There are many voices of University of Nebraska football. Head Coach bo Pelini. Husker Sports Network play-by-play man Greg Sharpe. Not to be forgotten though is Husker football’s Memorial Stadium public address announcer Patrick Combs, who lends his own signature personality to the goings-on inside that cathedral of college football without ever detracting from it. I did the piece a few years ago about Combs and his dream role as “The Voice of Husker Football.”
The Man Behind the Voice of Husker Football at Memorial Stadium
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine
Patrick Combs, 41, lives a dream each Husker game day as the in-stadium announcer for Nebraska football. He grew up cheering Big Red at Memorial Stadium, where he and his late father, Lincoln, Neb. car dealer Woody Combs, bonded on Saturdays.
From age 13 on, he said, “it’s safe to say my dream was to be the Voice of the Huskers. I always thought how cool it would be someday to be that booming voice…”
When not living his dream he’s director of business development for NRG Media, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based company with 83 radio stations in seven states. Combs works out of the Omaha office, home to Waitt Radio Network. He loves radio, but despite a resonant voice he didn’t seek a career in broadcasting, it sought him.
Growing up he and his family were into horses. His father, whom Combs said “had a great voice,” announced area equestrian events, including those a young Pat rode in. Whenever his dad couldn’t do an event, Combs filled in. People would invariably tell him, “You should be an announcer.” Instead, he attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln intent on going into law or politics. He interned for then-Governor Bob Kerrey.
He ended up going to work for his dad. Recruited away by another dealer, he made general manager at 24. In 1993, he led a group of young American professionals to Taiwan for an international business summit and found a new calling.
“It was a life-changing month for me,” Combs said. “I realized very quickly how fortunate we are in this country with the freedoms we have and the abilties we have to be entrepeneurial. I came back idealistic and energized…and I decided to channel that by running for political office to try to make a difference.”
He entered the ‘94 U.S. Congressional race against Neb. Republican incumbant Doug Bereuter. Combs, a Democrat, was a 27-year-old unknown. But in a GOP-heavy state he managed 40 percent of the vote by campaigning every day and raising an unheard of $250,000 for his upstart bid. He failed to gain the same seat again in ‘96.
By then soured on selling cars and being denied a political career, he answered opportunity when KLIN in Lincoln asked him to co-host a talk show. The gig got in his blood and he learned the biz, laying the foundation for his 13-year radio career.
Life was good. He married, became a father of two, saw his career flourish at Waitt, which merged with NRG, and indulged his “passion” for riding Harleys. But two things were missing. The man he calls “my biggest idol and mentor” — his dad — died in 2001. And his dream job as Voice of Husker Nation seemed unattainable.
“I’d pretty much written off that job,” he said. Enter fate. In 2003 the job came open and Combs won it after auditioning, including calling that year’s Spring Game.
Going on his fifth year as the P.A. man, he said, “I’m still like a little kid in a candy store. I love it.” Though few know the name behind the voice, he said, “that’s OK. I’m just thrilled to be there. I’m humbled every day I walk into the stadium and to be part of such a storied program. There’s pressure to do a good job and I try very hard to do a good job. I do not want to let the fans down.” That’s why he preps hours before each contest. Calling a good game, he said, comes down “to being a facilitator of information and adding to the environment of the game.”
From the booth Combs imagines his dad, who got him started announcing, hearing him in the stands.
“I know he would be so proud his son is the Voice of the Huskers.”
- VIDEOS: Memorial Stadium Already Three Months Ahead Of Schedule (rantsports.com)
- Nebraska Football: Huskers Sell Stability with Bo Pelini Raise, Extension (bleacherreport.com)
- Nebraska Spring Game Canceled Due To Inclement Weather (sbnation.com)
- McKewon: Pelini plots for Year Two in Big Ten (omaha.com)
- Huskers assistant: Job safe, but I’ll curb stance (espn.go.com)
Omaha’s KVNO 90.7 FM Turns 40: Commercial-Free Public Radio Station Serves the Community, All Classical Music and Local News Content Set it Apart
Omaha’s KVNO Classical 90.7 FM Turns 40:
While the commercial radio menu leans to blow-hard hosts and pop heavy rotations, public radio’s soothing sounds and erudite musings cut through the clutter. KVNO 90.7 FM further stands out for its all-classical play lists and original local newscasts.
Music, public affairs, news mix by KVNO for Omaha
The UNO-based independent celebrates 40 years on-air in 2012, an impressive feat considering its niche appeal as a commercial-free operation dependent on donor support for survival. The professionally-staffed station maintains high quality. The news division particularly serves as a real-world training ground for students.
KVNO long ago opted to be the master of its own content.
“KVNO’s programming is indeed unique among independent classical stations across the country,” says general manager and mid-day-midnight host Dana Buckingham. “KVNO has developed our own blend of classical music programming format that works well for us and the market we serve.
“Many traditional classical stations stick to a rigid programming formula that rarely deviates from the standard playbook of the ‘tried and true’ classics. This homogenized classical programming format almost never crosses over into more contemporary classical, vocal or film music. At KVNO we cross that line almost every hour and our listeners love it.”
Michael Hilt, who as UNO Associate Dean for the College of Communication, Fine Arts and Media oversees KVNO, sees value in personally crafting the program day.
“I think more and more you’re seeing stations going to services that provide the music. They may program part of their broadcast day but not all of it. We have a music director who works with the general manager on programming the music 24/7.”
Audience feedback is considered in programming decisions, officials note.
Buckingham says a “renewed commitment” to news and public affairs has netted award-winning results. “I am very proud of the achievements our talented news team has made. News director Robyn Wisch is a true professional and a great resource and mentor for our students.”
He says where KVNO once “sought to distance itself” from the university, “no more,” adding, “We are the broadcasting voice of the University of Nebraska Omaha and proud of it.” Hilt says the station maintains autonomy though. “The university lets us do what we do. Sometimes there are things we do they love and then there are other times when they say,’ Gee, we wish you hadn’t done that.’ Is there any censorship or editorial control? No.”
A new partnership, strengthening local arts ties, staying relevant
In January KVNO embarked on a programming partnership with NET Radio that enables each to serve a larger statewide audience and to introduce listeners to new voices. Expanding KVNO’s reach, says Hilt, “is very important to us.” Buckingham terms it “a win-win.”
Public radio and the arts make a natural fit, thus KVNO, which once branded itself “fine arts public radio” and served as “the voice of the Summer Arts Festival,” is a dedicated arts advocate and programming outlet.
“Our affiliation with the local arts scene is very strong and we are always seeking ways to make these relationships even stronger,” says Buckingham. “We’re exploring the possibility of producing an expanded weekly broadcast series of the Omaha Symphony.” He sees possibilities for the series beyond Omaha. “It is my hope we may eventually offer this expanded series for nationwide distribution. We are also in the process of integrating more classical music selections featuring the Omaha Symphony into our regular daily playlist and rotation.”
KVNO broadcasts the UNO Music Department series “Sounds from Strauss” and Omaha Symphonic Chorus and Tuesday Musical Concert performances. The station recognizes youth musicians through its Classical Kids program. Aside from the performing arts, KVNO does its share of live UNO sports broadcasts.
To remain relevant in this new media age of cable, satellite and the Internet, Buckingham says, “we cannot afford to be just another classical music service provider, we must be connected to our community and involved in promoting and providing a forum for the talented musicians and artists in our community.”
Popular on-air hosts help the station build listener loyalty, an essential facet in such an intimate medium.
“I have been an on-air classical music host on KVNO for over a decade,” he says. “In fact, most of our on-air classical announcers have been here a long-time. Over that time, we have established a connection with our listeners that has helped us through the good times and the not so good times. Many regular listeners have established a ‘relationship’ with our local hosts. We are always that familiar and friendly voice in the morning, afternoon, evening or late at night.”
Doing more with less and reinventing itself
University budget cuts and pinched donor dollars have forced a frugal station to further stretch already thin resources.
“Believe me, we know how to do more with less,” he says. “We do it every day. We furnished our newsroom entirely with computers handed down from other departments on campus and office equipment from university surplus..”
That austerity harkens back to the station’s modest roots. When KVNO first went on the air in 1972 general manager Fritz Leigh was the lone full-time employee. At the start KVNO stayed on-air only a few hours a day, gradually expanding the schedule until reaching a 24-hour broadcast day in 1985. For its first 15 years the station called the Storz mansion home before moving to the Engineering Building in 1987.
When Omaha DJ Otis Twelve became the morning drive host in 2006 it was not the first time a media personality joined KVNO. Local TV-radio personalities Frank Bramhall and Dale Munson did so in the 1970s and 1990s, respectively.
It may surprise listeners KVNO once played an eclectic mix of classical, jazz, rock, big band and folk before going all classical in the ’90s. A show it once produced and distributed, Tom May’s “River City Folk,” went national. KVNO is no longer associated with the show. Ironically, the show now airs on KVNO’s local public radio competitor, KIOS.
With a little help from its friends
One thing that’s never changed is the importance of financial support. Corporation for Public Broadcasting funding only covers so much. The rest must come from donors, memberships and sponsors. The station has thousands of loyal fans and some very generous funders, but Buckingham says, “less than 10 percent of those who listen to KVNO on a regular basis actually take the initiative to pony-up and contribute financially. We are obviously not getting the message out effectively.”
Volunteering for pledge drives is another way to help.
He’s actively seeking prospective business sponsors with this pitch. “Underwriting on KVNO is a cost effective way to promote your business and raise your organization’s profile and image. We reach a very desirable demographic-audience.” It’s a more diverse audience than one might expect. “Our listeners are not just scholars, musicians, business leaders, writers, students, intellectuals and teachers. Our devoted listeners are also butchers, bakers and candlestick makers.”
Bottom line, he says KVNO adds to the city’s cultural fabric. It follows then that becoming a sponsor or member helps KVNO improve the quality of life, in turn making Omaha a more attractive place to live. The 2012 membership drive unfolds in March. To join or give, call 402-554-5866 or visit www.kvno.org.
- Classical music Alert: Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols airs this year on Saturday, Dec. 24, at 9 a.m. and again on Sunday, Dec. 25, at 2 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Radio (welltempered.wordpress.com)
- LAist Interview: Radio Producer Jesse Thorn & ‘Bullseye’ (laist.com)
- Star Wars music on the radio (buffetoblog.wordpress.com)
- Classical music news: Wisconsin Public Radio’s music director Cheryl Dring is leaving for Austin, Texas radio station. (welltempered.wordpress.com)
- Classic FM Live (2mfblog.wordpress.com)
- WITF radio may drop weekday classical music in favor of news and information format (pennlive.com)
Radio continues to crop up as a subject for me to write about, not often mind you, but enough to keep me alert for other radio stories out there. Over the years I have written about:
•a film buff/historian who produced a pair of highly acclaimed radio documentaries about legnedary Hollywood composers
•a public radio program director who makes it his mission to record concerts for on-air broadcast
•a public radio general manager who fell into the field after a stint in teaching and fell in love with the medium
•a morning radio personality and his long career in the biz
•a morning DJ who is also a much-in-demand community theater actor and nightclub performer
•a former rock DJ turned public radio host who is also a serious author of novels and short fiction
Now comes the following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about the popular Public Radio International program, Michael Feldman’s Whad’Ya Know? and its road show appearance in my backyard, Omaha. The show broadcasts live August 13 from the Holland Performing Arts Center in downtown Omaha. For my preview piece I did a phone interview with founder-host Michael Feldman, whose deft wit was fun to play off against in a kind of tit-for-tat way. I am a long-time fan of the show, though I have to admit that another public radio show not unlike it – Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me! – has wrested my affection and listening habit away. Most of my radio pieces can be found on this blog, and those that aren’t already will soon be added.
©by Leo Adam Biga
As published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Public radio’s popular Whad’Ya Know?, headlined by creator-producer-host Michael Feldman, comes to the Holland Performing Arts Center for a live, two-hour road show Aug. 13. Produced by Wisconsin Public Radio and distributed by Public Radio International, Whad’Ya Know? calls home base the Monona Terrace in Madison.
Eight times a year cast and crew leave the friendly confines to take their melange of talk, topical humor, quiz show and jazz sets on the road. Saturday marks their second Omaha stop in a decade. KIOS, which airs the show here, is sponsoring the appearance, plus a post-show VIP reception, as a fund raiser for its listener-supported programming.
Watching radio can be a treat or a let down for fans who usually only hear it.
“People seem to like it when they come,” says Feldman. “They always say, ‘Boy, it’s much better in person.’ That’s what I get a lot. That, and, ‘You’re not nearly as homely as you sound on the air.’ You’re either too short or too tall or you’re ‘exactly like I thought you were.’ All of them are insulting, actually.”
The cult of personality that attends radio lies in the imagination. The figure behind the voice becomes whomever the listener conjures.
Radio’s known to attract its share of quirky talking heads. As a former English teacher and cabbie, Feldman qualified as a misfit with a dubious skill set when he fell into radio in 1977. WORT’s Jack Mitchell discovered him. Feldman left for Chicago’s mega-WGN, but returned when Mitchell greenlighted Whad’Ya Know.
He’s hardly a model of charisma with his smart-alecky, neurotic, quasi-authoritative persona. He expresses opinions on news items in one-liner monologue-style, but you won’t mistake him for a blow-hard or an expert. He’s certainly not a hyper AM shock jock or zenned-out FM host, either.
Instead, he’s a cross between acerbic Groucho Marx and wry Dick Cavett. Feldman engages audiences with ironical, quick-witted, verbally adroit, ad-libbed responses that needle. He says he fits squarely in the “Jewish, rapid-fire, wise-cracking tradition,” adding, “The closest to me was my father, who was sort of like that. He was very funny and did a lot of asides, like little jokes to the camera, only I was the camera when I was a kid. So, to me, it’s Dave Feldman humor.”
When you suggest he stops just short of disparaging people during bits like the Whad’Ya Know Quiz, he begs to differ.
“You know, honestly, I think if you did a content analysis of it you’d see there’s very little insulting or even coming up to insulting. A nudge is much different than an insult. A nudge is where you can say something to someone that has a little spin to it, a little meaning to it. That’s called nudging. But it’s more playfulness. I’m a ‘nudgist,’ I guess.”
And a mensch. This gentle provocation is where he shines and sometimes even falls flat. An awkward pause can make good radio, too. It’s all in the timing and the comeback. Sharp repartee is where the show lives.
“That’s the long and the short of it, that’s what makes it work or doesn’t,” he says. “But usually it works and it’s totally because of the interactions of the people who come or call in; occasionally the people I’m interviewing, but mostly it’s the rank and file. It’s an audience-driven show, so my skill if I have any is getting it out of them. That’s what I consider my job to be.”
If there’s a template for this coaxing, teasing interplay, he says it’s the live performer who fixes on ripe-for-the-picking targets with lines like: “Hey, where you from?” A beat. “Is she really with you?’ And that’s sort of what I do,” he says. “It’s embarrassing, but I’m like a nightclub singer doing patter. Singling out people in the audience and giving them a hard time or whatever. It’s somewhat along those lines I must admit.”
Making it all resonate with 1.4 million regular listeners, as Feldman does, is quite a feat. “I don’t want to jinx it, but it’s been going 25 years, which is really unbelievable.”
The team of Feldman, announcer Jim Packard, musical coordinator-band leader John Thulin, bassist Jeff Hamann and drummer Clyde Stubblefield, enjoys amazing continuity. “We’ve only had one change in all this time,” says Feldman.
The whole gang will be here for the 9:30 a.m. Omaha program. The show goes live at 10 a.m. Feldman will be armed with plenty of Omaha tidbits by then. Researching where the show tours is a process he enjoys.
“It’s stimulating because you try and actually learn about where you’re going, so it’s really quite interesting and as a matter of fact I like it very much. I don’t have a feel yet for what’s making Omaha tick, but I intend to find out.”
Helping him flesh out the Omaha zeitgeist will be some special guests: Omaha World-Herald cartoonist Jeffrey Koterba, whose memoir Inklings has been well-received; and musician Tim Kasher, best known for his work with the bands Cursive and The Good Life, and now with a new solo album out, The Game of Monogamy.
Show tickets range from $25 to $45 through Ticket Omaha. VIP tickets are $100. Call 402-557-2558 or visit http://www.kios.org.
- Jo Ann McDowell’s Theater Passion Leads Her on the Adventure of Her Life: Friend, Confidante, Champion of Leading Playwrights, Directors, Actors and Organizer of Major Theater Festivals and Conferences (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Shakespeare on the Green, A Summertime Staple in Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Arno Lucas, Serious Sidekick (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Walking Behind to Freedom, A Musical Theater Examination of Race (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful Celebration, Now, and All the Days Gone By (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Ties that Bind, One Family’s Celebration of Native Omaha Days (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
UPDATE I: I have been noticing a major uptick in views of this Dave Wingert profile and I think at one point I even Googled his name to see if he was in the news, but I didn’t find anything. But the views kept right on aggregating. I just happened to email him Oct. 17 about something totally unrelated to this and he informed me he has been summarily let go by KGOR. Obviously a lot of you out there who listened to him knew about the situation. Apparently the dust-up had to do with an FCC violation – a listener calling-in unloosed a forbidden expletive on air that seems pretty tame to me and my ears, “bullshit,” and Wingy let it through and tried covering his ass just as you or I might do — and after serving a suspension he got canned for his trouble. Please explain how the many obscenities (and I don’t just mean words) of reality TV and shock-jock radio are acceptable, even in prime time, and yet its producers, writers, and hosts only seem to get richer, but a stray “bullshit” said over the radio is grounds for termination? He tells me he was fired without severance, only a goodbye and good luck. He wants to stay put and continue doing his radio gigging in Omaha. He and his agent are busily testing the waters. I hope he gets his wish and perhaps a measure of revenge against the station that dismissed him by killing them in the ratings.
UPDATE II: The story finally made the news, though the reports have him uttering the expletive. Does it really matter? I find it interesting that I broke the story via my blog Monday morning and yet that there was no mention by the Omaha World-Herald or other media of getting a lead on this news from this source and/or from readers of this blog, but I assume that’s precisely what happened.
UPDATE III: After fielding dozens of comments and questions about Wingert’s firing, I am happy to report what some of you probably already know – he’s landed at a new radio home in Omaha, KOOO-FM, 101.9, where he will be the morning host beginning Monday, Jan. 30. The station plays hits from the 1970s through today and targets a 25-54 demographic. Does this mean his loyal listeners from KGOR, many of them upset by the way he was let go, will follow him to the new station and boost its ratings? I wonder how many listeners spurned KGOR in the aftermath of his firing? Oh, well, all water under the bridge now. He’s back in the saddle again and if his fans want to hear him they know where to find him.
In my 52 years in Omaha, Neb. I am aware of only a few entertainers and personalities who can compare with Dave Wingert, a multi-talented gentleman who makes whatever medium he’s working in, whether radio or television or theater or cabaret, appear effortless. Those of us who have been around the block a time or two know from experience that things only appear effortless from the outside looking in, and that that apparent ease is only arrived after tremendous study and work. After admiring Wingert from afar for so many years it was a delight to finally meet him and get to know him a bit. I trust you will like the man I portray in this article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) as much as I do.
Radio DJ-Actor-SingerDave Wingert, In the Spotlight
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The words fearless and morning radio personality don’t usually jive but they do in the case of Clear Channel KGOR 99.9-FM wake-up man Dave Wingert. Far from the madding crowd of shock jocks the veteran broadcaster and stage actor is brave enough to simply be himself on air. Enervating, effusive, empathetic, effeminate.
He’s gallant enough to have accepted the fact his biological father no sooner saw him as a newborn infant than went home and killed himself. His mother laid that messed-up heritage on him when he was a teenager.
“What do you with that?” Wingert asked rhetorically in an interview. What he did was learn all he could about his father, a man who was the love of his mother’s life but who also suffered from manic depression. The revelation of how he died came just as Wingert began pursuing radio and theater at Ohio University. That’s when he discovered his father had worked in those same fields in New York. Weird.
Wingert’s resilient enough to have survived a bullet to the chest in Omaha’s most famous shooting spree until the Van Maur tragedy. In 1977 he and Larry Williams had just begun their cabaret act before a packed house at now defunct Club 89 when Ulysses Cribbs opened fire with a 12-gauge shotgun. In a few seconds rampage that seemed to last forever the gunman killed one and injured 26, including Wingert, who luckily had the round deflect off his chest.
Superman went on the air the next day helping a city heal. He did the same after the Van Maur shootings. The earlier experience was a lesson in how precious life is. “Since that day I try not to take that for granted,” he said. A recent stalking incident made him relive some of that chaos. “Mr. Crazy” made veiled threats before being arrested. Wingert never missed a show.
A triple-threat actor/singer/dancer, he’s daring enough to take on demanding roles requiring huge commitments of time and energy. “I’m drawn to material, content,” he said. Recent roles in Six Degrees of Separation, Urinetown and The Goat fit the bill. Blue Barn Theatre artistic director Susan Clement Toberer, who directed him in Six Degrees andGoat, said, “His work ethic is purely professional yet he is very willing to try anything at least once. I love working with actors like Dave who are fearless and willing to jump off a ledge and not worry if they look the fool.”
He’s courageous enough to be an openly gay announcer in Omaha. Not in a flaming, militant way but with a breezy, emotive patter and Jewish motherly demeanor. By addressing, on-air, overtly heterosexual newsman Rich Dennison with, “Oh, honey!,” or female callers with, “Dahling.” He doesn’t use the show as a coming out platform but rather as context for being true to who he is.
“I have come out — if you listen for it. But it comes out in conversation. I haven’t made it a banner,” he said.
Three years ago Wingert showed the courage of his convictions by abandoning his dream for large market radio fame, which had led him from Omaha to the west coast, to venture back here in search of a permanent home to call his own.
More recently, Wingert proved he has the guts to leave a prime gig as a protest. In a show of solidarity with Omaha Community Playhouse artists who’d earlier resigned he and two fellow cast members deserted a production of Moonlight and Magnolias days before its scheduled opening last month. He, Ben Burkholtz and Connie Lee refused to go on in response to a dispute at the theater that led to the temporary departures of Playhouse artistic director Carl Beck, who directed Moonlight, and associate Susan Baer Collins. When Wingert and Co. exited, the show was canceled and Billy McGuigan booked as a fill-in.
Beck appreciated the gesture.
“I was terribly surprised and terribly moved. It received a lot of varied reaction around the city. Some people very much horrified actors would do that. Others, understanding what motivated the actors. I know those actors were taking an uncomfortable positiion and so I admire them seeing it through the way they have.”
Some may view what Wingert did as a grandstanding ploy that undermined the theater. Others, as the loyal action of a man guided by integrity. Either way, Wingert didn’t sit idly by while Rome burned.
Prompting this soap opera was a blunt force effort by executive director Tim Schmad and board president Mark Laughlin to bridge a budget shortfall. The pair reportedly told Beck and Collins their duties and salaries would be reduced. Beck and Collins balked and submitted their resignations. Insiders say it was a classic case of bean counters versus artists.
Once the story broke angry theater supporters deluged the Playhouse with calls and emails. Schmad and Laughlin faced the music at an April 16 open forum that announced the restoration of Beck and Collins to their original posts.
Wingert attended the session, which saw people rant against OCP administrators for what many viewed as their insensitivity, but the actor remained silent. Aside from a comment to a television reporter about Schmad’s well-publicized and much-derided lack of arts experience, Wingert let his actions speak for him.
“What’s really behind this is I keep a list of what I want to be here and do here and one is to make a difference, and this made such a huge difference as it played out,” said Wingert. “I think of that. I guess you could call it a protest. It was saying, ‘You can’t treat my friends this way, this is wrong, you can’t do this.’ It was all about people for me,” said Wingert, who’d worked with Beck before.
Wingert at a script reading
What impact the Wingert-led walkout made in causing Playhouse leaders to rethink their decision no one knows. While Beck and Collins are back on the job Moonlight never made it to curtain, unless you count the fully-dressed and lit but empty set that served as backdrop for the rancorous public forum. A fitting symbol for a show that would not go on in a house divided. Wingert equates what happened to a dysfunctional family airing out some issues.
“I think it’s much like a family having a blowup.”
He said “going to the brink” may have been just the “cathartic” awakening the complacent theater, which has lost much of its membership, needed in order to get both the business and art sides on the same page.
“I see this as all really good for the Playhouse, I really do,” said Wingert. “If this is a situation that has been brewing for some time than the place deserves to implode, it needs to get its shit together. Only time will tell.”
He feels the events that led to Moonlight being canceled sent a message to the Playhouse administration.
“It was more important not to do this show for the reasons we didn’t do it than to get on stage,” said Wingert, who refused overtures from management he reconsider his walkout. “Maybe it wasn’t meant to live.”
Still, he rues losing Moonlight. The play looks at a frantic few days in the making of Gone with the Wind. Wingert went after the plum role of screenwriter Ben Hecht, whose biography’s telling of these true-to-life events inspired the stage comedy. There’s discussion of finding new play dates for Moonlight but that may be difficult given the theater’s tight schedule. Wingert can hope though.
“I would love to play that part,” he said. “It’s so rich and fun.” Wingert said he initially had trouble finding Hecht’s voice, the instrument the actor relies on for fixing in on his characters. Once he did, he said, he “nailed the part.” What he hit upon, he said, was a wry, Woody Allenish, New Yorker smarty pants whine. “That voice had never come out of my mouth before.”
He projects a vaugely Jewish vibe, too, as the friendly mensch who says, “let’s check the morning schlep,” or, “love to schmooze with you.”
Filling time between playing what KGOR tags “the super hits of the the ‘60s and ‘70s” he indulges in canned jokes provided by a syndicator of prefab material. Most commercial stations subscribe to such services. The bits, mostly satiric pot shots at headline grabbers like OctaMom, stand on their own but work best when a host can riff on them. If nothing else, Wingert’s an extemporaneous whiz whose decades of live radio and theater experience make improvisation second nature to him.
It’s why he does his show, not from a chair but standing up, moving around, much the way he works on stage.
“I do my show standing up because I think best on my feet. It gives me more more energy.
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As a working journalist who depends on assignments from several different Omaha area publications for my living, I once in a while find myself in the position of accepting assignments from two different clients to profile the same individual in their respective pages. That happened in the case of KFAB radio program director and on-air personality Gary Sadlemyer. Both the City Weekly and B2B Magazine asked me to profile him within a few weeks of each other, and so not for the first time and I suspect not for the last time I ended up writing two separate profiles for two different publications, the stories appearing only a couple months apart. It’s a challenge I enjoy. I am sharing those stories back-to-back here and I will let you be the judge of how I handled crafting two distinct articles from the same source material.
Future posts will feature a few more examples of my facing the same challenge and hopefully being up to it.
A Good Man’s Job in Radio is Never Done
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com)
Omaha’s KFAB bills itself as Nebraska’s radio “superstation.” The designation refers to the long reach of its 50,000 watt signal, the tradition that comes with 84 years on the air and the market share dominance the commercial giant’s enjoyed since the 1950s. It’s a full service institution, minus complete music tracks.
KFAB was once so ingrained in ”the fabric” of listeners’ lives, program director Gary Sadlemyer said, radio dials remained set to 1110 AM for decades in people’s homes, offices, vehicles. The middle-of-the-road broadcasts were the first thing heard upon rising and the last thing heard before retiring. The music, news, ag reports, weather alerts, sports coverage, personalities and corny banter became familiar, comfortable touchstones. The call letters synonymous with Husker football in its glory years. All of which made KFAB a hard-to-break habit.
Radio does not exert the hold it once did on people’s time and loyalty in an era of cookie-cutter programming, remote ownership, the Internet, iPods, CDs and cable television. So has radio lost its relevance in this new media age?
“Not according to the numbers,” said Sadlemyer, host of KFAB’s popular Good Morning Show weekdays from 5:30 to 9. “The latest industry figures I’ve seen indicate something like 93 percent of Americans listen to radio.”
FM rock/pop has its devotees. Public radio claims a niche audience. Satellite or subscription radio may be the next wave. Satellite purveyors’ maneuvering to do local programming draws Sadlemyer’s ire because local news/talk is not in their original charter. For now though AM talk rules. KFAB is that format’s local cock-of-the-walk. While studies confirm folks don’t tune into radio as often as they once did, he said the medium’s ubiquitousness keeps it vital.
“What’s not to like? It’s free and it’s easily accessible. You don’t have to worry about remembering to program it,” the veteran broadcaster said. “It’s amusing to me that people proclaim the death of AM radio. AM radio is really the strongest of them all. Talk radio is the number one format because it’s always local, at least to one extent or another. You’ve got local shows with guys talking about local issues and local news and weather. No iPod’s going to give you that.”
Talk is the medium’s version of blogging. Gossip, bullshitting and rant turned genre.
Now in his 32nd year at KFAB and 35th overall in radio, Sadlemyer’s experience reflects how the biz has changed in that time. He’s not crazy about the direction radio’s gone, especially stations being in the hands of fewer, larger multi-national companies. “I’m on my seventh or eight owner now,” he said.
He weathered the without-a-parachute jump from middle-of-the-road to talk radio in 1989. In the wake of deregulation the industry was in turmoil — mergers, acquisitions, spin-offs, staff cuts, format changes.
“The year we made that switch,” he said, “we didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t know how to do talk radio. I was our first talk show host. It was a natural progression for a news station like ours but we needed to do that on a more gradual basis…So KFAB went through this horrible down slide. I managed to survive it. Now we’re back up there, but it was a climb. It was a tough time.”
He can laugh about it now but he recalls the “show from hell” when he booked, without pre-screening, an expert to discuss radon gas. The guest turned out to be “the meekest, mild-mannered little nerd you ever heard. No personality whatsoever. No voice. Now if that happened today,” Sadlemyer said, “I would do maybe five minutes and move on. But I had him on the full hour. The sound of radios turning off was deafening.”
But talk radio was the future and KFAB forged ahead before figuring things out. That’s the kind of misstep that comes from unstable ownership.
For years KFAB was owned by May Broadcasting, a venerable Shenandoah, Iowa company. The Lincoln Journal-Star bought the station, selling it in ‘86 to Henry Broadcasting. Beginning in ‘96 KFAB went through a series of absentee owners — American Radio Systems, Triathlon, Capstar, Chancellor Broadcasting — before current owner Clear Channel Worldwide bought it in 2000. This “owner-of-the-month club,” Sadlemyer said, “was like, Who’s our owner now? That period in the history of the station is not my favorite.” While entrenched at KFAB, where he envisions himself to be another 10 years, he knows nothing’s guaranteed in today’s revolving-door, bottom-line environment that keeps budgets tight and staffs small.
“Hey, I don’t know if I get to work 10 more years. They might blow me out of there tomorrow,” he said. “What I mean by that is that when you’re talking about these huge mega corporations, nothing’s ever personal. If you’re a good professional you like it to be personal because than you’re safer. If it’s impersonal it’s easier for some bean counter in a suit to downsize you out of a job. That’s the difference.
“I don’t think radio was designed to be a Wall Street-driven enterprise. Radio’s meant to be an integral part of whatever community it’s in. The difference is you don’t have complete autonomy and access like you do with local ownership. At least there’s a connection. Big companies driven by investors, rates of return, boards of directors and Wall Street need to have efficiency. Sometimes they go too far and you end up with not enough people but that’s true in a lot of industries now. I mean, ideally, could we use more people in our building? Yes, we could.”
The days of full radio news crews are gone, although KFAB’s an exception locally.
Still, he said, an overall tighter ship has meant doing more with less.
“What I really have is three jobs — program director, operations manager, Morning Show host,” he said. “When I get off the air at 9 we have a meeting right after the show every day to prepare for the next day. And then my administrative role kicks in. On the programming side it’s OK, how do we sound? We could have done this better. Operations is about this train having to run on time. Technical things, schedules. It’s just so multi-faceted. I enjoy it all but there are times when it gets frustrating to just not be able to do justice to everything.”
For all the ownership merry-go-rounds and format changes he said he still feels like that young guy fresh out of Brown Institute in Minneapolis, a technical school the Minnesota farm boy attended. Brown placed him at KRGI in Grand Island, Neb., where he learned the ropes announcing, reporting, producing.
“I’m still doing the same thing as far as I’m concerned I did from day one. I just love it. I don’t feel any differently from what I did when I was 24. I don’t think, God, I can’t wait to get out of here. I never think that way.”
By choice he still runs his own audio board when hosting the Morning Show. “I like it that way because I like to depend on myself for the pacing, and if there’s something I want to do and I’ve got in my head I can just move things around and make it happen. I’m responsible for the show and this gives me control,” he said. “Besides, it kind of like a dues-paying thing. It’s a lost art in a way. That’s just the way I learned to do it and I like it.”
It may be a carry-over from his old-school ways but the business of radio is vastly different than when he started.
Stations built strong identities-followings based on readily discernible differences. That’s changed with the move toward digital automation, canned, subscription service content and a generic one-size-fits-all approach.
“The Top 40 stations had personality jocks and they were all over the community,” Sadlemyer said. “Some stations still have some of that but it isn’t like it was back then. You don’t have the freedom now to go crazy and create things on the air. To create promotions. The budgets aren’t there. So local radio is not what it was.”
Back when KFAB commanded a 37 share Sadlemyer said the station’s “neighborly style” engendered trust, which in turn earned loyalty. On-air figures like wry Lyell Bremser, Cronkitesque-Walt Kavanaugh and high energy Kent Pavelka were household names. As Sadlemyer’s Morning Show cohort Jim Rose might say, they had “more name recognition in my home than me.” Even ag man Roger Flemmer, whom Otis Twelve described as “a real Les Nessman,” had a certain flair.
KFAB was a Rock of Gibraltar in radio terms. Solid, stable. A bedrock of family values and Midwestern work ethic.
The guys-next-door vibe is still there but now it’s married to that ironic, satiric edge so endemic in media today. KFAB’s conservative, Fox News-allied, Clear Channel-owned corporate character plays to Nebraska’s Red state sensibilities. Sadlemyer’s own right-wing Republican colors play as folksy rather than polemical.
It’s not all straight-laced, as the predominantly male, testosterone-driven broadcasts and off-air studio discussion have a boys locker room-schoolyard humor side. The slams, barbs, retorts, asides and repartee can be a bit silly.
“I revert to the 11-year-old in me,” Sadlemyer said. “I always take that with me.”
The fast-paced show is part conversation, part schtick. In response to Rose’s cranky complaints about the host’s music selections one morning, Sadlemyer said, “You’re a ticking time bomb.”
Serious issues mix with trivia, celeb gossip and syndicated comedy bits. It’s mostly light and glib. The ad-libs reminiscent of Jay Leno or David Letterman. Sadlemyer always seems to find the right phrase to encapsulate things, which is why his homespun charm makes him such an in-demand “pimp” for sponsors/advertisers.
KFAB flirts with sexism. Its web site features a “Babes” tab with photos of hotties. It’s enough to make the Mount Rushmore icons of Nebraska radio — Bremser, Kavanaugh, Ken Headrick — roll over in their graves. On-air, divas like Rosie O’Donnell and Hillary Clinton are the objects of digs. Items on sexcapades and sex studies provide ready fodder. Once the mikes go cold the innuendo grows thick. When someone pushes things too far, the avuncular Sadlemyer sounds his disapproval like a Presbyterian minister reining in his disobedient flock.
Producer Roger Olson’s suggestive off-air comments one morning prompted Sadlemyer to say, “I don’t think I want to hear about it.” “Gary, you’re a prude,” Olson teased. “No I’m not,” Sadlemyer replied. “That’s the deal now if you have any standards,” Sadlemyer said with a wink and a smile to a studio guest. “That’s why I’m a dinosaur — I’ll never make it in radio.”
He has little to worry about. Anyone who can command roasters the caliber of Sens. Chuck Hagel and Ben Nelson and Husker athletic director and coaching legend Tom Osborne, as Sadlemyer did for his February Omaha Press Club Face on the Ballroom Floor induction, is far from extinct.
His run in radio still has legs. His place in Nebraska broadcast lore is secure. That doesn’t mean he can’t be moved. Only last fall his cool facade was tested by the breaking Von Maur tragedy, when his dry humor gave way to sober deliberation.
“You just have to do the best you can in that circumstance and try to transmit information, which we had very little of in the first hours,” he said.
Besides the Von Maur shootings, he said the hardest thing he’s dealt with on-air was the “internal tug of war” he felt over reports that ex-Husker football player Brook Berringer was killed in a small plane crash. Sadlemyer had gotten to know Berringer working on Husker football broadcasts. On the day of the crash in 1996 the first information coming in was “pure speculation,” said Sadlemyer. He erred on the side of caution, waiting for confirmation, before putting Berringer’s name out there where family could hear it before authorities notified them.
Nebraska Radio Legend Gary Sadlemyer
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in B2B Magazine
1110 KFAB’s Gary Sadlemyer is a calm, considered voice of reason amid the shock jock stunts and blow hard rants that can pass as radio announcing these days. The consummate professional, host of the popular Good Morning Show weekdays from 5:30 to 9 when not attending to his program director and operations director duties, is the last holdover from a golden era at the AM giant.
KFAB ruled the airwaves among Omaha broadcasters in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. It was THE station of choice for vast numbers of listeners and THE place to work for news hounds or middle-of-the-road DJs.
When the then-24-year-old Sadlemyer started at KFAB in 1977 he joined seasoned veterans and certifiable legends in Walt Kavanaugh, Lyell Bremser and Ken Headrick. He counted himself lucky to be in their company.
Growing up on a farm near Eagle Bend, Minn., where he went to school and his father ran a trucking company, Sadlemyer didn’t hear KFAB, whose 50,000 watt signal carries long distances but not quite that far north. Even listening to some backwoods station was enough to spark his imagination.
“I’ll never forget, I was around 10 years old, running an errand in the car with my mother and the radio was tuned into our little local station,” he said. “I remember listening to the announcer and thinking, I’ll bet that’s fun. Listening to that guy I imagined what it looked like in the booth. At some point I realized I don’t listen to radio the way other people do. They didn’t pay attention to it like I did.”
Par for the course for kids he went from being enamored with radio to dreaming of being a landscape architect, then a teacher-coach, then a lawyer. After a stint at Concordia College (Moorhead, Minn.) he reset his ambitions on radio and attended the Brown Institute in Minneapolis, where he received rudimentary training. What sold him on the technical school was a guaranteed placement working at a real live station. He wanted a job in radio so bad he told Brown officials, “I don’t care — I’ll go anywhere. Just give me a box of records and a microphone.”
To his surprise he was hired by KRGI in Grand Island, Neb., a big station in a good-sized town — not the typical way a green radio hand starts out.
“I was so lucky. The program director at KRGI was on vacation and the general manager, who knew virtually nothing about radio, called Brown. He’d fired someone or had someone quit, and he needed a guy right now. So I ended up being the guy. The program director got back from vacation and he was like, What have you done to me? But I survived that somehow.”
He learned the biz from the ground up, announcing, spinning records, covering news, running the board. “I got to learn all that stuff. It was fun,” he said.
Good fortune played a part in his leaving KRGI for this region’s radio mecca — KFAB. Not that he wasn’t happy in Grand Island — he was. If he were going to leave it would have to be for a special opportunity.
“I didn’t want to come to Omaha unless it was KFAB,” he said. “I knew there was one station in that market worth working for at the time, and in my opinion it was KFAB. I thought, That thing is the Rock of Gibraltar. Husker sports, a tremendous reputation, a tremendous name. This is the kind of place that can really provide some stability.”
Holding out for KFAB was one thing. Getting on there was another. Luckily he was befriended by “a real character” in Grand Island, Charlie Winkler, who just happened to be friends with Lyell Bremser, the genial voice of Big Red sports and the general manager at KFAB. Sadlemyer said Winkler “was kind of like a father figure” and when asked “if he’d put in a good word for me — he did.”
In his best Bremser imitation, Sadlemyer recalled what the inimitable radio icon told him when the novice called to inquire about a job. “Well, I’ll tell you, we don’t really have anything at the moment, but send a tape and we’ll keep it on file.”
Sadlemyer didn’t think much more about it. A year or two passed. “And out of the blue one day in November of ‘76,” he recalled, “station manager Ken Headrick called and said, We have an opening — we’d like you to come and talk about it.” He was offered the job the same day he interviewed. After talking it over with his first wife he did what anyone in his position would do — he took the job and ran with it.
On top of the usual hassles that come with settling in a new place the young couple dealt with extra challenges.
“It was rough right away because we didn’t know a soul. I was working seven to midnight and Saturday and Sunday,” he said. “Not making much money. And then we found out we were going to have a baby. It was just a tough stretch but we got through that.”
It wasn’t long before office politics turned ugly. A group of disgruntled employees agitated to make KFAB a union shop. Bremser wasn’t having it. Sadlemyer wisely chose management’s side. At the end of the fray the agitators were let go and Sadlemyer moved to the more plum weekday morning shift. Life was good. He absorbed everything he could from the old radio pros around him.
“I’d go in and bug them to tell me stuff,” he said. “How does this work? Take me through this process. They were wonderful about it. They all became friends.”
They all showed him the ropes but the one who really took him under his wing, he said, was Headrick, the boss. “He spoke to me like a dad. A very no-nonsense guy. He wasn’t warm and fuzzy but he was a mentor to me.” Headrick was there for him when he “went through a very painful divorce” in 1986. Three years later KFAB made the awkward leap into what was ballyhooed as the next big thing on the AM band — talk radio. It’s proven to be just that. Sadlemyer hosted KFAB’s first live talk show. The transition took time for a station whose announcers were previously “not encouraged to be funny or to talk a lot,” he said.
What won listeners over in the end, he said, was “KFAB’s neighborly style.” It’s a vibe Sadlemyer’s perfected with his folksy, homespun manner and dry wit. His personal life got better, too, as he remarried and his kids thrived.
The ‘90s saw many of his trusted colleagues at the station retire and KFAB go through what he disdainfully calls “the owner of the month club” — changing hands several times. “It was like, Who’s our owner now? That period in the history of the station is not my favorite,” he said.
His own duties changed to include more administrative responsibilities. The biz changed to a more controlled, corporate model. Less personality. Less soul. He’s not crazy about what’s happened in radio but he’s never lost his passion for it.
“I just love it. The work is fun. I don’t feel any differently from what I did when I was 24.”
He said his favorite part of the job “is not promotions and it’s not the business-sales end of it, but it’s the relationships with the listener and with the advertiser. With all due modesty I think I’m a pretty good commercial spokesman for people because I don’t do any spots where I don’t know ‘em and I don’t believe ‘em. And I love telling their story, absolutely love it. And getting to know ‘em and hearing about the latest offer they have. I just love that part.
“And getting out on remotes and at public events and meeting listeners, yeah, I enjoy that, too, because everybody’s different, everybody’s got a story.”
By choice he still runs his own audio board when hosting the Morning Show.
“I like it that way because I like to depend on myself for the pacing, and if there’s
something I want to do and I’ve got it in my head I can just move things around and make it happen. I’m responsible for the show and this gives me control,” he said. “Besides, it kind of like a dues-paying thing. It’s a lost art in a way. That’s just the way I learned to do it and I like it.”
At age 55 he figures he has 10 more years as a radio personality. A sure sign of how entrenched he is in the public’s mind and in media circles is his recent induction in the Omaha Press Club’s Face on the Ballroom Floor. Thirty-one years after signing on with KFAB and its roster of legends he’s now a legend himself.
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UPDATE: On February 17 Cathy Hughes received the NAACP Chairman’s Award, joining some distinguished company in the process. As the NAACP website reports, the award is chosen by chairman Roslyn M. Brock in recognition of special achievement and distinguished public service. Past honorees include U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin, Tyler Perry, Former Vice President Al Gore and Dr. Wangari Muta Maathai, Aretha Franklin, Bono, then-Senator Barack Obama, The Dave Matthews Band, Danny Glover, and Aaron McGruder.
“I am thrilled to offer Cathy Hughes the NAACP Chairman’s Award,” says Brock. “ This recognition is long overdue for her accomplishments as a trailblazer in the media industry. As the founder of Radio One and TV One, an advocate for small business entrepreneurship, and philanthropist, Cathy Hughes reminds us that collectively and as individuals, we can make a difference. Her presence at the Image Awards continues the NAACP’s quest to celebrate and uplift individuals who model principles of hard work, perseverance and community empowerment.”
“This is the most humbling honor to ever be bestowed on me,” says Hughes. “Those who have received the Chairman’s Award in the past are counted among the very best that America has ever produced, and I am honored and very humbled to be included in their ranks.”
- – -
I remember reading something about Cathy Hughes somewhere years ago and after digesting the fact this African-American woman was a major media mogul born and raised in my hometown my next reaction was: Why didn’t I know about her before? I mean, she’s a big deal, and her hometown didn’t seem to acknowledge or celebrate her success the way you would expect. One of the nice things about what I do as a freelance journalist is getting the opportunity here and there to rectify such perceived wrongs or at least to put my own spin on someone’s story and perhaps introduce a whole new segment of the population to the subject. That is precisely what I did in the following profile I did on Cathy Hughes for The Reader (www.thereader.com) newspaper in 2005.
I share the story here simply because hers is a story that cannot be told too often.
Radio One Queen Cathy Hughes Rules By Keeping It Real, Native Omahan the Creator of the Urban Radio Format
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
The cool hip-hop culture is driving the urban — read: black — entertainment industry explosion. Radio’s no exception. Omaha’s Hot 107.7 FM loudly carries the banner here for urban radio’s mix of rap, hip hop, soul and R&B. Contemporary rock KQCH 94.1-FM tries a little ebony flavor. But no matter how much they try positioning themselves as urban players, these stations are part of white owned and operated networks — Waitt Radio and Journal Broadcast Corporation, respectively.
To be sure, a more authentic urban electronic media model exists. One with black ownership-management and a black sensibility. Just not in Omaha. That’s ironic, too, as the queen of the urban format is Omaha native Catherine Liggins Hughes, a 58-year-old African American whose Radio One network is described as “the voice of black America and the lightning rod for the black community.” Her stations feature music, news and talk from a black perspective. She and her son, Alfred Liggins Hughes, reign over the Baltimore-area-based Radio One empire comprising 69 radio stations, one television station and, since January 2004, the new cable/satellite channel, TV One, a lifestyle and entertainment option aimed at middle-age blacks. TV One is a joint venture with Comcast Corporation. Her parent company went public in 1999 and is valued at $3 billion, making it one of the largest radio broadcasting companies overall and the largest black-owned media firm. She estimates more than 2,100 of her 2,800 broadcasters are black. Many are women.
Hughes adventure in radio comes full circle on May 14, when she receives an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree during the 2005 commencement at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she got her first big break in the industry. But it was in Omaha her love of radio first bloomed.
It’s been years since Omaha sustained a truly black station. One of the last was KOWH. A group of Kansas City, Mo. doctors and a consortium of Omahans, including Major League Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, NBA veteran Bob Boozer, social service director Rodney Wead and businessman Al Gilmore, bought it in 1969 and operated it through the mid-1970s. Warren Buffett was an advisor. It’s where Hughes got her start in radio as a do-everything volunteer.
Her rise to national prominence the last 25 years has made her, outside Oprah Winfrey, Eunice W. Johnson and Condoleezza Rice, perhaps the most powerful black woman in America. She’s been called so by Essence Magazine. She counts Ebony Magazine publisher John H. Johnson and award-winning journalist Tony Brown as friends and mentors. Yet, her story’s largely gone untold in her hometown. It’s not surprising given Omaha’s conservative daily newspaper and her penchant for ruffling feathers. But hers is the classic American success story. Despite hailing from an educated and accomplished family, she overcome major obstacles growing up. A shining example of black upward mobility, her climb serves both as an inspiration for how far passion can carry one and as a reminder of how too many blacks remain disenfranchised.
Growing up in the now old Franklin Plaza projects just off 24th and Franklin in north Omaha, Hughes fired her imagination to the museful sounds emanating from the oversized radio she listened to in her room at night.
“My love affair with radio started when I was 8-years-old when my mother gave me a 15-pound transistor radio. I used to get spankings, because at night — when I was supposed to be asleep — I had my radio on under my pillow,” Hughes said.
Unlike her mother, Helen Jones Woods, a former musician, Hughes had “no musical talent. So, rather than being drawn towards music and embracing it, I kind of shied away from it…I felt awkward that I couldn’t sing, dance or carry a tune. The interesting thing about my relationship with radio is that the part I loved most was the commercials, not the music. Today, Radio One is a case study for the Harvard Graduate School of Business, and when they were doing their case study they said, ‘Well, no wonder y’all did OK, because your love of radio was not the music, it was the commercials.’ Yeah, I loved the commercials. I used to take my toothbrush and pretend it was a microphone and be up in the mirror — in the projects — giving commercials,” said Hughes in the earthy tones of a late-night urban deejay.She was on track meeting her family’s high standards, attending a private school, when, at 16, she got pregnant. Her marriage to the father didn’t last. “I went into shock because I had my whole future ahead of me,” she said in a 1998 Essence Magazine interview. The birth of her son snapped her out of her “arrested development. I was a lost ball in high weeds.”
Being a mom, she said, “was the last thing I ever anticipated and it turned out to be the greatest blessing of my life. Absolutely, my son changed my life. He’s the reason I am who I am today. By that I mean spiritually. He necessitated a belief in a power much greater than myself.”
She managed supporting herself and her son, got an education and made a career out of her first love — radio, and Alfred was beside her every step of the way. “I took him everywhere with me. I stayed in constant trouble with my employers, particularly when I moved to the East Coast, because I knew no one there and I was not going to entrust him to strangers. And, so, I brought him to work with me.”
Her wild success has not made her forget her struggle or the huge gap that still separates many African Americans from the good life. A self-described “black nationalist,” she’s all about promoting and strengthening the black community and emboldening her people’s sense of pride. She learned social activism from her parents, members of the social justice action group, the De Porres Club, and from crusading Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown, for whom she worked and whose offices hosted De Porres meetings. The faith-based Club led Omaha’s early Civil Rights fight under the late Jesuit priest, John Markoe, of Creighton University. Formed in 1947, the Club agitated for change via demonstrations, sit-ins and boycotts that opened lunch counters, like that at Dixon’s Restaurant, and desegregated employment rolls at such work sites as Coca-Cola and the street-railway company.
Hughes was also a protege of Markoe’s. She recalls marching in demonstrations when she was only five. As a teen, she helped integrate Peony Park. Markoe, a close family friend, sponsored Hughes at Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart, where she became the first black graduate, and loaned her mother the money to attend nursing school. “He took special interest in a lot of young black people. He saw their potential. He was a pioneer,” said Hughes’ mother. The family visited Markoe when he was dying at the old St. Joseph Hospital, where a West Point classmate of his, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, also said goodbye.
Forging new ground and contributing to The Cause is a family trait Hughes inherited from her parents and maternal grandfather. “They were always very committed to trying to improve the plight of our people,” she said.
Her mother’s father, Laurence C. Jones, was one of the first African-Americans to receive an Ed.D from the University of Iowa. In 1909 he founded the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi. Still a premier boarding school for disadvantaged African-American students, it places the vast majority of its graduates in college. Hughes is its largest contributor. Her mother, who was adopted by Jones and his wife, attended the school and played trombone in its touring all-girl swing band — the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. As the band gained popularity down south, the Sweethearts chafed at being a cash cow for the school and left, en masse, to perform separately from the institution. Woods was among the rebels. The popular band, which included bi-racial and white members, played all over the U.S., even headlining the Apollo Theater. “When you play at the Apollo Theater, you know you’ve arrived,” Woods said. During World War II, the band entertained overseas black American military personnel as part of the USO. The orchestra disbanded in the late 1940s.
Helen Woods met and married her husband, and Cathy’s father, William Alfred Woods, while with the band in his hometown of Chatanooga, Tenn. After the couple moved to Omaha, he became the first African American to earn an accounting degree from Creighton University. When no one would hire him as an accountant, he worked an overnight line job at Skinner Macaroni. That is, until “the Jesuits just refused to accept the embarrassment any longer of their first black accountant bagging macaroni at night, and prevailed upon the Internal Revenue Service to give him an opportunity,” Hughes said. He later went into business for himself. Helen became an LPN and, later, a social worker at Douglas County Hospital. The couple’s first of four kids was Catherine Elizabeth, who helped raise her younger siblings.
Fascinated and Inspired
By the late ‘60s, Hughes was taking liberal arts courses at Creighton and then-Omaha University. “Fascinated with radio,” she leapt at the chance to get in on the ground floor at fledgling KOWH. “This was too good to be true, you know. Black folks owning their own radio station. This was a learning opportunity. That’s the reason I was motivated to volunteer and help out.” Even though her real radio education came later, she feels KOWH played a key role in her broacast odyssey.
“I think the reason we have a $3 billion corporation today is because Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Rodney Wead and the other individuals who invested in KOWH inspired me to do it for myself and become a broadcast owner. I saw them do it and so I figured I could. I think none of my success would have taken place if I had not seen the example set by that group. That’s very important to me, because often times when I tell in interviews what a profound effect people in Omaha had on my life, it gets left out of the story because some editor doesn’t consider Omaha exciting.”
Hughes’ big break came on the heels of love and tragedy. It was the early 1970s and she served on UNO’s Black Studies Committee, which sponsored appearances by noted journalist Tony Brown, who befriended her. The man Hughes was dating at the time was hired by Brown, then the dean of Howard University’s newly formed School of Communications, to chair a department in the School. Meanwhile, her father was given a contract by the Office of Minority Business in Washington, D.C. to organize the books of small minority businesses. Her father was set to leave for D.C. when he fell ill and died of a heart attack.
A grieving Hughes went to D.C. and was surprised when Brown offered her a job as a lecturer in Howard’s School of Communications. “I said to him, ‘But I didn’t finish college,’ and he laughed and said, ‘Neither did anyone else on the faculty other than myself.’ The faculty he allowed me to join included Quincy Jones, Melvin Van Peebles, Stan Lathan. It was a list of non-degreed practitioners of the media and this was quite revolutionary for a major institution of higher learning.”
Hughes began volunteering at Howard’s radio station, WHUR. “When I found out they had a radio station I was like, ‘Oh, let me learn, let me help out. What can I do?” Within a short time she was hired as sales manager and, later, general manager, engineering a turnaround that dramatically increased advertising revenue and put WHUR near the top of D.C.’s highly competitive black radio market.
The Quiet Storm
It was at WHUR she created The Quiet Storm, a sexy late night music-chatter format that’s come to dominate urban radio programming (once featured on 600 stations). She formulated the concept after Howard showed faith in her by sending her to a broadcast management course at Harvard University and a psychographic programming seminar at the University of Chicago. Psychographic studies help broadcasters design programming based on target audience lifestyles and trends.
So, what did Brown see in Hughes? “He saw my love of radio. My determination and commitment to the student body. He saw this was a passion for me. He knew it was like throwing a duck into water. That I was so happy for the opportunity and so fascinated with everything. I used to write back home saying, ‘My eyes are tired seeing the glory and the beauty of being an African living in America.’ Because I had never seen black men and women wrapping their heads and wearing African fabrics and having black plays and black radio. This was a new experience for me. Coming from Omaha, my daddy was the only black accountant, who knew the only black lawyer, who knew the only black dentist, who knew the only black doctor. These were the days when we had one of each in Omaha.”
When Howard University balked at licensing The Quiet Storm on the grounds it was commercially unviable, Hughes left for DC’s WYCB-AM and, in search of more creative control, began looking to acquire her own station. When DC’s WOL came up for sale, she sought to purchase it. Married at the time to Dewey Hughes, the couple made a bid with $100,000 of her own money, plus an additional $100,000 from 10 investors who put up $10,000 each. Another $600,000 came from a group of black venture capitalists. She still needed $1 million dollars from a senior lender. She was rejected by all-male lenders at 32 separate banks. Chemical Bank was her 33rd try and a new-on-the-job Puerto Rican female loan officer there approved the loan. The 1980 purchase made WOL the base of Radio One’s pioneering 24-hour talk from a black perspective format, with its theme: Information is Power.
“If that woman had not gambled on me then I would not be in business today. She was the one that made the difference,” Hughes said. “I never asked her why she did it. I assumed because she saw me a good investment. Those 32 men that told me no probably told some man yes the same week.”
Even today, after all her proven business acumen and personal wealth (in the mid nine figures), Hughes said women of color like herself still lack respect in the business arena. “It hasn’t changed. Not at all. Particularly when you’re one who’s outspoken. It’s not a role white women have enjoyed for too long and, so, it’s definitely still brand new for African American women. It’s the whole confidence factor. You find it with your lenders…your staff…your audience. The most perilous time in the history of my company was when I divorced my husband (Dewey Hughes). He was not making a contribution to the business. He was a drain. But that’s not how it was seen by advertisers, lenders, creditors…They saw it from the perspective that I wouldn’t be able to survive.”
Networking and Visioning
Today, her network of stations is in virtually every major black market: Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, St. Louis, Detroit, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Washington, DC, Louisville, Atlanta, Charlotte and Miami. Radio One’s 1995 purchase of WKYS in Washington, D.C. for $40 million, reportedly the largest transaction between two black companies in broadcasting history, made Hughes the first woman owner of a #1 ranked major market radio station.
Radio One’s among the few black-owned media companies to stave off the Wall Street wolves and conglomorates that began buying up black stations and networks. Hughes’ corporate strategy of acquiring and turning around underperforming urban stations has proven profitable and grown the company exponentially. “We’re turnaround experts,” she said. Yet, only a few years ago, she tells how at “a big affair of financial types a gentleman who was not very well informed stood up and thanked my son for saving my company. Gave him full credit. And when my son tried to correct him, he was like, ‘Oh, yeah, but you made a difference.’ Alfred tried to say, ‘No, I wasn’t even old enough to be around to save her company,’ but they weren’t having it. Alfred has an MBA from Wharton. He’s the one that took us public and, so, he gets the credit for about 15 years of hard work that existed before he became part of the scenario.”
Hughes’ vision for the company was big from the start and then federal legislation compelled her to keep getting bigger. “I always wanted more than one station but our corporate strategy crystallized in 1996 with the passage of the TeleCom bill (Telecommunications Act),” which removed limits on the number of stations a company could own. “It basically says, Either you grow or you go. Either you become one of the big boys or you sell out. I wasn’t interested in selling out,” she said. According to Hughes, that same Act has made radio/TV ownership a rigged system that forces vulnerable stations into the hands of giants and prevents smaller companies from buying in. She’s bought out many stations herself. The spiraling cost of media properties makes it harder, especially for prospective black owners.
No dilettante operating from afar, Hughes is a hands-on media owner. It makes sense considering she came up through the ranks of radio. She’s done everything at the station level except engineer. Her first days at WOL found her scrounging for everything and even sleeping some nights on the office floor. Up until the mid-’90s she was a popular on-air personality who set the frank tone and assertive agenda for Radio One’s fierce community activism and involvement. These days, she hosts her own show, TV One On One, on the new TV One network.
A Passionate Woman
She said critics’ decrying her pro-black stances “misinterpret” her. “I’m a very passionate woman. My voice raises. I get excited. I start to talk fast. When I was on the radio, nationalism was not quite as understood and accepted as it is now. So, a lot of white journalists mistook my passion, my excitement, my commitment to my people as me being a fire-breathing activist who didn’t like white folks. Well, my second in command to my son is a white woman, Mary Catherine Sneed. She’s like a daughter to me. Just because I love my people doesn’t mean I don’t like other people. I laugh about it, because I grew up in Omaha, and if you’re black and not an integrationist in Omaha, you perish. OK? There’s not enough black folks.”
Even with Radio One and TV One ever expanding, (at one point, TV One was gaining a million new subscribers per month), Hughes is not complacent. “I don’t see it as success yet. I still see it as a work in progress. The reason I have to keep driving forward is the reality that my community seems not to be making the progress for the masses we should be making considering how blessed more of us are each year.” She feels whatever success she’s had is rooted in her community focus. “Our commitment to our community is what has built brand loyalty. It’s a misnomer that you can’t do good and do well. You don’t have to forsake your peoplehood in order to get wealthy. In fact, I’ve had just the opposite experience.”
Of her many riches, she said she’s proudest of “rearing a son by myself that grew up to embrace my vision, my dream, my commitment to electronic media.” She still get backs to Omaha, where her mother resides. Aside from being honored at a Native Omaha Days, Hughes keeps a low profile here with family and friends, seeing old haunts and attending mass at St. Benedict the Moor. “I earn my living being in the spotlight. When I come home, the best past of it is that there is no spotlight.”
Helen Woods never imagined all this for her daughter, although she suspected something special was in store. “Some people are destined for greatness,” she said.
Howard University’s newest crop of grads have a model of greatness they can call their own.
- Zondra Hughes: Cathy Hughes Strikes Back on Paying Artists for Radio Plays: “Dionne Warwick Is a Lobbyist” (huffingtonpost.com)
- 30 Black Female Leaders You Should Know About (hellobeautiful.com)
- Radio One, Inc. Announces Results of 2010 Annual Shareholders’ Meeting (prnewswire.com)
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Ties that Bind, One Family’s Celebration of Native Omaha Days (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- An Omaha Legacy Ends, Wesley House Shutters after 139 Years – New Use for Site Unknown (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Native Omahans Take Stock of the African-American Experience in Their Hometown (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful Celebration, Now, and All the Days Gone By (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Rich Music History Long Untold is Revealed and Celebrated at the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Enchantress “LadyMac” Gets Down (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Like Mother, Like Son: Media Mogul Cathy Hughes Sets The Stage For Alfred Liggins III (hellobeautiful.com)
- Omaha’s Malcolm X Memorial Foundation Comes into its Own, As the Nonprofit Eyes Grand Plans it Weighs How Much Support Exists to Realize Them (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)