Monday, October 13, 2008

Another One Bites the Dust

From today's Tom Taylor email:

Spike at the Mic Spike O’Dell wasn’t kidding about his intention to leave the plum job of waking up Chicago, on Tribune’s WGN (720). For the first time, he confirmed to listeners last Friday morning that he’ll be leaving the second week of December. He said – rightly – that his decision not to renew his deal was the “worst-kept secret” in town, but the 55-year-old really truly is walking away from a big salary and big ratings. He wants to retire while he’s still “young enough and healthy enough” to enjoy the next stage of his life, and he’s financially able to do it. His departure ends an eight-year tenure as the morning host at ’GN, but an overall 21 years there.

When Sharon and I first motored from Hartford, CT to our new home in Fairfield, IA, naturally I was listening to the radio for every turn of the tires - that was long enough ago to hear real, live, local radio and rich regional differences from village to town, with its concomitant variations in quality, most of it, er, charming - I came upon "KICK 104" in Davenport, IA, and a guy who jumped off the dial. He was folksy but professional, chatting comfortably about last night's charity dinner where he was a celebrity waiter, and with listeners about the highlights of their lives. And what a voice! "Holy shit," I exclaimed (inwardly, so as not to alarm the Mrs.); "what's this guy doing in Davenport, IA?"

It turns out what he was doing in Davenport, IA was owning part of the station he worked for; that's how they could afford to keep him. But soon he was headed to the bright tower lights of WGN anyway, and it was obvious he was heir apparent to the venerable Wally Phillips. (No keys exist on the keyboard that accurately render Mr. Phillips's own pronunciation of his name, BTW - suffice it to say that his success was all the more remarkable, having a pronounced Brokawish speech impediment, a name with four "L"s and call letters beginning with "W." Oh, and before WGN he was at a Chicago station that threw another "L" at him for good measure).

Anyway, the prophesy was fulfilled: Mr. O’Dell entertained Chicago for two decades ... and now he is leaving us. He has had an enviable career, as much for what he didn't do:

  • He didn't get downsized on any of the industry's myriad Black Fridays.
  • He didn't get fined by the FCC.
  • He didn't get arrested.
  • He didn't start rumors he wouldn't renew any of his contracts, thus stirring up the infamous Industry Buzz and starting a bidding war.
  • He didn't syndicate his show, thus losing the essential local quality that made him so great.

Instead, Mr. O’Dell did what good broadcasters do: he got up (very early) every morning and did good (make that great) radio. 

I wish him well in his next stage, but I mourn our loss.

And thanks, Spike, for proving to this big-city-radio kid - for the first time but certainly not the last - that good, and sometimes great, radio happens in smaller markets, too.