Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Everything But A Lake

Every June for the past five years I’ve made the 325-mile trip from The Morrissey Compound in Madison to my friend Tom Plummer’s house in Lake City, Iowa. It’s a place similar to Hortonville, the small Wisconsin village where I grew up. I chuckle every time I turn off Iowa Highway 4 at Highway 175 and hit the city limits. The sign says “Lake City: Everything But A Lake”. Iowa humor, I guess.

Tom is the music man of Lake City; once again this year, his high school Jazz Band won the Iowa State Jazz Championships. Tom has more state championships than just about anybody, with the possible exception of his mentor, Larry “Boomer” Kisor, who established the kind of dynasty at Sioux City North High School that Tom has at Southern Cal High School in Lake City.

For those who haven’t followed my annual reports on these treks west through tall corn country, Tom is a fellow tuba player who grew up listening to me (and a bunch of guys a lot better than me) play tuba with various bands on LP albums. Remember vinyl LP albums? Big, flat, round black discs that preceded CD’s.

Back around 2009 or so, Tom tracked me down via Facebook, and after establishing via social media that we have a zillion other things in common besides tuba playing, in 2011 our friendship changed from virtual to actual, when I made the first trip to his house for a weekend of watching baseball and having a few beers and playing tuba.

In the seven years that we’ve been friends, we’ve both gone through a number of life changes. Tom met a wonderful woman, Wilma, a couple years ago, and got remarried. Both my kids got married and both have given my long-suffering wife and me grandchildren. Tom's son, Lee, married his girlfriend Rachel last December. Two great "kids" and both fine musicians. Life moves along.

Tom and I are both dog-lovers, and one of the first things that happens when I arrive at Tom and Wilma’s house is the annual tug-of-war with Tom’s dog Hank. That’s little Tiger looking on. We watch Cubs baseball and do some catch-up visiting after I arrive early Friday afternoon.

A lot of people who know me now have no idea that for years, I was a musician, and did hundreds of TV shows, dozens of recording sessions, and toured domestically and internationally with various groups. My mentor, Ernie Broeniman, another tuba player, opened the musical doors for me when he took me under his wing at Hortonville High School in 1962, and for more than 20 years I performed regularly. Then, broadcasting became my sole focus.

I sold my “axe”, as musicians call their instrument, and broadcasting took me all around the country – again. When I met Tom, he inspired me to buy a horn, practice, and Tom has even made it possible for me to do some playing again.

This time, it was once again with Malek’s Fishermen Band, a first-rate territory band that books out of Garner, Iowa. Syl Malek founded the band with his brother Ed in the 1930’s; and two generations of Maleks still play with the band: Bob and his son Eric, and frequently, Eric’s wife Kimberly. The gig was at the famous Hessen Haus in downtown Des Moines.

Tom and I loaded up a tuba, a trumpet, and a bunch of other stuff in my venerable Road Warrior SUV in the middle of the afternoon Saturday and we headed southeast for a two-hour trip from Lake City to Des Moines. Since my regular gig-playing days are long gone – the last regular gig I had was a marathon recording session in 1984 where I laid down about 28 tracks for two LP albums – a lot of what I do now consists mainly of playing along with CD’s in my music room at home.

Tom and I talked on our way to Des Moines about “the gig experience”, and how it’s really impossible to recreate that experience when you’re sitting behind your horn in your music room, playing along with CD’s. There’s a whole gestalt surrounding the gig experience, from the trip to the venue, the load-in, to the setup, the mike checks, to the actual gig itself and the camaraderie and musicianship involved, to the load-out and the trip home.

Above is a nice shot Tom took of me at the gig, sitting behind Tom’s horn. Tuba guys are used to photos like this – try as you might, that big horn usually hides us. But you can see Charlie, the keyboard man, that’s Dale Baker behind the drum kit; Bob Malek is the distinguished gentleman in the center, and at the right, that’s Eric Malek, strapping on a classic concertina which once belonged to Elmer Scheid.

For those not familiar with old-time music, the drummer, keyboard player, and tuba guy often do not have sheet music to guide them. Like the concertina player, they know the tunes from memory. For some of the ensemble tunes, there’s often a “chord sheet” for the bass player, and you improvise a bass line based on the chord structure and progressions of the melody.

I have now had to face the hard fact that my playing these days will never be near as good as it was back in the 60’s through the 80’s. I took way too many years off, not touching a horn from 1988 to 2011, and that 23-year break – along with a life-threatening bout with pneumonia in 1995 – has taken a steep toll. My “road chops” are long gone, and my lungs just don’t move as much air as they used to.

As I’ve said to Tom many times, it’s a blast to be able to play again, but the frustrating part is not being able to do it anywhere near as well as I used to be able to. Tom was kind enough to make some videos, and here’s one on which I’m playing almost passably. There’s another video Tom made – which I will NOT link to – of me attempting to play “Echoes In The Hills” with Eric Malek, and resorting to the dreaded “search bass” mode, where the tuba player just can’t figure out the chord changes and clumsily plays various notes looking for the dominant chord (or even the tonic or sub-dominant chord) with no success.

On the other end of the performance spectrum, my friend Tom plays every tune flawlessly, with tremendous tone and range and really interesting improvised bass lines. And Bob and Eric Malek, whether they’re playing trumpet or trombone, blend perfectly. They have mastered many styles of performance, and it’s a real treat to hear those two perform perfectly together on song after song.

A big part of the gig experience is the crowd. At the Hessen Haus on this particular Saturday night, there are a small core of dancers who are there to start the night, but then an hour or so into the gig, a bunch of college kids – from Drake University, or Iowa State, or the U of Iowa, I’m not sure which – come in to drink boots of German beer and they really liven the place up. They hoot and holler and dance, and that really fuels the band.

Eric, who fronts the band, has fun with the crowd by making outrageously false statements after some of the tunes. For example, the band will play a Dixieland standard like “When The Saints Go Marchin’ In” and Eric will say “another great tune from the fabulous Broadway musical ‘Guys and Dolls’”. Once he followed a classic old-time waltz with the announcement that it was from “South Pacific”. He turns to me afterward and says “they have no idea!” and we share a laugh. That’s another part of the gig experience that just can’t be duplicated!

It makes no difference what kind or style of music you’re playing at a live gig – rock, country, old-time, whatever – a good crowd absolutely makes the band sound better. You feel the energy and your playing goes up a notch. After the college kids move on to their next adventure for the night, a bridal party comes in, and merriment ensues. They get right into the spirit and sing and dance along with the band.

Another part of the gig experience is the repartee among the musicians during the engagement. Stories are told during the short breaks between sets, observations are made, jokes are told, pranks are played. During one of the breaks, Eric and Tom are talking about how musicians speak of each other. Eric says “you know you can’t play for squat when people say ‘oh, he’s a really great guy’ or something like that.” Tom agrees heartily, saying unless the first words to describe a musician are about his or her skill, they’re not that good a player.

The four-hour gig comes to a close, and the drudgery of packing up and loading out begins. Eric takes some pictures for the band’s Facebook page, and he took the picture above of “the tuba guys”, Tim and Tom. The van is loaded, good-bye’s are said, and another gig is in the books.

Since my night vision is so crappy the last few years, Tom gets behind the wheel of my venerable Road Warrior SUV and we start the two-hour journey back to Lake City. It’s a long, desolate drive through miles and miles of flat land with only a few towns to break the vistas of corn and soybeans, but Tom and I talk non-stop through the Iowa night. A clear sky and a nearly full moon are our companions.

We talk about life, our kids, our wonderful spouses, and, of course, about music. About how in the world of old-time, like many other idioms, artful performance depends on the “feel” of the musicians playing the tune, and how it’s really impossible to notate that feel. We talk about how Bob and Eric Malek play the old Blossom Waltz with an “eastern Wisconsin” interpretation, like the old Bernie Roberts band or the Don Schleis Band played it. You simply cannot put notes on manuscript paper that reflect the way they interpret the melody.

Whether it’s jazz, Dixieland, big-band, or old-time, so much of the performance depends on the stylistic nuances – the rhythmic feel – which simply cannot be put into musical notes on paper. Sometimes it’s just ahead of, or just slightly behind the beat, that gives the feel; sometimes it’s bending a note a certain way, as in blues; but that’s the kind of thing that separates “he’s a great player” from “he’s a great guy”.

Finally we arrive in Lake City and pull into the parking lot behind Tom’s new band room at Southern Cal High School and put the tuba and trumpet and the other stuff away. Then it’s back to Tom and Wilma’s house, where I’ll grab a few hours of sleep and start the six hour trip back to Madison as soon as the sun comes up. This year, I’ll have to miss the Sunday noon tradition of beef roast and veggies in the crock pot.

Next year, perhaps. 

But one thing’s certain: it’ll be fun, and we’ll make more great memories.  

Sunday, May 22, 2016

A Farewell To Sly’s Mom

Some of my most memorable moments as a broadcaster came during the many years that I worked with one of the best bad-boys of radio, John “Sly” Sylvester. During that span of well over a decade, with Sly dishing out the jabs and me doling out the news, Sly and I got to be pretty good friends. I got to know his family; he got to know mine. My wife and I would go to Sly’s bachelor pad and the evening often ended with Sly and me smashing something to smithereens with a sledgehammer and my wife loading me into the car and driving us home; when he came to our home for dinner, for high school and college graduation parties for our kids, or whatever, we often ended the evening by blasting unlawful fireworks off my front porch.

One night, years ago, during the days when Sly was known to take a second drink…and third, and fourth, and…well, you get the idea…the grown-ups ended the evening far too inebriated to even think about getting behind the wheel of a car. We called upon our son and his pals, who were playing video games in the lower level of our quad-level home, to take Sly back to his home.

Showing how poor one’s judgment becomes after drinking, I gave our son the keys to my Cadillac to transport Sly safely home, and one of our son’s other pals followed in Sly’s car. My son and a couple of his buddies piled into my big black Caddy with Sly, and their adventure began. I’ll never know exactly what happened on the trip between our house and Sly’s, except that apparently Sly directed the young men on some sort of detour that resulted in an odyssey that our son and his pals laughed about for years.

When my wife’s father passed away in ’06, we were sitting in the funeral home in South Holland, a far south suburb of Chicago that’s a good two and a half hours from Madison, when my wife pointed to the parking lot and said “I think that’s Sly!” Sure enough, driving a vintage Chevy station wagon that was part of his fleet of unusual vehicles, Sly emerged from behind the wheel and came in to pay his respects – a gesture we will never forget.

Although we parted ways professionally in late 2008, Sly and I have maintained our friendship, and when my cell phone rang around 9 PM the evening of April 16th, I figured he was just calling to set up a luncheon date. I was saddened when Sly told me that his mom had passed. Just as Sly is a part of our family, I became part of his family and got to know Sly’s parents.

Jack and Doris were two of the finest people I ever had the privilege to know. And now, they were both gone.

The memorial service for Doris was this past Saturday at the Good Shepherd Church off Whitney Way at Raymond Road. When we got out of our car, the first person we encountered walking toward the entrance of the church was Joe Wineke, former Assemblyman from Verona and former head of the state Democratic Party. We had a nice, short visit with Joe and then entered the church.

The place was packed with people who had come to pay tribute to Doris. The first person we saw inside was our friend Steve Bartlett, and we had a nice visit with him. Shortly after that, former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, one of Sly’s best friends, entered and we had a nice catch-up visit with Russ and talked about his campaign to get his Senate seat back from Ron Johnson. A few moments later, we encountered another old friend, U.S. Congressman Marc Pocan, and my wife and I had a long visit with him.

As I signed the guest book, the next person in line was Scot Ross, the executive director of One Wisconsin Now, the organization which is presently engaged in exposing the hypocrisy of the state’s new voter photo ID law, among other things. We had a nice, short visit. A few moments later Mayor Paul Soglin entered the crowd. Then the recently-retired head of Madison Teachers Inc., John Matthews joined the throng. Right behind him was John Nichols of The Nation and The Capital Times.

It was like a who’s who of Democratic power-people, who’d come to honor Sly and Doris.
Then we encountered a number of people my wife and I knew from our broadcasting days – “Radio” Bob Lewin, Reggie Risseeuw, Rick Schuh, and Trevor Hoffmann. Next I spotted Shawn Prebil, friend and former morning show partner during the days when some consultant-du-jour had banished Sly to afternoons.

After finally getting to the place where Sly was standing and greeting people, my wife and I had a “group hug” with Sly and gave him our condolences, and reminisced a bit. Then, so as not to monopolize his time, my wife and I went into the church and waited for the service to begin.

We had a quick visit with Robin Marohn, financial and marketing whiz and king of social media. He and I have ties that go back to our Oshkosh days. Katie Crawley-Dybevik spotted us and came over to greet us. Before she was with the Mayor’s office, she was a radio news reporter in Madison, and we reminisced about those heady days in the late ‘80’s when there were literally dozens of radio news people working at various stations around town, and the fun we had competing with each other to be the first with some scoop or other.

Just before the service started, I looked a few rows ahead of us, where UW Professor Barry Orton, a nationally respected expert on telecommunications and acquaintance of long standing, was giving me the high-sign. When he and I communicate via e-mail, he signs his message “The Other Barry at UW”, so as to make sure I won’t confuse him with Barry Alvarez.

Stepping into the aisle directly in front of us was Casey Hoff, another refugee from broadcasting, with whom I had the pleasure of working with for a couple years. Casey slogged his way through Marquette Law School and is now a highly successful defense attorney with his own practice in Sheboygan. With Casey were his lovely wife and their adorable toddler son. It was good to catch up with them.

And then I looked to my right and saw that Dylan Brogan, who was a part-time jack-of-all-trades at the radio station just before my demise, had just entered. I quickly crossed the aisle and shook his hand and congratulated him on his meteoric rise in Madison media. Dylan is now a brilliant writer and reporter, who writes for Isthmus and does the news on WORT-FM, as well as running Sly’s professional social media presence.

Then we were told to be seated, and Sly and his sister Julie came down the aisle and took their seats at the front of the congregation. Silence fell over the crowd.

Then, from behind us, came the mournful sound of the bagpipes. Madison Fire Department Lt. Ted Higgins, in full Scottish/MFD regalia, marched down the center aisle playing a dirge.

As the service got underway, the pastor made some remarks; the congregation was invited to sing along on “I’ll Fly Away” and then after a scripture reading, Sly took the microphone to eulogize his mother.

If you don’t know Sly personally, you may think of him in terms of his bad-boy image on the radio, his fiery rants, and his often over-the-top rhetoric. But those of us who know Sly personally know his deep intellect, his abiding loyalty to his friends, and encyclopedic knowledge of politics and many other topics. There’s a lot more to Sly than what might meet the ear from one of his broadcasts.

The eulogy he delivered for his mother was structured like classic Greek literature, complete with a recurring theme and wonderful personal asides and observations. He talked of his mother’s many marches, literal and figurative: to and from Milwaukee Washington High School as a student; her battle against cancer; her final journey to her eternal rest. It was one of the most beautiful, poignant, touching send-offs I’ve ever heard.

Doris, you and Jack can be proud of your son. He’s a good man, and I’m proud to say, a good friend.

Photo credit for all 3: Kathryn Forest

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Sometimes I Don't Understand My Fellow 'Sconnies

Watching the CNN Town Hall telecast last night left me still scratching my head this morning. I guess I really don’t understand a lot of my fellow Wisconsinites’ admiration for Donald Trump. Perhaps the talking heads are right, and it’s largely that Trump is not at all like anything or anybody else that’s come out of or been involved with Washington. As far as I’m concerned, the performance of our national government has been abominable for decades.

But I still don’t get Trump’s appeal.

The CNN telecast started last night with a produced opening that was more like a come-on for some wrestling event: a horrible announcer, with a style of delivery we call “puker” in the broadcast biz because they sound like they’re puking out each word instead of just speaking, narrated a montage of images designed to make us think we were about to view some sort of cage match between three brawlers.

That’s the way a lot of media love to portray national elections: they focus on the competitive aspect, the polls (who’s “up” and who’s “down”), and avoid at all cost any lengthy discussion involving ideas of substance, because that’s just deadly boring.


I sat through the opening hour of Ted Cruz, and he gave the kind of responses that scores of other candidates for national office give, with the appearance of thoughtfulness and reflection, and then a carefully-worded limited response. I don’t agree with a lot of his positions, but he gave lengthy answers, not just sound-bites crafted by a staffer who conducted focus groups.

Then, for the second hour, they brought out Trump.

I realize the crowd at the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee was probably 99% Republican-leaning people, and I didn’t expect that there’d be many truly challenging questions from the crowd. As Trump and Anderson Cooper got in their 15 minutes of arguing about Trump’s campaign manager’s behavior at a recent Trump event, I began to notice the facial expressions and body language of the crowd as they reacted to Trump.

Every time Trump said something you’d never hear another candidate for office say, the crowd ate it up. When Anderson Cooper said Trump was acting like a 5-year-old regarding (for lack of a better term) “wife-gate”, the crowd quickly took Trump’s side. Never mind that “he started it” IS a five-year old’s reaction to being called on the carpet for fighting; the crowd loved it when Trump actually behaved like a five-year-old arguing with Cooper.


On to questions from the audience.

They brought out a couple of cops who were actual heroes (I hate the way that word is so overused today) in the attack on the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek a few years ago. The officer who was shot more than a dozen times in the gunfight asked Trump how the rights of minorities could be protected while still aggressively fighting radical Islamism.

Trump, of course, never answered the question, but deflected it and rambled on about something else, which apparently was designed to not disrespect the hero’s question, but rather talk around it. Trump is really, really good at that. Kind of like the kid we all knew in high school who didn’t do his homework but could BS his way through an answer regardless. At least it wasn’t the kind of thing we’ve heard so much from politicians in the past couple decades, the “dismiss and redirect” technique of responding with “what you’re really asking is….” and then changing the question and giving their canned response.

The question from the man who said he was CEO of a cheese company was particularly telling. The guy talked about not being able to hire enough qualified workers for his many open positions, and how would Trump solve the problem.

It boiled down to education, according to Trump, and his idea would be to take all the federal money allocated to education and sending it back to the states, which he said were far better able to decide how to spend it than Washington. That, of course, drew huge applause from the crowd, just as it was designed to do.

If that cheese CEO had his wits about him – or if the moderator, Cooper, had really done his homework – either would have said on follow-up “you know what? That would never work in Wisconsin, because we have a governor who absolutely refuses to take any money from Washington. He’s turned down hundreds of millions of federal dollars, for everything from expanding rail transportation to expanding Mediicare coverage. He just won’t take federal money, so your solution wouldn’t work here”.

Another question from a man who said he ran a dairy operation, milking five thousand cows. First of all, that’s not a dairy operation; it’s what’s now called a CAFO – concentrated animal feeding operation, and commonly referred to as a factory farm. The man’s question was about the immigrants necessary to run his operation, and how could Trump help solve the problem of letting the “good ones” stay while keeping out the “bad ones”.

No surprise, Trump deflected, talked about grape growers in California who have similar issues with migrant workers. He also said it was a “seasonal problem, like yours”. I’m not sure why the “farmer” or the moderator didn’t interject “since when is milking five thousand cows a SEASONAL business?” but they didn’t.

Again, the ‘sconnies there – who should be aware that their governor won’t take federal money, and that milking cows is not a seasonal business – lapped up the Trump non-answer and applauded him, every time.

I know, I know – it’s a friendly audience; it’s not a “debate”; but geez, doesn’t anybody challenge such obviously uninformed responses?


By this time, I was tired of watching the proceedings, and I didn’t stay tuned to watch how Governor Kasich would handle the ‘sconnies. I turned off the TV and went to sleep.

And, no surprise, the main takeaway from the Milwaukee event on the national network news this morning was the ongoing pissing match about whether Trump’s campaign manager lied, and how badly was the lady reporter injured when he grabbed her. Or didn’t. Or whatever.

They did mention the three-way repudiation of the pledge to support the Republican nominee, no matter who it is, but that news was secondary or tertiary to the pushing and shoving donnybrook.

After all, there was compelling security-cam video of that…..and that’s what drives news coverage. The "visuals".

Tuesday will be an intesting day in Wisconsin.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Women In TV News: Judged By Their Appearance

The lady with the legs who graces the top of this post is Laurie Dhue, who, until a few years ago, was an anchor at Fox News. Yes, a news anchor. I mean, you can see just how much gravitas she has. And yes, I’m judging her by her appearance.

As my mom used to say, sometimes the way you look says more than what comes out of your mouth, although I’m sure mom didn’t have Laurie Dhue in mind when she was giving that advice.

Chicago media critic and blogger Robert Feder wrote a column this morning about an order issued by the Executive Producer of Fox 32 News in Chicago, to his female reporting staff, telling them that they were no longer allowed to wear hats while on live-shots outdoors.

Unless it’s colder than 20 below.

Nice to see more evidence that TV news too often has little to do with substance and a lot to do with style, or appearance. Feder declared that even though it’s early in January, he felt safe in declaring the guy who issued the order the Dumbest TV Executive of the Year.

No need to name the guy; he’s one of many who hold positions like this across the nation, and issue similarly stoopid memos.

Feder’s column immediately went viral among news people all over the country, who linked to the column with posts on social media lamenting the shallowness of such a directive. As a female radio news anchor who’s a former colleague said on a social media post reacting to Feder’s column, “As opportunities for women increase in most spheres, TV is getting more sexist. Men on TV news are judged on the job they do, women are judged first by how they look. And it's getting worse. Honestly, it's the main reason I chose to do radio instead of TV. The sh** my female friends in TV news have to put up with is unbelievable, between management and viewers. It's brutal. At least on the radio, people LISTEN to what I say. They can imagine I look however they want.”

As the husband of a woman who was an on-camera TV news reporter for many years, I know what my friend was talking about first-hand. My bride used to privately grouse about being told to bundle up and go outside to do a live TV report for the 6 o’clock news, when the first really cold blast of January hit Wisconsin – to tell people not to go outside.

At least they let her wear a hat and heavy coat.

Sorta like the nooz folks who are ordered to go out and do a report from the Beltline when it’s snowing, to tell people to stay off the roads.


Here’s the photo Feder ran with his column this morning. The young lady’s name is Natalie Bomke, and the picture is a screen-capture of her from several weeks ago – with a sensible hat on – reporting on the first heavy snowstorm that hit Chicago this winter.

Guess what? It snows in Chicago in December, and here’s proof! See this big piece of snow I’m holding?

Another friend, who used to be one of the nation’s leading news consultants and chose to get out of the business, more than once groused to me about how women were completely objectified by many of the news managers he worked with. It was always about style, and not substance. One time after we’d had a couple beers, he thundered “When CBS-TV News has a ratings problem, they tinker with the set, they tinker with Dan Rather – whether he should wear a sweater or not – they tinker with the lighting, they tinker with everything but never give an ounce of consideration to the journalism – the content of the newscast itself”.

From the Dan Rather reference, you can tell it was more than a few years ago that my friend made his observation.

I’ve told stories before about the things my wife had to put up with from the “high-powered consultant” at the TV station where she worked. The consultant, mind you, was not interested one bit in the content or quality of the journalism my wife was doing on a daily basis. It was completely about her appearance. The color of scarf she should wear. The kind of clothes she should buy. The color of lipstick she should wear.

The crowning glory, to me, was when my wife told me the lady at the hair salon the station worked with  told her she had to dye her blonde hair to brunette, with a reddish tinge. Why? Because the station had too many blondes on the air.

At least the station paid for her hair color and styling.

I have many, many female friends from my years in news broadcasting, and whom I’ve met through my wife’s years in the business. These ladies are smart, polished, ethical, compassionate, talented, and disciplined. They’ve all paid their dues in the biz many times over. And whether they’re doing news, weather, or sports, they’ve frequently been judged by their appearance rather than their competence.

I’m not sure if that will change in my lifetime. The “no-hat-memo” that made the rounds today makes me wonder if we’ve really made any progress at all.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

How I Literally Knocked Marie Osmond Off Her Feet And Spilled Beer All Over Ronnie Milsap

A few days ago my friend JB put up a post with a picture of Jerry Lee Lewis on his excellent blog The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ – a great blog that’s part of my daily reading ritual. I left a comment on JB’s post telling about the time I kinda sorta met The Killer (Jerry Lee’s nickname), threatening to post some of my recollections on my own blog. Well, here it is.

It was at the Country Radio Seminar in Nashville, right around 1980 or so. The CRS, as it’s known in the broadcasting biz, is the premier annual gathering for country music radio broadcasters and has been since back in the day, when it was called something like “the Country Music Disc Jockey Convention”. In 1980 I was in management at WYTL-AM in Oshkosh, an extremely successful country station with a huge following.

Every year, the station’s music director and I would attend the CRS. That picture at the top of this post is from Billboard Magazine in 1980. I was Operations Manager of the station at that time, but I had not yet begun my sales training at MidWest Family Sales University (that’s what they called it) but as the most senior official of the radio station present at the CRS, I accepted the award on behalf of the station’s outstanding sales department, which had sold the highest dollar value of ads of any medium market country station in the nation.

As usual, I digress. 


Back to the Jerry Lee Lewis encounter. Here’s a shot of Jerry Lee, who, as my friend JB said, uses all necessary body parts during a concert.

Quite a few of the Wisconsin country radio station programmers and execs almost always wound up on the same flight from O’Hare in Chicago to Nashville. The gang consisted of folks like Marty Green, from WAXX/WAYY in Eau Claire, Chuck Mokri and morning man Andy Witt from WTSO in Madison, me and another person or two from WYTL in Oshkosh, and Ned Hughes, owner of WYNE in Appleton, and assorted other Wisconsin radio folks. Every year Ned Hughes would pick up the bar tab for all the Wisconsin radio folks waiting to board what Ned called “The Margarita Flight to the CRS”.

When we got to Nashville several of us crammed into a cab and headed to the big Hyatt Hotel in downtown Nashville, where the CRS was held at that time. A couple years later they moved the whole kit and caboodle to the huge Opryland complex, a few miles northeast of downtown Nashville. As we rolled up to the Hyatt, there was a long black limo in front of us. The door of the limo opened, and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s fell out, followed by a gorgeous young blonde in a tiny black dress. Then Jerry Lee stepped out of the limo, followed by another gorgeous young thing about a third of Jerry Lee’s age.

He looked back at our group, which was standing around the cab retrieving luggage from the trunk, and said “you boys here for the disc jockey convention?” We said we were. Jerry Lee said “welcome to Nashville, boys, and thanks for playing my songs on the radio!”

The years are all a blur now, 30-some years after the fact, but 1981 was another memorable year at the CRS. Our station, WYTL, made the Seminar’s “Country Aircheck 1981” tape. WYTL was one of 12 stations all across the nation selected to have an aircheck included on a cassette which was distributed to every attendee. I still have that cassette and consider it an achievement higher than many of the numerous other awards WYTL won.

We’d been notified that our aircheck had been selected as one of the twelve best in the nation for 1981, and one of the nights we were at the CRS that year one of the Nashville record promotion guys who worked hard to get his label’s songs played on WYTL, Gene Hughes, took us out for drinks. We went to some lounge after the day’s seminar sessions and Gene picked up the tab. Payola was still very much alive in the 80's, although no one would ever admit it. Record company paid for a cruise for you and your wife? No problem. Just put a note in the station's FCC Public File acknowledging it, and hope the IRS never cross-references with the FCC.


Gene is the guy in the middle of the album picture above – after his recording and touring days with The Casinos, he went to work as a record promoter. There was a small band playing at the lounge we were at, and they recognized Gene and called him up to the bandstand to sing his signature song, “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye”. I don’t know why, but that evening is still very clear in my memory, and Gene’s voice was every bit as powerful that night in 1981 as it was when he recorded this top ten hit in 1967. (Listen to it here.)


Now, as advertised in the title of this post, the story about how I knocked Marie Osmond off her feet, quite literally. It was in a lounge at the Opryland complex, at the end of the day’s sessions. I don’t remember the year. Marie had several hits on the country charts, and like many of the biggest country music artists, she made sure to attend the CRS to rub elbows with the folks that played her music on their stations.

I was in a small group that had gathered in the lounge, consisting of Dick Clark (yes, that Dick Clark, who at that time owned several big country radio stations, including a very successful one in of all places New York City), John Parikhal, an up-and-coming research guru who was the marketing genius behind the success of several big-time big-city county music stations, and a few other fellows. There was a lot to be learned in these informal, impromptu gatherings of top-flight professionals, which is one of the many reasons attendance at the CRS was mandatory.

As the small group was talking shop, Dick Clark turned to me and said “you’re from Wisconsin, right? So you ought to know a thing or two about beer. I’ve got a tab running at the bar – if you wouldn’t mind, pick out a beer for me and get one for yourself”. I don’t remember what I selected, only that I was in a hurry to get back to the discussion. The bartender handed me the two bottles of beer and I turned quickly to get back to the group, and took a step in that direction, when suddenly - BAM! - and Marie Osmond was on the floor. I hadn’t seen her come up to the bar (no doubt to get some ice water) and when I turned around and moved I knocked her literally off her feet.

I quickly set the beers back on the bar and reached down to take her hand and help her up. She was a completely good sport about the whole thing, made some joke about how we “had to stop meeting like this” after I apologized and introduced myself, and we had a short, pleasant conversation. And yes, she is just as beautiful in person as on TV and in her pictures.

When I went back to Dick Clark and the group, beers in hand, I was thankful they hadn’t seen what had happened, and the conversation continued. (I do remember that Dick approved of my beer choice.) At the next year’s CRS, Marie Osmond came up to me after one of the sessions, we had a laugh recalling the prior year’s calamity, and she joked “I’ll always remember you as the man who swept me off my feet.”


In one of the other years at the CRS following the Marie Osmond incident, I managed to baptize Ronnie Milsap in beer. For those who don’t follow county, Ronnie is a very talented singer and piano player. He's also blind. That’s him, in the picture above. He was one of the biggest stars in country music at the time. It was a similar situation – in a lounge at the Opryland complex, following the afternoon sessions at the CRS.  I had a tap beer in my hand and turned to go to a different part of the lounge, and managed to run right into Ronnie and spill a lot of my beer all over him.

I was mortified, but he said “I’m not sure but I think somebody just spilled a drink on me”. Again, a hasty apology and introduction, and I guided him to the bar, where a bartender gave us a towel to help soak up the beer on Ronnie’s shirt. He, too, was completely gracious about the mishap, although I was mortified - again.

The Country Radio Seminar is still going strong, and is still one of the most significant media gatherings of the year. Now, the Seminar is held in the new Omni Hotel on 5th Street in Nashville. It's attached to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Greatest Baseball Coach In Wisconsin History

Coach Russ Tiedemann passed away last week at his retirement home on a lake in northern Wisconsin. He was my first, best, and only baseball coach during his years in Hortonville, before he moved on to become the legendary coach of the UW-Oshkosh Titans baseball team.

He coached the Titans from 1968 to 1988, taking his team to the D3 College World Series 8 times, winning the D3 National Championship in 1985, and placing second in ’87 and ’88. Twice he was named national Baseball Coach of the Year.

And, along the way, he sent 28 of his players on to Major League Baseball – Jimmy Gantner and Gary Varsho, just to name two. No baseball coach in Wisconsin ever sent near that many players to the big leagues, and I doubt any coach will ever come close.

And he was a fine gentleman and devoted father.

I first met Coach Tiedemann in the early 60’s, when he was coach at Hortonville High and I was a grade-schooler. He and my dad and a couple other fellows were partners in a fishing shack they’d set up along the banks of the Wolf River. Later I came to know him as Coach Tiedemann, and he inspired in me a love for the game which has lasted my whole life.

Long before I put on an “extra pound or two”, Coach knew I was never going to be the fastest runner on his squad. So he taught me how to hit for power, knowing that a solid hit deep to the outfield that most young men would turn into a triple, I’d leg out into a double.
He taught and preached BASEBALL FUNDAMENTALS. Bunting. Smart base-running. Keeping your head in the game at all times.

Because he was a good friend of my father’s, I’m sure I got more attention than my athletic ability warranted. But, that’s the thing about Coach Tiedemann: everybody got individualized instruction.

In addition to showing us how to win with grace, he taught us how to lose with class. There wasn’t much losing. Whether it was summer rec league baseball, little league baseball, or high school varsity baseball, Russ Tiedemann’s Hortonville teams did a whole lot more winning than losing.

Our paths crossed several times more, long after my high school and college days. When I was Program Director of an Oshkosh radio station in the early 80’s, I did what I think was the first – or at least among the very first – sports/talk call-in radio shows in the state. Coach Tiedemann was a frequent guest, and he never said “no” when I asked him to be on. He really enjoyed talking baseball – prep, collegiate, minor and major league baseball.

The only other guest I had on those sports-talk shows back in the day who generated near as many calls as Coach Tiedemann did was Dutch Rennert, the legendary major league umpire, who also lived in Oshkosh.

Coach Tiedemann’s funeral was today in Wausau. Rest in peace, coach. You are an unforgettable man.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Wicked City: FAIL

My bride and I are fairly selective in our TV viewing habits, but sometimes when a new show comes along we’re willing to give it a try. Such was the case with a new offering from ABC called “Wicked City”. The promos looked good (they always do) but after viewing the second installment of the show last night (via DVR) we looked at each other and gave it a thumbs down.

It’s pretty typical network fare; there’s murder, violence, sex (and the network shows get bolder every year), and recognizable TV stars. One of the reasons I wanted to give it a chance is because one of the female leads is a young lady (Erika Christensen) who starred on the now-concluded NBC TV show “Parenthood”, which I liked. (I think I’m a lot like Zeke, for those of you who watched the show.)

The writing for Wicked City was what you’d expect of a show trying to appeal to that standard 25-54 demographic, and one of the things you must ask yourself is – what do a 25-year-old and a 54-year-old have in common? Not much, which is why that 25-54 demo has always puzzled me.

The show is supposed to be set in the mid-80’s in Los Angeles, which is another reason it appealed to me: I lived in L-A in the mid-80’s. But a few minutes into the show, I was annoyed by what a lot of TV shows trying to reach the younger demographic do: they intentionally and horribly distort what things were really like 30 years ago.

First of all, in the “establishing shots” for the locale, they use an image of the Los Angeles skyline like the one at the top of the post. Clue: the L-A skyline didn’t look like that in the mid-80’s. It looked like that in the 60’s. One of the more striking elements of the current L-A skyline is the U.S. Bank Tower, the stark white skyscraper that was called the First Interstate Bank Building when construction started in 1987.


This is what the L-A skyline looks like today. The U.S. Bank Tower is the tallest structure, right in the center of this photo. That's City Hall on the far right- the smaller white tower.

In one of the first scenes of the first episode of the show, the action takes place on Sunset Boulevard, one of L-A’s many famous streets. I noticed the cars were all 60’s models (they were focusing on a guy cruising the Sunset Strip in a ’66 GTO) but there wasn’t a single car from the 80’s anywhere in sight.

And all the cars had those old gold on blue California license plates. From ’63 to ’69, California plates were gold on black – usually three letters followed by three numbers – and from ’70 to late ’82, the plates were gold on blue, usually three numbers followed by three letters. Late in ’82 they started using a white background with blue characters, and there were seven characters on the plate. My ’84 California plates, which are still hanging on my garage wall, were “2EUM865”. 

They started out with a 1 and then three letters followed by three numbers; when they ran out of combinations they went to a 2 followed by three letters and three numbers, and now I think they’re up to plates starting with a 9 followed by three letters and three numbers. Who knows what they’ll come up with when the 9’s run out. And, in California, plates stay with the vehicle when you sell or trade it.

As usual, I digress.

That business of having a series supposedly set in the mid-80’s and using cars and plates from the mid’60’s has always annoyed me. But TV, and sometimes even movies, do this a lot. If a show is supposedly set in the ‘50’s, it’s pretty much a lock that the art directors will use vehicles from the 30’s and early 40’s. Why? Somebody once told me it’s to give the visuals a more “old-time” feel.

I’m not sure if that’s true, but it happens a lot and it annoys me. And with Wicked City, the crazy part was all the vehicles featured are 60’s cars, except the cop cars….which are mid-80’s Chevy sedans. Go figure.

Another thing the art directors, or whoever, deliberately did, is misrepresent the fashions. The skirts on the ladies are waaaaaaay too short for the mid-80’s, and in many cases are more like the mini-skirts of the 60’s. (As a confirmed “leg man”, I notice things like that.)

I guess the idea is that if they actually used vehicles and styles from the mid-80’s, when the series was supposedly taking place, that the millennials in the viewing audience would think it looked “too recent”.
Whatever the reason, it annoys me, there’s too much of it, and…sorry, ABC, but Wicked City is no longer being DVR'd at the Compound.