The days since Friday have been filled with the kind wishes of listeners who absorbed as I did the news that WBAP’s new owners were going “in a different direction.”
I have sought to soothe the disillusioned reactions with the promise that I will have news to share soon about where I will appear next.
I also continue to enjoy, even cherish, the unstructured but busy days this has given me, filled with additional family time, writing time and time to get the new puppy to poop outside.
I’ve also had time to let the memories of 18 years settle onto the horizon through my rear-view mirror. I mentioned in my last post that the station I left doesn’t seem the same, with new owners and a new Dallas location.
But obviously it is the same in many respects, the human respects, the people who are still there, and for whom I wish nothing but the best.
My thoughts run to them often these days, as I run through a slide show of half of my adult life at one radio station.
I rarely tell jokes, so heaven knows I am not one to invent them. But I am proud of this one: What do they call you after 18 years at WBAP? The new guy.
This is a reference to folks like Hal Jay and Steve Lamb, who have been at that frequency far longer, as were legends like Bill Mack, Don Day and Don Harris, whose careers stretch back over the decades of BAP as a country music pillar.
My memory pages begin to turn with the day in Spring 1994 when I took over in a daypart that had been occupied by Don Harris, whose years of service had earned him the kind of listener loyalty I have only now begun to feel.
As BAP made the transition from country to talk, adding Rush Limbaugh in the afternoon, new programming manager Tyler Cox was smart enough to keep the local personalities the market knew and loved, tasking them with doing things other than playing Reba McEntire records.
Hal Jay transitioned into a news/talk morning show host along with partner Dick Siegel, an adjustment less jarring because they were only playing a few songs per show anyway, what with the heavy commitments to news, weather, sports and other services, and the magnificent moments of prepared comedy, with bits like Sam From Sales and Willie Landum, Fishing Guide to the Stars.
(Those segments grew in scope and type and personnel, peaking a few years ago before they were discontinued, a move listeners still hate, and rightfully so. More on that later.)
Harris and other longtime DJs faced a stiffer challenge-- do a whole talk show. It is not that “Harris and Company,” as it had been tentatively titled, did not work. It had the same easy affability as Don’s shows over the years playing music. But the decision was made that if BAP was to be a talk station, it had to go find talk show guys. That was what led to my hiring, and the day I walked into the lobby on Broadcast Hill in East Fort Worth to “fill in” for Don in February 1994.
I was not really auditioning. Tyler had purposefully called me after two years together at WWRC in Washington, DC, where I still was.
He had come to DC in early 1990 after stints in Boston and Sacramento (where he was briefly the Program Director at KFBK for a local show hosted by a guy named Rush Limbaugh). When mighty ABC called and asked him to come pilot the transition of its major Dallas-Ft Worth property into the talk format, he could not refuse. When he asked me to come with him, I declined.
I was on a station with middling ratings (up against WMAL, another monster ABC station with Rush in middays), but I was back in my hometown after hosting shows in Jacksonville and Memphis.
Regina was just a baby, and after all, I was doing a talk show in the nation’s capital. Under Tyler’s guidance, we had come close (okay, fairly close) to WMAL’s numbers. I did not want to move.
I was, of course, an idiot. Washington is a terrible market for local talk. While North Texas latches onto great topics no matter where they occur, DC, Maryland and Virginia could not care less about each other. I toiled away for another year and a half, until a day when the Radio Gods smiled on me with a second opportunity to come to Texas.
I had learned that there was wisdom in leaving a station laboring in the shadow of an ABC property with Limbaugh, for the chance to join an ABC property with Limbaugh.
So I sat down for two shows at WBAP, just to get the feel of the studio, the programming clock, the staff. Proving that the Radio Gods also have a sense of humor, they saw to it that this lifelong Washington Redskins fan got to anchor coverage of an entire Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl parade.
I have since managed to reconcile my NFL passions. Nothing can erase my memories of growing up at RFK Stadium watching Sonny Jurgensen, Charley Taylor and Diron Talbert. But my bread has been buttered here for two decades, and I have found room in my heart to join my listeners in rooting for the Cowboys, the nemesis of my youth.
Those listeners got their first dose of me as permanent host on March 28, 1994. I had been on the payroll since March 21, given a week to do nothing but listen to other shows, among them David Gold and Kevin McCarthy on KLIF. Longtime local favorite Jody Dean was also given a show on KRLD. There was a lot of local talk to go around, and it was a joy to be counted among the fraternity of these good and talented people.
It was clear WBAP was going to do this talk thing right, spending the money necessary to do memorable shows. In my third year, I was off to Chicago for the re-nomination convention of Bill Clinton, and to San Diego for the well-meaning but ultimately futile anointment of Bob Dole.
It was at that 1996 Republican convention that I ran into a number of North Texans who gave me the first inkling that something special was under construction.
As the nineties ebbed, I enjoyed additional years of a growing fan base and a growing bond with the people who were in it. If listeners and I were growing close in those years, the unforgettable drama of the 2000 election fused us together inseparably.
In that year, we had logged more great convention shows, with George W. Bush in Philadelphia and Al Gore in Los Angeles. We had traveled to Iowa and New Hampshire, where the races all began, an exercise I’ve maintained ever since. A year after the snows of New England, I watched the snow fall on the Bush inaugural, covering the event from the reviewing stand on Pennsylvania Avenue, a broadcasting dream come true.
Since inaugurations are in Washington and the new President was from Texas, the idea blossomed of joint coverage simulcast on WBAP and WMAL in DC. I co-anchored that coverage with a man I had listened to as a teenager, the great Chris Core.
Eight months later, the world changed and the Radio Gods had their way with me again, arranging for me to be in Mexico on 9/11, the day of the biggest story of any modern life.
Planes were silent but phones obviously still worked, and I was on the air at BAP sharing thoughts about the events in general and describing the reactions of fellow Americans similarly stranded in the Yucatan as smoke still rose from Ground Zero.
WBAP, like most talk stations, ran wall-to-wall news coverage for most of the rest of the week. There would have been only one talk show for me to do, probably Friday, September 14. I never got to do it. I was back the following Monday for a broadcast with my colleagues at Grapevine Mills Mall raising money for various charities serving victims.
In a larger sense, I will never know what it was like to actually be in America on 9/11. Sure, I’ve heard a million stories from Texans, Floridians, Oregonians and most notably New Yorkers about what that day was like for them, but I will never have a personal story about what it felt like to stand on the soil of my country as it was attacked.
But I’ll tell you what I have that few others have: a memory of returning to a nation forever changed.
We had flown to Mexico on a charter that had stopped to pick up some folks from Houston on the way to Cancun. (By the way, you can have Cancun. Head down the coast to more placid Playa del Carmen.) We stopped to drop them off before returning to D/FW.
Landing in Houston puts your plane pretty close to the ground as land appears under you. I will never forget the anticipation of seeing the Texas coastline, knowing I was looking down on a country newly at war.
The issues stemming from 9/11 and the war occupied a properly large percentage of the shows I have done ever since. Sprinkled throughout, though were the great trips for political travel that broadened the topical base. In 2004, the Bush renomination in New York, and the Kerry convention in Boston (where we heard a keynote speech from Senate candidate Barack Obama). In 2008, the McCain-Palin drama in St. Paul and the Barackalypse in Denver. And, of course, I am freshly back from this year’s Iowa and New Hampshire coverage, where I found a candidate and a friend in Rick Santorum.
I am not generally a fan of shows outside the nurturing womb of my studio. I like my room. It has the TVs, the computers, the access to audio and the familiarity I crave for maximum comfort, which leads to the best radio.
Thank God I did not work for people who gave in to pressure from clients to whore out shows to attract people to the spectacle of broadcasting. I love public appearances, apart from the actual show, but I do not need to be talking about partial birth abortion on the air in the middle of a hardware store in Duncanville.
But I loved the political trips, which plopped me into the middle of huge breaking news, surrounded by other people doing their shows from all over the country.
And there was another type of out-of-studio broadcasting I came to love.
When I started at BAP in March ’94, I was told to get ready for September, and three weeks of outdoor shows at the State Fair of Texas.
It was everything that makes outdoor talk shows problematic: loud, distracting and technically challenging. And I loved every minute of it.
Each show began amid the cool of autumn and the quiet of Fair Park before the gates were open. People would stream in at ten, and by eleven, I was talking over-- and with-- kids, parents, grandparents, farmers, ranchers, carnies and anybody who had come by to plug some product or service. I managed to shoehorn real topics into that crazy circus, and it was magical. Like the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo broadcasts each winter, it was a chance for an extended, daily handshake and hug with the people who had been kind enough to welcome me onto their radios and into their lives.
As the years brought an additional bond with listeners, they also gave me additional family members. I am an only child, but my Radio Family makes the Waltons’ mountain shack look deserted.
Meeting and getting to know and love Hal Jay and Steve Lamb are the gifts of a career and a lifetime. And as for that only child business, I may have to revise that, as Rick Hadley and Sean Chastain are the brothers I never technically had.
Watching Rick grow professionally but shrink personally has been a nonstop adventure. The fairly obese news kid I met in ’94 is now the chiseled and seasoned News Director of WBAP and KLIF, a path he has walked to the soundtrack of the ear-pummeling metal he can’t shake his love for. I have loved walking that path with him, as a friend and co-worker.
Sean is very simply the funniest person ever born. Okay, we’ll split that honor with Hal for decades of on-air comedy, but the things Sean has written for that morning show plus countless asides and moments of found comedy in our shared adventures have given me the loudest laughs of my life. Coupled with the years of love and support, I am forever blessed to know him.
And as friends do, I will now throw him under the bus with a story he will tell only if you make him. Sean’s humor is from his brain to his mouth as situations warrant. It is as reliable as sunrise, but not as predictable. He is not a trained seal. His genius springs from moments of inspiration, whenever they occur.
That means a chance to meet one of his idols quickly turned from memorable to torturous. In 2002, Dick Armey was wrapping up 18 years in Congress, nearly half as House Majority leader. I was the MC of an event in his honor in Dallas, heavy with high-caliber guests, among them Ben Stein, whose wit and insights have delighted me for years.
Understand that if I love Ben Stein, Sean Loves. Ben. Stein. So I introduce them and herald Sean as the gifted guy who writes most of the morning comedy segments on WBAP.
Stein, with a droll pause, says, “Nice to meet you. Say something funny.”
I can see the blood drain from Sean’s face and hear his stomach tighten into a thick knot. All he would want is for Ben to hear the superb lines he had written that morning for Mystic Chuck or Breakfast With Betty or Fake Andy Rooney. But in that moment I don’t know if Sean could have remembered his home address. I clumsily sought to explain the nuance of Sean’s gift to Ben, but the moment had passed and off he walked, in a gray suit and sneakers, carrying a large briefcase stuffed with papers and medicine bottles.
This still eats at Sean, but all he has done in the meantime is provide years of laughs for morning listeners through his writing, and years of joy to me through his friendship.
Now to those morning bits, which the familiar will remember with fond nostalgia, and the unfamiliar will have no idea about.
When I arrived, board operator John Hanson provided Hal and Dick with some character voices they turned into brutally funny radio segments, usually written moments before they were performed, adding to their urgently timely brilliance. When Sean took over as board op, he also added his writing to these segments, which grew to include a slew of new characters featuring the voice of Eric Harley, who is now paired with Gary Mcnamara on the rapidly growing Red Eye Radio syndicated overnight show.
There is no doubt that writing and performing these gems tapped into the focus and energy of other morning show elements, to say nothing of the minutes of tearful laughter that would usually take up even more time. On the premise that Hal and the morning show would be better served by dumping these segments and sticking to the lion’s share of what the morning show does-- news, services, interview segments-- the comedy bits were discontinued.
This was a horrible idea, and it remains horrible to this day.
Every station provides content of a certain sort. You always want your station to do it better, and WBAP usually did, whether news, weather, sports or interviews. But if you have an opportunity through Hal’s extemporaneous sense of humor, Sean’s writing gift and Eric or John’s voice talents, to create moments that would be talked about for days, sometimes years, that is an opportunity to be unique and memorable and it should never have been sacrificed just so we could get in one more segment that sounded much like every other segment, good as they are.
But, I don’t program shows, I just do them. All I have control over is my own on-air world, which has contained more wonderful people than I could name here, from the sales folks who have made me a commercial fixture in many places to the staff I have shared a building with, the newspeople who have provided such a stellar product that I have used as a launching point for so many topics, and the producers who have assembled shows for me and taken your calls over the years-- from Julie Van Dielen to Lisa Hinson to my friend forever Jeff Williams (who is still obligated to go back to Israel with me whenever I go), to the all-too-brief era of Susan Cloud, who brought not just practical skill but an unmatched personal appeal to her first radio producing gig ever.
Okay, enough. I could go on, but it’s time to focus on that next show, which I will share more about when it is time. But I didn’t want to walk through that next door without sharing a little about the amazing journey at WBAP, the images of which will stay with me no matter what ownership clutches the station finds itself in as the years pass. Employees, formats, business plans can all blow away like leaves in the wind, but radio memories are forever. I will soon make more.
The Radio Family with Sean Hannity at the 2010 Hannity concert. Sean is flanked by the First Couple of Traffic, Laura Houston and Monty Cook. Beside Laura is Steve Lamb, beside Monty is news anchor Amy Chodroff. The back row, L to R: Rick Hadley, me, Sean Chastain in the shadow, Hal Jay, morning co-host Brian Estridge.