It’s 3:41 on a Wednesday morning in December. It got up to 63 degrees on Monday. Right now, it’s 29 degrees and windy. Welcome to the bottom of Lake Michigan.
We all felt the change in seasons in one day. Yesterday, I hosted the question and answer session at the Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce meeting in Hammond. Jeff Strack was the main speaker. He told the story of how he got back his family’s many grocery stores in the area.
What once was gone
has now returned.
Chips Ahoy are on sale
for $1.88 a bag.
If you get the chance, watch the Facebook Live of Jeff’s speech. It’s mesmerizing. Typically at the Lakeshore luncheons, a few people leave during the main speech. Not this time. Not a soul walked out. It was that compelling of a story.
What was so compelling about it?
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the Strack & Van Til stores to the Calumet Region. The Strack and Van Til families got together in the 1950s and wound up by the 1990s with this regional powerhouse of grocery stores. They employ a lot of good people. There were, at the height, a few dozen stores in Indiana and Illinois.
In the late 1990s, the families sold most of their interest to Central Grocers in Illinois. This was a cooperative of a bunch of grocery stores. In 2016, Central Grocers went bankrupt.
Yesterday, Jeff openly told the story of how he “got our grocery stores back” from the bankruptcy. Jeff told the drama of waiting in a room on Park Avenue in Manhattan to learn the fate of Strack & Van. He was up against Jewel/Albertson’s, a huge chain that also wanted the stores. The good guys won. If you were thinking of coming out to the Lakeshore gathering yesterday and you didn’t, shame on you. Jeff’s speech was that good.
But have no fear. My video savant, Christina Cortez, brought an iphone and a tripod and Facebook Lived it all so you can watch it if you want. I hosted a little question and answer session afterwards. That’s where you can see the suit that I wore with a black shirt. When I walked out of the Dynasty, just a mile of so from Lake Michigan, I turned the corner into a wind like no other. The black shirt is so thin it was as if I was naked. It's a wind you can feel from your nose to your tailbone. Winter has arrived, so I went into a coma.
That’s right. I left the Lakeshore meeting and went over to the WJOB studios at Purdue for a while and tried to write up a sales proposal. For some reason, PMS (the Passive Marketing System) is starting to work. I knew it would happen. I just didn’t know when.
But instead of writing it up, I stared out the window at all of the trucks and cars roaring down Indianapolis Boulevard. It’s an eerie, peaceful thing to be alone in a radio station. There is no bustle. There is no one talking into the microphone. The machines hum a low hum of electricity and want. I stared at the tankers, steel haulers, minivans and taxi-cabs going by, and I realized something –
“I am really tired.”
So I got in my go-kart and drove home, took off the suit-coat and black shirt that provide no protection from the cold, and I fell asleep for 13 hours. Yikes.
Anyone who has ever worked shift work knows what I’m talking about. You go and go and go for days, weeks, a month even, and then you collapse. Waking at ungodly hours to go to work is fine if, like me, you like what you do.
But even satisfaction with your toil doesn’t erase the fact that you build up exhaustion. And every once in a while, you lay down and you can’t get up. If there is one thing that will keep me from doing the morning show ad infinitum, it’s waking up at 4am. The three or four of you either understand this or you don’t.
…. Where do we go from here?
I don’t mean where do I and the three or four of you go right now. I mean – where do we go with radio from here? I’ve been thinking about this a lot. We have, for better or worse, done the main thing that we set out to do, which was to rebuild WJOB to be a positive force in the Calumet Region. What once was lost, now is found. We are similar to the Strack & Van Til story in this regard.
What once was in bankruptcy is now a positive force in the community. I was thinking about the similarities between the Strack & Van Til story and the WJOB story as Jeff gave his speech yesterday. I knew most of the story since Jeff and I talk from time to time. But I guess that I really hadn’t noticed exactly how similar the plot and action of the two stories are until Jeff started talking about local institutions that have survived through the years.
“There just aren’t that many of us left.”
He’s right. There’s just not that many of us local institutions that have been here for generations. I don’t know what that means, but as I sat there waiting to do the question and answer session in my black shirt, I thought about it.
And it frightened me. Why are there so few longstanding institutions left in the Calumet Region?
I don’t know. And it’s too hefty of a topic to tackle this Wednesday morning that is the true beginning of winter. I will put on my dress jeans, a button-down, a sweater and a big, fat winter coat and drive down to the WJOB studios at Purdue. I’ll wire myself up with a wireless microphone and headset system, and I’ll walk out into the cold of Indianapolis Boulevard and I will yell, “Big truck” at all of the steel haulers and tankers rolling by.
Sometimes people will beep, and I’ll sing the familiar refrain –
“I’m a beeper, you’re a beeper. Beep, beep, beep.”
In there somewhere, I’ll give the weather and traffic and I’ll talk about the news. When there’s no vehicles on the Boulevard, I’ll run out into the middle of the street and I’ll tell the three or four of you and a couple dozen others who listen to my show:
“146 years ago, my ancestors walked down this road, which was then just a path, after the Chicago fire. Hungry and soot-covered, they were looking for a home. They found it a couple blocks to the east of where I’m standing.”
And I’ll look to the north seven blocks at the 400-foot WJOB tower. Since it will be dark out, the tower will be blinking enough to light up a good portion of central Hammond. The tower wasn’t there when my people stumbled down what would one day become the Boulevard. There was no red glow to the early morning hours. There was just darkness, and cold, and wind and maybe even rain or sleet or snow. We live at the bottom of Lake Michigan. There are few of us institutions left. If that doesn’t scare you, I don’t know what will.
What it boils down to is – where do we go from here?
Yes, 13 years ago when we bought WJOB, it was a fallen institution. It was in bankruptcy. We rebuilt it. Today, on a variety of platforms, we’ll touch the lives of tens of thousands of people. So what now?
That’s something that I dreamt about a lot in my 13 hours of sleep. I have a wife who understands that once in a while I collapse. My schedule now is not altogether different from when I traded at the Chicago Board of Trade for 18 years. Then, like now, I woke a little before or after 4am. I worked all day and sometimes I had to drive up to the city in the middle of the night to fix a trade. Now, I sometimes drive across Hammond to adjust a transmitter. There’s not a lot of difference to the rhythm of my day.
Alexis understands this and she lets me sleep. I was supposed to go to my stepson Steve’s girlfriend’s daughter’s birthday party last night at Buffalo Wild Wings, one of our sponsors. It was two birds with one stone - Kaylee’s birthday party and I would show my face at one of our sponsors. I threw no stones. I snored for 13 hours and feel better for it, but I do apologize to Kaylee, a senior at Morton High School, for not making her 18th birthday.
Where from here?
Like I said, I really have no idea. The future is misty. I’m floatin’ in the gloamin’. There’s a direction out there, a path for radio, but I can’t for the life of me tell what it is. In my gut, I feel that it will be exciting. In my heart, I’m a little bit scared. I have a family to support and a Region to communicate with and, at times, give hope. We all watched Strack & Van Til almost die. We watched WJOB almost die. It was a bad feeling. I don’t want to feel it again, so, like I asked before –
Where do we go from here?