Thursday, August 23, 2007

Flashback: A Post-Quaker Career in Talk Radio.

[Fifty years of politics written for my kids and grandchildren].

Talk radio as a phenomenon only came into vogue in 1988 with repeal by the FCC of the so-called…and misnamed…Equal Time provision. Before that radio stations were skittish about running anything controversial. Under the old rules, not only would the station manager have to accommodate another side…be it political party or social movement…equal time but often on the very same program which would make scheduling next to impossible.

Before the repeal, however, on Chicago’s public radio station (WBEZ), there was an ingenious attempt at broadcasting views from a panel of political activists. What made the program fascinating is that where previously journalists had talked about coverage of politics, this program featured political activists themselves laughing, bickering and generally demonstrating the vitality of politics where no program really had done this before. It was the creation of an brilliant broadcaster who had been a political candidate himself—Bruce DuMont. DuMont had a job as producer for Lee Philip’s “Noonbreak,” an NBC TV program of interviews conducted by a very popular woman, Lee Philip. Then he moved over to WTTW-TV, the city’s public television station to become a producer, a political analyst and occasionally a TV host himself for the popular program “Chicago Tonight” normally hosted by John Callaway.

DuMont began his then two-hour program on WBEZ as something to do for which he was paid only a nominal fee for a program that would run every Thursday night. This antedated the McLaughlin Group and any other presentation. Indeed, there had never been a show like it. McLaughlin features journalists disputing and before him the late Martin Agronsky hosted a similar program with commentators vying. Bruce DuMont was singular in that he featured not journalists but political actors. He invited me to be on the very first program. Regulars included Alderman Dick Mell, Alderman Cliff Kelley, political activist turned lobbyist Phil Krone (a former Republican turned Democrat), Grace Kaminkowitz, a strident feminist, Marilyn D. (Dee) Clancy, a moderate-liberal Democrat who had run against Henry Hyde. Often Rep. Harold Washington was on when he was in town; as was Carol Moseley Braun, the Cook county recorder of deeds. I was billed as a conservative and corporate lobbyist, although I had to make the point that to please my boss my company affiliation could not be mentioned (but it was not long before everybody who listened knew where I worked).

It was not long before for a variety of reasons, the show took on a cult character. For one thing, we concentrated usually on state and local politics, with some extension into national affairs—but…and this was prior to the FCC overruling the Equal Time provision…people had rarely had the opportunity to hear local politicos snapping at each other. Soon regular journalists were listening in order to get a leg-up on the news. There was laughter, derision and even some bitter fights…but it gained quite a cult audience. From that show, a number of us were invited on the “Chicago Tonight” presentation on WTTW-TV. Soon “Chicago Tonight” seemed like a TV reenactment of what was going on WBEZ. But it never reached the status of irreverence that the WBEZ show had. People tuned in to hear what would happen next.

I remember one time when I told Cliff Kelley, an African American, who was trading about the legacy of slavery that he needn’t worry about white owned slaves since by becoming indentured to the Democratic party, blacks were treated like plantation surfs…and this somehow infuriated him so he invited me and I accepted the invitation on-air to go outside where we would settle it like gentlemen. We never did but cab drivers and people on the street would occasionally stop me and ask who won. (Note: I was much younger then—well, 58 and not in the present state of ancient decrepitude I find myself today). Cliff Kelley and I became the best of friends afterwards. When we went to Arnie’s, a steak joint downtown one noon, Arnie the owner bought us our lunches because he was so glad we were not at each other’s throats…as he had surmised when he listened the night before.

Marvelous things happened every Thursday night on Bruce’s show. One night he had scheduled a program with representatives from various presidential campaigns—this was 1980. I was to represent Ronald Reagan, of course—my hero. I think Jim Wall, a Methodist minister and friend of Jimmy Carter represented the then president. Then there were to be various people who would bring in alternatively liberal and conservative points of view. As we were getting ready to broadcast, one prominent liberal who was supposed to join us failed to show up. With only two minutes to go, a pizza delivery kid came in toting hot pizzas that were donated by Geno’s, a deep dish pizza joint in Chicago. Bruce asked the kid: are you a liberal or conservative? The kid said: liberal. Bruce said: sit down; you’re on the show.

The kid did and in a robust discussion on the air where he was introduced as a pizza delivery boy, he caught me in an error and verbally knocked me out of the rhetorical box. Listening was state senator Dawn Clark Netsch who called over and hired the kid on the spot to work in her campaign. That show started the kid on a career that lasted about a decade as a staffer in Democratic politics. No, it wasn’t David Axelrod.

After a few years, Bruce moved the show to WLS-AM the giant ABC 50,000-watt radio station that had taken advantage of the FCC repeal of Equal Time to bring on locals to precede and follow Rush Limbaugh who became the 5-star media personality in national talk radio. We moved with Bruce who had a show on Sunday nights. All the while I was working as vice president of Quaker Oats…and my colleagues in industry were intrigued that I was allowed to purvey my conservative views over the air which was then and still is a no-no for members of the corporate culture. At the same time I was writing weekly columns of opinion for the “Sun-Times”. (After a few years the “Sun-Times” switched as papers always do with Op Eds and I moved over to the “Tribune.” Then the “Tribune” would switch and I would go back to the “Sun-Times”. The only Op Ed columnist who never seemed to switch was Father Greeley whose boilerplate Irish liberal columns still roll out without a single reference to anything deeper than the spiritual wellsprings of the Democratic party.

In the late 80s a popular feature on WLS-AM was the team of Eddie Vrdolyak (the former Democratic county chairman) and Ty Wansley, a liberal but affably civil African American. The show was magnificent and to my mind has never been topped. Vrdolyak, accused of being a racist because as an alderman he ran the all-white group of 29 aldermen who opposed Mayor Harold Washington, was not a racist at all—far from it. But he had a brilliant Chicagoese idiom. A superbly educated lawyer at the University of Chicago he nevertheless spoke for the average white guy in the street. His radio presence was true Chicago and unequaled. His shows with Wansley were legend. After a few years of topping the ratings and earning a handsome 6-figure salary as a co-host which came on top of his already huge earnings as a powerful lawyer, Vrdolyak did what he often does—he grew restive. At one time the station ran the show on both AM and FM. Then the station did what made good business sense for it since AM listeners are different than FM listeners. It kept Eddie and Ty on AM and scheduled rock and roll on FM. This outraged Vrdolyak whose friends in the Loop had trouble listening to AM since the big buildings put out so much static.

Eddie told WLS an astounding thing. He wanted the show to be returned to FM. The station very rightly said hell no, it’s our decision and we won’t. Whereupon Eddie announced that he was coming down with a terrible cold, that he was losing his voice and he would have to seek medical care. Which meant he was going on a strike! The station wanted to have a conservative voice opposite Wansley’s rather moderate liberal voice so it called me to fill in. When I talked to Eddie, he said he would only be gone for a week or so, just to show the station he was boss. By this time I had retired from Quaker and had opened my own office at 333 N. Michigan where I was trying to serve new clients with government relations counsel. But the Vrdolyak-Wansley show ran from 2 p.m. to 5. So every day I was on the air with Ty, a wonderful fellow while, I fear, my clients wondered what happened to me since I was gone every afternoon. Vrdolyak never came back and Ty and I were on for many months…each afternoon from 2 to 5. But I never got the huge fee Eddie did and Ty received.

Finally I got tired of working for a modest union fee (American Federation of Radio and Television Artists AFL-CIO)…as well as watching my consulting business go down the drain. So I asked the management if I could have my own gig at a different time. They said they would think about it and finally gave me Saturday morning on condition that I learn how to run the “board”—watch the hot button which would mute out a caller with an obscenity, read the weather and cut for commercial breaks. To test me out…as I am not a good technician…they said they were going to start me at a late night gig—from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. So for what stretched into several years, I was a 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. man. I remember the first time I showed up for the job…a retired guy in my late 60s (my wife definitely not favoring the hours at which I would come home; my neighbors thinking I was out howling at the moon). What do you do in the middle of the night when seemingly most sensible people are in bed and only a battalion of drunks and very-very lonely people are listening?

The first night I did the late evening trick (10 to 2) I brought an armload of newspaper clippings to help me with topics as I would watch the lights on the phones either light up or fail to light up. Let me tell you it is a stark horror to sit there with one engineer reading “Playboy” behind a glass window, your tongue running dry talking-talking-talking and no calls…absolutely none. So to forestall that horror on the first night I brought an armload of clippings that would assure that I would have something to talk about. I placed them tenderly in the Green Room and went to the executive washroom. When I returned…with 5 minutes to air-time…I saw that the Polish cleaning lady who spoke no English had scooped up all my clippings and had taken them to the trash chute. I raced to the chute just as she finished shoveling my clippings down it. As I stood paralyzed, my engineer friend shouted: “Roeser! Come in! You’re on the air in 30 seconds!”

That I survived still puzzles me. When I got home and crawled in bed next to Lilllian, she turned over, gave me a kiss and said “poor baby, I’ll bet you’re tired!” Tired! I was so wrought up I lay there staring at the darkness all night rehearsing what inanities I had parroted for four hours to Chicago. I decided at 4 a.m. that I would be fired. That I was not is still amazing thing to me. Long about 1:30 a.m. I became the only ABC talk shows host to throw Thomas Aquinas at the audience. I still remember the drunk who called up and said…Thomas who?

The best caller was a woman named Peggy from downstate Illinois who called in every morning at 1:15 a.m. when she said she was getting off work. Once she spoke very persuasively about the need to legalize prostitution so as to be sure the working girls could unionize. Her voice was so velvety, so provocative, so evocative of world weariness that all ten lines on my phone lighted instantaneously with…you guessed it…gentlemen callers. I decided that if I kept her on the line with her double entendres the FCC would come calling…so I’d switch to commercials. The next day when I went to work my cabbie told me he was sorely disappointed that I cut her off just when she was getting interesting. Ah, I said, but the essence of show business is to end with the audience demanding more rather than staying on too long. I don’t think he agreed.

1 comment:

  1. Of course Peggy was a lefty.... Readers please note that Tom appears to have a penchant for lefties.... he constantly populates his Sunday show with them. He lets them dominate the show. He touts the neo-con trojan horse jive... He cuts off real conservative callers. He touts a pardon for Scooter Libby whose only claim to fame was being counsel for the scoundrel Marc Rich whom Clinton Pardoned. He spouts accolades for Pres. Bush who has acted more like a democratic President than a conservative. He posts stuff like the following, "I maintained that the furor over Kjellander was uncivil and out of joint. I followed up by saying that personally I would not continue to serve were I Kjellander but that Kjellander’s appointment was made under legitimate electoral processes. Kjellander is a friend of mine", a friend eh? Note that Kjellander is no friend of conservatives. He goes after Attorney Ibendahl who holds Tom's feet to the fire on Kjellander and then posts about Ibendahl that, "He is a bright young lawyer if ill-tempered and insulting." Tom attacks true conservatives as "paleos" who are traditional social conservatives such as fellow Catholic, Pat Buchanan. He has the audacity to even call them lefties when it is HE who has swung to the left.

    So it is no wonder he would say that Peggy the lefty was his favorite caller!

    So Tom, come out the the political closet and confess that you are really a Democrat! with a small peeve against abortion.

    Not only Tom should you be insulted, you should be EXPOSED!