Tuesday, November 4, 2014

It's Almost Over Again....For A While....

This morning, TV again was filled with those horrible, rotten, lying, distorted, crappy political ads.  If the ads were to be believed – and, most certainly, they are NOT to be believed – both candidates for Wisconsin Attorney General are horrible lawyers who spent their legal lives trying to make sure that child molesters don’t go to prison.


When I first saw the horrible ad against Pat Bomhack, created by those nice businessmen over on East Wash at Blair (WI Manufacturers and Commerce), I had no idea who Pat Bomhack was or even what office he was running for, but I knew immediately that if I could vote for him, I would have to. The announcer the nice businessmen hired to do the voice track for the anti-Bomhack ad has the most annoying voice ever heard in the history of political advertising. As it turns out, I can’t vote for Pat Bomhack, because he’s running for Dale Schultz’s old senate seat.

My state senator is Fred Risser, the oldest living human being ever to hold office in Wisconsin, who helped pour water on the state capitol when it caught fire in 1904.


And then there’s the last-minute smear attempt by the Walker campaign gurus – who would like us to believe that Mary Burke was fired in disgrace from her dad’s company, but before she was, she outsourced millions of jobs to China or Bangladesh or Timbuktu or someplace. Oh, and this “news item” was broken by a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Republican Party….a stupid little glorified blog….that our state’s “mainstream media” immediately elevated to the status of respectable news organization by picking up the “news item” and running it as though it had come from Reuters or the Associated Press. Nice job, watchdogs.

Don’t expect TV news departments to come down too heavily on the disgusting sea of garbage foisted on us day and night in the form of “issue advertising” or “political advertising”.  And don’t get me going on the difference between the two; it’s another one of those absurd rules the politicians have created for themselves. After all, it was the landfill of money spent on political ads in 2010 that rescued a lot of local TV stations, still reeling from the great recession.


And while I’m on the topic….which campaign used the Swastika as part of its political advertising? That would be Mary Burke’s brain trust. Please don’t tell me it’s OK to use the Nazi imagery in political advertising, because it’s not, under any circumstances.


One more race I’d like to mention: the race for U.S. Senate in Iowa. I have a lot of friends who live in Iowa, and from time to time in my “day job” I have to cover news in Iowa, so I pay some attention to what’s going on there. The image above is the one that candidate Joni Ernst first wanted to portray – motorcycle-riding former soldier and mother, with “conservative values”.


But if you know her name, it’s probably because of the ad she ran where she talked about growing up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm. The implication of the ad was that she’d go to Washington and castrate all those big-spenders. "Make 'em squeal", as she said. That’s the ad the national media picked up on, and the lens through which candidate Ernst was portrayed on every national news outlet: the castrator.  The national news media never seem to mention that Ernst is a Michelle Bachman clone, with unbelievable whacky ideas about what government is, and Ernst’s campaign speeches often include a line about her military background, and how she’s got a gun and knows how to use it “in case the government comes after my rights”.

Obama’s Secret Muslim Army is coming to get us all in their black helicopters, right, Joni?

After the votes are counted tonight, there’ll be a respite for us; no rotten, negative, lying, disgusting political ads for a while.  But in the next election cycle, they’ll be back, with their dark and brooding images, their outright lies, their last-minute smears.

Until we clarify the laws about what political advertising is, and whether money is speech, we’re doomed to repeating the sickening cycle.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Joining of the Families


When parents think about their daughter’s wedding, they naturally hope their child – who, by that time, is not really a child – will meet and fall in love with a wonderful person, someone who will lovingly care for her and who will live up to all those promises made at the altar about sickness and health, richer or poorer, and so on. And you hope the person your daughter falls in love with comes from a loving and supportive family which will treat your child the same as they would treat their own child.

A marriage is the joining of the bride and groom, and the joining of their families.

My wife Toni and I really won the lottery with our little girl – who’s now a fully grown, educated, independent, smart, and beautiful young woman – because she met, fell in love with, and married a talented, smart, independent, handsome, well-mannered man from a wonderful family.

I have been in Mallory’s life since she was a little girl.  She was born in 1984 and I first met her when she was 3 years old. I met her mom, Toni, who is now my wife of nearly 18 years, at work when I moved to Madison from Los Angeles in 1988.

Here’s a photo of Mallory at age six, in the pool at the home my former wife and I owned at the time. I still sometimes think of Mal this way; as the little girl who loved to be in the pool. On the morning of her wedding, as we had breakfast, we reminisced about “my little tadpole” who loved to have me pick her up and toss her into the pool; she’d swim back to the ladder, climb out of the water, and say “again!” to me, time after time, until I was too tired to pick her up and toss her in again.

How I went from “mom’s friend Tim” to Mallory’s stepfather is one of those long, modern stories about marriages and divorces. No need to go into detail. It all worked out and nobody hates anybody.

My parenting skills have frequently been called into question, particularly in cases like the event pictured above – which was a housewarming party for Mal, who was then beginning her Junior year at the University of Wisconsin. Even though she was born in Burlington, Iowa, Mal quickly learned the survival skills necessary to navigate the alcohol-sodden traditions of the UW student body.

Three years ago, in 2011, when they were dating, Mal brought John Bonarrigo home for Thanksgiving.

Here’s the gang standing in our front hallway on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, headed out to a Badgers football game. Our son Dru and his girlfriend (now wife) Ashly are on the left; Mal and John are in the middle; and Mal’s BFF and Maid of Honor, Breanna Lalor and her then-current boyfriend Adam are on the right. The whole lot of them piled into my SUV and I dropped them off at Camp Randall Stadium, where they saw the Badgers demolish Penn State and advance to the Big Ten Championship.  Oh, and that Wisconsin hoodie that John is wearing? A gift from Toni.  John is a graduate of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design.

But the real take-away from that four-day visit to our home was that I got to meet John, and to know a bit about him. Three years before he would marry our daughter, Toni and I knew that John was a perfect fit for Mal. During his stay as a guest in our home, back in November of 2011, John impressed me so favorably that when we took them to the airport for their flight back home, I pulled Mal aside and said “whatever you do, don’t lose this guy – you two are perfect together”.

Time flew by, 2014 arrived, and the phone call from Mal came early in the afternoon the day before Valentine’s Day. John had proposed, offered Mallory a beautiful diamond ring, and – thank God – she said “yes”! We were overjoyed.

As the time for the wedding drew closer, Mal’s BFF and Maid of Honor Breanna threw a bridal shower at her parents’ home in Madison, and I got to meet John’s sister Lisa for the first time. Above is a photo of Bre, Mal, and Lisa at the shower. When Lisa arrived from New York and Mal brought her to our home to introduce her to me, I was immediately impressed by her manners, her politeness, and knew after spending only a short time with her that John was no outlier – their parents had clearly done a great job of raising wonderful children.

Although Toni had met John’s parents, Dom and Chris, in her trips to New York to visit Mallory, I had not had the honor. Every time she came back from a trip, Toni would enthusiastically tell me stories about the wonderful people in John’s family she’d met. Finally, my chance came. Not that I’d ever doubted Toni, but - and any parent will know this- when your child is a thousand miles away from home (963 to be exact) you want to have personal knowledge about the kind of people who will be so close to and have such influence on your child’s life.

Toni and I flew to New York two days before the wedding, and Dom and Chris were gracious enough to invite us into their beautiful home in New Canaan, Connecticut, for celebratory toasts and dinner, so I could get to know them a bit. Before 15 minutes had gone by, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that we could not have wished for better people as in-laws. I quickly arrived at the same conclusion that Toni had when she’d met Dom and Chris – that we had truly hit the jackpot with these gracious, generous, wonderful people.

After the delicious dinner of tilapia, quinoa, and asparagus, we told more stories, and then Lisa and Michael Bonarrigo arrived and joined us for dessert. It was the first time I’d met John’s brother Michael. What a great and talented person he is! What a pleasure to have finally met both of John’s siblings! And, to give you an idea of the kind of family Dom and Chris raised – as Dom, Chris, Toni, and I sat at the dinner table telling tales, after we’d greeted Lisa and Michael, both of them went immediately, without a word of prompting, into the kitchen and began to clear the counters of plates and silverware, pots and pans, and loaded the dishwasher and cleaned the kitchen.  That to me was another sign that the Bonarrigo children were raised properly, and that Dom and Chris were truly great parents. Then Michael and Lisa joined us for gelato and cookies. It was an unforgettable evening!

Here’s a photo of John’s parents – Chris and Domenick Bonarrigo – taken by Toni at the rehearsal dinner the evening before the wedding, after a run-through of the ceremony at St. Aloysius Church in New Canaan. The setting was a beautiful restaurant on the water in Norwalk,Connecticut, just a few miles down the road from New Canaan. There, we were able to meet more of the Bonarrigo’s extended family, and every person we met impressed us with their friendliness, their sincere interest in Mal, and each had a specific compliment about Mal.

One particular family member must be mentioned specifically here, and that would be Grandma Germano – “Grandma G”, Chris’s mother. At 90, Grandma G, seen above entering the church, is sharp as a tack. She insists on calling Toni “Antoinette” – even though Toni’s true, birth-certificate name is Toni – which should give you some insight into Grandma G. What a wonderful resource! A real family treasure, just like Mallory’s Grandma Denison –“Grandma D” – who hand-made beautiful necklaces for Toni and Mal and presented them to Toni and Mal at the rehearsal dinner. Unfortunately, Dom’s mother, Grace, passed away a few weeks before the wedding. I would love to have met her. Mallory spoke so highly of her.

One more note about the rehearsal dinner: Dom made a few remarks before dessert, and told what is, I think, one of the best stories ever. In describing Mal’s impact on the Bonarrigo family, Dom said “one Saturday afternoon a few days ago, we were watching the Badgers play Northwestern, and the Badgers were losing. I said ‘how can we be losing to Northwestern?’ – and then realized – what’s this ‘we’ stuff!!! I didn’t go to Wisconsin!” That’s the kind of effect Mal can have – her enthusiasm for Badger sports is contagious.  (I’m not 100% sure, but I think Dom’s law degree is from Boston College/New England School of Law.)

The morning of the wedding, Toni and I met Mal and Bre for breakfast at the Roger Sherman Inn, the historic hotel/restaurant where we stayed while in New Canaan, and the venue for the wedding reception.  The talk was light, reminiscing about being tossed into the pool again and again years ago; some of the adventures Mal and Bre had gone on; then the girls left to finish decorating the venue, to get their hair done, and before long it was time to leave for the church.

This was the gorgeous dress the mother of the bride wore.  She’s so beautiful!

Here’s the groom walking his mom, Chris, down the aisle, with John’s dad Dom right behind.

Here’s the beautiful and happy bride, being walked down the aisle proudly by her father, Rich Denison, and her stepfather (the author of this blog).

And here’s the “money shot” – John and Mallory saying their “I do’s”.

I don’t want to post a lot of pictures from the ceremony or the reception; in a few weeks, the professional photographer will have provided John and Mal with plenty of excellent images, and when we get those, I’ll post some on this blog.

I do want to post a couple more candids.

Here’s a snapshot of Breanna, the Maid of Honor, giving her tearful and heartfelt salute to her best friend Mallory and Mal’s new husband. That beautiful head of white hair in the foreground belongs to Nellie Denison – Grandma D.

Here’s a shot of the groom and his best man – John and Michael Bonarrigo. After the maid of honor, Breanna, gave a wonderful, heartfelt speech and toast to the newly married couple, Michael gave a speech which had the crowd roaring in laughter. It was full of droll humor and wonderful insights about John – the kind of stories only a brother can tell! Michael’s great toast to the newlyweds was another sign to Toni and me that these Bonarrigo children had been raised in a wonderful, loving home.

Dom and Chris made a few brief remarks (video of Dom here and here, of Chris here), dessert was served, and there was much socializing and dancing to the band. Toni and I were so happy that several of Mal’s friends -friends since middle school - made the trip, and we spent some time at the “Wisconsin table” (video here)thanking them for coming and toasting the newlyweds.

At the reception we met so many more members of the Bonarrigo’s extended family; each and every one of them made it a point to give a personal observation and compliment to Mallory; many had stories of how they knew early on that John and Mallory were made for each other.

Too soon, the grand event was over; good-byes were said, and people headed for their cars. Toni and I made it a point to thank Dom and Chris for their unbelievable generosity and warmth during our entire stay, and for all the things they did – financially and personally – to give our two children a wonderful and memorable wedding.

Mallory and John have been married, and the families have been joined. It is a strong bond, and I am confident it will be a lasting union of children and families. As Deacon Bill said during the wedding, what God has put together, let no person divide.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Hunt For Pink October

I am one of the millions of Americans who has been touched directly by breast cancer. My sister Lynn is a 6-year survivor. My colleagues and friends Sheree, Robin, and many others are breast cancer survivors who fought and won long, painful, courageous battles.

Breast cancer doesn't need more "awareness".  Breast cancer needs a cure. And a cure takes money which funds research which will lead to a cure.

I'm working on a news story right now for the American Cancer Society (via Public News Service)  which will run on October 17th, a day designated as National Mammogram Day. I've been interviewing a young mother from Milwaukee who was diagnosed with breast cancer two months after her second son was born - while she was breast-feeding him. She is a phenomenally courageous woman and after I'm allowed to tell her story on the 17th, I'll put a link up here.

These are some of the reasons why this year, as the NFL wraps itself in pink in October and pretends to care about women's health issues, it's particularly disgusting to me, given the tone-deafness of the League's Commissioner and owners regarding their problem with domestic violence. 

The NFL, with eager complicity from the TV networks that broadcast the games, will this year again in October sell an ungodly amount of pink stuff under the guise of "Breast Cancer Awareness". By most reliable accounts the NFL will pocket three out of every four dollars worth of merchandise sold. It's a multi-million dollar scam.

The Packers will sell enough pink stuff to clothe half the population of the state in pink from top to bottom. So will every other NFL team.  And, if the most reliable figures are accurate, only about 31 dollars of the $125 you spend for that pink NFL jersey will go to "breast cancer awareness".

There'll be pink ribbons everywhere.  There'll be pink gloves, pink jerseys, pink cleats, pink ribbons carved in players' hair, pink, pink, pink.  The TV sports announcers will wear pink ribbons. Pink ribbons will be painted onto the field of play.

Even the comely young ladies who cheer on the NFL teams will get into the pink act. Pink, pink, pink.

You can spend your money any way you want. I'm not here to tell you how to run your life. I'm here for hypocrisy awareness.

Buy a pink jersey or pink gloves or pink shoes if you want. It's your money. But if you do, don't pretend you're helping to "raise awareness about breast cancer".

If you want to do something to help CURE breast cancer, donate to an organization like the American Cancer Society or the UW Carbone Cancer Center, where nearly all of your generous donation will go to fund things that directly help cancer victims: research, support, education, outreach programs, countless tangible things that actually help cancer victims and their families.

Thank you.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Annual Baseball Rant

This year, rather than my usual mid-season-All-Star-Break rant, I decided to wait until the Brewers season was over to compose the rant.

Oh, I suppose mathematically there’s some way they could sneak in….as a wild card….if they sweep the rest of their games with the Pirates and the Cubs….and the Pirates collapse….but, it’s not gonna happen. And this year’s rant will have more of a tone of resignation and disgust, rather than the usual anger and brimstone.

First of all, the guy on the right should have fired the guy on the left in July. Or early August at the latest. Just like he did to Ned Yost, in the middle of September 2008 – when the Brewers actually were in contention.  Nedly told the media back then he never saw it coming.

I would have fired Roenicke weeks ago. Back in the early part of August you could sense the slide coming, and RR did NOTHING – at least nothing which I can glean from the popular prints and blogs and chatrooms – to get his players to motivate themselves to play like it meant something.

I’m of the school which believes you can’t motivate people, they have to do it for themselves – but you can try to create the circumstances and climate under which they will have an attitude (motivation) adjustment.  And sometimes, as any baseball fan knows, firing the manager causes the players to motivate themselves.

Kinda like ranting at an ump and getting tossed out of the game does, once in a while.

This guy should have been fired on the spot Thursday night for the unforgivable error in the 8th inning against the Cards when he “forgot” how many outs there were. For those not close followers of the team, his name is Mark Reynolds.  His mistake cost them the game. In a contest their playoff lives depended on, Reynolds head was clearly not in the game.

At the conclusion of that debacle, before the pitcher stepped on the rubber and started the next play, RR should have called time out, removed Reynolds from the game, put someone else on first, sent a team functionary to retrieve Reynolds’ street clothes and wallet from the locker room, told Reynolds to catch a cab to the airport and make his own way home, and that any other personal affects would be boxed up and shipped to him at whatever his seasonal address is, and inform him that his services would no longer be needed by the Milwaukee franchise of Major League Baseball.

But such things never happen. I can only dream them. It’s like my late father taught me so many times: there are mistakes you can recover from, and mistakes you can’t recover from.  This is one of those mistakes that’s so egregious that it should have been a career-ender.

This guy should be given a fat salary bump and a nice non-negotiated bonus. Not because Jonathon Lucroy hits a ton of doubles, but because he consistently plays with spirit and enthusiasm, performing at the highest level of his profession. It’s a shame that the other teammates don’t follow the lead of Luc, who “plays like he means it”.

Carlos Gomez is not a leadoff man. I think everyone in baseball knows that, except RR and Gomez. The job of the leadoff man is to get on base. Yet, if you’ve watched the Brewers in the past month, every time Gomez takes to the plate – and, not just the first at-bat of the Brewers’ half of the first inning, when the role of the leadoff man is so clearly defined –he tries to hit a homer. And usually falls down at least once in EVERY at-bat because his swing is so undisciplined and goofy.

It’s become a joke at the Morrissey Compound. My wife and I will be sure we’re tuned in to the game at the very beginning, so we can see Gomez try to kill the ball in his first at-bat and fall down. For the uninformed, my bride is a true fan and student of the game, and has been since her wasted youth as a teenage pain-in-the-butt malingering daily, all summer, at the old Comiskey Park and at Wrigley Field. She claimed she was a fan of both teams, a claim no other Chicagoan has ever made.

Doesn’t anyone ever sit these guys like Gomez down and say “now, Carlos, we’re going to put you in the leadoff spot – all we want you to do is get on base. Whether you just meet the ball and put it in play, or take a base on balls, all we need you to do is get on base”.

This is the second year (last year was the first) that my bride and I attended NO major league baseball games. I’m not sure why.  We had plenty of opportunity; even though I insist in my advanced age (65.25) on sitting in very expensive seats right behind home plate, we’re fortunate that the cost isn’t really a consideration; I’m not sure why both of us just don’t seem to want to pull the trigger, buy some great seats on StubHub, and go to a game.

Part of the reason is advancing age; part of it is the glot of stupid, drunken, self-indulgent yay-hoos who always seem to have seats near the ones we buy (Section 117 or 118 at Miller Park, to be exact); and part of it is our media room is equipped with a 66-inch HDTV and a 500-watt outboard sound system and some VERY comfortable chairs.

Usually the annual rant takes a shot or two at baseball in general, but, with all the crap going on in the NFL right now, I just didn’t feel the desire to say crappy things about baseball. I still love the sport. But I’m just so disappointed in my home team this year.  A collapse comparable to the swoon the ’69 Cubs took.
I'll watch the playoffs and the world series as I always do, but from this point on, my attention will be focused on the Green and Gold, until Spring Training.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Living Well Is The Best Revenge (Life After Radio)

Here’s a nice photo from yesterday morning of my friend and former business partner and broadcast colleague Glen Gardner hard at work in his office.  Glen’s wife Lauren took the photo and posted it to Facebook with some good-natured comments about how her hubby was slaving away at the office. It’s their back yard in suburban Boston.  Glen probably has enough frequent-flyer miles for several free trips around the world, since he also “lives” in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

It’s been five and a half years since Glen and I, who had been doing the morning news/talk show on a local radio station, were summarily dismissed in a poorly-executed palace coup which resulted in litigation and sealed settlements including repurchase of the shares of stock Glen and I owned in the company. I used to joke that Glen’s stock ownership represented significant chunks of several radio stations and mine represented a few pieces of office furniture, a hallway bathroom, and the old WTDY transmitter building off Syene Road.

One of our friends, WIBA-AM talk show host Mitch Henck, had been kicked to the curb Monday by Clear Channel radio. I wrote a piece about it yesterday, telling Mitch that life was better on “the other side”, which engendered a string of comments, including one from a fellow former broadcaster, who affirmed that “Virtually everyone I know, including me, who left broadcast news is happy. Almost everyone I know who is still in the business hates it.”  Not exactly a universal truth, but you get the idea.

After our “backstabbing by former business partners”, as Glen put it back then, we both set out in new directions, with absolutely no desire to go back to work for anyone except ourselves.

Glen formed a consulting partnership and was featured in a local magazine (In Business Magazine – that’s their photo above). The article was about what we then called “the gig economy” back in 2009. The world was full of former broadcasters and print reporters like Glen and me, downsized by their employer, putting together several part-time gigs as independent contractors to keep the money machine oiled.

One of Glen’s next projects back in ’09 was to put together a group of former local news folks to contribute to an online news site, YourNews.

If you’ve been around town a while, you’ll recognize a lot of faces in the picture above. All but one of us (Brian D’Ambrosio) were former broadcast employees or print journalism employees. We had a lot of fun meetings, wrote  a lot of good stories, even made a few bucks doing it.

One of Glen’s next projects was helping expand Public NewsService, a pretty-good-sized online news service headquartered in Boulder, CO, reaching an audience of 30 million people a week. Glen brought me on board several years ago, and I still write two or three stories a week for PNS, in addition to other independent contractor projects.

In 2011, Glen moved back east to his original stomping grounds near Boston, after he’d reconnected with his childhood sweetheart.

On November 18th, 2012, Glen and Lauren got married, four years to the day since we were tossed under the bus at the Madison radio company – giving us all a new way to observe that date!  Glen and Lauren are both active in a new concert promotion company they set up with another of Glen’s childhood friends, bringing big-name entertainers to a beautiful venue in suburban Boston.

And, Glen still can wail on that big Gibson guitar, with a band he and several other colleagues formed when they worked together at a Cedar Rapids legendary rock radio station – Jif and Choosy Mothers.  In the photo above, they’re putting on an outdoor concert in Cedar Rapids.  Gotta love the horns.

As the local radio business sinks into the morass of debt it’s created for itself, and more talented and high-rated personalities like Mitch Henck are fired by an industry that can't pay its debts, life goes on abundantly for those who worked hard at reinventing themselves.  

As George Herbert said centuries ago, living well is the best revenge.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Local Radio: No Longer A Sustainable Model

The calls and emails and social media direct messages began about 11 o’clock yesterday morning, from pals who wanted to know if I could confirm that my friend Mitch Henck had been fired by WIBA-AM.  Very early in the afternoon I knew it was true. The ax was falling at Clear Channel stations all around the nation – again.

It’s a wonder Clear Channel has anyone left to fire, except sales people.  More on that in a moment.

Hearing the news about Mitch Henck was not surprising in any way, but it was still tough to take. You can’t spend four decades working in broadcasting, as I did, and not be dismayed at how it’s really no longer a sustainable model.  People can get music anywhere today. New songs aren’t “broken” by radio stations any more – they’re first heard on social media sites. A local, live DJ after 9 AM has become rare. Newscasts, if a radio station even has them any more, are rare after 9AM and even then may originate in a city far away.

Mitch was upbeat when he talked to the Wisconsin State Journal late yesterday. (The article is here.) He knew it was coming; it was not a matter of “if”, but a matter of “when”, and for Mitch – and a bunch of other people at the Madison Clear Channel cluster, and at Clear Channel clusters all around the nation, the “when” was yesterday.

Mitch had a very good career in broadcasting, spending the last dozen years at WIBA-AM after a long stint in TV news. His “Outside the Box” show had excellent ratings; his demise had nothing to do with that. Mitch was never a partisan hack, like so many of the talk show hosts you hear today, either whining the left-wing agenda or screeching the right-wing agenda.  Sure, Mitch talked politics – but he also talked basketball, music, and above all, Mitch talked about LOCAL stuff.

He even shared his struggles trying to get his golf score down.

That’s the puzzling thing: about the only thing radio has left going for it is the “live and local” aspect, but shortsighted broadcast managers for the past seven years have steadily gotten rid of the only thing they really had going for them: local talent who talked about local stuff, whether they were doing a music-based show or a talk-based show.  That’s why they’ve made the model unsustainable. They’re getting rid of the only thing they really have going for them any more.

Mitch let us right into his personal life. He turned his struggles with weight (that’s Mitch’s official Plan Z By Zola "before and after" photo above) into a part of his daily show. A little over a year ago Mitch suffered a mild stroke that took him off the air for nearly four months, and we followed his progress as he came back and finished his re-hab on the air.  He said “I sound like I’ve had a couple of stiff blasts of Scotch on the rocks, but I haven’t!” in explaining his slurred speech as he battled back from the stroke.

We heard him constantly plug his “moonlighting job”, doing a Vegas-style review involving Sinatra songs and stand-up comedy which he calls “The Big Show”. 

That’s the thing about local personalities: even though we may not actually know them, or maybe briefly met them at a remote broadcast once or twice, we feel we know them – they become part of our lives, part of our daily routine. We know their hobbies, their pet peeves, their personalities.  Like the rest of us shown the door by shortsighted radio management, Mitch will land on his feet.  He’s smart, has a great personality, knows how to talk with people (as opposed to yell at them), and he’ll find the right fit for him and do well at whatever he chooses to do.

Now, a word about the company that fired Mitch, Clear Channel.  It’s the largest owner of radio stations in the nation, with 800+; it has absolutely unsustainable debt, and is slowly but surely drowning. While the Clear Channel top execs enjoy a lavish lifestyle with huge salaries and perks beyond your wildest imagination, their ship is sinking, and with it, radio everywhere is going down.

The debt is courtesy of Mitt Romney and his pal Bill Bain, who formed a company called Bain Capital in Boston in 1984 that set up the highly leveraged deal that allowed Clear Channel to become the biggest radio operator in the country, but saddled it with debt and management fees that no sane person would ever have agreed to.  Now, the model has reached the tipping point. In order to refinance its latest round of borrowing to stay afloat, Clear Channel has to (again) cut operating costs, which they translate to “programming and news salaries”.

Mitch knew it was coming, and it arrived for him yesterday.

Be well, my friend – life is better and brighter on the other side. Living well truly is the best revenge.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Weekend With Tom, Hank, and Friends

It’s become a tradition, as my friend Tom Plummer said as I was leaving his home in Lake City, Iowa just before the sun rose Monday morning. For the past three years, Tom and I have picked a weekend in June that works for both of us, and I head west for a few days of jamming polkas, visiting with Tom and his famous dog Hank, and, as has been the case in the past couple visits, sitting in with a real, live, honest-to-goodness polka band at a dance gig, as in the photo above.  More about that later.

This year, I wanted to tell the story not only of my visit with Tom and Hank, but also of some of the great, friendly, down-home folks I encountered in my four days in Iowa.

The idea for this post started when I made the first stop in my trip from Madison to Lake City on Friday. It was at a Casey’s General Store just off U.S. 20 in Independence, Iowa. I needed to use the facilities and grab a snack. I grabbed a big plastic bottle of Diet Mountain Dew from the cooler and a small bag of Fritos Honey BBQ Twists and set them on the counter. The young lady serving me had a Casey’s name-tag that said “Ashly”. She was a cute dark-haired girl who looked to be around 20, with bright blue eyes and a hundred-watt smile. As we made eye contact, I said “Ashly with no E – just like my daughter-in-law”. She laughed and said nobody ever spells her name right. Then she said “honey barbeque – my absolute favorite!” as she rang up the snack. We made more small talk as I handed her the money, and when I got back into my Road Warrior (which now has almost 80 thousand miles on the counter) I remember thinking how downright pleasant the folks in Iowa are, and the seed of this blogpost was planted.

By early afternoon I’d reached Lake City and as I pulled up in front of Tom’s house he and Hank came out to greet me.  That’s a poor photo of the two of them above, but it was the only one of Tom and Hank in my phone/camera.

Hank is a ball of energy who loves everybody, and now, after three years, I’m pretty sure he remembers me. He demonstrates his affection freely, as seen above. Or, it just might be that every time I visit Tom, I bring something along for Hank.  This year it was a box of Gravy Bones treats, which Hank loved.

Tom and I spent the afternoon watching the Cubs, catching up, and for dinner – another thing that’s become a tradition, a Supreme Pizza from Casey’s General Store, a few blocks away from Tom’s house on the main drag in Lake City. In case you don’t know, Casey’s General Store is to Iowa as PDQ and QuickTrip are to Wisconsin. For 18 bucks you can get a very tasty pizza easily big enough to feed two hungry men. We devoured it, had a few beers, watched more baseball, and visited some more.

Saturday Tom had arranged for his friend Larry Kisor to come over from Sioux City with his concertina so we could jam some polkas. Larry was Tom’s music teacher and band director – fair to say mentor – and the pupil followed in the teacher’s footsteps. Larry established a dynasty in Sioux City, winning Iowa Jazz Championships year after year before he retired a few years ago, and Tom has done the same thing in Lake City.

Here’s a shot of Larry and Tom, jammin’ polkas in Tom’s band room.

And here’s a shot of Larry and me jammin’ away.  We started around 9:30 AM and around noon, Tom served up a lunch of home-made barbecued beef sandwiches and chips. More of that Iowa hospitality – Tom did all the cooking and prep work. And, Larry’s wife had sent along some great home-made peanut butter-marshmallow bars for dessert! These Iowans really know how to treat you!

We jammed a couple more hours and then called it quits. Larry packed up his concertina and headed back over to Sioux City. The concertina is truly one of the most difficult instruments to master. There is absolutely no logic to the way the buttons are laid out, and each button produces one note if you’re pulling the bellows out, and a different note – not related in any way – if you’re pushing the bellows together. Larry, like Tom, can play a number of instruments extremely well. Both are tuba players, but Larry also plays trumpet, sax, and clarinet professionally. When he retired, Larry decided to learn the concertina, and in just a few short years he’s become a master of that instrument, as well.

As Tom and I were getting ready to leave his band room, a couple young fellows who had been cutting down a tree on the school grounds walked past the band room, and Tom invited them in. Both had been students of Tom’s a few years ago, and neither had seen the new bandroom, so he gave them a tour after introducing me to them. I wish I could remember their names. After the tour, Tom told me one of the two was a musician in Tom’s award-winning Jazz Band and the other was a “roadie” – who helped load and unload the band trailer and set up the band before performances. Tom told me one time the young man noticed there was difficulty hitching the trailer up to the vehicle that pulled it, so the young man and some of his pals pushed the trailer to the high school shop, fixed the hitch (which required metal fabrication and welding), fixed the latches on the door, and even re-wired the lights to work better.

That’s the thing about a lot of these Iowa kids, many of whom either grew up on a farm or are only a generation removed from the farm. They know how mechanical things work, and they aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty fixing things that don’t work. And they just do it, without prompting.

Saturday night was spaghetti night at the Plummer house, with Tom making his famous pasta and patented “gravy” as the Italians call it. Delicious! After dinner we took Hank for a ride around town – Hank loves to ride in the car and is constantly on the lookout for squirrels, cats, other dogs, deer, or whatever may present itself. We came home and watched some baseball.

We started Sunday morning with bacon and eggs, watched a few old-time videos, including a videotape concertina-maker Christy Hengel made with his portable camcorder, where he interviews Syl Liebl and the two both play tunes and talk about old-time music and musicians.  Sunday lunch was another Plummer family tradition – a big beef roast, which Tom put in the crock pot before we hit the hay Saturday night, along with lots of slow-cooked veggies.  Then we packed up the instruments and headed to the American Legion Hall in Arcadia for the gig.

This is what it looks like about an hour before a dance gig, as the band sets up.  On the left, Becky Livermore (Barefoot Becky) is reviewing her vast library of songs, deciding which ones she’ll have the band play at this engagement. The fellow in the blue shirt with the cord in his hand is Becky’s husband Terry Ard, who sets up the first-rate sound system the band uses. Bass man Tom Plummer is in the right foreground, and if you look closely at my shaky picture you can see that he is tuning up his Fender Precision Bass. Tom’s Conn 20J tuba is in front of him.  On this this job, Tom will play both instruments: the tuba on many of the polkas and waltzes, and the e-bass on other tunes like fox trots and novelty numbers.  Dale Baker’s drum set is visible in the left front of the picture. Dale lives in nearby Carroll, Iowa, and brought his 90-year-old mother to the gig. She loves to hear the music and watch the dancers.

Although Becky, Terry, and Tom have encouraged me to sit in with the band, I’m really very nervous about it. Finally I work up enough courage, and Tom took this picture of me playing his tuba on a nice, easy Laendler that Becky played. Terry is playing rhythm guitar and Dale is keeping the tempo on track, making sure I don’t rush the beat! Even though I’ve played hundreds of gigs, and sat in with a huge number of bands, that was all 35 years ago or more, and I’m quite nervous about playing even one tune with Becky’s band. I have so much respect for the band, and Becky and Terry have become friends over the past few years, and I don’t want to screw up and embarrass my friends! The band is SO good, and I’m quite apprehensive about giving at least a passable performance. I concentrate on listening for the chord changes and just playing basic bass patterns – nothing fancy, just keep the beat for the dancers and listen for Dale’s bass drum so I keep on rhythm. Becky is kind enough to acknowledge me sitting in after the song, the Iowans applaud (bless their hearts!) and a few sets later it’s 6 o’clock and the gig is over.

In the photo above, Tom is helping pack up Becky’s huge van. You’d be surprised at how much “stuff” it takes to put on a professional dance job! Instruments, stands, amps, mikes, cords, the musical library, lights, and a long list of stuff that fills Becky’s big van.
After the band is packed up, Tom and I head off to nearby Carroll, Iowa to grab dinner at Culver’s. As we’re walking to a table to sit down with our soft drinks, we walk by a couple who’d been at the dance in Arcadia, and they say “nice job this afternoon, fellas!”  Those Iowans – so friendly, so nice!

Becky and Terry join us in a few moments and we dine and visit for the better part of an hour, talking about fellow musicians, experiences we’ve had on the road, what the future of the dance business might be, and life in general. Becky and Terry live in and book out of Mt. Vernon, Iowa. It’s so easy to talk to them. They’re so accepting, so congenial. Great people, just like Tom, with tremendous talent but very unassuming.

That’s the plate on the back of Becky’s van – SHOWBIZ – and as we part ways, Tom and I head for his house, a few miles up the road in Lake City, and Terry and Becky head east for a three-hour drive to Mt. Vernon. Then it’s a couple rare days off for them, and back on the road Wednesday in a long haul for a gig at a casino way up above Traverse City, MI. The rest of June they’ll be on the road constantly with gigs all over Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Showbiz, indeed! I’ll see them again in mid-July, when they make a stop at the Turner Hall in Monroe, WI, an hour south of Madison.

Tom and I unload all his bass equipment at his bandroom in Lake City and then head to his house. While Tom takes Hank for a good run, I change into more comfortable clothes, and then we watch the Cubs game, which Tom has DVR’d. We’re both tired, so we hit the hay a little after 10 PM. Tom has a full day of giving music lessons Monday, and I’ve got the long drive back to Madison.

I sleep like a rock at Tom’s house.  Lake City is about the same size as the village I grew up in – Hortonville, WI – and at night, it is absolutely dead silent. I have a decibel-meter “app” on my iPhone – and just before I went to sleep, I checked it just for fun. It registers 28db. That’s as quiet as I’ve ever seen the meter register.  In our house in south suburban Madison, in the dead of night, the meter registers about 38db. The db scale is logarithmic – a whisper is about 30db, a loud motorcycle about a hundred db, and a jet taking off is about 115db, give or take.  It is literally quitter than a whisper at night in Lake City!

Just after 6 AM Hank comes bounding down the stairs from Tom’s bedroom and greets me in the living room; I woke up around 5:45 and packed my stuff, and I’m ready to roll. Tom offers to make some bacon and eggs for breakfast, but I thank him and say I’ll just head over to Casey’s, fill up with gas, grab a donut and a Diet Dew, and head east. He helps me carry my stuff to the Road Warrior, we agree that an excellent time was had by all, and vow to keep the tradition alive next June. I’ve eaten all his food, slept comfortably on the expansive couch in his living room, drank all his beer and soda, and left him with a kitchen full of dirty dishes and empty cans piled high. He’s waited on me all weekend, and as usual, has been a great conversationalist and wonderful friend.  I’m looking forward to seeing him with the band again in mid-July.

So I head a few blocks west to Casey’s General Store, fill the SUV to the brim, and then pull up in front of the store to grab a donut and a Diet Dew. The lady at the cash register – I didn’t see her nametag – says “you a travelin’ man this morning? I see the Wisconsin plates on your car.” I tell her I’ve spent a great weekend with a good friend in Lake City (everybody knows who Tom Plummer is, he’s the band director!) and how much I enjoy her town.  She says “yup, Lake City…everything but the lake!” - just like it says on the sign at the edge of town.  We laugh, I collect my donut and dew and head out the door, and she wishes me a safe trip.

Iowans.  Great folks.