took a couple of years to see some results, but eventually we started to see some steady growth. Then halfway into my final year,something popped and the show was really took off and the ratings really shot up as well.

My deal was almost up and I was making pretty good money. According to my agent at the time, his feeling was that ABC knew that we would be coming in for a new deal at much bigger numbers and they felt like they could get another show for much less than they would have to pay me. So they let me go, and (this always happens in radio) that same week the ratings come out and I get the highest numbers ever for the station in the morning, and the rest of the station jumped up as well beating our main competitor B-96.

The second story was that there was someone high up in the company who felt that what I was doing on my show on a CHR station was a bit too edgy for a conservative company like Cap Cities. Bottom line is that there may be some truth to both stories, and in the end they hired a super "family friendly" show to replace me. Unfortunately within a year their new show didn't catch on and went from the top 5, where I left it, back down to 20th. Since mornings was the cornerstone of the station, it really effected the overall station's ratings. That's when the house of cards collapsed and that's when all the stunts like "Hell 947 " etc. took place. Unfortunately for the company,the 94.7 frequency for many, many years never recovered, until a few years back when it put on the current Oldies format.

Rick: A lot of people may not remember this, but one of the newsmen on your show was Wayne Messmer. Wayne is now known as one of the quintessential National Anthem singers in Chicago. Was he already singing in those days?

Barsky: Yes, Wayne had always been a singer and was the PA announcer and National Anthem singer for the Cubs while he was doing the show with me. Listeners would often call the show and ask Wayne to sing the anthem. It got to be funny because we'd be in the middle of something and I'd take an unscreened call at random and there would be the request. And Wayne would sing it every time.It completely stopped the show in it's tracks. And then we'd go back to what we were talking about as if nothing ever happened. In addition to that, since I was able to carry a tune as well, but not even close to Wayne's talent, we'd occasionally take listener song requests on air and instead of playing the songs, we'd sing them with reverb and it became pretty popular bit. What made it fun was that most of the time we wouldn't know the words or melody so we made up our own. Trainwreck radio at it's best.

Wayne was one of those guys who I don't believe ever knew how funny he really was. He once told me a story while I was driving that was so funny I literally had to pull the car off of the expressway from laughing so hard because I couldn't see through my tears. It was the type of laughter where no sound came out because you're gasping for air. That's the only time something like that ever happened to me .Great talent and great guy. The last couple of years of the show it was just Wayne and myself and that's when I think the show sounded the best.

We were also joined by a few different producers who we added to the mix on air. Speaking of "Mix," our last producer was Eric Ferguson who was just beginning his career, and who's been at the top in the market with the "Eric and Kathy Show" for many years now. I'm thrilled for Eric's success. It's always fantastic to see good things happen for good people in this biz.

Rick: You were one of the pioneers of the morning zoo format, at least here in Chicago. I think it's safe to say that your show was the first one in Chicago to use that approach--your show was even called "Barsky's Morning Zoo."

Barsky: My show previously in Philly wasn't the Morning Zoo. It was always the "Barsky Show." John DeBella who was at the legendary Rock station WMMR in Philly in the 80's had the Morning Zoo. The real pioneers of the concept were Scott Shannon and Cleveland Wheeler back in the late 70's in Tampa. The term "Morning Zoo" in the 80's was not so much a set formula or concept, but rather more of a positioning and branding statement for ensemble cast morning shows. Not much different than "Breakfast Club", "Madhouse", "Playhouse" etc.

So here's how my show was renamed the Barsky Morning Zoo. I was hired at WLS-FM by Jan Jeffries (Photo) who was the PD at the time. We were WLS-FM for a short while, and the idea was to drop the WLS-FM moniker because since they were no longer simulcasting Lujack in the morning, they didn't see the need to create any more confusion between WLS-AM and FM. B-96 was our head on competitor, so our station decided to counter with Z-95.

Jan felt that since we were Z-95, the term "ZOO" in the morning would help and enhance the new "Z" moniker. So I was told that it would be called the "Barsky Morning Zoo" from that point on. You have to remember at that time, ensemble morning shows were doing well in other major markets and many of them used the ZOO moniker and branding. Chicago never had that brand in the market, so the station saw the opportunity to grab it and put it in place before any of our competitors. Eventually the name changed back to "The Barsky Show" on Z-95, and we ditched the morning zoo name.

Rick: Do you think the morning zoo format is dead?

Barsky: I think there are a few heritage morning shows in radio who still use the term, like Z100 in NY because it's still very successful. But having said that, the term is kind of outdated and is in many cases part of our vernacular when it comes to what the average Joe uses to describe "those wacky DJ's in the morning." And usually not in such a very favorable light.

Rick: Most recently you were doing sports talk in Dallas. How did you like doing the sports talk format?

Barsky: It was challenging, at times fun and completely different than anything I've ever done in radio. Challenging because truth be told, I was not your typical sports talk guy. Not even close. At the most I was a casual sports fan. But I quickly learned that in sports talk radio "casual" wont cut it. You need to really know your stuff. You need to not only know about your hometown teams, but you need to know the ins and out of every team in every sport. Credibility with the sports talk listener is very important. If you're not on top of it, they'll smell blood and you're toast. So I had to take a crash course in Dallas sports just to catch up because I was on the air with guys who had been doing sports radio for 20 years.

The idea when I was hired was to team me up with a former ESPN sports analyst to bring some entertainment to the show. The station felt like they needed someone like me who was a "morning radio guy" to drive the show. So on paper, it made sense. And because of my versatility in a variety of formats and presentations like CHR, Alternative, Rock, Hot AC, Talk etc. I figured why not give it a go, it's just another format. Not true.

Sports radio is it's own entity and unlike any other radio genre. Most of the personalities in sports radio did not come up in the industry like I did as a music radio morning guy. They're for the most part not "radio people." Most of them are either sports writers, TV sports reporters, former jocks or super sports geeks who got a shot to be on the radio. It's a completely different mindset and approach with it's own nuances. So this experience was a whole new world for me, but ultimately not a good fit. And for the first time in my radio career, I was completely out of my comfort zone which wasn't necessarily a bad thing. I think it's important to challenge and push yourself on occasion. I believe it makes you stronger in every way. You live, learn, and move forward.

Rick: What's next for you? Is there any chance you may re-emerge on the Chicago airwaves?

Barsky: I've only been off the air for a few months and I'm looking at some possibilities to be back on air fairly soon. I'm still extremely passionate about entertaining, but right now for me it's about finding the right fit. I've also been exploring radio station ownership off and on over the years, and I'm currently looking into an opportunity as we speak. But I've learned that it's a process that is often long and tedious to say the least. In fact the last time I did this was right after I left Chicago a little more than 20 years ago, I was part of a group that came very close to purchasing a Boston radio station.

As far as doing another radio show in Chicago, it's something I always thought about because of my love for the city, but for whatever reason the right opportunity never presented itself. So a return to Chicago? In this business I've learned you can never say never.

Rick: Thanks for taking the time to do this.

Barsky: Thanks Rick, I enjoyed the interview and reminiscing about my days in Chicago. It was a part of my career and life that I'll always treasure. And the fact that people still remember my show after all these years is quite humbling to say the least....

Saturday, February 19, 2011

David Kaplan

David Kaplan hosts "Chicago Sports Night" weeknights on WGN Radio (AM 720). He also hosts "Chicago Tribune Live" every night on Comcast SportsNet.

Rick: You’ve had a pretty crazy last couple of months over at WGN. Has all the dust settled? Are you back in the groove again?

Kap: Yeah, absolutely back to normal. The guy I give the most credit to for keeping the ship afloat is Tom Langmyer (photo), the GM of WGN. I have no complaints at all with him. He’s been 100% honest with me throughout all of this, totally straight up. Even when things didn’t look so good for me he said “Hang in there it’s gonna work out.” And things really are back to normal. I’m feeling good again about our direction.

Rick: I’ve always been a fan of Brian Noonan (who has been co-hosting the show). I thought he was languishing on those weekend overnight shifts. And he obviously has a pretty good handle on sports. How do you two get along?

Kap: Amazingly well. The funny thing is, I had never worked with him—I had really only met him in the building, that was it. When Tom decided to bring me back, I asked him if he wanted me to do the show by myself or with someone, and he said he’d really like to have a second voice in there, and thought that Brian Noonan and I would have a great chemistry. And he was right.

Rick: How would you compare him to your former co-host Tom Waddle?

Kap: Totally different. Brian (Photo) is one of the funniest humans you’ll ever hear. He has a background in stand up comedy, and he’s razor sharp, he’s got a very quick wit. Tommy was witty and funny too, but he was also a professional athlete, so he came at from it a totally different perspective.

Rick: Do you keep in touch with Waddle now that he’s over at ESPN?

Kap: All the time. I just talked to him yesterday. I worked so long with Tommy, I consider him the best friend in the world. We did ten years together. It was the longest running sports talk show in Chicago radio history.

Rick: Do you prefer doing the show with a partner, or by yourself, because you’ve done it both ways now.

Kap: I got comfortable doing it myself too, but I enjoy having a partner; someone to laugh with, someone to pitch in, someone to help carry the show. It’s really difficult carrying a show all by yourself. Three hours is a lot of time to fill.

Rick: A new PD (Bill White) started this week. Have you met with him yet, and what are your impressions of him?

Kap: Haven’t met with him yet, and I probably won’t really get a chance to sit down with him for a little while. I’m heading down to spring training next week, but we’ve exchanged e-mails, and I’ve heard nothing but great things about the guy.

Rick: Now that the Michaels/Metheney era is finally 100% in the rear-view mirror, what are your thoughts about that tumultuous couple of years?

Kap: This is the way I look at it. People that aren’t from here, simply don’t understand Chicago. We’re a very provincial town. That’s not to say that you can’t learn about Chicago, but if you’re an outsider, you need to spend some time learning the city rather than just coming in here thinking that you can do a cookie-cutter version of something that works somewhere else. That’s especially unforgivable when you’re dealing with an institution like WGN. This radio station and this city are unlike any other. They didn’t understand that.

Rick: This is just my opinion, but I couldn’t believe they thought it was a good idea to eliminate sports from a station that carried the Cubs and the Blackhawks...

Kap: And Northewestern! Yes, it was mindboggling for sure. Tom Langmyer gets it. He’s a sports guy and came from a sports background, and though he has never said this to me, I’m sure these past few years were difficult for him.

Rick: Even when you weren’t doing WGN Sports Night on WGN, you were doing the nightly show on Comcast. As a multi-media star, give me the pros and cons of television versus radio.

Kap: And a newspaper column too.

Rick: That's right, "Around Town" with Fred Mitchell. So you work in three different media.

Kap: I love ‘em all. Comcast is awesome. Jim Corno Sr. is amazing to work for—he really runs a first class organization. He’s so approachable and so accepting. The whole staff over there is outstanding. As for comparing radio and TV, they are a bit different.

In radio you never know where the conversation is headed, because someone can call in, and the show will go in a whole different direction than you thought. In TV we plan it out a lot more. We have a noon meeting every day and throw everything against the wall, discussing what we’ll do any given night. It’s still free-flowing on our particular show, but it’s a little more structured than doing a radio show.

As for writing, I’ve been doing that for a long time, even before I did either radio or television. The "Around Town" column with Fred Mitchell gives me a chance to work with an absolute pro. Plus, it gives us a chance to call attention to worthwhile causes, the benefits the athletes and coaches do, and there’s an opportunity to break stories too. We broke the Marmol extension weeks ago, but it didn’t officially come out until this week.

Rick: I was still working at the Loop FM when you first started on WMVP years ago—and I don’t think people even realize this about you anymore because you do every sport so well—but you were a basketball guy, first and foremost.

Kap: I was an Asst. coach at NIU from 1982 to 1986, and I was a scout for the Indiana Pacers and Seattle Supersonics after that. John McDougal (the NIU coach) was like a second father to me—he took a chance on this unknown 21 year old kid with one year of high school coaching. I really cherish my time there. The relationships that I formed in basketball are still important relationships to this day. (USC Coach) Kevin O’Neil is one of my closest friends. We’ve gone through divorces and weddings and the death of a parent together. I walked down the aisle at his wedding with (MSU coach) Tom Izzo. There was a time back in the 80s, when we were all working our way up, and Kevin was the only one that could afford a hotel room. So one night, four of us all stayed in his room—Tom Izzo, (Indiana coach) Tom Crean, and me. These guys were friends before they were famous, and they have been very loyal to me. Tom Izzo called in on the radio show the night before his first national championship game.

Here's another great Tom Izzo story. The first time I got to do a major basketball game on national television (years ago), it was Loyola vs. MSU. Tom was so great to me. He said “This is confidential, but it will help you. Here’s the scouting report, here’s the plays we call, and the plays they call.” Right before the game started, he came up to the scorer’s table and said: “Tell everyone on the broadcast that you’ve been watching 8 hours of tape, and if MSU wins the tip they’re going to run a quick hitter to get Charlie Bell a triple.”

So, on the air, my partner said “Any final thoughts?”

I said just what Izzo said I should say, and boom it happened. Izzo, who is about the most intense guy you’ll ever see during a game, looked over at me and winked.

All of these guys I met during my basketball years still give me tips and scoops. I always tell kids that networking is the key to the whole world. If you’re good networker, you’re bound to do well. That’s just a fact.

Rick: You’re also obviously a major Cubs fan. That’s one thing I love about listening to your show. You feel our pain. How big of a thrill is it for a life-long Cubs fan to have such an important role on the Cubs flagship radio station?

Kap: It’s an amazing honor, although if you know about my history it is a little ironic. My brother (who is now an eye surgeon) and I were vendors at both ballparks to make a little extra money. We sold a shirt after the 1983 Sox season that said “So close we can taste it” with a bite out of the baseball. Well, in 1985 the Cubs were coming off their big year, so we figured to sell a version of the “So close we can taste it shirt” for their fans too. If you remember that year, the Cubs were in first place in June, so we had these shirts made up, and sold ‘em outside Wrigley before the game. One day some guy bought ten of them, but I only had nine in my bag. I said “I’ll go get the other one out of my car and bring it to your seat. What’s your seat number?”

So I did. He was sitting right behind the bullpen. But when I tossed the shirt to him, he thought he was doing me a big favor by holding it up for everyone to see. Unfortunately, one person that saw it was Dallas Green (photo), who was watching from the box. He found me and had me fired as a vendor for copyright infringement. A friend of mine wrote a letter to him on my behalf, but they wouldn’t take me back. A week or two after I was fired, the five starting pitchers all went on the DL, and the Cubs fell apart. So, yeah, it is an honor to be working on the Cubs flagship, but it’s a little ironic too.

Rick: You’ve interviewed just about every Chicago athlete over the past few decades. Do you have any favorites?

Kap: Michael Jordan was the best. Obviously he’s probably the greatest athlete of all time, but he was also great to me. I got to play golf with him, and that was an amazing experience. The most impressive thing about him was the way he handled the press. The first reporter would ask a question, and he would answer it respectfully, but then some kid from a school newspaper or someone that wasn’t in the room would come in and ask the same question—and sometimes it was a ridiculous question, but he would just smile and calmly answer it again. I never saw him snap at anyone. In that regard, he was a terrific role model.

Another memorable interview wasn’t technically sports-related, although I guess you could say it was. Two weeks after the OJ trial, I got an exclusive one-hour interview with Johnny Cochran. The only rule was that there were no restrictions on the interview. We sat in the showcase studio, and man, was I ready for that interview. My late father was an attorney, and he helped me prep. I had these questions on a legal pad and just started firing, and Cochran looked at me during our first break and said: “Who prepped you for this?”

Another one that I’ll never forget is Bobby Knight. I got to know him a little bit and one day we had dinner. It was a mind blowing experience—he’s the kind of person that is just a life force—he takes over a room. When he got fired at Indiana, I called him that night, and left a voicemail asking for an interview. You remember how crazy that story was? Well, the next night he did the exclusive interview with Jeremy Schaap at ESPN, but the following day he called my office and said “What are you doing on Wednesday?” I said “Nothing.” He said “Come and see me.”

So, on Wednesday, I pulled into his driveway as Bob Verdi was pulling out, and I spent the next five hours in his family room. He pulled out his contract and showed it to me. There was a clause that basically said that anything related to the basketball operations was the sole domain of Coach Knight, and since he was fired for violating the chain of command, he said to me: “Sounds like I don’t have a boss, so how could I have violated the chain of command?”

I got enough tape from him to do a full hour show. I was getting calls from all over the country asking me how I managed to secure this exclusive interview, and I wondered too. I asked him point blank, and he said: “Because I trust you, and I know you won’t screw me.” A few years later he came to town with Texas Tech, and I asked him to do the TV show (I was free-lancing at Channel 5 at the time), and he came right in.

Those are probably the three that come to mind first.

Rick: Finally, I like to ask native Chicagoans this question, just because it’s fun to see what influenced you as a broadcaster. You’re a Niles East grad, and a Chicago guy through and through, and I know you’re a real student of Chicago radio history. Who did you listen to when you were growing up?

Kap: For me, the number one guy, bar none, was Harry. Harry Caray was the voice of the fan. I remember listening to Harry, even when he was with the White Sox. (My brother was a Sox fan.) I loved the honesty. I was enthralled. I also loved Jack Brickhouse—he was a Chicago institution. But as for non-sports, the show I never missed was Steve and Garry. When I was out recruiting I had that show on in the car every single day. I loved it. Those guys were geniuses.

Rick: And now you follow Garry Meier every night.

Kap: And I’m still a big fan. I think he has been a great addition to the station.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Leslie Harris

Leslie Harris is the evening personality at 95.9 FM, "The River"


US99 '82-'86
WCKG '86-'88
WLS-AM '88-'89
WFYR '89-'91
The Blaze '91-'93
Y108 '93
Rock 103-5 '94-'97
CD 94.7 '98
The River '07-present

Rick: For those that aren't in the western burbs, or haven't tuned it in yet, how would you describe the format of The River?

Leslie: We have two main focuses. The first is that we are hyper-local. We're in the western suburbs, and we focus on this area. We're very community oriented, and we are out in the community, usually at least once or twice a week. No other station serves the western suburbs the way we do. As far as the music goes, the last couple of years we've been a classic-hits station, with an emphasis on 'hits.' With recent changes, we've added a lot more music, as well as some deeper cuts.

Rick: You've been at the River now for a few years, but there have been a few significant changes in the past month or two; you got a new PD and a new time-slot. How are you adjusting to the new time slot?

Leslie: When I was on middays, I knew that there were a lot of moms and kids listening, so I felt I had to be 'nice.' I like that I can now let a different side of my personality show through. (some might say the smart-alecky side) I also like to rock, and we rock a little harder at night. And I've always been a night-owl. I'm still getting up to get my daughter off to school, but now I can go back to bed for a couple of hours, so I'm actually getting more sleep!

Rick: I worked with (new River PD) Zander briefly at the Loop, and you've also worked at several stations he worked at in the past. Have your paths crossed before this?

Leslie: Yeah, Zander (photo) and I worked together at Rock 103-5. We were both part-timers, so it was kinda weird when he became my new boss. Fortunately, we've always gotten along well.

Rick: You were a Chicago radio mainstay for most of the 80s and 90s, but you took a nearly ten year sabbatical to be a mom. Did you miss the business during that time?

Leslie: Initially, it was a relief to be able to just focus on the job of raising my kids. After awhile though, I definitely had those pangs of longing to be back on the air, but I also thought I had hung up my headphones for the last time. I figured I'd have to go back to weekends at least to start with, and I had no desire to give up that time with my family. It never even dawned on me to pursue something in suburban radio, until Scott Childers, who was at The River at the time, asked me if I'd be interested in coming to do some work there. (Scott now works for our sister station, Star 96.7 in Joliet)

Rick: Just looking over your radio resume, I can tell right away that you've witnessed a few pretty historic moments first hand. You were there for the final chapter of WLS-AM as a music station (in 1989). Describe what that was like.

Leslie: I sent them my resume on a lark. I couldn't believe I actually got hired to work at WLS. It was pretty amazing to work with so many legends - Fred Winston, John Landecker (photo), Catherine Johns, Jim Johnson, Jeff Hendrix, Les Grobstein - I could go on and on. And it was a trip to have regular listeners who would check in from Texas, Minnesota and Canada. But it was also a sad time. The music mix was awful. We played everything from Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett to Motown to Gloria Estefan and Madonna. We all knew the end was near.

Rick: After WLS, you were also at the frequency 103.5. I'm not sure, but I think this must be a record. It was three different stations during your time there (WFYR, The Blaze, Rock 103.5). Which one was your favorite and why?

Leslie: That's an easy one - Rock 103-5. I loved the music. There had never been anything like it before. If it rocked, we played it. It was a great mix of classic rock artists, hair bands and alternative rock artists. We played the older stuff, as well as the new releases from established artists. We broke new artists. And we had attitude. It was really the first Active Rock station, and many other stations across the country modeled themselves after it. It was a fun and exciting place to work. It's also where I met Steven Tyler!

Rick: I remember listening to the Blaze the first day they were on the air. You were part of that original air staff. For a listener it was like radio whiplash going from FYR to the Blaze. What was it like from your side of the microphone?

Leslie: It was exciting and unnerving. I had a great PD at WFYR (Kurt Johnson) but I was so bored playing 'Love songs on 'FYR.' I would get really sleepy about an hour before going on the air! I was so happy that we were changing to a rock format, but a lot of people lost their jobs, including all of the full-timers from WFYR, except Brian Kelly who was let go as soon as his contract ran out. There was such a buzz on the street about it. People were hungry for that music, which hadn't had any other radio outlet. (I think people were getting their only 'fix' from MTV) When we changed formats, we played Rock! Rock! (til you drop) by Def Leppard for days on end. It was so absurd it became funny. I think I worked 3 shifts, so I listened to that song over and over for about 15 hours that weekend. Working at The Blaze was also a learning experience for me, as I'd never played a lot of that music before. I'm still playing a lot of it at The River.

Rick: You grew up in this area. Who were some of the radio personalities you listened to in your youth?

Leslie: I LOVED BOOGIE CHECK (ooh ah!) Really, everything Landecker did was great. Of course Larry Lujack and Fred Winston. I also loved Patti Haze (photo), who was one of the first great women rock jocks. And I've always admired Terri Hemmert's friendly, conversational style, and her enthusiasm for the music.

Rick: You've also worked with some radio legends (some of which you've already mentioned). Which ones were you most impressed with, and which ones influenced your own sound the most?

Leslie: I worked a lot of overnights at WLS, so I got to do a lot of cross-talk with Fred Winston who was doing mornings. I learned a lot about being myself on the air, but having fun while doing it, which of course makes it fun for the listeners. I also worked with Don Wade, both at US99 and at WLS. He had his show so carefully planned, yet made it sound completely conversational.

Rick: Finally, I know you're happy in the burbs, but is there any chance you'll ever make the move back to a downtown station in the future?

Leslie: I am happy at The River, but who knows? I absolutely love the city, and I may pursue something downtown someday. I hope there are still downtown radio jobs to pursue. As I mentioned earlier, one of the great things about The River and NextMedia's other stations is that we have a local focus. I hope the downtown stations get back to that, because I think that's what will save radio.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Mitch Rosen

Mitch Rosen is the program director of WSCR, The Score (670 AM)

Rick: You got your start in radio at WGN producing the overnight show by Eddie Schwartz. What did you learn about broadcasting from Eddie, and what did he mean to you personally?

Mitch: Eddie (photo) was flat out the best teacher I ever had in radio. He taught me how to chase a story, to be on top of the news of the day, how to track down guests, and the urgency radio is. No doubt he had his quirkiness, but he taught me radio in Chicago. He was an aggressive personality and at one time had a 20 share in overnight radio. I think the secret was that Eddie treated overnight like a prime time day part. I wrote him a note as a high school senior, then ended up interning at WGN, and then became a full-time producer. In a weird way, it was a radio dream come true.

Rick: You came to the Loop along with Eddie in the early 90s, and that was a strange marriage from the beginning. Now with the benefit of nearly twenty years of hindsight, do you think that move was a good one for Ed? When I interviewed Ed shortly before his death he still thought it was. He said: "It gave me a chance to re-energize myself in a new environment and to work with some great people." Do you agree with him?

Mitch: The Eddie move to the Loop was like the nerd in school that always got picked on by the cool kids suddenly being asked to join their group. At WGN, Eddie and I were kind of on an island. Don't get me wrong, it was a great station, but it was overnights, and we kind of got lost in the shuffle.

At that time the Loop was the coolest station in America, and I was thrilled that Eddie asked me to go along for the ride. The truth is I didn't know it was the Loop until the day before he announced he was going there. I really thought we were going to WLS. I never imagined for a second that The Loop was the next stop on The Eddie Tour. I can still remember his call to me when it was close to being official. (Now try to imagine this in Eddie's high pitched voice). He said: “Kid, were going to the LOOP!!” I said "Really?" He said it was going to be fun and all the big boy personalities were on board.

Larry Wert (photo) did something that I will never forget. He sent Eddie a box of hats; one for Brandmeier, Dahl and Meier, and Kevin Matthews, and a note that said throw your hat in the ring. Eddie never forgot that. We went in open minded about the personalities and their treatment of Eddie over the years, but the guys really treated him great. He felt cool. One of the funniest nights was the night that Kevin and Dahl sent a stripper to the studio to surprise big Ed. Ed quickly put on one of his 15 minutes jazz instrumentals.

The bottom line is that the other on-air stars welcomed us with open arms.

Rick: After producing Ed's show, you had another high-profile producing job--producing the morning show for Kevin Matthews--a man that lampooned Eddie more than anyone. I know Kevin pretty well, and I like him a lot, but I can't even imagine what it would be like producing his show. A producer needs to get inside the host's head, and with all those voices inside there, that would be extremely difficult. How did you do it?

Mitch: Most people say that Kevin is one of the most talented people in radio, and after working closely with him I totally agree. He was smart and always thought about the radio show. It was a 24 hour job for him. Kevin would call me at all times of the day and night. The phone would ring and I'd hear: “Hey bud, I have an idea..Lets send Pugsley to Nashville to try and get kicked out of Graceland on Elvis’s birthday." Sure enough, the next week Pugs was in Nashville. Kevin was a thinker and a radio geek at the same time.

Rick: After working on Kevin's show, you transitioned into management. Describe how that came about.

Mitch: It was always my goal, so I worked toward that. I learned from two of the best, Larry Wert and Jimmy de Castro. They taught me how to work with talent, and more importantly, how you work talent. They also taught me you have to take care of talent. That’s an important part of the job. Over the years, I think I've accomplished that.

Rick: How would you describe your management style?

Mitch: Pretty simple, really. Honesty, integrity, smart radio sense, and try to keep all employees happy. Also, it's important to remember that you can always be fair, but sometimes you can’t always be even. By that I mean that what works for some employees might not work for others.

Rick: You're the program director at the Score right now, but you've also programmed the other sports station in town. Describe the differences between the two stations from your perspective.

Mitch: The best news is that the sports radio format in Chicago is huge. Between both sports stations in town there are well over 1.5 million listeners per week. That's really incredible if you think about it. Five years ago that was unheard of. Men especially love sports talk on the radio.

Chicago is a passionate town for their teams and that translate to the airwaves. Chicago also is a town that loves to talk Chicago sports, and that’s what gives the Score a huge advantage. Starting with Les Grobstein overnights, Mully and Hanley in AM drive, Dan McNeil and Matt Spiegel, Boers and Bernstein, and Laurence Holmes, plus a great bunch of guys like Jason Goff, Matt Abbatacola, Mark Grote, and Ben Finfer amongst others, I feel great about our line-up. The ratings show the audience does too.

As for who built this sports talk franchise, guys like Jeff Schwartz who along with Seth Mason, Ron Gleason, and Danny Lee were guys who helped pave the way for sports talk in Chicago and nationwide.

Rick:  The ratings have swung back and forth between the two sports stations over the years, but currently the Score has got a pretty commanding overall lead. What do you think is the secret to the Score's recent success?

Mitch: Again, we keep it local. We focus on Chicago sports talk, and we present it with intelligent hosts doing smart topics. We brand the station as Chicago’s Sports Radio, because that’s truly what we are.

Rick:  The White Sox seem to follow you from station to station--I know you were instrumental in bringing them aboard at the Score. How have you managed to establish such a close relationship with them, and what's the key to keeping the Sox happy?

Mitch: I do not know if they follow me, but I have had a nice business relationship with Jerry Reinsdorf going back 20 years. I think there is a trust and always a feel of a partnership between us. The Sox are a great asset to this station. (Photo: Mitch, Jerry Reinsdorf, and Paul Agasse).

Rick:  Do your air personalities have to be careful about what they say about the Sox, or does anything go?

Mitch: We only have one rule. You can give your opinion, give your thoughts, give your passion, but do not get personal. So far so good.

Rick:  A manager has got to be able to handle the talent, and you've had some real challenges over the years in sports talk. Which of the sports talkers you've worked with were the easiest to deal with, and which were the most difficult?

Mitch: All personalities are different in their individual ways. All have great talent and passion or they would not be on the air in Chicago. One of the shows I’m most of proud of is how Mike Mulligan and Brian Hanley have made the transition from writers to radio personalities. The ratings in AM Drive have never been higher here at the Score. The competition in AM drive is fierce and these guys along with a great EP, Dustin Rhoades have been tremendous.

Next, I feel Danny Mac (photo) has grown professionally and personally since he was here last, and he and Matt have been outstanding in mid-days. Boers and Bernstein the longest running sports talk show in Chicago continue to blow the ratings up in a huge way, and Laurence Holmes is one of the smartest people on the air in Chicago.

I could not be more proud of our starting line-up.