By accident I ran across discussion of Talkers Magazine's "Heavy Hundred" list. This is a list of who's the real who in talk radio across America. And the highest anyone ranked in Chicago is #50.
Are you surprised by this?
WGN's Steve Cochran was highest of Chicago-only hosts at #50.
Steve Dahl (WLS) - #57
Roe Conn (WGN) - #74
Bill Leff and Wendy Snyder (WGN) - #81
Off the list - Jonathon Brandmeier (syndicated out of Chicago), the late Doug Banks (syndicated out of Chicago), Big John Howell, Dan Proft & Amy Jacobson, Nick Digilio, Matt McGill, Erich "Mancow" Muller, and Wayne Besen.
What the hell's going on here? Since it's only the three or four of you, I gotta tell you about the last time I went to visit my daughter in New York City. Once a radio geek always a radio geek, so in the middle of the day I sometimes drove around listening to the radio, jumping from AM station to AM station looking for some decent talk.
And I found it. There was this one guy talking about the Verazzanno Bridge and this woman talking about not enough coffee at the PTA meeting she attended the previous night in Connecticut. And the first thing I noticed is that these two hosts could tell a story. They both brought me in right away and I sat in parking lot of the hotel just going back and forth between the two hosts. I was immediately a loyal listener.
That never happens in Chicago. Not anymore. I used to sit on my back porch listening to Roe Conn and Gary Meyer in the afternoons. Radio geek just like the three or four of you. Once, in like 2004, I went to see a live show of the two and I remember writing in a journal book that's long ago been thrown in the trash that I just witnessed talk radio how it should be done. It was a magical moment for me, a true inspiration.
But I gotta tell the three or four of you that I NEVER get that listening to Chicago radio anymore. Never. Look at the list above. Brandmeier, Dahl, Mancow - these guys used to reach into my soul to tell me that the world can be a funny place if you let it be... and that it's OK to be a radio geek at your core.
Now, and I apologize for saying this about guys whom I have given hours, days, weeks, months - years - of my life to, you no longer inspire me. I understand the need to make a paycheck, and I understand the stations' needs to put something on the air. But I don't hear the rhythm, the heartbeat, the something real and true and full of possibility in ANY radio in Chicago now. You don't take chances. You don't inspire.
That's not to say that I'm the only one in the whole Chicago DMA that's talking true and beautiful, and that as soon as the rest of the world besides the three or four of you discovers me I'll make the Talkers Heavy Hitters. At 54, I might be too old to make that kind of run. Remember when Matt "Money" Smith came to the WJOB studio a couple years ago and told about the "rule of 55."
Money grew up in Hammond a few blocks from our new station in the Purdue Commercialization Center. Now he and Petros do the top sports talk show in Los Angeles - Petros and Money.
"I don't know why it is in sports talk, but when you hit 55, they kick you to the curb," Money said, or something to that extent. I think about this a lot. I'm gonna be 55 next year. Does the same thing apply to local morning hosts? Will my light start to dim?
Or have I entered the game so late in life that my light hasn't even begun to shine? I hope it's the latter but in the end I spend so much freaking time on running the station and funding the station and trying to buy more stations and make payroll and sell ads and do relationship deals and go to client seminars and charity events and you get the picture. True, at 54 I have enough life experience to do a decent talk show for the three or four of you and then three or four others... but do I manage my life well enough to make doing the show the most important thing in my life?
Take today. I'm not doing the morning show because I have three things to do that are vital to the future of the station. Dave Kusiak and Bill Baker and Andy Qunell are on WJOB right now. They're doing a great job filling in... but I lose just a little connection with you when I'm not there.
Back to Chicago radio. You'd think as a host at a station whose tower is 20 miles from downtown Chicago I'd like it to be that Chicago talk radio has grown a little stale, but that's not the case. I want good talent to rise in Chicago. I want to listen to it, be inspired by it. My wife and I own our little American, Radio station, and I ride my bike over to do the morning show and she drives a couple miles to do her law practice. Our kids are grown and we go out and have a little too much fun in the evenings and on the weekends... if for no other reason to make up for weekends at volleyball tournaments and late-night editing of term papers.
Yesterday, Alexis and I were walking through Whiting and there was this guy toting a kid in his arms, another on a tricycle and another on a bike with training wheels. The kids were all smiling, happy. The dad just look tired. They are the best days of your life, but you're tired most of the time and by the time you get to the point where you can watch a full Cubs game... that's exactly what you want to do, watch a full Cubs game.
What I'm trying to say is that I'm a local radio host and I've:
1.lived in a "cooperative" in Berkeley
2. worked as a union construction laborer
3. been a counselor in a halfway house
4. been a publisher of a newspaper
5. traded in the pits of Chicago for 18 years
But mostly I've been a father and husband and uncle and brother... and I live around the corner from my sister and her family and my brother and his family. In-between us is my dad and his wife and across the river there's more relatives and on the other side of US 41 there's more than that. We raise money for charity and we raise consciousness about the issues in our home area.
It's a full life, and I'm not sure I want to go out and slay any more new dragons. I'm content taking part in a higher calling - local radio - but is it enough? Do I secretly envy the 100 on the list that ignores Chicago? Do I dream of being on it? Of course. But that doesn't dull my observation skills when it comes to the level of quality and inspiration provided by Chicago radio hosts. Maybe it's that they're too controlled by corporate interests. Or maybe there's just not that many talented young people coming in to talk radio. Or maybe we just don't want to listen to talkers unless they have experience under their belts.
For whatever the reason, this is not the golden age of talk radio in Chicago. Here's what the article from Chicagoland Radio and Media says.
"Is this poor showing on the "Heavy Hundred" due to an error in Talkers' view of Chicago hosts, or are Chicago's current talk radio hosts that sub-par when compared to the rest of the country's hosts?"
That's a question you'll have to answer for yourself. I gotta write a sponsorship proposal and build a power point for a partnership proposal and then fix the backup STL and then edit some photos and tape. You get the picture. In local radio, it's not just about talking.
It's also about inspiration.