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.