Sunday, March 12, 2017

Charlie Hart: Gone Too Soon


That guy at the bar having a beer in the recent picture above is Charlie Hartwig, or, as his friends and colleagues knew him, Charlie Hart. Charlie unexpectedly passed away Friday morning. This story is about the many years I spent working in radio with Charlie.

When I came from WMKC-FM to WOSH-FM and WTYL-AM in Oshkosh in the late 70’s, Charlie Hart could have hated me. For a few years I’d competed with Charlie’s morning show on WYTL-AM, and when Kimball Broadcasting threw me under the bus, WOSH/WYTL scooped me up.

Word was leaked (I can’t prove it, but I know who did it) that I was going to be paid a lot of money – more than anybody else on the on-air staff – Charlie could have turned a cold shoulder and froze me out. He did just the opposite. What Charlie – and only three other people at WOSH/WYTL knew – is that I was going to be their new morning news anchor. Charlie welcomed me with open arms and said “really looking forward to working with you, big fella!”

I’d never had a radio news job before; I was a programmer and on-air talent, but not a news guy. The boss at WOSH/WYTL at that time, Phil Robbins, said he wanted to use my robust baritone voice (those were the days….) to anchor morning newscasts on both the AM and FM station. The News Director at that time, the irascible Mark Belling (who has since gone on to fame as a talk-show host in Milwaukee, and as the principal fill-in guy for Rush Limbaugh) was in on the plan, and fully endorsed it.

The guy who was mad, and in fact quit when I was hired, was the Program Director, Doug Lane. I knew Doug professionally and we were friends. He didn’t quit because he was mad that I was hired, which is what a lot of people thought. He quit because they didn’t force me to change my name. The policy in place at WOSH/WYTL at the time was that nobody could use their actual name on the air. They had forced Doug to use the name “Doug Allen” and he was never happy about that.

When Mr. Robbins said “Doug, we have to make an exception here: Tim is very well known in this market under his real name, and we would look silly to force him to change it. It would cause needless confusion.” Well, Doug said “fine. I quit.” And that’s how Charlie Hartwig, known on the air as Charlie Hart, became Program Director.

As usual, I digress.

I got the sad news of Charlie’s passing from Charlie’s daughter, Christy, who was not much more than a toddler when I first met her. She posted an item to her dad’s Facebook page, with the shocking news. To say I was stunned is an understatement. It knocked me back into my chair, and I was overcome with sadness. A flood of memories came back.

(Here's a 1982 photo taken at the EAA Fly-In in 1982. We had just finished the morning show, live from the event. I'm on the left, that's Charlie in the center, and Steve Erbach on the right.)

Charlie and I had stayed in contact through the years; he’d just moved from Appleton to Rochester, MN to be closer to his family, and in particular his grandchildren. He was looking forward to spending his golden retirement years with those wonderful little kids, watching them grow up.

Charlie was a natural radio talent because he knew how to talk to people and was completely unpretentious. After his service with the Marines (including a combat tour in Viet Nam) Charlie came back to his native Minnesota, went to radio broadcasting school there (Brown Institute) and wound up in Oshkosh.

Working with Charlie and the extremely talented staff at WOSH/WYTL remains one of the most fun and rewarding periods of my life. I rose through the ranks quickly there to become the #2 man in the operation, before they threw me under the bus, but it was a real rocket-ride with some of the most talented people ever to be assembled as a broadcast staff.

(Here's a late-70's photo of Charlie interviewing B.J. Thomas. The photo was taken in the main news studio that I worked in at WOSH/WYTL.)

Doing the morning show with Charlie was a constant hoot. His intense love of country music and his naturally engaging personality and sense of humor kept that program the number one morning show in the market for many years.

Without getting too far inside baseball, let me give you an idea of how popular that show was. I still have the ratings books to prove it, to those who think I’m exaggerating. Charlie’s morning show had a 32 share of listeners 12 years of age and older. In layman’s terms, that means that during the morning hours, roughly a third of the people who were listening to radio in the Fox Valley market were listening to Charlie’s show.

Ratings that good just don’t exist any more, and haven’t for decades. Both WYTL-AM, which is the station Charlie’s morning show was on, and WOSH-FM, the sister station which broadcast out of the same building with many of the same personnel, were extremely popular in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The two stations had a combined 43 share in the broadest possible audience measurement, listeners 12 years and older, Monday through Sunday, 6 AM through 12 midnight. Again, that sort of dominance is now unheard of.

Charlie, as morning show host, was quarterback of the team. He set the pace, showed the way. Oh, there are those who think management calls the shots and does the leading, but that’s never been true. Charlie got to work early and didn’t leave until everything that needed to get done that day got done. Charlie was in his office by 4 AM, preparing for his show, which started at 5:30 AM.

Around 9:30 or so, a half-hour after his show ended, pretty much every day a bunch of us from the station would drive a few blocks to Mike’s Place restaurant, to have breakfast, drink coffee, and talk smart. After that, it was back to work for the rest of the day.

Sometimes, after work meant going to Harry’s Bar downtown, one of Charlie’s favorite hangouts. It was a regular place with regular folks, nothing fancy about it: much like Charlie. What you see is what you get.


(I'm not sure where I got this photo - it's in my file as "Geeks at Sea" and it looks like it was taken on the Wolf River in Winneconne. At the top are Charile and Sheree Sommers; the bottom row is Duane Gay, Steve Erbach, and Judy Fowler.)

There are so many stories I could tell about those heady days, working hard and playing hard; I’m just sad that Charlie, who never did things half-assed, wasn’t granted more years to enjoy his grandchildren and his leisure.

Radio is a transient business for on-air folks. When Charlie’s days at WYTL came to an end, he worked at a couple other stations in the Fox Valley; WYNE-AM and WPKR-FM to name a couple. Then he got out of the biz and went to work for Pierce, the big company in Appleton that makes fire trucks

Charlie and I chatted occasionally in the past several years, most frequently about the folks we worked with back at WOSH/WYTL, and what they were doing these days. Some are still in broadcasting; others started their own successful small businesses; some climbed the corporate ladder to positions of power.

The last time we chatted, we talked about getting together in Rochester so I could see his new digs. We decided to wait until there was no chance of snow interfering with travel, and that we’d set a date in April.


I shouldn’t have waited. Rest in peace, Charlie.

8 comments:

  1. Well done. He was one of the legends.

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  2. Very nice tribute, Tim. It reminded me of what a nice guy Charlie always was.

    And thanks for letting me be a part of that amazing staff.

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    1. Thanks, Joe. That was one fantastic crew, yourself included.

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  3. I remember Charlie so well as a listner I always thought he was so much like WKRP in Cinncinnati Dr. Johnny Fever. The thing is I could see him doing that stuff. The highlight was when I wrote him a letter and I ended up getting a letter back along with his autographed picture, a bumper sticker autographed by all the DJ's and just a lot of little things in it. I thought I was the richest kid ever. I still listen to country radio and hear some of the guys from the WYTL family. Dan Stone and Earl Brooker come to my mind. I wondered what happened to Charlie and thought of him often. Rest in Peace and keep spinning the vinyl up there. You were a giving person and an icon to my way of thinking. They don't make them like you anymore. To this day when I see Howard Hesseman on TV I think of you. I will see you again some day I hope

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    1. Such kind words, Tami - thanks for saying them!

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