Musings, observations, and written works from the publisher of Eckhartz Press, the media critic for the Illinois Entertainer, co-host of Minutia Men, Minutia Men Celebrity Interview and Free Kicks, and the author of "Back in the D.D.R", "EveryCubEver", "The Living Wills", "$everance," "Father Knows Nothing," "The Radio Producer's Handbook," "Records Truly Is My Middle Name", and "Gruen Weiss Vor".
Reading Rick Kaempfer’s novel Back in the D.D.R. will feel for many like echoes of a childhood — anyone who grew up in the era of the Cold War and under the belief that Soviet spies, and American spies for that matter, could be anywhere. But what makes this book such an enjoyable read is not nostalgia, spy suspense, or even history, but instead it is the story of Rudi, the book’s protagonist, and his coming of age in those tenuous yet remarkable years.
Rudi is German yet trying to find his way in America. He loves baseball and the favorite TV shows of the early 1970s. But his parents decide to return to West Germany, and it is only when he crosses the Iron Curtain into East Germany that he begins to discover the real reason why his family has come back to their homeland. It is certainly not a vacation.
Matching history with Rudi’s awakening to the times makes Back in the D.D.R. a compelling story, giving the tale deep roots both emotionally and culturally. Rudi’s maturation comes alongside striking events in the world and reminds the reader how global history can impact a singular life, especially that of a 13-year-old boy.
The Writer Shed Interview with Author Rick Kaempfer
1. Why this book at this time? Why this period in history, Cold War Europe?
I hadn’t written a novel in ten years, because I was writing more non-fiction, and concentrating on my publishing company, but I always knew I would someday write this story about my childhood growing up in Cold War Europe. I think the events in Ukraine really sealed the deal for me. After what I had seen and heard and experienced growing up where I did (West Germany), I wasn’t surprised in the least by Russia’s actions in Ukraine. I was, however, surprised by the American public’s reaction. I realized that a whole generation of Americans have grown up not understanding or appreciating the value of NATO and America’s commitment to democracy. I thought maybe this story would at least remind readers what the stakes are, and what a Europe divided by an Iron Curtain really looked like. I saw, heard, smelled, felt, and experienced it all firsthand and wanted to bring it back to life so others could too.
2. So many novelists put a bit of themselves in their fiction? Is some of you in the main character, Rudi? (You make a nod to this s bit in the acknowledgements) if so, what specifically did you take from your own experiences?
Yes, the main character of Rudi is definitely similar to me at that age. I opted to write this as fiction rather than a memoir, however, because the events I write about here took place over six years instead of one. Also, I honestly don’t know some of the details of what really happened because they were hidden from me. The one person who could answer those questions, my father, died more than 30 years ago. That allowed me to include speculation, heighten the action, and more deeply explore the events of that time. What is real to me is the emotional part of the story. The fears, the worries, the difficulties. The humor is real too. Those were my actual “fish out of water” observations from that time.
3. Although it’s somewhat unnecessary to categorize a book these days. It’s mainly for the reader to understand what they are getting into. That said, this book may be hard to categorize — is it a coming-of-age story? Historical fiction? Suspense? Mystery? How would you characterize it? Readers love to know this.
First and foremost, it’s a coming-of-Age story. Yes, it takes place in the past, but it’s set in the past more than historical fiction or a spy thriller. Let’s call it a coming-of-age-historical-fiction-spy-thriller.
4. It’s clear there had to be a great deal of research done while writing this novel, considering its content. Can you summarize your process?
You are right that I did a ton of research, but it was kind of fun, to be honest. I have friends in the military who helped me find answers to my military questions. I even got in touch, through an old high school pal who is now a General, with former NATO commander Alexander Haig’s old chief of staff. I have relatives who lived in East Germany, so I knew all about the STASI, and those STASI files are all out there now. Most of my family fled war-torn Nazi Germany, so I knew all about the Nazis growing up, and knew exactly where to find that information. (I also speak and read German, which helped a lot). In addition, I personally visited every single location I wrote about (and it takes place in seven different countries), so I didn’t have to imagine what any place looked like. But the funniest thing about my research is that I watched so many documentaries about the Nazis and the Commies that my Amazon Prime and Netflix “Suggestions for you” section looks like I should be put on some sort of a government watch list.
5. Might there be another Rudi story in the future?
As much fun as I had writing this book, I’m pretty sure there won’t be another Rudi novel. There could be some more stories, though. I have a few more from that era that are quite entertaining.
A curation of news items
about the media from this past week, with a particular emphasis on Chicago
(By Rick Kaempfer)
=The February radio ratings are out and WLIT continues to dominate. They now have a
five-month streak at the top of the ratings. There are a few other interesting
notes here. Kiss-FM (103.5) took the biggest one month drop (from 4.3 to 2.7)
and fell out of the top ten. The biggest one-month gain went to WSHE (1.6 to
2.1). In the sports-radio wars, the Score outpaced ESPN Radio (1.7 to 1.0). Here
are the top ten overall…
seems to be happening everywhere in the media, including iHeartMedia. Although
to be fair, at least they aren’t cutting employees yet. It reminds me of my
days at CBS radio when we had to get special approval from the bosses to use
the nice stationery. This is the money shot from the staff e-mail from CEO Bob
Pittman and COO Rich Bressler: “Our goal is to do
everything we can to get through this difficult economic time while protecting
our employee base as much as possible. Therefore, we'll be implementing the
following necessary cost savings:
• Temporarily suspending the 401(k) match starting in your next
pay period and for future months until the advertising marketplace improves.
Please note that any contributions made so far in this year will not be affected.
• We will only be backfilling mission critical roles.
• Stopping or reducing all discretionary spending, including
non-essential T&E, overtime, outside vendor spend, temporary contractors,
few weeks ago I reported that Alpha Media (owner of several suburban stations)
made a series of staff cuts. It wasn’t revealed until this week exactly how
that would shake out. They are now rebranding as a Star Superstation. WXLC
becomes Star 102.3. WSSR is Star 96.7. WZSR is Star 105.5. All three will have
the same morning show (Joe Cicero and Tina Bree), the same afternoon
show (Eddie Volkman and Hannah B), and the same evening and overnight
shows (Erik Zachary & John Tesh). The only timeslot they will differ
is middays. All three stations are going after the same audience. This is the
way Regional VP Brian Foster said it in a press release: “everything is geared towards a busy suburban mom and
getting her through her day.”
=Also announced this
week, Leah Anderson, who will be one of the midday personalities (at
Star 102.3) will also return to co-host mornings with Tom Kief at WIIL
in Union Grove Wisconsin. She replaces Stino Cirigliano, who was one of
the staff cuts announced a few weeks ago.
*Texas Rep Ronny Jackson Introduces Act to Defund NPR
=He calls it the No Partisan Radio and Partisan Broadcasting Services (or NPR and PBS, get it?) Act. Inside Radio has the story. It has no chance of passing both houses.
*Stan Lawrence Retires
=Stan has been a part of
the Chicago media landscape for decades, as a contributor to Steve &
Garry’s show (at various different stations), as a co-host with the late Terry
Armour at WCKG, as a contributor to Chicago
Tonight on Channel 11, and as a co-host of the AM 1000 show Ebony &
Ivory (with me). But throughout that time, he was also working as an
engineer. This week, after 44 years, he officially retired. In true Stan
Lawrence fashion, this is his new permanent out-of-office message on Outlook.
*Les Grobstein’s Recorder and Lee Elia Tape Up for Auction
=Not thrilled by this development. From Radio Ink:Web-based traffic platform Radio Workflow is the latest to put artificial intelligence to work for radio sales and production with their new AI voiceover program, Voice My Ad. Within Voice My Ad’s first month more than one million words were voiced.
*The Loop Files
=This week’s trip to the Loop Files featured sportscaster Chuck Swirsky. It’s here, in case you missed it. Remember, I post a new one every Tuesday.
=Just discovered this brand new podcast from local Chicago media mavens DJ Gil Golden (Kirk Fox) and DJ BK (Bill Kissinger). It's called "Best Song I Ever Wrote" and they ask artists to tell the story about their best songs. Their first guest is Bill G from Bishops Daredevil Stuntclub. The first episode is here.
in Joliet has given a start to many Chicago radio careers. A few of them
gathered this week to reminisce.
19, 1928—Amos & Andy debuts on network radio (NBC
Blue Network/WMAQ Chicago)
you hear it now, it’s shockingly racist. But when it debuted on NBC this week
in 1928 (live from Chicago), it was one of the most popular shows in the
country. The show began in 1926 as “Sam and Henry” on WGN
radio, which described it as a “colored comedy serial.” Blackface Minstrel
shows were the biggest Vaudeville draws, and this was the radio version of
that. When NBC wanted to air it nationwide, WGN refused to let them take the
name Sam & Henry along with them. The show was renamed Amos & Andy,
and within a year it was a nationwide six-night a week hit, airing at 7PM
Eastern time. It was rebroadcast on the West Coast in the same time slot; the
first show to ever rate that kind of importance. Chicago was suddenly the center
of the American media universe–and became home to dozens of national hit radio
shows. None of them, however, were as popular as the number one show in the
country, Amos & Andy.
19, 1965—Jack Quinlan dies in car crash.
was the radio play-by-play man for the Cubs from 1955-1964, the first announcer
to say the names Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Lou Brock and more. (He
shared the booth with Lou Boudreau and Charlie Grimm). The car
accident happened during spring training in 1965. Quinlan was only 38 years
19, 1977—Final episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show
was the end of an era. Who could ever forget that last hug?
19, 1989—Steve Dahl’s on-air vasectomy
first-ever live on-air vasectomy aired on this day in 1989 on AM 1000. Dahl was
put under local anesthesia, and Garry Meier described the procedure on
the radio along with Steve’s doctor, while Steve begged everyone to stop laughing
while performing such a delicate task. Hard to describe how hilarious it was.
It appears on Steve & Garry’s Decade of Service.
20--Mitch Michaels birthday
is a legendary rock jock in Chicago, with stints at virtually every rock station
including WXRT, Q-101, the Loop, WCKG, and the River. In 2017, he wrote a
memoir (with KenChurilla) about his career called Doin the Cruise.
I interviewed Mitch in 2009 for Chicago Radio Spotlight, and then interviewed him again in 2015 for Illinois Entertainer. My publishing company Eckhartz
Press also published Mitch’s book.
*March 21, 1970—The Agony of Defeat
=The man who crashed on the ski jump
was named Vinko Bogataj. For the rest of the 70s, we would call him the
“Agony of Defeat” because of his starring role in the opening sequence of Wild
World of Sports.
*March 21, 1980—Who Shot J.R?
=On the season finale of Dallas, this
week in 1980, a mystery character shot J.R. Ewing. For the entire summer
America speculated who it was. It wasn’t revealed until November. Hard to
imagine a show capturing the attention of the entire nation like that these
*March 21, 2006—Twitter is founded
=Twitter is such a big part of our world it’s hard to remember that it hasn’t been around that long. As
of this week, it’s only 17 years.
*March 22—Bob Costas birthday
=Costas is one of the most respected
names in sports broadcasting, host of 12 Olympics Games and winner of 28 Emmy
Awards. He’s also in the Baseball Hall of Fame (as a Ford Frick Award winner)
and was at the microphone for NBC calling Ryne Sandberg’s greatest game
in 1984. But before all of that great glory, Costas worked in Chicago as the
play-by-play man for the Chicago Bulls on WGN-TV during the 1979-1980 season.
*March 24—Julie Unruh birthday
=Julie was a reporter/anchor at WGN-TV for twenty years. She signed
off in 2021 to spend more time with her family.
*March 25—Didi Foley birthday
=You may have heard her on the air at the Mix and WSHE over the
years, but for the past 15 years she has also been the Campus Services Manager
for Waubonsee Community College in Aurora.
*March 25, 1954—Color TV
=Color TV is 69 years old this week. RCA unveiled the very first
one in 1954. It had a 12-inch screen and cost $1000.
*Marquee to air unseen Cubs footage
=Jeff Agrest has the details in the Sun Times. Films of the Cubs and Wrigley Field dating from the 1920s to the late 50s will be revealed by Peabody Award winning producer George Roy (from HBO's "When it was a Game") in a series called "Cubs Flicks". Local voices will help narrate what we see, including former Cubs beat writers Bruce Miles and Fred Mitchell, and various other authors and writers. I'm one of them (as the author of "EveryCubEver"). Can't wait to see the finished product.
*Out of the Loop
=Chicago is, and always has been, a hotbed of comedy. Looking forward to this streaming special. (h/t to Rick Gieser, an associate producer of the project). It begins streaming on April 11 on Apple-TV and other streaming services.
*Doug Levy Out
=This was unexpected news. Levy
announced the news himself this week on his Facebook and LinkedIn pages this
*Denver Reporter Stops Her Report from School Shooting Story to Hug Her Son
=She was reporting on the story, not knowing what had happened to her own son. He walked by while she was on the air, and...
=It may not happen for a few more
weeks, but ESPN has put out the word it definitely will happen, and can include
anyone on the staff, except probably the MNF team (Jack Buck and Troy
Aikman), Scott Van Pelt, or Stephen A Smith. More info here.
=Just so Fox News doesn’t feel alone,
Vice Media has its own scandal. Shane Smith is in the midst of it, now
that it has been reported that he made more $100 million from the financially
shaky media company. Semafor has more on this one.
*Congress Wants Digital Ads to Follow
Same Disclaimer Rules as Radio
=It doesn’t seem fair that radio,
television, and print advertisements are forced by law to provide legal
disclaimers in their ads, but that digital ads are not required to do so. This
loophole has been particularly dangerous in the political world, where dark
money and misinformation flourish. Senator Amy Klobuchar is the chairman
of the Senate committee for Rules and Administration and is proposing new rules. “By ensuring online political advertisements meet the same
disclaimer requirements as television, radio, and print advertisements, this
legislation would bring much-needed transparency to our campaign finance system
and help prevent foreign interference in our elections.”
*Tik Tok’s plan
to stave off government intervention
As always, if you have any media story you’d like to share or think that I might be interested in sharing, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. If you're in Chicago media and wondering why I didn't mention your birthday, it's probably because I don't know it. Drop me a line and let me know and I'll put you on my calendar.
If you're interested in some of my other projects from this week...
I've been working on revising the book for the upcoming 5th edition (which will be out on Opening Day). Thought I'd share a few of these EveryCubEver entries with you while I worked...
Tony LaRussa 1944-- (Cubs 1973)
On April 6, 1973, the Cubs won the opener 3-2 over the Expos in the bottom of
the ninth because the best relief pitcher in baseball, Mike Marshall, walked in
two runs. The winning run was scored by Tony LaRussa in his only game as a Cub.
He came in as a pinch runner for Ron Santo. Of course after his unexceptional
playing career (he only had a total of 203 plate appearances in parts of six
big league seasons), LaRussa became a Hall of Fame manager, winning the World
Series with both the Oakland A’s and St. Louis Cardinals.
With over 80 books in our library, this year we're taking some time every week to highlight one of the books on the Eckhartz bookshelf. This week's book is "City U" by Bob Boone.
The stories in CITY U, Bob Boone’s third work of fiction, feature the inhabitants of a large city school – teachers, students, old folks, volunteers, administrators and a whole lot more. In a world such as this, things can happen.
*A counselor is asked to do something stupid. *A former teacher, chaperoning a City U trip to Morocco, receives anonymous notes *Two students decide to perform an act of mercy. *A basketball player, who left City U to go big time, decides to do something else with his life and, at the same time, prevent a murder from taking place. *An English professor, on one of the worst days of his life, discovers something that matters. *A failed radical, his grieving widower father, and a seriously angry drama queen find themselves in a room together. *An administrator decides what to do about an unwelcome visitor from his past *A senior center coordinator tells his girlfriend why he ended a friendship years ago back in Wisconsin. *A returning student and his idealistic Ivy League neighbor try to rewrite the town’s history.
Rather than “proving” a point, the stories in CITY U illustrate the human condition.
“Bob Boone’s stories have a haunting sense which inhabits his narrative, just below the surface. I am surprised, not just by the actions of his characters, but also by my own reactions which frequently catch me off guard, as I want to warn them from the vantage point of my own experience and failings. They are us, and we cringe and laugh with them.”
--Michael F. Latza, Editor, Willow Review
“Bob Boone has the unique knack of finding the uncommon in so-called common people. The dialogue of his characters always rings true, never mincing words. Boone is a master of twists and turns in his stories, always keeping his readers thoroughly engaged.”
--Richard Reeder, author of Chicago Sketches and 1001 Train Rides in Chicago
“From the outside looking in, a small city college appears rather pedestrian, a weigh station for those unable to make a more elite school work but still hopeful of moving up some ladder or another. From the inside looking out, the perspective is much more refined, complicated, and intriguing. That is what Bob Boone does in his new short story collection, City U: he inverts the lens.”
--Donald G. Evans, author of Off-White Christmas and Good Money After Bad
“Boone’s economical use of dialogue serves a dual purpose, as characters reveal questionable attitudes in a small amount of space or, more often, withhold uncomfortable truths from themselves and others. These layered, often humorous classroom insights are buoyed by the author’s lean, clear writing style.”
We have now done over 200 interviews on our various Minutia Men podcasts, and this year we're going to revisit some of the best. We had a surprisingly wonderful conversation about five years ago with former Cub Carmen Fanzone. Carmen was a part of the Cubs teams of my youth, so it was fun chatting with him about some of my heroes like Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and Joe Pepitone. He had some great Joe Pepitone stories. Fanzone was also a famous musician, and we talked to him about that. A thoroughly enjoyable interview.
I'm working on a special project this year about a certain radio station, so I've been going back into my files and pulling out some old interviews with former Loop colleagues and pals. I'll feature one a week here on the blog. This week it's sportscaster Chuck Swirsky. Swirsk is now the radio play-by-play man of the Chicago Bulls, but in the early 80s he was brought aboard the Loop from his previous radio home, WCFL. He wrote about that in his book, "Always a Pleasure" which was released last Christmas by Eckhartz Press. The following is a short excerpt of his chapter about the Loop...
With one eye looking to leave WCFL the timing couldn’t have been
more perfect then to receive an offer from the hottest radio station in the country
in 1980, WLUP FM, commonly known as “The Loop.” The station played rock and
roll music featuring high energy personalities like the outrageous morning show
duo of Steve Dahl and Garry Meier, who took radio to a different level,
depending on how you define “different.”
Dahl drew national attention when his Disco Demolition Night at
Comiskey Park ended in a riot. The playing field was so unplayable the Sox had
to forfeit the second game of a doubleheader against the Tigers. The station
featured some of the best radio music hosts in the country in Sky Daniels,
Mitch Michaels, and Patti Haze. News Director Tom Webb was terrific, as was
news anchor Buzz Kilman.
General Manager Les Elias told me his plans were for me to anchor
morning and afternoon drive sports and eventually host a Sunday night sports
talk show. I liked Elias very much, along with his assistant Greg Solk, a
rising star in broadcast management. I was leaving a nightly sports talk show,
navigating my way to a new world of sports on a rock and roll station. WCFL
offered give me a two-year deal, but I declined.
My first shift on “The Loop” took place September 22, 1980. I sat
down in a small booth with a glass partition separating myself and the on-air
hosts, in this case Dahl and Meier. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect, but
it became very apparent from day one that they were not pleased I invaded their
space. They would constantly interrupt my sportscasts and at times not give it
back as they moved on to other things. In their eyes I was a nuisance. To a
certain degree I understood where they were coming from. Steve and Garry were
on the verge of overtaking legendary morning man WGN’s Wally Phillips for the
top spot in morning drive ratings, and suddenly a new voice arrives taking time
away from their show.
I kept my head down and continued to report and cover Chicago
sports. My Sunday night sports talk show took us to different venues around the
city performing live from the “Thirsty Whale” to “Buffoons.” We did salute a
“Buffoon of the Week” with a box of Lemonhead Candy sent to the recipient.
On Friday, February 13, 1981, following my morning sportscasts, I
hung around the station for 30 minutes or so, then grabbed the bus to take me
home. To reiterate, this is 1981. No cell phones, Internet, social media. I
returned to the station around 2:30 and saw our receptionist trying her best to
answer calls at a frenetic pace.
“What is going on?” I asked myself. I’ll tell you what was going
on: Steve Dahl had been fired by Heftel Broadcasting for “continued assaults on
community standards and repeated violations of company policy” (WLUP release).
I was stunned. Meier was offered the opportunity to stay but
declined. It was major news in Chicago. Like front page news. Dahl was a
megastar. He was Howard Stern before Howard Stern. Regardless of if you found
him to your liking or not, Dahl was a superstar in the industry.