Posted by chicagomedia.org on May 09, 2009 at 14:08:34:
Mitch Michaels is a Chicago rock radio legend, having worked at just about every rock station in Chicago, including the Loop, WCKG, WKQX, WXRT, and CD 94.7, among others.
Rick: Last summer I heard you do a few shifts on WLS-FM, 94.7, and I thought to myself...this has to be a record for the most different times (and different stations) anyone has worked at the same frequency.
Mitch: Could be. Let’s see...1, 2, 3...that was either the 4th or the 5th time. I’ve lost track myself. I even did a few shifts when it was a country station, and I was production director of WLS, it was like 1994 or ‘95.
Rick: It was like a cursed frequency for awhile...
Mitch: Yeah, I know what you mean. They seem to be doing well with it now though. The ratings are fantastic.
Rick: I think the first time I heard you on that frequency was back in the WDAI days.
Mitch: Yeah, I was there from early 73 until about ’75 or so.
Rick: Do you remember the “Fantasy Park” concert bit? It was a pretty big promotion that got a lot of attention around 1974 or ’75, an imaginary “Woodstock” festival that the station was doing a 24/7 “live” broadcast from all weekend, and LOTS of people fell for it.
Mitch: I remember it very well. It was a package thing that was produced by Rod Serling’s production company. Ironically we did it two years in a row and the second year, just before we did it, Rod Serling died. He was the voice of it, so we had to recut the whole thing with a different voice.
Rick: This week was the 39th anniversary of the Kent State shootings. I know you went to Kent State around that time. Were you there that day?
Mitch: I was. I was working for a radio station in Cleveland at the time, as a board op, and doing some stringer reporting for them while I was at school, and the whole weekend before the shooting had been crazy. There were sit-ins and protests, and helicopters hovering, tear gas in the air, and spotlights, it was like a movie set. The protesters burned the ROTC building on Saturday night. The National Guard members were wearing gas masks and were pounding everyone. They couldn’t see anything out of those masks. I had a press pass, and they pounded me too.
On Monday I was in the car with my wife on the way to the dentist when I saw all the commotion. Police cars, sirens, people running all over, complete mayhem. I pulled over to the side of the road, locked the door, and told my wife not to move, and I went over to see what was happening. I got there just as they were carrying the girl into the ambulance. It was around 12:30 or so. By 2pm, it was completely deserted. They had closed down the campus and sent everyone home. It was eerie.
Rick: So Cleveland is where you got your radio start?
Rick: That was during the beginning of the progressive rock era in FM radio. I recently heard it described to me as ‘we gave the kids the FM dial and said see what you can do.’ Were you one of those kids and what was that time like?
Mitch: Yeah, I was. At my station in Cleveland in 1970, there was no format, you said whatever you thought and played whatever you wanted to play, and just did your thing. I went to WMMS-Cleveland from there, and then got hired by Ed Shane to come to WGLD (102.7 FM) in Chicago, and that place was like that too. It was totally crazy. We were a bunch of freaks playing rock and roll on the fifth floor of the Oak Park Arms Hotel, which was an old folks home.
Rick: And from there you went to be one of the first DJs on WXRT too.
Mitch: Yeah. At first Don Bridges was only on the air midnight-6am seven days a week, and he brought me on to handle the Saturday and Sunday shifts because he was getting burned out. I schlepped in my own albums, I had a pretty good record collection in those days, and again, it was play whatever you want. That was a fun time. I was maybe 24 years old at the time.
Rick: I think it’s safe to say that most people in Chicago remember you from your afternoon stint at the old Loop when you were “Doing the Cruise.” People that weren’t around at that time don’t realize just how huge the Loop was in those days. Can you talk about what it was like to be a part of that?
Mitch: “Doing the Cruise” was actually born at WXRT when I was doing afternoon drive there. It was 1975, and the Starship had an album out with a song called ‘Cruisin’ and I sort of adopted that as my theme song, and people seemed to gravitate toward it.
You’re right, it is hard to describe how big the Loop was in those days. It seemed like it was everywhere. I had worked at some big stations, successful stations (KQX for instance had a very successful launch), but nothing like this. I think the marketing plan, the music, the air-talent, everything was just perfect for that time and place. The t-shirts, the Lorelei commercials, obviously Dahl & Meier, and that whole Coho Lips thing, it was just all over the place. I actually found one of those old coho lips buttons in my basement the other day.
WLS was the dominant station when we launched the Loop in 1979, but within two books we were beating them 12+. Sky had a good handle on the music. Jesse Bullett was the PD, and he was this Southern Californian dude, totally laid back. We also had free reign on the air—we could pretty much play what we wanted. I mean there were some new tunes slotted that we had to play, but it was great stuff that we would have wanted to play anyway. Dude, you mean we have to play Dire Straits? OK, done.
I distinctly remember one time I was driving in to work. I was living in Oak Park at the time, and it was this time of year. Everyone had the windows in their cars rolled down. At every single stoplight I pulled up alongside another car that was listening to the Loop. One after the other. It was amazing. Everyone was listening.
Rick: You guys really didn’t know the power you had?
Mitch: Not then, no, we really didn’t. Disco Demolition is a perfect example of that. I remember sitting in the GM’s office for a meeting about that promotion. Jeff Schwartz and Mike Veeck came up with this as a way to get some bodies in the seats at Comiskey, because nobody was going to White Sox games. We had a blackboard, and everyone was asked to predict the number of fans that might show up. I think the consensus was about 20,000. As you know it was way more than that. They sold that place out and there were another 40,000 or so outside who couldn’t get in. Plus, it wasn’t a baseball-type crowd, it was a rock concert type crowd, and they honestly didn’t have the security to handle it.
It’s hard to describe that scene. During the first game, I did play by play for a little while with Harry Caray and Jimmy Piersall, but things hadn’t gotten out of hand yet. Between games, I was in the box, and Steve & Garry came out and did their thing, and the place went crazy. Mike Veeck came in to me and asked me to grab the loud speaker and get everyone to chant like we did at the rock shows—“Back to your seats, Back to your seats, Back to your seats.” It was starting to work when Harry came out to see what was happening. He had had a few buds, and said, “What the hell is going on out there?” He took over, and we lost the momentum of the chant. That’s not to say we would have been successful, but it did look like it was working. Please don’t take that as a slam against Harry, because I loved the guy. He was the best.
Rick: Since those Loop days you’ve been a part of every classic rock station in Chicago...
Mitch: The only place I didn’t work was WMET, and they offered me a job when I got fired at the Loop. They wanted me to do middays, and I wanted afternoons, so I turned them down.
Rick: But you did middays at WCKG, right? Didn’t you host the rock and roll diner?
Mitch: (Laughs) Yes, by then I had been humbled. The GM was Mark Morgan who I had known for years, and when he came back to Chicago, we had dinner at my favorite place in the world, Twin Anchors. He said to me, I keep hearing that you don’t take direction well. I asked him to tell me who said that about me, and when I heard the names I pointed out to him—“But those guys are all dickheads. You wouldn’t take direction from them either.” I convinced him that Tim Sabean was my guy, and that we wouldn’t have a problem. And we didn’t.
Rick: Which dickheads are you referring to?
Mitch: (laughs) The dickheads will remain nameless.
Rick: Did you have a favorite station?
Mitch: Absolutely. It was CKG. That place was so much fun—it was my favorite time in my radio career. Don’t get me wrong, the Loop had been amazing too, but I was back there for the second time in 1984-1985 doing weekends and fill-ins, and had a bit of a falling out with Greg Solk. I was avoiding his calls because I knew he wanted to fire me, but in the interim I had agreed to go to WCKG. So, when he finally pulled me into the office, I said, “you can’t fire me, I quit. I’m going down the street to kick your ass.” And I did. (Laughs). Greg and I have made up since then. He really is a talented guy, really bright, and you sure can’t argue with his very successful track record. I respect him quite a bit.
Rick: I’ve always wondered this—as someone who is so closely aligned with classic rock, is that what you listen to for pleasure, or is that like going back to work again?
Mitch: That’s still my music. Understand something. It wasn’t always classic rock. I played this when it was the new stuff. These babies were the currents when I started out. Music genres have changed and gone different directions, but you have to admit, this music has incredible staying power. My teenage sons sing along to AC/DC and the Stones.
Rick: You’ve also worked with just about every legendary jock in Chicago over the past few decades. Which ones do you think are the best?
Mitch: You have put Sky Daniels on the top of the heap. He was a visionary, with tremendous knowledge, and a tremendous ego, and it was a tremendous amount of fun to work with him again at 9-fm. I thought he was right on with what he was trying to do there. Unfortunately his stay was short lived and there were signal issues, but he is still the man. Definitely, if I had to pick one guy it would be Sky. My favorite quote from him—this goes way back, but I’ve always remembered it: “I've laid so much pipe in this town I should join the plumbers union!” (laughs) That was obviously before he was married.
As for other jocks, I have to say that as funny as it is sounds coming from me, John Howell is someone who really turned out to be a personality who uses the breadth and depth of his talent. We worked together at WCKG, and those weren’t great days for him. I had to talk him into staying in town a few times, because that Miller and Howell show was a big-time challenge for him, especially when they weren’t getting along. But he’s really talented.
I never really worked with Brandmeier, except coming on after him a few times, but since he’s been back he’s made me pull over to the side of the road a few times because I was laughing so hard. He really still has it. Lots of energy and variety and I’m glad he stayed at the Loop. I can’t picture him at WGN at all.
Obviously, you also have to look at Dahl and Meier together. Apart, not as much. When they were together, they complimented each other so well, it was amazing. Another guy I always loved is someone you know very well, John Records Landecker. When he did nights at WLS, I was doing nights at WDAI, and Decker and I used to do “show prep” together, if you know what I mean. I also thought Alan Stagg was one of the all-time unique characters.
There are 2 others (off air) that should not go unmentioned. Number 1: Bob Pittman, the most amazing guy I have ever worked with or for. He did the "no commercials" kick off of WKQX Dec. 1976, and he did go on to a little success in NY...MTV, WarnerAmex, AOL co-chairmanship...the guy was a prince of a person and truly the most innovative individual I've ever met. And #2: Tim Sabean, a guy whose resume reads like a Who's Who of rock radio..WLS, WLUP, KLOS, WCKG (where he hired me), WYSP, now Sirius-XM, Howard Stern Network. This guy was the most down to earth lunatic (fun) you could ever want to meet. Very savvy, did his homework, and was the best to his people. He was extremely bright and great fun to be around. He's still one of my dearest friends and I have the greatest respect for him as a person and a professional (Tim, if you read this, send me a ticket for NY).
I’m probably leaving some people out, but those are the ones that come to mind right away.
Rick: What do you think about radio now?
Mitch: It’s in a sad state. Back in the day it had so much more immediacy. You could demand people’s attention because you were the only place they could get the new music and the concert information, but now there are a million other places to get it. Don’t get me wrong, I still like radio. I still listen to it. And I miss doing it.
Rick: Will you ever come back?
Mitch: If the opportunity and circumstances were right, I would love to. There doesn’t seem to be any great situation in Chicago right now, and I’m not looking at leaving town at my age, but if something were come up here in town, I’ve learned to never say never.
(Chicago Radio Spotlight: Rick Kaempfer)
Post a Followup