Saturday, December 28, 2013

Adventures on the Beltline

I saw it coming a split-second before it hit – a chunk of ice, about twice the size of my fist – and it made a huge noise when it hit my windshield and did the damage you can see in the photo above. I’ve lived in Madison long enough to know that when you’re on the Beltline near the Channel 15 tower in winter, you need to be aware that you could be attacked by chunks of ice falling off the tower and guy wires. And, sure enough, when we were on the eastbound Beltline at that spot at around 1:30 Friday afternoon, we got hit.

A lot of my friends say we’re lucky it didn’t sail right through the windshield and either kill us outright or cause me to lose control of my venerable road-warrior SUV and get into a multi-car wreck.

A year or so ago, they had to close the Beltline for about three hours when Channel 15’s tower and guy wires were shedding ice like crazy. The circumstances yesterday were similar to what happened back then: lots of moisture in the air, condensing and freezing onto the tower and guy wires; a nice sunny day with a moderate southerly wind, which blows the falling ice right onto the Beltline.

My daughter and I had gone to see Anchorman 2 (don’t bother; it’s one of the worse movies either of us have ever seen, dishonoring the original movie which was pretty funny) and then to lunch on the far west side. As we were coming home, right across from the Channel 15 studios, the chunk of ice hit and made enough noise to scare the wits out of my daughter, who let out a hundred-decibel yell. When I explained what had happened, I said “take a picture of the windshield”- and that’s the image you see above.

When we got home, I called Channel 15 to see if they were aware of what was going on, and they said Madison police and the State Patrol were in their parking lot “monitoring” the situation, ready to close the Beltline again if it got really bad.  Then I called to make an appointment to get a new windshield, and discovered that it’s essentially a monopoly now. I called a company which I thought was a local outfit, wound up on hold, and when the guy finally answered and I went through the song and dance with him, he told me the earliest they could come would be Tuesday.

Not good enough.

I called another company which I thought was local, and got the same message as the first outfit I called, and got put on hold. I hung up.  I called a third company (these were all local, Madison phone numbers) and went through the rigmarole again, assuming that there’s just one giant glass company which operates under different names. The order-taker asked my zip code (53713) and asked “do you live in Madison, Fitchburg, or……ah……Ma-na-no?” I said “where are you, that you have no clue on how to pronounce Monona?” and he said “Phoenix”.

After some wrangling about my insistence that Tuesday was just not acceptable, the deal was done and set for 2 o’clock this (Saturday) afternoon.

I posted the picture above on Facebook and I’m still getting comments from friends, reminding me how lucky I am! My lawyer said “be sure to file a claim against Channel 15” (thanks, Counsellor….) and several other friends from my days in broadcasting commented on the irony of ME getting hit by ice off a broadcast tower. One messaged me and said it was broadcasting’s “revenge” on me for winning a settlement from my former local employer after I was fired several years ago. My tuba-playing friend Tom from western Iowa, after saying he was glad my daughter and I were OK, asked if I had to change my shorts when I got home! (darn near) 

Eric Franke, my friend and anchor at WISC-TV News 3, posted lightheartedly “I blame it on John Stofflet” – his counterpart at Channel 15. Stofflet replied that he was on vacation, hence blameless, and then was kind enough to say “glad you’re OK, Tim”. I replied saying I was blaming it on Charlie Shortino (Channel 15’s main weather guru).

Gerrit Marshall, a tech wizard (engineer) at Channel 3, posted that he was glad we were OK, and went on to say that on his first day of work at WISC-TV in December of 1981, the Channel 3 tower shed a chunk of ice that took out the windshield of his car in the parking lot!

I also got a private message from my friend Tara, a former news colleague at MidWest who was an anchor at Channel 27 before that, saying she was glad we were OK, and telling me her dad – who is my insurance agent – was up in Minneapolis for the weekend visiting with Tara, her husband Kenny Jay (who’s with CBS radio in the Twin Cities), and their kids, and offering to have her dad call me right away. I thanked her for the offer but said it’s just a busted windshield, nothing that required taking time away from the grandkids!

So, in a few hours, I’ll go get a new windshield put in, and then the REAL fun – dealing with all the administrative paperwork about who winds up paying for it – will be the way I’ll start the New Year.

 When my daughter gets back to New York in a few days, she’ll be able to tell her friends about her great adventure on the Beltline. And we’ll have another tale to tell at future family gatherings.

At least we’re here to tell the story – which could have had a much different ending – about our adventure on the Beltline.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

We All Wanted To Be Larry Lujack

It wasn’t Larry Lujack’s voice, although he had a great one for radio and he knew how to use it. I always thought the best voice on Chicago rock radio was Joel Sebastian. And, as far as voices go, Oklahoma-born John Doremus, who was on WMAQ in Chicago at the same time guys like Lujack, Sebastian, Bob Sirott, Gary Gears, Bill Bailey, and Steve Lundy were on WLS or WCFL, probably made more money with his voice than any of those famous rock-jocks.

It was what Larry Lujack did (said) on the radio that made me, and thousands of other guys like me, want to be like Larry.  Which is exactly what he counseled against, always telling the people he trained “be yourself”.

We wanted to have a sidekick like Little Snotnose Tommy (Edwards). We wanted to do Animal Stories. We wanted to read the Crank Letter of the Day (which later became the Clunk Letter of the Day) on a radio show like Uncle Lar did; we wanted to do Cheap Trashy Show-Biz News.  We loved that he would break format and just do whatever the hell he wanted to do. We wanted to work at a station so big that we had our own engineer, just like Spacey Dave engineered Larry’s show.

In college in the late 60’s, all the Radio-TV students had their own tape recorders (long before little portable tape recorders were available) and we made aircheck tapes of the big-time Chicago jocks. We studied the way Larry was so unlike the other talk-a-mile-a-minute rock jocks and how he used the dramatic pause – in an era where any unmodulated carrier (“dead air”) was considered a mortal sin. We listened to how the engineers processed his voice – how much reverb was added, what kind of equalization might be in the audio chain – we talked in class, in hallways, and over beers, about those big-time Chicago rock jocks.

But Larry was the king, the icon, the center of the young radio student’s universe.

I still have WLS and WCFL airchecks from those days.  You can still hear Lujack and all the legendary Chicago rock-jocks on YouTube and blogs and tribute sites all over the internet. My favorite tape from that era  is “Larry Lujack’s Farewell To Rock and Roll”, when WCFL changed format from Top 40 to beautiful music, and, as Uncle Lar said, “I’m needed here. I’m not going anywhere.” (Until a few days later when his contract with WCFL was bought out and he was back across town rockin’ away.)

I met Larry for the first time at some radio confab in Chicago, where he was one of the panelists on some discussion of where radio was headed. A few years later I went to a book-signing event in Chicago when Larry’s book “SuperJock” came out, bought a copy for me (which I still have, and stupidly never had him autograph) and a copy for my parents, which I did have him inscribe. He wrote “Your son is in a worthless dead-end occupation. With regret, Larry Lujack”.  Classic cynical Lujack! I hope mom still has that book somewhere.

When I opened Facebook this morning and saw so many of my broadcasting friends with links to stories of Larry’s passing (at age 73, of esophageal cancer), I paused a long moment and thought back to those days when so many of my friends and I were just beginning our radio careers, and how much time we spent talking about whatever Lujack did on the air that day.

What a wonderful time in my life – with great memories.  Rest in peace, Uncle Lar.

(Editor’s note: many people know my on-air persona as that of a news anchor. My first decade or so in radio was as a DJ (“air personality” as we called ourselves back then), and while Larry Lujack was always an inspiration, I owe my real mentors, the late Dr. Robert Snyder and my good friend Jerry Burke for really showing me the way. Jerry went from being a premiere DJ in the Fox Valley to a distinguished career as a TV news anchor and reporter. I could not have had a better path to follow than Jerry’s when I transitioned to news broadcasting.)

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Old Late-Night Radio

A Facebook post I saw this morning opened the door to memory lane, and the hits just came flooding down the lane. My tuba-playing friend Tom played at the Ames (Iowa) Tuba Christmas Saturday afternoon and then had a combo gig on e-bass after that; as he headed for home in Lake City he posted that he was doing his customary thing on the way home – listening to the oldies station in Des Moines.

Now, Tom didn’t identify the station by call sign or frequency – I could have asked him – but to me, when you say oldies and Des Moines in the same sentence, you’re talking about 93.3 KIOA-FM.  This powerhouse station – radiating 82-thousand watts off an 1100 foot tower – is what broadcasters call a “C-1” station, a high-power FM that blasts a signal for miles and miles, covering a dozen or more counties.

KIOA-FM has been through more format changes than I can remember, but since the early 80’s has pretty much owned the oldies franchise in the center of Iowa.

When I was a young broadcaster, travelling with polka bands on weekend gigs, AM radio was king. FM was just beginning to come of age, and because FM transmission is essentially line-of-sight, you had to be relatively close to the tower to pick up an FM signal. It doesn’t travel farther at night, like AM signals do, skipping on the atmosphere. A 50,000 watt AM signal on the lower half of the AM band can pretty much cover half the nation at night; but even a C-1 high-power FM signal only covers a couple hundred miles at best.

In the mid-60’s to mid-70’s, travelling with John Check’s band, after the band had finished playing, packing up, and was finally rolling toward home, it was usually around 2AM. And the radio stations of choice for late-night homeward bound listening on the Check band were either WTMJ-AM  620 in Milwaukee or WHAM-AM 1180 in Rochester, New York. Those two stations played jazz late at night on weekends, and that’s what the guys in the band wanted to hear.

The guy who held forth on WTMJ-AM was John Grams, seen above interviewing Louis Armstrong, early in Grams’ career as a DJ on the station he started out with, WHBL-AM in Sheboygan.  His show on WTMJ was called “Grams on Jazz” and he played everything from Satchmo to the latest jazz hot off the presses from Blue Note, Arista, Columbia, and the other major labels who were still doing jazz releases back then. And Grams was an authority. He knew jazz inside out and backwards, and always said a few really relevant things about the songs he selected to play on his jazz show.

Here’s a shot of Grams in the massive old WTMJ-AM library (circa 1977) selecting the records he’d be playing on his show that night.

The other late-night weekend jazz DJ we loved to listen to was Harry Abraham, broadcasting his jazz show on WHAM-AM 1180 out of Rochester, NY. Because of the way AM signals are affected by atmospheric conditions, sometimes WHAM would come powering off the shore of Lake Ontario in upstate New York to blanket the nation all the way to the Rocky Mountains, and it would come in clear as a bell in Wisconsin.

Here’s a shot of Harry Abraham (love that late 60's 'fro!), who, like John Grams, knew a great deal about jazz and the musicians who made it, and shared his knowledge in succinct “intros and extros” between the jazz records. Both Grams and Abraham knew darn well they were talking to a lot of musicians travelling home from gigs, and they treated their audience with respect, never “talking down” or trying to sound too academic. It was clear they loved the music and loved sharing it, as so many musicians do.  When 1180 wouldn’t come in clear enough, you could count on hearing 620 anywhere in Wisconsin in the small hours of the morning.

As time moved forward into the later 70’s, FM radio was starting to come into its own, and more and more high-powered AM radio stations changed to a format that didn’t involve a lot of music. I was still working with the Check band until ’76 or so, and usually rode to and from gigs with three other guys my age (late 20’s) in the band: Dave Hoopman, Dick Wehner, and Don Hale – our designated driver. We frequently listened to the old WFMR-FM on the way home from gigs, if we were anywhere near the Milwaukee area.

Here’s a shot of Ron Cuzner, who did an overnight jazz program on weekends called “The Dark Side” on WFMR-FM. The call letters stood for “Wisconsin’s Fin Music Radio”, and the station played classical music all day and evening, and after midnight, Cuzner took over with “The Dark Side” and played jazz. He loved the new, roaring, powerful big-band jazz that was popular at the time – Manhattan Wildlife Refuge, Quincy Jones’ big-band stuff, Don Ellis, Maynard, stuff like that.

We would crank those tunes up all the way in Don Hale’s car, and just dig it. Cuzner had the most unusual voice and delivery; it was all very “other-world”. He didn’t call the city of license of the station “Milwaukee”; he called it “Henry’s City” (for then-mayor Henry Maier). And he left a LOT of dramatic pauses between records.  He’d play a real high-powered track from the Thad Jones – Mel Lewis big band, and when it ended, he’d leave about 15 seconds of dead air, and then say something like “It’s a quarter to three with 53 degrees in Henry’s City; music from the Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tabackin big band is straight ahead on WFMR-FM 96.5 in Henry’s City. This is The Dark Side; I’m Ron Cuzner.”

Those were the days; young and foolish, riding home with friends and great jazz, played by some memorable personalities on radio stations that pretty much don’t even exist any more.

But the trip down memory lane made them just as vivid as if it had been only last night.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Don't Be So Hard On The Kids

The title of this post is a comment my friend Doug made in response to one of my Facebook posts last night. The last few days I’ve been snarky about the children doing weekend weather on a couple of the local TV stations (not the station Doug works for), and Saturday morning I posted that one of the local dweebs had just said the wind chill factor was “minus 25 below zero” (which, in English, is said “25 below zero”). The post got a few dozen “likes” and engendered a string of comments, many of them from current or former nooz people, about the dearth of experience of many of the young folks doing nooz, weather, and sports on the local TV stations.

One of the TV kids last night said the temperature was headed down to “negative five”.  I don’t know where he was raised – presumably in some climate where the temperature never got below zero – but where I come from, in the Fox Valley, we say “five below”. I’m pretty confident you’ll never hear a native ‘sconnie say “negative five” or “minus five” in conversation.  In true ‘sconnie dialect, you’re more likely to hear someone say “oh for the cry-yi I goes to the kitchen window and looks at the big thermometer the old man’s got nailed up to the garage wall and it says it’s twenny below zero”!!!!!

Doug, who is an experienced and talented TV photographer, said I was lucky they didn’t have Facebook back when I was on the radio.  And then he made the “don’t be so hard on the kids” comment.

It often comes as a shock to Doug, and lots of other media people around here, when they find out I’m still very much “on the radio”. My reports for the Wisconsin News Connection (owned and operated by Public News Service) are heard pretty much daily on several dozen radio stations in the Fox Valley, Eau Claire, Rhinelander, and lots of other small burgs around the state – just not in Madison or Milwaukee.

Every one of my reports – which are one-minute and two-minute “voiced” news stories – is subject to a level of editorial review which would shock most electronic media news people. Every word I write is examined by one of four hard-nosed editors before my script is approved for recording and distribution.

Years ago, when I anchored news on several of the local radio stations, I was also the “coach” who reviewed the writing and reporting skills of the rest of the news staff. I’m confident any one of them will tell you our weekly coaching sessions were pretty thorough. And, to their credit, my bosses made sure my work was reviewed by a coach. “Somebody’s got to coach the coaches”, the senior board members would say.

For WTDY, my coach was nationally-famous radio consultant Holland Cooke, who is the premiere news/talk consultant in the industry. He would listen to my newscasts at random times (online) and make critiques, and about once a month, at his in-market visit, he would critique my work.  For Q-106, my coach was Tommy Kramer, who works for another big national consulting company, Audience Development Group. Tommy’s a Texas boy who knows his way around a good country newscast, and like a good Texan, he’s cordial and polite, but he does not mince words.

One time, one of the news staffers I was coaching said I was being a little too tough. I said “you want to see my latest critique?” and pulled it out of a desk drawer. As he read it, his jaw dropped farther and farther, until he finished, and looked up at me, and said “holy cow…that IS tough”. I said “and you’ll notice at the top that this report is copied to each member of the board of directors”.

I was tough on the “kids” because I wanted them to be better writers, reporters, and anchors.  My coaches were – and now, my editors are - tough on me for exactly the same reasons.

So, Doug, let me ask you this: is your work reviewed? Is every piece you shoot reviewed by a coach, peer, or manager? Does someone edit every news script that’s written in your newsroom? Does someone spend at least one full hour a week working one-on-one with your writers, reporters, anchors, producers, to coach them, sharpen their skills, develop their talent, and – heaven forbid – help them correct their mistakes?

Didn’t think so.

So, I’ll take a snarky facebook comment any day, rather than a withering glance from Holland Cooke or Tommy Kramer.  

Copied to the board, by the way.