Every other Thursday Frank Mrvan III, the trustee of North Township, comes on the air with me. The North Township trustee has been coming on WJOB at least since 1985, when I worked here the first time, and I suspect that the tradition started a long time before that.
During the show, I haphazardly tell Frank – “So Ryan’s starting to gather all of your old shows, along with this one, and putting them into a podcast channel you can listen to anytime.”
“Good,” Frank said. “My future grandson can listen to me.”
Bingo. If you read this blog at all, and there’s a good chance that you don’t, you know that I’m not really writing, speaking, doing podcasts, videos and writing poems for you. I’m doing the blog for the next you, or the you that isn’t even you yet, like your grandkids, if that makes any sense.
I really do believe that radio is dying and that someday what I do as local radio guy (just as what I did as local pit trader) will no longer be done by anyone. We, I, will be phased out, just as all of the guys and a couple gals that I stood around with in the pits of Chicago for a couple decades no longer exist either. They’re not all dead, as a matter of fact very few that I traded with are dead, but we all no longer exist as guys who stand in pits yelling at each other for money. And that makes all the difference.
With that one comment, Frank summed it. “Great. Now my future grandson can listen to me.” He gets it. Do you?
In the spirit of recording the life of a local radio guy, let’s take a look at yesterday.
5:35am Friday before Labor Day. High of 91 degrees.
I arrive at the new “Teaching Studios of WJOB” in the dark. We’re still on summer hours, which means producer Ryan does the first half hour of “JED in the Region” that starts at 5:30. It’s dark out, and beautiful in the brand spanking new swanky digs of the Purdue Calumet Commercialization and Manufacturing Excellence Center. Semis, steel haulers, oil tankers and box trucks whip down Indianapolis Boulevard in convoy 20 feet from Ryan talking about tonight’s high school football schedule. We’re doing a main game – Merrillville at Crown Point – and we’re doing a cut-in or bounce game also – Boone Grove at Whiting.
I’ve come early to sit around in the glow of Black & Gold to check out a microphone that George Huskason of Hammond Fence promised to leave at the studios last night. It’s called a “Countryman” microphone. It’s wireless, so I can roam around the studio, stick my tongue on the window or make obscene gestures to Pepsi drivers, and still keep talking on the radio like nobody’s business. I know what you’re thinking – how can you keep talking on the radio if you’re sticking out your tongue to see the outline of it left on the window. Watch me. Or, more accurately, listen to me. I’ll eat a whole everything bagel with cream cheese and wolf down a 16-oz hot tea during one telephone interview with a bereaved mother doing a charity event to raise money for childhood cancer research. It’s not disrespectful. It’s just local radio.
I can’t find the Countryman microphone. I actually had dreams last night about it. Huskason is a gospel singer and he described in detail how he could sit at the piano wearing the Countryman mic and sing into it without loss of breadth or quality in his voice. It’s one of these little wires that sticks down from your ear and you can barely tell it’s there. The website says they make them skin-tone color to further hide them along your jawline. You’ve seen the Countryman mic. I have, too, although I didn’t know it. Remember when Glenn Beck did that huge rally at the Washington monument in DC?
Glenn Beck wore a Countryman microphone. Anyways, I can’t find the mic, although later in the day Debbie Wargo would call me – “Hey JED, what’s this silver briefcase under the papers on your desk?”
“Oh that must be the Countryman.”
5:50am the Friday before Labor Day. Since I’ve got nothing to do – and I don’t really prep for shows – it’s a good thing that the internet streaming isn’t working. That way I have ten minutes til showtime to fix it.
Now here’s a little something about streaming for you other local radio guys and gals, which means for about the 300 of you left in America. You can really stream the audio from your board out to the phone in the pocket of your listener in two ways.
1. you can run an out from your board into another computer. Take the audio into a playout system like WinAmp. And then encode it with a software like shoutcast or icecast, point the audio to a streaming company’s server, and then let them deal with making the connection to the listener’s phone. This is the system that we used for a long time. And make no mistake, it’s an inferior system. Goes down all the time, loses some of the flavor of the sound. Try not to use this method, although it works in a pinch if you’re a local radio guy so of course you don’t really have any money.
2. you can take an out from your board and run it into an all-in-one box that you pay real money for and then let the box that is made to encode, not made to surf the internet or jazz up your resume, and let the encoder send your amazing radio to a streaming company, where they in turn worry about how to connect to your legions of listeners. All of this costs money – mainly, you gotta buy the encoder and you gotta pay your streaming company – but it’s a good feeling to be sitting on the beach in Key West (yes, there is a little beach in Key West. Not a ton of beach, but there is sand they bring in from the ocean floor to let you sit and read Grisham)… it’s a good feeling to be sitting on the beach and to hit a button on your phone and all the sudden you’re listening to the radio station that you and your wife, who is reading People, own…. As further directive, if you can, buy the Tieline codec. Here in September of 2015 it costs about $1600 for one. Worth the dough. You can buy a Barix, which we’re using now to encode the stream, for about $400. If it’s strictly encoding for streaming, however, it’s also not necessary to spend the extra $1100 for the Tieline. But if you’re setting up a send and receive, buy the two Tielines.
Anyways, in ten minutes I fiddle with the Barix encoder and somehow fix it. Push a button here, pull the power cord out there, check to make sure it’s connected tightly into the main mixing board, you as local radio guy or gal already know the fundamentals of trouble shooting.
6:00am on the Friday before Labor Day. I start my radio show. It’s still dark out and that means as you drive down Indianapolis Boulevard in your 18-wheeler packed to the gills with steel, you can look at the WJOB snow globe and this guy who looks a little like Mark Ruffalo talking peacefully in what looks like a really cool place to be at six in the morning. And then you turn on your AM radio…
What? You don’t have AM radio in your car? Oh well… guess what? I just fixed the streaming so you can listen on your phone. Aha.
I do a radio show for one hour and 45 minutes. That’s it. Some days, I do a four and a half or even five-hour radio show. But on this particular Friday all of the moons of Capricorn have lined up to give me a really short radio show to do. Ryan’s doing the first half hour because it’s summer. The mayor of Hammond buys a show at 7:45 and he doesn’t need me to host. After a number of years of him and me doing the show, he brings his own host now. It’s Kevin Smith, the attorney. The Whiting-Robertsdale Chamber of Commerce buys a show at 8:30… and, once again, after an initial period of me hosting the show with them, Tom Dabertin took over the reins of my host seat and I can do what I please for that half hour. And then there’s the nationally-syndicated “Veterans Views” show at 9:05am. They don’t me either. Pat O’Donnell, Don Shultz, Bill Emerson, Ernie Dillon figured out years ago that they’d rather I not sit with them. Everybody wins.
The hour and 45 minutes that I am in the studio isn’t necessarily stellar radio. I do interview Carey Pinkowski, the local boy who’s been the head of the Chicago marathon for 26 years. It was kinda cool to hear him tell stories about Rudy Chapa, Tim Keough, Dan Candiano, Bernie Zemen and other running icons from the 70s. They were rock stars around here. Remember that?
Also, caller Granola Bob and I estimate what the unemployment number’s gonna be and Ramone calls in to give me some real complements, which is kinda cool. Once in a while someone you respect – I guess that’s the word – tells you that you’re a good man and you let it come through your ears into your soul and for at least a moment you don’t live a life of quiet desperation, frittered away by detail.
A guy name Dave Gizynski drops by to give us a flyer for a fundraiser for one of my cousins, Brian Rex, who had a massive heart attack and a quadruple bypass.
“They had to shock Brian like 18 times on the operating table,” Gizynski said after Ryan dragged him on the air. I didn’t know that about my cousin. As a matter of fact, I don’t really know this cousin that well at all. He’s part of the Rex clan that puts in sewers and does site work. They’re having the fundraiser with bands behind the Rex yard on Cline in Schererville on September 12th. I hope you can come, and I sure as hell hope cousin Brian is all right.
9:00 am on the Friday before Labor Day. I'm in the Sage Popovich hangar at the Gary Airport surrounded by cops and law enforcement officials and federal prosecutors and state emergency management officials. It's the monthly meeting of NIISSA, the Northwest Indiana Information Sharing Security Alliance. Somehow as the owner and morning host of WJOB I'm part of this alliance. It goes like this.
In the mid-80s I graduated from Berkeley and got a job at WJOB, first as a copy writer for ads and then as the business-labor editor and ultimately I hosted a few shows, either sports or the afternoon show. Then I went and got a job at the Board of Trade for 18 years.
In 2004, my wife Alexis and I bought WJOB out of bankruptcy. And then to further prove the arrogance that I'd developed as a floor trader, I bought the local weekly newspaper, The Calumet Press. I didn't know how to operate either, but that didn't matter... I was, jn my own mind, a master of the universe. If you understand this reference then good for you.
By 2007, I closed the newspaper. And I pretty much fired everyone on the poorly-performing radio station and I walked into the studio one day and started hosting the morning show. It was a fairly uneventful beginning to a radio institution (my show) and I bumped along for a year or so with few listeners until the flood.
Yes, the flood of 2008. I went on the air on a Sunday a half hour after the water started to flow over the banks of the Little Calumet River, and I stayed on the air pretty much straight for six days until the following Saturday. That's when I could go home to the two feet of water in my own basement.
During that six days we directed people through one of the worst disasters ever seen around here. 80-94 was closed for a week. 1600 homes were partially or fully destroyed. No power in a lot of places. No food or fresh water or sandbags. Emergency tents. I was on the air almost the whole time, directing where to drive to, where to go for fresh water, when the powers was gonna come back on. Thousands of calls from trapped older folks, elected officials, lost drivers, children, parents, guys working on the banks of the river. It was crazy.
By Wednesday evening I took a short break from being on the air to take my daughter to her friend's house off Hohman in Munster. I was driving down Monroe Avenue in Munster when right in front of us a home blew up. I'm not kidding. It's actually about a block from where I grew up and I hadn't driven down that street in decades.... and the first time I do a house that was underwater a block ahead of us blows up hundreds of feet into the air.
By Thursday morning I go berserk on the air. I don't think we have a tape of my personal blowup that day and I'm glad we don't... because I'm not sure I spoke in concert with all of the three million rules of the Federal Communications Commission. I basically said that nobody's in charge and we had all better get our collected acts together right now or people are gonna die.
So on Thursday of that week, NIPSCO went on full alert to shut off gas to flooded homes and the county pulled the logs out of the river downstream so all the water could release the flooded homes, most of which were in Munster. Never mind that a caller to WJOB who was a river walker and enthusiast suggested on Sunday and Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday that if we just cleared the blockage at Clark Road in Gary the whole flood would be gone.
Ultimately the water receded and then for several months we dealt daily on the radio with the aftermath. In the end I learned and I'm sticking to it that northwest Indiana is ill-equipped for a disaster of any sort. In Lake County, we are an area of 17 different municipalities that don't always like each other. And that means we don't talk to each other. And in an emergency, that can be the problem in and of itself.
So Munster police chief Steve Scheckel got me involved in the NIISSA alliance. It's basically to establish a command center to deal with emergencies around here. We're looking at either building something or taking over a hangar at the Gary airport to establish a place and a process to deal with a big disaster. In northwest Indiana, we are, after all, at the bottom of Lake Michigan and there's a bunch of steel mills and refineries and a ton of railroad tracks and highways in our area. Our most likely danger is chemical spills on the railroads or in a factory. But there's a lotta other doomsday things you can think of too.
Here's who comes to these meetings. US Attorney Dave Capp kinda started it. Munster's Scheckel runs the meetings. There's people from CN railroad, the Lake County Sheriffs office, the Department of Homeland Security, BP, US Steel, Methodist Hospitals, the area SWAT team, all sorts of cops from different departments, the Coast Guard, the port of Indiana, Indiana Department of Transportation, ATF and so on. It's a little intimidating, and if it was a few years ago I'd most likely have been a little paranoid about the weed I may or may not have left in my glove compartment.
So on Friday this woman from a department at the state of Indiana level gives a really nice presentation about the traveling morgue. Turns out that if needed we in Indiana have this massive trailer setup to take care of all the dead bodies. The woman flashed on the screen all of the personnel that would be needed to run the morgue, from coroners to blood techs to transportation people to fork lift drivers to you get the picture. What was missing was, you guessed it, a communications team to let everyone know what the hell was going on with all of the dead bodies.
In emergency management, as far as I have learned, it is common to not prioritize linking to the media to get information out to the public. Think about it - many of these agencies and departments don't have all that high of an opinion of media in general, so it's a bit of a stretch to think in terms of linking with the media to spread useful information. To elected and other officials, it can be a pain and a danger rather than a help and a duty. I get that part. But when called upon during the Friday meeting, I still challenge this room full of stern faces to prioritize the communications end of managing the emergency. I argue that managing the information is a close second in priority to managing the emergency itself. No kidding. I'm not sure how the room of uniforms and sidearm pistols takes my admonition, but I figure that I have seen and heard the danger and it's my responsibility to say so.
After the NIISSA meeting, north township trustee Frank Mrvan III and I check out Popovich's plane sitting there.
Wait, I tell Frank, Go up on the steps and wave. I'll take your picture like you're famous or something.
Stop, he said, I'm new to this group, don't want to be the class clown right from the start.
So I don't get a photo of Frank descending from the steps of a private jet. Oh well. Can't have everything.
10:45am on the Friday before Labor Day. I'm back at the old WJOB studios behind Smith Chevrolet right under the 400-foot tower. Producer Ryan Walsh and I are working with our engineer, Mike. He's in town to do something that we've been trying to do for 11 years - automate our Purdue and Indiana football games, and now our NFL games along with it.
What this means is that for 11 years every time we broadcast a Purdue or Indiana game or an NFL game or a Westwood college basketball game or any sports event on satellite.... we've had to pay someone to sit in the studio and play the commercials. That's more than a thousand games in 11 years. And for every one of those games we've had to pay someone around, say, 40 to 60 bucks to sit there and hit space bar. So let's say it's 46 bucks a game for 11 years.
That's fifty grand in 11 years we have paid out to have someone do that could be automated. If you're a local radio guy or gal like me, then you know that when, say, Learfield is broadcasting a game, when it's time for a break they send a little signal that nobody can hear but the computer. That little dog whistle triggers the computer to play a spot or two and maybe an ID and then go back to the satellite network.
Triggers and closures and 50 grand. We have never been able to get that system to work. So we bought a new automation system - Arrakis - and we hooked up all the 9-pin connectors to the satellite receivers and we took the Arrakis tutorials with their Help desk... and after 11 years we're pretty close to automating the broadcasting of satellite sports broadcasts.
Indiana starts on Saturday and Purdue on Sunday, so there's a bit of a urgency to the whole process. Mike, Ryan and I look through manuals, punch keys on the keyboard, run wire 50 feet to the back room. We not finished, but I leave for the hospital anyhows.
Noon on the Friday before Labor Day. Community Hospital, Munster. Alexis's mom is going in for surgery. When I arrive, Noemi is already in the operating room. My sister-in-law Christina is in the waiting room. Everyone else has gone to Noodles and Company for some lunch. Christina and I talk for a while and I leave to go back to the station.
1pm on the Friday before Labor Day.