Friday, February 25, 2011

Tough guys and Pussycats

From time to time I have written about some of the brightest guys in radio and it is probably a given that I admired several of them and learned something from all of them.
When I went to work for WRFD I was hired by Dave Winters, a laid-back guy who never interfered with what was going on in the studios. As program directors go....Dave was perfect! I remember showing up about 5:00 AM on a Saturday so he could train me on the equipment and show me how to take transmitter readings and all of the new adventures of learning policies and procedures of a new station and Dave had the studio monitor on mute but had WCOL-FM 92.3 FM cranked up.
How he could listen to one station while operating another was amazing. Stereo Rock 92 as it was known played hard rock music, while we were easy listening. Dave told me my biggest challenge was to stay awake. His advice was to keep 'COL-FM on to help do that, even while I was responsible for playing our records and paying attention to my show.
I only saw him two or three times during my stint with the station because he didn’t stick around very long. Moreover I never received a negative memo or heard anyone say anything negative about him.
He was invisible and for a program director not to be in my face that would be something like watching a political commercial and hearing a candidate say anything that was close to the truth. This helped make working there an absolute panacea.
WRFD was located on a picturesque piece of land at Route 23 and Powell Road back before they turned all of Delaware County into a zoo. That corner was actually rural and peaceful. Today it is more like Polaris Parkway on steroids.
We had a lake outside of our studio window to gaze at as we played and listened to smooth music and for the most part, any song we wanted. Dave didn’t care. Our play list was almost whatever we wanted it to be provided our selections came from whatever records were in the studio.
There was something very serene about WRFD. The sales staff was laid back, the engineers were forgiving, our news staff was friendly and the jocks all liked each other. I didn’t know it then but that was a once in a lifetime combination.
And the fact that Spook Beckman was there only added to the good Karma. Spook was like our grandfather. All of us grew up watching him on television and hearing him on the radio. I was fortunate to work with him twice. He and I hooked up again at WCOL in the early '80s.
After Winters left he was replaced by Jim Keyes. And that too was a good thing. Jim was another guy who liked bending traditional radio rules and allowed us to be creative.
If WRFD was considered the Rural Farm Delivery station for Columbus radio that was okay, because we were relaxed. Without the stress that came with the more powerful ratings leaders back in busy downtown Columbus. For me working there was an opportunity to stop and smell the radio roses.
Among some of the brightest minds I have ever worked for were a few other radio program directors.
E. Karl from WNCI was by far the most outrageous planner of them all. A brilliant hippie who designed exactly what was right for progressive FM radio in the 1970s. E. was not only a radio genius he was one of the most likable people I ever knew.
But there were others who poured their collective hearts and minds into making their stations as competitive as possible. Among my favorites were a few from WTVN. My first PD, Jim Lohse I have already discussed. The man who followed him into the role of guiding that great station was John Potter. And although I was too young and too immature to know it at the time John possessed many of the same qualities had by E. Karl and Jim Lohse.
However he and I did not click very well when I worked for him. He was my harshest critic and it seemed I was always in his doghouse. And as a result I quit, but like I said I was young and for years I held a grudge against him. But age and maturity has a way of bringing immaturity into focus. Leaving WTVN over hurt feelings was a huge mistake.
I didn’t get it until years later but thank God I eventually got it. As time went along my appreciation for John grew into a friendship that I now cherish. We do not see each other much but when we do communicate with one another it is priceless and what we have to talk about is even more so. A time when we were young and before it would rob us of the many other wonderful people we knew as colleagues who have long since passed from this planet.
John Potter is still out there making good things happen in broadcasting. And because of the things he tried to teach me when I was too stubborn to comprehend I became better at understanding my craft.
Those earlier lessons became knowledge I would later come to fall back on when working with people in law enforcement, especially the politicians who did their best to hinder or weaken the roles of police officers by trimming budgets and offering input that further reduced effectiveness. Learning in that field that it too was like a business only as good as its leaders.
Another pretty good boss was Steve Cantrell, WMNIs programmer. Steve was more like one of the guys than a boss. That sometimes landed him in hot-water like the rest of us. What I liked most about him was his acceptance for outrageous behavior. My own comes quickly to mind here.
But I never ended up in his doghouse, or if I did I managed to wiggle my way out of it because like myself he enjoyed exploiting country music performers and its listeners too. I think he tried to make our product somewhat of a radio version of TV's "Hee Haw" and I was following his lead with my own country sarcasm. I have often argued that if it weren't for my own sometimes sarcastic demeanor I would take life too seriously and be disappointed by almost everyone around me. I have never fared well in any environment where people think they have all the answers or around anyone who doesn't have a sense of humor. And God protect all who can only accept those striving to always be politically or morally correct...they are my favorite targets. And finding myself in a country music environment I almost always found it necessary to follow my own advice. (Just be yourself.)
Remember, before working there I cared little if anything at all about that genre, I showed up there with pop music all over my resume. My hair was long and my wardrobe looked out of place when surrounded by guys dressed in cowboy string ties and wearing what I called shit kicker boots and rodeo hats. But on the radio and anytime we were out promoting ourselves, whatever it was we were doing it worked. Listeners to our station seemed to adopt all of the disc jockeys into their families.
It was not uncommon to arrive for work and find presents sent in by listeners or listeners waiting in the lobby of the hotel. Steve’s forgiveness of my own learning curves into the world of country music probably had a lot to do with my becoming something of a fan of it. Never my favorite form of entertainment, but I did grow into it and found myself wanting to hear more and more of the older classics.
To this day, more than twenty five years after playing my last country song on a radio station I still haul out a few of those old Waylon songs once in awhile and mix them with Hank and a few others while I relax.
Moving on up the dial... there were three amazing PDs at WCOL. First, the guy who hired me, Bob Mitchell, not at all unlike E. Karl, he reminded me of him in many ways.
He looked a little like him, acted a lot like him and he programmed with the same zeal to make the station as good as it could be. I found irony in that when E. Karl was trying to knock down WCOL while he programmed WNCI a decade earlier, Bob had come to Columbus to raise it back up after it was reborn from a failed adult contemporary station by building another rock format.
His mantra was to create as much fun on the radio as possible. He said something like…"If you aren't having fun then neither are the listeners." That made going to work at 'COL a pretty good thing to do. After he left he was replaced by another passionate broadcaster, Mike Perkins.
Mike was a walking thesaurus. His vocabulary was just advanced enough to keep some of us confused and feeling a little under-educated. But he couldn’t help it, he was a scholar. In addition probably one of the most artistic people I have ever known.
Not just with radio ideas, the guy was an artist; he could draw as well as any cartoonist out there. His artwork used to appear on station literature and music surveys. And in the production studio he was the master. He could make any commercial sound like an exciting saga. A lot of what Mike Perkins did was innovative pop-culture.
And the last of my favorite program directors was the man who replaced him, Kevin Young. Kevin was a little bit of every PD I ever knew. He was likable yet difficult to understand. His ideas all made sense but not until they grew on you. He had a temper when things went wrong but somehow was able to make his subordinates get it.
After being balled out by him several times I got to where I enjoyed it because although I did not always agree with him I somehow knew that he was right. Other times it was a coin toss.

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