One of the reasons that we do this blog is to preserve the memory of what it is like to live My Radio Life. Radio is dying. So is the image of the local radio owner who hosts his own show and fixes his own transmitter. I sell ads and hire hosts. When someone threatens to sue, I talk with the lawyer. When the FCC threatens to take your license away, I’m the one who stays up worrying. By the time broadcasting students 50 years in the future stumble across what we’re doing here, they won’t have any clue that a life like this was once led.
Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. For me, yesterday, it worked out to the nth degree. Yesterday was a pure example of what it’s like to live a life of local radio.
First of all, July 27th is my mom’s birthday. You might think, “cool. Go celebrate your mother. That can be beautiful.”
And it was, for many years, a beautiful thing. My mom didn’t bring attention to herself. Ever. It was all about her kids. Her birthday was the one day that her five kids and husband could celebrate her. We would get her a cake and sing “Happy Birthday” and give her gifts. Just as the life I lead is typical of Midwestern radio operators, July 27th was typical of families in which the mom spent a good deal of her waking hours with a dish towel over her shoulder.
The problem with this idyllic portrayal of how beautiful July 27th could be is that my mom died in 1988 after a long battle with cancer. By the time she died, we were all saddened, for sure, but we were all a bit relieved. She didn’t have to suffer anymore. She died on Halloween. And just as My Radio Life represents a type and July 27th represents the idyllic birthday, my mom’s death also represents a type. It is pure Midwestern tragedy. It’s a tale as sad as they come, as powerful as you would never want to encounter.
So when I was driving yesterday from the Gary Airport to Pierogifest down Columbus Drive in East Chicago, my phone rang.
“Jimmy. It’s your dad.”
This is a ritual that we go through every time my 79-year-old father calls me. He’s an engineer by training. You might expect that he is comfortable with the introduction of new technology. Still, the idea of caller ID hasn’t landed on him.
“Yes, dad, I know. Caller ID, remember?”
“No, this is your dad.”
“What’s going on?”
Now this is one of the rare occasions that I hold back from showing the three or four of you what was really said during a conversation. It’s just too damn private. Suffice it to say that July 27this a painful day for all of us. My brothers and sisters and I don’t dare talk to each other on this day. We suffer in silence. Most of the time no one around us in our whole day knows or remembers that it is our mom’s birthday. It must have been bubbling pretty painful in my dad yesterday for him to have broken the unspoken code of silent suffering.
After the brief yet powerful moments of remembering my mom – and a completely uncomfortable silence in which my dad sniffled – we talked about his softball team. Yes, he is one of the oldest softball players in America. He is the oldest in his old-timers league and is on track to be the oldest in the Chicago area.
“Just keep playing.” That’s the only advice he has ever given on how to capture longevity. That and have a love for the game in the first place. Dad’s going to the world championships in Columbus, Ohio, in a few weeks. It’s a big deal to him and hundreds of other really old American men.
It’s also a big deal to my brother, Jeff, and his wife, Laura. They live in Columbus. My dad stays there during the World Series. It’s a ritual. Five years ago, dad’s team won. My dad’s got a World Series ring. I’m not kidding . You could look it up.
Anyways, it was under this curious cloud of remorse and remembrance that I lived my life of local radio yesterday.
5:30am – I started talking on the radio. It was a perfect sunrise of purple and pink and orange. Several Southwest Airlines planes flew in rapid succession over the WJOB tower, which is seven blocks north. Later in the day, I would run into a guy at Pierogifest from San Jose, California..
“Jim, I’m honored to meet you. I’m ------. I grew up in the Region and I live in San Jose, California. My friends say I’m crazy.”
“You wear black socks and white tennis shoes to mow the lawn?”
“I do that, of course, but it’s because I wake up at 3:30 to listen to you.”
This stopped me in my tracks. I was hurrying down 119thStreet to get to our broadcast booth. But I was completely taken by this Silicon Valley Region Rat setting his alarm so that we could spend some early morning time together.
“I just like your style… and hearing about all the Region stuff.”
“Thank you so much for waking up so early to do that. You’re not crazy. You’re just a Region Rat.”
For some reason, the two of us hugged while we took a picture. This mystery man went to grade school at Sacred Heart in Whiting with John Harangody, a guy I know. That’s my only clue about the man. That and he doesn’t necessarily like when I yell “Big Truck.”
“I’m laying in bed listening to you and then in the middle of a sentence, you cream ‘Big Truck.’ It jolts me from my pillow.”
“But I like big trucks.”
“So do I. Just not at 3:30 in the morning.”
6:30 – Dan Repay came in to the studio. We talked about this weekend’s Ohio Valley 13u Babe Ruth tournament in Munster. West Virginia is once again the favorite. Munster has a team and so does Crown Point. They’ll be playing 16 hours a day on all of Munster’s fields. WJOB sports director Ryan Walsh and lead producer Jimmy Mullaney will broadcast the semifinals on Sunday and the finals on Sunday in video on Facebook Live.
6:50 – Jen Studer, the women’s rugby player came in. The Illiana Banshees Women’s Rugby team is having a barbecue on August 12thin Riverside Park..
“I just like to tackle people,” Jen said. This stopped me in my tracks. In an instant, I had a poignant memory of a women’s mud wrestler I dated 30 years ago. She had said the same exact thing to me. One time, we tried it. She tackled me onto the bed. I can remember it like it was yesterday.
7:20 – Greg Kaplan, the fireworks king, came into the studio. He is two years older than I am. I grew up buddies with his younger brother, Gary. We had a lot of fun. Too much fun.
Greg was in the studio to talk about the Munster High reunion going on this weekend. It’s for the classes of 1975-1981. Greg graduated in 1978 and me in 1980.
As the three or four of you can tell by now, I rarely miss a chance to make fun of a friend or family member. This visit with Greg Kaplan was no different. We talked about Wampum in the late 1970s, and I poked fun at him starting his business selling fireworks from his trunk. He countered that if I went too far he would tell the audience secrets about me.
“Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, Jimmy.”
This never scares me. I live a life of local radio that is as open as it could possibly be. The three or four of you know some of my most intimate secrets. What could Greg Kaplan possibly tell you?
Oops. Never mind. Next question.
9am – I found myself sitting in a huge airport hangar with local police chiefs, emergency management types, nurses, professors, firemen, railroad execs, a few steel mill guys and a bunch of feds. We were all sitting around our various tables waiting for a big announcement. The meeting was supposed to start at 9am. It was 9:23 when Munster police chief Steve Scheckel whispered in my ear.
“Frank’s running late. Can you make the announcement?”
You may be confused. One minute I’m doing a radio show. An hour later I’m sitting in an airport hangar at a table with a couple of feds. They’re wondering why the local media guy is sitting at their table.
“Sure. Let’s do it,” I tell chief Scheckel.
As I was standing up to make the announcement, Frank Mrvan III walked in. He, Scheckel, Ray Chambers and I have formed the core of a group working to build a massive Multi-Agency Coordination Center. This is a gathering place for everyone associated with dealing with a disaster. Don’t ask how I got involved in this.
There’s a lot of reasons to build the MACC. My driving message has been economic. I figure that we can attract business by trumpeting our focus on disaster preparedness. One biggest fears of business is disaster – earthquake, nuclear bomb, terrorist attack, blizzard, etc. These things can shut down a business in a heartbeat.
We saw how important disaster preparedness is when Amazon was looking for a location. From the business trades, one of the things they were looking at was how long it would take to get back up and running after a disaster.
“We are in the business of keeping people in business,” I say often at our NIISSA planning meetings.
Yesterday, Frank and I made the announcement that the county had selected our MACC as the preferred location for their backup 911 site. This is huge. Before I die, there will be a huge MAC Center near the tarmac at the Gary Airport. It will keep us safe and attract business.
11am – I was driving down Columbus Drive in East Chicago past Zel’s Roast Beef when my dad called. It was a perfect sunny day in the Region. My dad and I talked about my mom. He was sad for a moment. So was I.
11:30 – I arrived at the WJOB booth at Pierogifest in Whiting. Rob Ellis, Jimmy Mullaney, Tony Panek and Shamari Walker were having technical problems, the most prominent of which is that we couldn’t get good internet. We have a lot of different options to get internet. It is the internet on which our whole web TV model is based. But yesterday, there were just too many people in Whiting, Indiana, to get a good signal, wirless or hardwired.
We scurried around the booth trying to rig something up. We have banners, speakers, cameras, monitors. Our plan was to Facebook Live the fest for the whole day. If you wanted to watch the throngs of people walk down 119thStreet, you could just log on to our Facebook page.
This worked for a while. I did a Facebook Live video standing in the middle of the street. Then it started to buffer and we had to stop. I went to the sponsors lunch where I sat with three sales execs from the local newspaper. We talked about the future of local streaming video.
After the luncheon, I slipped away with one of the guys running Pierogi Fest – Rick Massoels. We settled on barstools in Center Lounge. This was a peaceful, idyllic moment. A few dozen Region Rats packed into a cool, dark bar on a Friday afternoon prepping for madness that was about to come. Massoels and I talked about how Tom Dabertin, the head of the fest, seemed extra stressed. Also, the owner of the bar, Karen “What-up?” Holmes bought us a beer. She also gave me a special batch Purdue beer for my dad. Everyone in the Region knows that my dad is a huge Purdue fan.
“Thanks, Karen. My dad’ll really like this.”
The beer was cold. Karen put it in a bag. I don’t have the heart to tell Karen or my dad that I forgot about the beer in the backseat of my car. I will give it to my dad as a present from Karen “What-up?” Holmes, but I doubt that he will be able to drink it.
As often happens when men of a certain ilk fall into a cool, dark bar on a Friday afternoon, I didn’t emerge until sometime later, smiling and squinting. I went back to the WJOB booth, did a couple videos, ate some sour kraut, talked to some more people, and then went home to take a shower.
It’s Sunday now. This is as far as I got with this blog yesterday. Didn’t have the time. I had to cover:
- the two-year anniversary of Crossfit 219. I interviewed, Josh Belluomini (pronounced Bell-wahm-uh-nee) and Carly Taylor, a nurse. They’re both in fantastic shape. Standing outside their gym on Fisher Street in Munster, I felt fat and out of shape.
- the Ohio Valley Babe Ruth championships in Community Park. I interviewed Michael Khadivar, the president of Munster Babe Ruth.
- the National Softball Association World Series. I interviewed Bill Hutton, president of that organization.
This took a while. When I got back home, It was time to put the suit on. Alexis and I attended a wedding at Wicker Park in Highland. And then we had another doing at the South Shore Arts Center on Ridge Road in Munster. None of this lends itself to writing a blog.
Suffice it to say that when I emerged from Center Lounge on Friday, I was a little buttered up. So of course I ran into a ton of listeners of WJOB. There are two different crowds that attend Pierogi Fest. During the day on Friday, it’s mostly local people. They’re smart enough to avoid the crowds that are sure to come later. In the evening, most of the 150,000 that attend is made up of Chicago people.
On the way back to the booth, I ran in to no less than a dozen WJOB listeners. This is a beautiful thing. I’m a bit baked. So are some of the listeners. We talk and take a picture and laugh and in the background there’s Polka music playing. By the time I got back to the WJOB booth, I was sober.
I ate a plate of sour kraut and some sort of beans, talked with the WJOB crew, and then I went home. I took a shower and then Alexis and I turned around and drove north on Calumet Avenue back to Pierogi Fest. I was scheduled to host the broadcast of the parade.
But before we could do that, we came to the stoplight at 129thand Calumet. That’s where the Lost Marsh Golf Course is. They have a big electronic sign on the corner, and on that sign flashed, for whatever reason, the date.
July 27th. 4:59pm.
There it was again. July 27th.
“You know what day it is, right?”
“Yes. How are you doing?”
“I was doing okay until I saw that sign,” I said. Alexis reached across the front seat and put her hand over mine.
On the Friday night of Pierogi Fest, parking is a bigger challenge than going to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field. In the neighborhoods all around 119thStreet, people put chairs, buckets and bicycles in front of their homes to save parking spots. You can park on Lake Michigan for 15 bucks, but that’s a long way away.
Good thing that the guy who runs the city’s parking fest listens to the station.
“Hey JED, park it right over there.”
Alexis and I parked underneath a basketball hoop and spent the next two hours hopping from bar to bar in preparation for me hosting the Pierogi Fest parade.
Now this is the part that is difficult to describe. It’s just too damn weird. For many years, I marched in this parade as part of the Precision Lawnmowing team. You put a Polish house dress over your clothes, maybe stuff some shredded paper in your chest to make fake boobs, and then you push a lawnmower down 119thStreet. A bunch of other men do the same thing with you. Sometimes you do a figure eight with the lawnmowers, but most of the time you just follow the guy in a housedress in front of you. Every so often someone hands you a shot of Schlivovitz and you drink it.
For the past couple of years, I have declined to march with the Precision Lawnmowing team. Part of the reason is that the WJOB team has several people walking with the team now. I don’t want to make it the WJOB Precision Lawnmowing team, so I do something else during the parade. This year, I hosted it on video with IU student Zooey Mintz.
This, too, is difficult to explain. The WJOB booth is near the end of the parade in front of the Whiting-Robertsdale Chamber of Commerce. This is the epicenter of the parade. And it’s complete bedlam.
By the time the parade came around, there were, by some estimates, 150,000 people along 119thStreet. It felt like half of them were closing in on the WJOB booth. We rig it up so that I carry a wireless microphone and I walk out and talk and dance and yell with whatever entry to the parade comes by. It’s a complete rush for 45 minutes. It’s impossible to explain. Good thing Shamari Walker took a bunch of pictures. His photos, above, tell the story better than I could ever do.
After the parade, which ended about 8:30, Alexis and I hightailed back down Calumet Avenue. It was packed. It took us 47 minutes to drive from Whiting to Centennial Park in Munster for my high school reunion.
It was hosted by Greg Kaplan. He shot off fireworks just as we were arriving. I talked with a bunch of people I haven’t seen in a long time. Rob Sharkey was a professional bass player. He still plays. He agreed to send me some of his music so that I could play it as bumpers on my morning show.
Brian Welsh was there. He is still a big shot at what was once the Chicago Board of Trade. We haven’t seen each other in a long time, but that didn’t stop us from immediately making fun of each other. In high school, whenever we’d see each other at a party, we would immediately get on the grass and wrestle. He was a wrestler and I was a basketball player, so I usually wound up on my back with a bunch of girls standing around. I didn’t care. It made me better at something I wasn’t very good at.
Welsh, who never hands out complements, did say one thing to Alexis that I had forgotten about. In the mid 1980s, I had started to work at the Chicago Board of Trade. I can’t tell you how much I loved that scene. All of these people standing around in huge rings in the old trading room… screaming and yelling and pushing and throwing all of their trash on the floor. I loved it from the first moment I saw it from the visitors gallery above. I had to work there.
I was working at a public relations company at the time making about 25 grand. I quit that and took a runner’s job for $9500 a year. It was the best career decision I ever made. That and buying WJOB.
Anyways, while I was working my way up the ladder in those initial years at the Board of Trade, I went on a junket to Bloomington, Indiana, to visit Welsh and get crazy. Welsh recalls something that I told him during the trip.
“Brian, you gotta come to the Board of Trade. You’d be perfect for it.”
Welsh, at the time, had just graduated. He was doing what a lot of IU grads do – he stayed around Bloomington to party his balls off for. When that wore off, he took my advice and came up to the Board of Trade. He’s been there ever since.
One of the most curious conversations I had at this high school reunion pre-party was with a woman who lives in Switzerland. She is a couple of years older than I am, so excuse me if I don’t remember her name. But she had a story to tell.
“Oh my god, I have to meet you. I’m ----- , and I watch you every day from Switzerland. Can I have a tee shirt?”
This is where I am fully disappointed in myself. This was the same question that I had just gotten a dozen times at Pierogi Fest. And in all of the confusion of living a life of local radio, we didn’t have tee shirts printed up for Pierogi Fest.
“I’ll tell you what – give me your address in Switzerland and I’ll send you one.”
This is where it gets a little weird. This woman, Wendy, says that if you mail something to Switzerland, they open the package, figure out how much its worth, and tax the person that you’re sending it too. I asked her several questions about this process.
“This can’t be true. They open your personal mail?”
“Yes, they do. And then they tax you on it. Don’t you have any tee-shirts now that you could give me?”
I am so sorry about this, but I did not have any memorabilia I could give this woman from Switzerland. I hope that she sends me her address. On Monday, we’re making up some tee-shirts and hoodies and coffee cups. What a loser I am for not having done this before.
After a while, my high school reunion devolved into Billy Baker, his wife Mary Kaye, Alexis and I sitting on a picnic bench. Mary Kaye told a funny story about Billy’s toenail. I’ll bring it up on the morning the show on Monday.
Across from Centennial Park in Munster, there’s a White Castles. Alexis and I went there on the way home. I walked inside, ordered, and stood there looking at the receipt. It said, at the bottom:
“Saturday, July 28, 2018. 12:01am.”
I looked out the window, waved at my wife sitting in the car. She waved back.
“It’s over,” I mouthed. “Happy Birthday, Mom.