Sunday, October 05, 2008
Chicago Radio Spotlight: Jack Landreth
Jack Landreth spent nearly a decade behind the scenes of high-profile Chicago radio shows like Don & Roma, Kevin Matthews, and Paul Harvey. He is now the program director of KXNT and KSFN in Las Vegas.
1985 WLS Chicago (Producer, Don Wade & Roma)
1992 Paul Harvey News Chicago (Producer)
1992 WLUP Chicago (Producer)
1994 KFMB San Diego (Executive Producer)
1996 WWTN-FM Nashville (PD)
1998 KNST Tucson (PD)
2001 KTSA San Antonio (PD)
2003 KXNT/KSFN/CBS Net Las Vegas (PD)
Rick: As a Chicago boy, it must have been a big thrill to begin your career working for the legendary Big 89. Was that the station you listened to growing up?
Jack: I remember as a kid listening to all of my favorite jocks. Lujack, Landecker,Winston, all of ‘em. I could not get enough of their banter. I loved the interaction, not only with callers, but with each other. I craved anything and everything that would happen on the radio station. I remember a charity basketball game that WLS put together when I was in 4th or 5th grade. Out in the parking lot, during half time, I approached my hero as he was smoking a cigarette (yes it was). Lujack (photo) actually said to me, and I’ll never forget it, “hi kid.” That was it, but that was enough. I loved that station and those personalities from then on.
But as with all teenagers, my tastes changed and I listened to more and more radio. While my parents listened to the great Wally Phillips, and Bob Collins, I absorbed everything that was being done by Brandmeier, Murphy, as well as the not so knowns as Chuck Britton and Jeff Davis. After school, I went in to advertising, but didn’t like it all that much.
In the mid 80’s I met Chuck at an event, and we became friends. One day after hanging out at the WLS studio, Chuck introduced me to some guy in a tie whom he referred to as the Program Director. I didn’t realize it, but John Gehron (photo) asked if I wanted to help out at a remote they did every week at Ed Debevics. I said yes, and for I think it was $30 a week, my start in radio became reality. From there, I became a board-op, sometimes fill in jock, and general do anything kid. A few years later, when Larry Lujack originally retired from radio, I knew it came full circle. While we were all helping Uncle ‘Lar clean out his office, I had a plant that he took from me, put in the back seat of his car, and slammed the door. In only the way my radio hero could, he turned to me, ready to leave radio forever, put out his hand, and said to me those words that any wet-behind-the-ears radio kid wanted to here. In his booming voice with the engine running, he looked at me and said “Good luck in whatever the f*** it is you want to do with your life”. Quite a long way from “hi kid”!
Rick: You got your start working for Don & Roma. If I'm not mistaken, you were their producer when the station switched formats and became a talk-radio station. What was that like in those early days of the talk radio format; the growing pains, the listener reactions, and the transition of the Don & Roma show from the music format to the talk format?
Jack: Actually, I wasn’t D&R’s producer until shortly after the switch to talk. If I recall, there were only a few of us that were at WLS in the old days that transitioned to talk. In the latter days of music, I called it the “Glen” station, because I think we played Glen Campbell, Glenn Miller and Glen Frey, and probably all within an hour! John Gehron had long ago left and we had been rudderless for sometime.
When Drew Hayes and Tom Tradup came in, it was a refreshing change that had everyone excited. I felt horrible for some, including one of the great talents that I had admired since I was a teenager. For many years, I was board-op-ing Tom Snyder and Sally Jesse Rafael’s show, which came off the sat at 7pm. John Landecker (photo) was doing afternoons, and I would come in the station and sit in my studio, the famous “Studio A”, with a sandwich and listen to John everyday. He would be in “Studio E” (High atop the downtown Burger King), and as I would wait for board control, I’d listen to all the great bits I had loved! The last days before the switch to talk were tough, as I knew John would not be a part of the new format.
As for D&R, the change to talk was nothing to them, as I always though that the music got in the way of their mid-day show, so the switch to mornings was easy. What was different, was show prep. I know this sounds like one of those “when I was a child” moments, but we did NOT have internet back in those morning show days. I would be up around 1am, go through video from the night before, get in the car around 2:45am and head down LSD. I would pull around Belmont to see if Don & Roma were at the bus stop, and if they were, they would climb in and we would head to the Tribune building to pick up a bunch of newspapers. We would all meet up in the conference room, chopping articles, highlighting headlines, running through video tape, and put a show together. It was tedious, but it was the most thourough show prep I had ever seen. To this day, if I fill in a morning show, I still do it the same way. I chop the paper, and rip through what I can. Screw the internet!! There’s nothing like the smell of news ink on your fingers in the morning!
There were days that we may not frame a question correctly, or maybe we would take a bit too far (Rinny?). But those were the days we didn’t know any better and just had fun. I remember some days Don would say “Get Rush on the phone”, and I would call Limbaugh’s New York apartment and BS with the new guy on the phone. Or I would call a friend of mine who worked with then VP Dan Quayle, and he would jump on the phone. It was a pretty cool time for News-Talk, and we just did it by instinct.
Rick: Tell us something we don't know about Don and Roma.
Jack: They’re married. Okay, it was still a secret when I left!
Rick: After leaving WLS, you worked with an even bigger legend--Hall of Fame broadcaster Paul Harvey. He was getting up in age then already. Can you believe that he's still doing it now, sixteen years later?
Jack: Every day, I would get to the Harvey offices and listen to Paul’s 7:30 broadcast. When he was finished, he would always stop by my office, take half a step in, and in his booming delivery, exclaim “Good Morning, Jackson!”. I will never forget those days. It was THE Paul Harvey, but I always saw him as the news guy. If I put him on any other pedestal, I would never have gotten my job done! Mr. Harvey will always be a news guy no matter what, but first and foremost, he was a family guy. The love he had for his wife Angel, and the pride he had for Paul Jr. was so prevalent during the short time I worked for him. Mr. Harvey is a legend in real man’s clothes. I love him!
Rick: What was your role when you worked with him, and can you give us an insight into how he puts his newscast together?
Jack: I would go through every newspaper from every town in the country. Again, this was before internet, so all of the “For What it’s Worth” stories came from the small town print papers. Besides working on those stories, I would help out where I could from mail to phones. In Paul Harvey’s office, no one had titles, no one was better than anyone else. Most of the time, Paul changed the ribbons on the news wire machines, simply because he was the first one in.
He would get in early, 4am or so, and put on his blue smock. It was one of those smocks that doctors wear, complete with an ABC logo patch, and the name “Paul” stitched on the right pocket. All of the wire machines had spit out stories all night, and he would scour each and every fiber of those paper rolls. He would then go into his office with the stack of stories, and start typing his scripts, large type and double spaced. He would then take the daily stories, add his famous live reads (Page two!), stack the stories and include whatever we had for him. Then off to the studio where he did Paul Harvey News for the world to hear. After that newscast, it was off to Rest of the Story land, and whatever else needed to be done. When the morning was over, he would walk down to the garage and drive off in his Buick. Yes, he drove a Buick every day. And yes, it took his assistant June Westgaard years and years to convince him NOT to park on Lower Wacker!
Rick: After Paul Harvey, you made another leap...this time going to work for Kevin Matthews at the Loop. I can't even imagine that transition. Can you give us a few examples pointing out just how different those two experiences were?
Jack: One of the first things I did with Kevin was to write a faux “Rest of the Story” with the subject being anyone from Kevin Butler of the Bears to Steve Dahl. I thought it was a fun thing to do, but Mr. Harvey was not amused. It was the first time that I didn’t think of how my actions could hurt someone else. I of course apologized to Mr. Harvey and realized that the Loop was a VERY different animal.
Both talents had similar traits. Both Paul and Kevin (photo) were unbelievably talented in what they did. Both had egos the size of Lake Michigan, and both were somewhat strange ducks. My experience with Kevin was however, much more difficult. He was one of those hosts that no matter what you did, it was wrong. Yes I knew a lot of that was the bit, but I wondered if I had made the right choice. After some time, I would come to learn that Matthews, along with Brandmeier, Steve & Garry, and later on, Bonaduce were talents that would help me focus on what mattered the most….entertaining the audience with compelling content. That’s what mattered most. Years later, I talked to Steve, and thanked him for those years. Every now and then I run into Danny, and love to talk those old “Loop” days. I sent Kevin an e-mail when he moved back to Grand Rapids, and I’m sure I’ll here back one of these days.
Rick: In the mid-90s you made that leap out of the market, away from your home town, and it's obviously worked out for you. I don't think a lot of radio people realize that the transition from executive producer of a big time show to program director is a logical move. You're going from essentially being the program director of a show, to a program director of a station. What have been some of the biggest challenges for you in that transition?
Jack: Honestly, there really weren’t any BIG challenges. The most difficult transition was all of the suit stuff like budgets, quarterlies, and meetings. But the core of the job, creating content, was easy. Whether it was San Diego, Nashville, Arizona, San Antonio or Vegas…there is always a need for great audio content. A producer has to think of the show and direct it to garner ratings and revenue. A PD has to do the same with all of the shows. And if you take the sales equation out of your job description, you won’t have a job. One of the most important things I learned as a PD as opposed to a producer is that this is a business, and must be successful as a business or the fun won’t happen. Another challenge was to never take anything personally in this business. I love people that are into what we do, and whether a competitor or a co-worker, we are all in this small broadcast world together.
Rick: I know that in your current job (PD in Vegas), you were an important cog in the recent Penn Jillette show, which also aired here in Chicago. I've met Penn several times over the years and he's one of those larger than life personalities (and not just because he's so physically big). What were some of the highlights and lowlights of that experience.
Jack: I’ll start with the lowlights. When the show started, it was part of the whole “Free FM’ rollout. New shows all over the country, to all sorts of newly formatted talk stations, with “regional” programming was the new directive. It was quite a challenge for anyone involved, whether it was New York with David Lee Roth, Chicago with Rover or West Coast with Carolla. We were this one hour, fill-in-the-blank show that was just sort of …. there… in the beginning. Penn was awesome. He had an idea of the show, and really wanted this to work. But in those early weeks, there were so many people from so many places telling him what to do. It really sucked and I think the show suffered some early hits. Phones came from New York so we had no idea who was calling or who would fit during a segment. Guests were nil if any. Nobody was on the same page with the show, and we saw it going into a steep dive. I met with then CBS President of Programming Rob Barnett, and just basically said I’m taking over the show, this is how it will run and that’s it.
We moved phones into the Slammer Studio (Penn’s house), and focused daily on what we would do to make a good show. Whether it was celebrity guests coming out to the house for the show, or fun elements each day such as Monkey Tuesday, Ask Layman Penn, or Pull of the Weasel, we gained a lot of momentum. Those days were some of the best days I had in radio. It was raw, at its newest, and Penn was an incredible talent to work with. He would learn every aspect of the radio business, and apply everything he learned. The highlights were each and every day after those first few months. It was such a pleasure to be a part of that team, along with Penn, Michael Goudeau and Patrick DiFazio. We ended the show knowing we should leave while we were on-top during the Free FM days. We have lunch together every week or so and talk radio often, and with all of that said, I don’t think those were the last days of Penn Radio. Stay tuned!
Rick: Do you ever make it back to Chicago?
Jack: Every chance I get! And every time I get back, I always have to make that commute downtown, park somewhere where I know the meter will run out too quick, and walk the old haunts. The last time I was back, I met up with Don & Roma for the last part of the show, and we made our way next door to have breakfast. Roma ordered eggs with lobster pieces, and I believe Don ordered the same. Not to be different, I had the same. But as we talked the old days of radio, and the new days of radio, something happened which confirmed to me that dreams certainly do come true…...
Don paid for breakfast.
I’ll be back!