Saturday, April 28, 2012

Dick Orkin

Dick Orkin is the owner of the Famous Radio Ranch, and one of most acclaimed radio commercial actors and producers of all time. He worked in Chicago radio at WCFL in the late 60s and early 70s.

Rick: I still think WCFL in the 1960s was one of the best radio stations of all time.

Dick: I agree.

Rick: How did you get in the door there?

Dick: Ken Draper (photo) was a program director in Cleveland prior to that, and I worked with him there. When he moved on to Chicago, he invited me to come work with him again, and I accepted his invitation. We were together there for a few years.

Rick: Did you realize while you were doing it how special that place was--the sheer amount of talent in one place at one time--I mean here it is more than 40 years later and I'm still asking you about it.

Dick: I recognized very quickly that Draper had assembled a great group. It was a great station for talent; Jim Runyon, Barney Pipp, Jim Stagg, Ron Britain.

Rick: Tell me about the creation of Chickenman. How did that start?

Dick: The origin of Chickenman was the direct result of the popularity of the television show "Batman". It was huge. It was camp. It was fun. Draper decided that each of the DJs should choose a campy superhero mascot, and for the Jim Runyon show, we came up with Chickenman. I sort of based the character on the Broderick Crawford sheriff character--that sort of straight, know it all delivery of his. It seemed like a fun thing to parody. It began with that. I wasn't thinking about a chicken.

Rick: A good twenty years after Chickenman ran originally, my alternative rock station was still running it. It really did transcend the time and format, didn't it?

Dick: Oh yeah, no question about it. The funny thing is, it wasn't intended to run for that long. We were thinking maybe a month. That was the way Draper ran things. His style was to run with something for the short term, and then replace it with something new, to stay as current as possible. No one seems to remember that all of the personalities at the time had their own superhero mascot. Ours was just the one that caught on.

After it did, Draper decided to syndicate it from WCFL for a few years until I left the station, and then I bought it. Even after I left, it continued to run as a serial, and I continued creating new episodes. It probably still runs on a dozen stations or so. My brother, who handles that now, will still get an occasional call from radio stations around the country.

Rick: Chickenman, of course, wasn't your only radio serial. You also did "Tooth Fairy". How did that one come about?

Dick: I only did Tooth Fairy as a follow up to Chickenman. It was requested by Draper. If I'm not mistaken, the Dental Association wanted a short term thing, a PSA sort of campaign, and it also became popular, and turned into a full fledged serial. Tooth Fairy ran on more stations than Chickenman did, but it didn't have the same life.

Rick: In the early 70s, you made the decision to leave radio--at least the structured world of working at a radio station. What led to that decision?

Dick: Well, the changing of programming at WCFL was the main thing. A radio rep firm came in and decided the musical format needed to change, and those changes didn't allow for enough time to keep Chickenman. It was really that. They did change their mind about it, but I wasn't comfortable with the new format. Plus, I was production director by then, and that just wasn't as fun for me. I also wanted to go into business for myself, and I found a partner that was willing to do it with me, and the timing just seemed right.

Rick: I think it's safe to say that your radio advertising work is just as famous, if not even more famous than your earlier stuff. Everybody has a favorite Dick Orkin spot. What have you figured out in those dialogue spots that no one else can seem to figure out? Is it the writing, the acting, the timing?

Dick: I don't know how to answer that. I just did it. You know, my background was in theater--I went to the Yale School of Drama. So I was far more interested in the dialogue, and creating real characters. My partners and I, first Bert Berdis, and then Christine Coyle (photo), would discuss our days and what was happening to us, and that's where a lot of those ideas came from. Real life. Our characters and scripts were based on people we knew. Our families and friends.

Rick: In 1978, you decided to relocate to Hollywood--the current home of the Famous Radio Ranch. What was the reason you did that?

Dick: The bill collectors were chasing me (laughs). Just kidding. It was the weather. Honestly, I was suffering from respiratory problems, and the weather was just making me sick. That's really the reason we moved out here.

Rick: There are fewer and fewer advertisers focusing on radio advertising these days. What is it that they are missing about radio's potential impact?

Dick: I don't think they see it as a theater opportunity. There are no limitations to radio--they don't think of it that way. Radio has the advantage of creating any stage you want, with a limitless cast of characters, in any location in the world, your imagination is your only limitation.They're so stuck in that straight spot with a single announcer. Their concept of dialogue is a rote, 'he said, she said' thing, and they don't really deviate from that.

Rick: Your list of admirers is long and distinguished. At least a dozen of my previous interviewees have mentioned you as an influence. Whose work do you admire, then and now?

Dick: Back then I was an admirer of Bob & Ray and Stan Freeberg, and people like that. I always loved the husband and wife team Stiller and Meara (photo). I actually got to know them for a period of time and we frequently talked to one another in New York and Chicago. They did a Blue Nun commercial that really changed radio in the late 60s, early 70s, which, by the way, was also based on their own experiences and their own lives.

As for who I admire now, I really regret that there isn't anyone I can think of. I wish it wasn't so. When I hear spots on the radio today they are usually pale imitations of sitcoms.

Rick: You're in several broadcasting Halls of Fame, but in 2010 you asked the NAB to take down your plaque in the Broadcast Hall of Fame because you didn't want to be associated with Rush Limbaugh after his tacky comments in the wake of the Haiti earthquake. Do you still feel that strongly about that?

Dick: There was a whole series of things he said, that was just the last straw for me. It hasn't changed. He's still out there with his foul-mouthed racist attitudes. The foul mouthed stuff didn't bother me. I always loved Howard Stern. It's the racist stuff--there's just no call for that. But Rush just doesn't know when to stop. And the targets he chooses--like the college student Ms. Fluke. He just attacked her again the other day. He has a marvelous opportunity--there are so many pompous and stupid politicians to make fun of, but he's so pompous himself, he can't recognize the opportunity. He's a great talent, but that talent is simply wasted doing what he's doing.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Cheryl Raye-Stout

Cheryl Raye Stout has been a Chicago radio sports reporter for nearly 30 years, and has taught Radio Sportscasting and Ethics in Broadcasting at Columbia College for the past 14 years.

She currently works at WBEZ.

Rick: What's the origin of your passion for sports? What drew you into this world in the first place?

Cheryl: Growing up on the west side of Chicago, I was one of nine children from a blue collar family. We spent as much time outside as possible playing every sport. Coming from a large family, there wasn't money for going to games, so I listened on radio, watched games on TV, and played a lot outdoors. Our backyard was our softball diamond. On the church steps next door, we would play pinners. In the evening, the neighborhood played spud. We would also go to the park and play pickup games of any sport.

However, girls were not allowed to play Little League or any truly organized sports. The CPS system did have an after school program at my grammar school. We played a number of sports; my specialty was softball and track and field. In high school, Title IX came the year I graduated so there were no scholarships for sports yet. I was active at Austin High School playing basketball and volleyball.

The passion for sports came from my maternal grandfather, a native of Poland, who lived with us. He was a retired coal truck driver that delivered coal to both Wrigley and Comiskey Park, and he loved baseball. He taught me to love the game and its history. He would watch every game with his beer and non-filtered cigarettes. That became a bonding experience, not the drinking and the smoking, but sharing baseball.

The first time I stepped foot on Comiskey Park during my first radio assignment in 1982, I took in every moment -- the look of the dug-out, the grass on the field, the bats, the big beautiful baseball diamond and could only think about my grandfather. My uncles were big baseball fans too, so it was such a pleasure to take my favorite one to Wrigley and have his picture taken on the field. He was as giddy as a 10 year old. What's funny is that my parents didn’t care for sports at all.

Rick: It's hard to imagine a more male dominated world than the world of professional sports, but you've been thriving in that world for more than twenty years now as a sports reporter and producer. What have been some of the hurdles you've had to overcome?

Cheryl: I actually got my first credential in 1982, gulp! There were many obstacles; there were only a few women on the scene, Channel 2’s Jeanne Morris and Chicago Tribune’s Linda Kaye, but I was the one that ventured into the locker rooms and had to deal with some very unpleasant situations. (Photo: Cheryl with Bob Lanier and Doug Collins)

Additionally, many media members were not that kind. It seemed I was always being tested either for my knowledge or the ability to take the heat. One example, one of my colleagues asked me to call a local head coach to set up an interview. Easy, right? I called and his wife answered. She exploded on me since her husband liked to wander and thought I was one of his girlfriends. She said there wasn’t any women doing sports radio in Chicago. Pretty much told me I was a liar. Of course, my co-worker got a good laugh. It taught me a lesson: Be prepared. After that call, I always knew the wife’s or girlfriend’s name and would use it. They were important to deal with and I respected how tough their lives were being with a professional athlete.

There were times I would go in a locker room and hear nasty comments. When the Bears were in their hey-day during the ‘80s I could cover the games but was denied the open locker room. The first time I stepped in there several players came right up to my face and screamed obscenities. Media members smirked and the PR director ushered me out. I sat outside the door for a few seasons, and then a rookie QB changed it. Jim Harbaugh was brought to me for my usual outside the locker room interviews. He turned to the media relations person with him and asked why I was there and not with the rest of the media. He noted that I was already doing post game locker room interviews. The door opened and I finally went through.

There was another sports personality that I want to acknowledge; White Sox manager, Tony LaRussa. When I got my first credential, he escorted me to all the security people in front of the players and told them to respect my credential.

Too bad not everyone felt that way. Many times I had to figure a way to do what I needed to do without confrontation. Sometimes I used humor. Steve Lyons once struck a pose buck naked. He yelled my name; I turned my head, and then quickly turned back. The next day, I brought a bottle of sun tan lotion and put a note on it…”You need to take care of your tan lines.”

Rick: You're currently reporting sports for WBEZ. I know I've heard you on several different shows, and I've read your blog on their site. Talk a little about some of things you're doing for them these days...

Cheryl: Once AM1000 went under in its original all-sports format, I was re-thinking my career. Sports talk had become too vicious and unpleasant. Out of the blue, eleven years ago, Steve Edwards (photo) contacted me through my website. It was a gift. I had a 3 year old son, wanted to still do sports on the radio and raise him. WBEZ has allowed me that opportunity. I cover all the major sports in town and sometimes we do some other avenues. I am credentialed for all of the teams, Bulls, Blackhawks, Bears, Sox, and Cubs. I cover the games and sometimes do feature interviews. Under the leadership of Justin Kaufmann, my role will be expanding with more blogging and in the studio with Steve Edwards Afternoon Shift show. To me it is such a professional radio station in these crazy media times. The various personnel there have always been respectful of my role.

Rick: We met about twenty years ago when you were with WMVP, but I already knew of your work before then when you were the producer of Chet Coppock's show at WMAQ. I believe he called you "the straw that stirs the drink." Chet's one of the most unique people in our business. How would you describe him to people that have never met him or heard his show?

Cheryl: Chet (photo) is the carnival barker of sports talk radio. He is an entertainer and can ask a question that can run on for five minutes. He should have copyrighted all his clich├ęs. He would introduce a guest saying, “Your dime, your dance floor.” Priceless. He loves his Chicago Bears and probably would love to be in a time machine to go back to that 1985 team. Chet also had strong ties to the WWF and relished the ringside of the wrestling world. He never cares or worries about anything he says about others. Most times, it gets him into hot water. He would verbally go after players, like Greg Luzinski or media people. That always made me very uncomfortable.

Rick: Do you have any favorite memories from your time producing his show?

Cheryl: Getting Chet out of the studio and putting him in the dugout at Comiskey Park and at the old Chicago Stadium. It enhanced the show. But Chet always had this need to eat food, usually popcorn. He would eat on the air and end up choking a few times.

We really had a large cache of guests. Eddie Einhorn, Mike Ditka, top notch college coaches, every Chicago Bear, Cubs and Sox managers, Bulls head coaches. It really was a destination for someone that had something to say in Chicago. When Lou Holtz got the job at Notre Dame, they called us up and asked to have him on the show.

Rick: You've been a sports reporter in Chicago during a few pretty exciting eras, but nothing was more exciting than that Bulls championship run in the 1990s. I know you had your share of scoops during that time. When you think back on that time, what are some of the stories that come to mind?

Cheryl: There are a couple involving Michael Jordan. After his first retirement, a friend of mine that had ties to both the Bulls and Sox told me that MJ was going to play baseball. Almost a year before, we had a pre-game conversation about baseball and he said he always wanted to play. When I was told Jordan’s desire to do it I went to work to get the story. After gathering information and enlisting Jim O’Donnell to work together to get it published, I broke the story on WMVP’s air with host Jay Mariotti. He told me it was baloney. Gratefully, Channel 2’s Tim Weigel ran the story and gave full credit. (Photo: Michael Jordan in White Sox uniform on the day of his baseball press conference)

Than less than two years later, I was at the Berto. Michael was gone, and so was the media, beat reporters got off the beat. I was the only one from the first championships still covering the team. I got word that Jordan had left spring training in Sarasota; I noticed the noise behind the curtain was familiar. I happened to be in contact with a player’s friend who confirmed that it was MJ. After practice, I waited until the handful of media finished and asked Phil Jackson and a player if Michael was at practice. They both confirmed it. As I was on the air, reporting the story, my beeper was going off. I ignored it and called who was beeping me later. It was the player’s friend who had MJ with him but had left since I didn’t call quickly enough.

Rick: Tell us about some of your brushes with sports greatness in other sports.

Cheryl: I was at the Italian-American Hall of Fame ceremony for Joe DiMaggio. He was surrounded by a slew of people when we met. I spent most of my time sitting next to and talking with Stan Musial. He was fabulous, kind and gracious.

Not long before he died I found Harold “Red” Grange in Florida…by using a phone book. He was frail but was terrific. It was one of those moments. My eyes welled up thinking about how important he was to the NFL.

Also, found Luke “Aches and Pains” Appling by calling information. He and I had a wonderful interview about Comiskey Park and his years with the Sox.

Chet had wonderful connections with many sports figures and I was fortunate to meet and spend time with them. One was former Bear great, Sid Luckman, gentle and generous.

A few months before his illness was revealed, I did a 45 minute interview with tennis great Arthur Ashe. One of the most intelligent men I ever met. We talked about apartheid and his quest to have the history of African-American sports figures come to light. Loved dealing with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. Smart and funny.

I ghost wrote for Dick Vitale in the ‘80’s. We talked several times a week. He has two personas, his on air wild and crazy commentating, and his considerate and almost demur side off the air.

I am very fortunate to have met and or interviewed so many people. It’s a long list. (Photo: Cheryl in the Cubs dugout with Dusty Baker)

Rick: You also got a chance to meet and chat with a couple of movie stars covering this beat. Where and how did you meet John Cusack and Tom Hanks?

Cheryl: Both were at Sox Park, Cusack at the old one when he was preparing for “Eight Men Out”. He sat next to me for three days asking me questions. When he showed up at Wrigley the following year, he didn’t know me.

At new Comiskey, Tom Hanks was working on, “A League of Their Own”. He was on the infield during the Sox batting practice. Jeff Torborg was the manager and had his usual team meetings, and Tom couldn’t go in the locker room, so I thought, what the heck, and asked him to do an interview. He did. I didn’t want to overstep, so when I finished the interview, I thanked him and started to leave. He told me to stay and we continued talking.

There is one more person I met that was a nice highlight. I was standing behind the Cubs batting cage and some ladies came up to me. They asked me who I was, and what my job was. They were Hillary Clinton’s assistants. When I told them what I did, they said she would be interested in meeting me. She came to the press box, and I was called over and had a great chat with her.

Rick: And finally, if you could go back and re-live one sporting event that you've covered during your reporting career, which event would it be and why?

Cheryl: That is the hardest; I covered the Bears in Super Bowls, all six Bulls championships, Blackhawks and Sox titles. There is no bigger thrill than seeing the crowning of a team that you covered and knew from the time you were a kid. They each have a story and a great feeling. This may sound strange, but I would love to see any game regular season or playoff with Michael Jordan. Just to see him fly through the air, play defense, hit the winning shot like he did against Cleveland in 1990. I would pay to see the greatest players up close one more time.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Greg Bell

Greg Bell is the host of "When Radio Was" (which airs on WBBM-AM 780 in Chicago), and Sirius XM RadioClassics

Rick: First of all, I always enjoy talking to a fellow Illini. I think we were there around the same time (I graduated in 1985), although if I'm not mistaken, you didn't even do radio back in those days...

Greg: That's right, I was a cinema studies major at the University of Illinois and also studied theater. Never made my way over to WPGU, but certainly listened quite often and remembered you, Rick. And I even followed you when you headed to Chicago to work, I believe with Steve & Garry.

Rick: How did you get your big break into the business?

Greg: After bouncing around the west doing the "ski bum" thing and realizing acting was not what I wanted to do, I ended up back near my hometown in Springfield, IL and, on a whim, went into the local TV and radio stations looking for a job. At WFMB, they handed me some copy, placed me in front of a microphone and recorded me. It was atrocious, but the program director simply said, "Can you come in this Friday night?" I worked the overnight weekend shift for that country music radio station for the next few months. At the time, I knew almost nothing about country music, so I "boned up" on it by watching The Nashville Network.

I didn't last more than a year though, and ended up back in Colorado, this time settling in Steamboat Springs. I was managing a restaurant, but one evening was talking with a DJ at a nightclub there and he just happened to be the PD at KFMU, the local rock station. He talked me into taking my one day off per week and coming in and doing the overnight shift. I was back in the business. I transitioned over to the news and sports department working first as just a reporter (covering city council meetings, court proceedings, ski racing events, etc) then later became the news director. In 1994, our morning team (known as Greg & Greg) won best medium market morning show at the Colorado Broadcasting Association awards and that led to getting hired in Boise, Idaho.

I spent a year in Boise, not only doing the morning show for a Adult Alternative music station (KF-95) but also programming the automated AM (KFXD). I tossed out most of the lowly rated political talk shows and replaced them with entertainment based programs. One of the shows I added was the DC based Don & Mike Show, and that gave me a connection to Westwood One.

In 1996, I relocated to the Baltimore/Washington area and after helping produce the Washington Wizards (then still the Bullets) radio post-game show, I went to work for Westwood One producing weekend talks shows. In 2000, I went to work for an internet based financial company producing their radio talk show. After 9/11 and the subsequent financial hit, that company laid off about 1/3 of their staff including me. For the most of that year, I had been trying to get out talk show picked up by a newfangled technology known as satellite radio, and had been resisting offers to take a job there. In December of 2001, I was hired at XM Satellite Radio in DC for the now-defunct USA Today channel (basically a radio version of the newspaper.) In the summer of 2002, they launched two new spoken word channels, Sonic Theater and RadioClassics. I was hired to run the classic radio channel, and was able to draw on my knowledge of classic films and television to also host the channel. This year marks my 10th year there and also my 5th year as the host of When Radio Was.

Rick: Your show "When Radio Was" has a long and interesting history.

Greg: That's true. It began in the late 1980s as a local show in Chicago created by old-time radio collector, Carl Amari. He was the original host but in 1990 when it went national, television game show host Art Fleming (photo, original host of Jeopardy) was hired to host it. Following Fleming's death in 1995, famed satirist Stan Freberg became the host of When Radio Was until he retired from the show in 2006. Chicago native and old-time radio expert Chuck Schaden initially replaced Freberg, but after less than a year, he also moved on and I became the host beginning in October of 2007. Quite a humbling experience to follow such genuine media legends.

Rick: I'm doing the math in my head, and I know that based on your age, you obviously didn't experience any of these old time radio shows the first time around. How did you get into this era of radio?

Greg: As I was indeed born in the 1960s, I was too young to had listened to these shows when they originally played. What is often called "The Golden Age Of Radio" wrapped up in 1962, when CBS, the last network still playing weekly radio theater, ended that with the final episodes of Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. Personally I was always a fan of classic media, old films, TV shows and radio.

I also grew up listening to the revival radio shows including Himan Brown's CBS Radio Mystery Theater in the 1970s and The Elliott Lewis led Sears Radio Theater in the late 70s early 80s. And I was a fan of Chuck Schaden's Those Were The Days and listened to When Radio Was during the Fleming and Freberg era. The entire reason the XM (now Sirius XM) RadioClassics channel was created was to introduce all these wonderful shows to a whole new audience, who like myself, were not around when they originally aired. Great storytelling is truly timeless, and these shows prove that.

Rick: Do you have any favorite old-time radio shows that to you, really show all that the medium can be?

Greg: Ah, the old "who is your favorite child question?" I love most of the shows I play, but if I had to pick a few favorites I would have to do it by genre.

Comedies: Jack Benny (photo) is the king, but for great chemistry and timeless humor; my favorite is The Phil Harris & Alice Faye Program. Harris and Elliott Lewis as his pal, Frankie Remley were Cramden and Norton before the Honeymooners came along.

The top thriller and mystery series: For me they are Suspense and The Whistler both had tremendous storytelling and tfeatured different themes each week, so it might be a murder mystery one week, science fiction the next and so on.

Police dramas: Dragnet was a radio show first and is very well done, but I also recommend Broadway Is My Beat (follows NYPD detective Danny Clover) and The Lineup.

The Westerns; sure everyone remembers The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy and Red Ryder, and they are entertaining but were targeted for younger listeners. So my favorites are Frontier Gentleman, Fort Laramie (featuring future Perry Mason star Raymond Burr) and Gunsmoke. Radio's Gunsmoke which debuted three years before TV version is easily the best of the bunch. With a whole different cast (William Conrad was the voice of Marshall Dillon) Gunsmoke was much more than a western, they writers tackled issues of the 1950s like racism, xenophobia, domestic abuse while setting the stories in the late 19th Century American West.

Rick: These old shows sound pristine on the radio, which is really a challenge considering some of them 70 years old now. Is it just because I'm hearing them on AM Radio (and therefore not hearing the imperfections), or have they all been digitally restored?

Greg: When Radio Was and Sirius XM RadioClassics Channel 82 both get their content from Radio Spirits, the preeminent OTR company and yes they digital restore the shows, many of them transferred from the original recording medium including reel-to-reel magnetic tape, transcription wire and transcription discs (basically over-sized record albums)
Some of the original audio is so fragile, it falls apart during the restorations, so they often only have one shot to get them transferred before they are lost forever. Quite a remarkable process.

Rick: The show is syndicated into something like 200 markets, and it's also on satellite radio, and on-line at, but where are you yourself located?

Greg: I'm based in the Washington DC area, but as long-time listeners are well aware, do to my numerous on air mentions of Illinois, my heart is still in my native state.

Rick: I've seen a few old-time radio shows re-created live on stage, and it's truly fascinating to watch. Have you ever participated in shows like that, and if so, is there any way something like that might be coming to Chicago?

Greg: I have been involved in creating modern radio dramas, but at this point only in studio and not on the stage. One I am currently working on, "Western Law" is planned for a live performance before an audience. It is based on a story by friend and OTR fan Derek Haas (A Hollywood screenwriter who co-wrote "Wanted", The "3:10 to Yuma" remake and currently is co-writing the proposed NBC series "Chicago Fire".) It is my hope that we will be able to do more in front of audiences, and Chicago with such a thriving theater culture would be a great place to do one.

Rick: So, when you talk to someone that hosts a show called "When Radio Was", you can't avoid the question: What are your thoughts about "What Radio Is" now? Can it ever reclaim it's former glory?

Greg: I do believe that 10 years of satellite radio as well as all the internet radio has also spurred on the traditional radio stations to re-consider how they present their products. Not sure if it is improving, but I do think that listening to the past like shows played on "When Radio Was" trigger the creative juices of modern radio folks. It is contagious and very, very addictive.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Happy Easter

Have a nice Easter/Passover weekend.

Chicago Radio Spotlight will return next weekend.