THE GREATEST STATION THAT NEVER WAS
THE GREATEST STATION THAT NEVER WAS
As discussed in the last blog, there was the Chicago story....it was Christmas time 1972.....
After pitching John Tenaglia who ran the General Cinema radio group, I got the call. "No, you can't consult our entire group of stations with your new Album Rock concept, but we are interested in you as Program Director of our FM in Chicago we just bought". After the instant success with the new "AOR" format in Raleigh I was pretty much locked into taking that idea National...BUT--Chicago is my home town..I was/am a passionate Chicagoan. FM had really not made an impact there yet, so it was pretty easy to keep client WQDR Raleigh in my pocket, put the consultancy growth on hold and GO for the Chicago FM opportunity.
So it was a resounding YES. I was 19 and figured I could get a 2 share just on my high school friends.
The first step was to meet his new General Manager. It was Nick Anthony, a real nice guy with a long history as a Cleveland broadcaster. We had dinner at Hugo's in the old Water Tower Place Hotel. I brought three briefcases of data, ideas and legal pads and proceeded to sell my ass off. It worked and we shook hands. The Company wanted to do Top 40 instead of Albums, but considering the opportunity, no sweat.
The more I thought about this, while my heart was more into Yes and The Mahavishnu Orchestra than Bread and Bill Withers, this looked like an unbelievable opportunity to do Top 40 on FM. Robert Walker came with me to the dinner and was part of the package. Rob had a brilliant production mind, an expert mechanic and jock and was the perfect balance for the mission at hand. He also provided tremendous moral and creative support. Stunned with optimism and buzz we bought a quart of tequila and drove back to Detroit talking non-stop about the immense possibilities. Once back in the Motor City it was non stop phone calls recruiting the staff and putting a plan together.
Much like XM Today, we had the freedom to BUILD something...from scratch. EVERY move was calculated and thought out. We were NOT going to make ANY mistakes. This WAS going to be a historic and flawless launch.
As much as I would have loved to do Album music there, it was to be Top 40. So, I reached into my memory banks and focused on giving Chicago's pop fans an amazing ride. I felt that with the superior signal at 99.5, literally no direct competition and two excellent but hardly edgy A competitors in WLS and WCFL, we could do some real damage. The idea was to bring the West Coast school of Top 40 to Chicago, but have a Chicago soul and attitude. Not unlike what we did at WLUP in '79, a KMET Hard Rock approach, drastically different from the earthier Midwest/East Coast sound of FM, but infuse it with a pure Midwest spirit.
It was an unbelievable set up. First the hirings. as an anchor, we brought in Gary Gears, a long time legendary WLS Jock. Big intimidating guy. Once you got past his totally natural power voice, he was this hulking linebacker of a guy who looked and sounded like Dick Butkus, and he used it very well. At our first meeting he did everything he could do to scare the shit out of me. It worked. But we NEEDED someone like him to be the center point of the jock staff. Credibility. A Chicago-centric name and voice. I figured that I had to somehow be his friend AND boss. I found his hot button to be trains. He was a train freak. I was too. So, we'd get some beer and drive around Chicago all night checking out train stations and rail yards. Within a week, we really hit it off as we'd talk radio history and ideas for the new station in between deep debate about the virtues of the Milwaukee Road vs. The Chicago & Northwestern Railroads. Good. We have bonded. One odd thing about Gary was that he wore the exact same thing every day. A Minnesota Vikings jersey and grey sweatpants. Later, at his apartment, he went to dig out some albums in his closet and I noticed 50 sets of Vikings Jerseys and Sweatpants. I knew then and there that this was the kind of eccentric that would flourish in the environment I had proposed for this station. Gary passed away a few years ago.
After Gary Gears, we rapidly filled in the staff with hand picked talent. There was Beau Weaver. He came from KNUS in Dallas. I liked that because KNUS was an early FM AOR Pioneer, owned by the legendary Gordon McLendon. THAT was exactly the kind of pedigree that would work. He suggested Tommy Kramer another KNUS alumni. Then there was a kid named Jim Kelly from KOMA in Oklahoma City. Loved his tape. A classic night-time whack job. He wanted to be "Shotgun" Jim Kelly. NO WAY! There's a Shotgun TOM Kelly in San Diego. If you're adamant about being a Kelly then you are MACHINE GUN Kelly---This is Chicago, we use Machine Guns not Shotguns. The name served him well in a long career in LA. The there was this guy Jim Chanel. A complete lunatic. Perfect. Rounding it out was a newsman named George Jay. think Paul Harvey on some kind of drug. The staff was complete. The only guy we couldn't get was Roby Yonge. He's the guy who got fired from WABC for starting the Paul (McCartney) is dead rumor. A Surfer type from Miami who was one of the coolest Top 40 DJ's ever. Unfortunately he self destructed in New York and no-one would touch him. I KNEW this station would make him a radio superstar. Wined and dined him, but he just wouldn't leave Miami. He did there...broke in '02. I really wish he would have said YES to Chicago.
Next I rented a limo. We took everyone on a trip through Chicago to catch the vibe. No Wrigley Field stuff. We went through the slums...the neighborhoods...the suburbs...real wrong side of the tracks stuff. I wanted them to smell the sulphur belching out of the stacks at Lake Calumet, then hunker down to a Chicago Hot Dog at a working mans' bar in Gary Indiana. his station was going to be cool...but in a blue collar way. e may use West Coast Top 40 principals, but the smell of the station as going to be big, brawny and real Chicago. After all, WLS was VERY corporate and correct. That's fine--but we were going to be street. We had it all---an amazing crew of people SO different from each other that we were united; supportive well heeled management; a virgin FM market, a potent and thoughoully thought out game plan; motivation and focus that went from the top right down to the guy who cleaned the floors at night...and enough moxie to knock out Ali. This Chicago set-up and staffing was totally the model for what we did at XM Programming when we put it together a few years ago.
The build out continued and it was wonderful. We were truly BUILDING this thing. Totally customized. In fact when the studio was built we had a contractor build the console 7 inches high just to accommodate Gary Gears' huge hands. Logos were done, Rob Walker went to Dallas to insure the jingle was perfect using a special mix of male voices instead of the typical jingly all girl sings. Found an apartment at 2 East Oak...at the corner of Rush Street. 37th Floor. Truly a "pad". We'd have our staff meetings there. Usually 8pm til--??. I found out it was the favored apartment complex of expensive hookers.
We were ready to launch. Ad campaign had started. New call letters approved. They were WICV which was Roman Numerals for 99.5. Not my first choice, but with the sound we envisioned it didn't matter. We had a pre launch party at Diamond Jim's restaurant on Dearborn street right off Randolph Street in the Chicago rialto district. everyone was there. Press, labels, VIP's. Everyone.
Then....8pm. The night before launch, we get a telegram. It's from a judge. We have an injunction against changing the format. It was Classical and a group of Classic lovers (which included not only many high powered executives and community leaders, but practically the whole staff of WLS!!) convinced the courts that a change of formats was not in the public interest. There were TWO other Classical stations in Chicago, so this was shocking news.
A week passed and no change. Lawyers said it could go on for years (it did). One by one the staff had to leave, the Classical library came out of storage and we sat...and waited. Soon, the Company President John Tenaglia asked me to go to Cleveland to help their struggling station WGCL. For a few weeks until the Chicago situations cleared up. So me and Rob Walker drove to Cleveland. The night after we got there, Rob was robbed at gunpoint in his room at Jimmy Swingo's Keg n Quarter hotel. He was on the next flight back to Miami. I needed someone to replace Rob--a Production wizard and creative sidekick. A guy was recommended named Sonny Fox. He had worked at KHJ and KCBQ and from all the Intel I could get was perfect. Again, someone with a West Coast POV that could help me break down the old line thinking and do some new things. He arrived one day later. First night there, his VW Van was broken into and he was robbed of everything. However, he decided to stay.
Cleveland was surreal. I REALLY didn't want to be there. The General Manager of the station hated the idea of me coming into his domain at the orders of home office and put e up at The East Town hotel. A very scary place in he worst part of town. The 1973 equivalent of a crack house. After a week I said I had to leave town..couldn't handle it. So they upgraded me to the Travelodge on 30th and Euclid. OK...better...I'll stay, but we need to get some new people in here. The staff had a few guys with potential, but several who were absolutely pathetic pukers. To make matters worse, the vibe in the station was terminal. So we hired a guy named Don Cox who later became a Miami hot shot and I brought in a ton of very young Black kids from the R&B station. They were raw but had, no pun intended, a LOT of Soul. Then George Jay that crazed Newsman I hired in Chicago. He decided to do all of his newscasts from the roof of the building. A good sign... The place was starting to rock a bit, but it looked like going back to Chicago wasn't going to happen. At the same time, my client WQDR in Raleigh continued to tear it up. OK..that's it, gotta go into this consulting thing 100%. Left Cleveland.
Immediately signed WRNO in New Orleans. They were represented by ABC for advertising and some people there helped me connect. Brought Sonny Fox with to be PD. This place was also very strange. Unlike the corporate consistency of today's terrestrial stations, facilities back then had a FAR more diverse ownership. The owner Joe Costello was this big guy and this was HIS station. They even had punch clocks so he could keep track of who worked when. Since this was my second consulted station, it HAD to be hugely successful so I'd have Raleigh, Detroit AND New Orleans Album Rock success stories to crow about. Joe liked control but he also liked success especially since he fashioned homself as a local New Orleans business leader and it was not a good thing for his stationto be in the dumper. So we made some staff changes and the entire staff, except for Captain Humble, a lovable local legend and a completely out of the closet Gay guy, lived in the hotel the station was housed in. The Imperial House in Metairie. We literally LIVED at the station. There were MANY innovations there: Under the voice were wind chimes whenever a DJ spoke. It was Sonny's idea. The concept was that so many people listened in the background on their stereo. With the chimes, you would always know it was WRNO even if you couldn't understand what the DJ was saying. It was an additional dimension in station Identification. and pretty "cosmic" too. Then we used Mickey Ratt, an underground comic hero on all the advertising. Think about it---while most stations had this slick agency created look, we had a stoned Rat. We later used a similar idea when KFOG in San Francisco was lunched, hiring Underground cartoonist R. Crumb to design the logo. The "Midnight Album Hour", "Two-fers" and a lot of todays tired cliches were born there.Then we had the owners brother Mike doing the all-night show. He was a Top 40 guy, and the only guy in FM Album Rock history to cheat on the music---but the OTHER way. Most DJ's would cheat and throw in a Fugs songs. He'd cheat and play The Carpenters. The whole place was pretty interesting. The whole city back then was a contrast. You had redneck racists coexisting with a strong Black influenced culture. A real melting pot that turned out some amazing food,music and art. Radio wise, The "deal" was a significant amount of money if we hit a six share in total audience. The station was at a two share. The ratings came out and we had a 5.9 ! Got NO money. But---The stage was set to go National with the concept...and we did...and never looked back.
As far as the Chicago station. It was the greatest station that never was.