Good Guys

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You probably never heard of Lou Gutenberger. He was was one of the original “Good Guys” on KSTT in Davenport, Iowa, and he died this past week at the age of 82. During its glory days in the 60s and 70s, KSTT was one of those larger-than-life local stations that just doesn’t exist anymore, and Gutenberger himself was one of the chief reasons why it loomed so large, at least to several Iowa radio people of my acquaintance. They tell of listening to him or meeting him as kids, and/or being inspired, encouraged, or mentored in their careers by him. Even if they hadn’t heard him or spoken to him in over 50 years (he left KSTT in 1968 after 13 years, and spent decades in Reno, Nevada, after that), they never forgot him, or what he did for them— even when he didn’t know he was doing it, just by walking into the studio every day.

Only a tiny fraction of people who end up in radio do it without being inspired to do it by somebody. My inspirations were the bigtime Chicago jocks I listened to from the time I was 10 years old, Larry Lujack and Fred Winston chief among them. I was well along in my career before I realized that I was also following in the footsteps of Stan Neuberger, the morning guy on our hometown station, who did as almost much to get me to school every day as my mother did. My conception of the service responsibility of a radio jock—to not just play music but to give the audience information they need and want—started with Stan and his colleagues at WEKZ.

Just as you don’t get into a field without inspirations, you don’t stay in it without people who, even if they don’t exactly mentor you, teach you by their example. As a young DJ, I learned a lot by watching my colleagues at KDTH, some of whom I have written about here. (I have realized in later years that, as a young idiot whose powers of observation were lacking, I didn’t learn as much as I could have from the KDTHers, and I regret that I didn’t pay closer attention.) In later years, I was fortunate to work for George Lipper and Gene Kauffman, two men whose main goals were to do good radio and do good in the community, and not merely to show a profit by any means necessary—goals more rare among owners and general managers than you’d like them to be. George taught me important principles involved with managing people. The single best thing Gene did for me wasn’t to hire me in 1990, but to fire me in 1994, because it forced me to make some necessary decisions about the future direction not just of my career, but of my life. I was past the age of 50 before I got the chance to work for John Sebastian, an industry legend who did more to make me a better jock in one year than anyone who’d come before him. I wish I’d worked for him when I was 30.

Considering the state of the radio industry today, I don’t know where the next generation of inspirations and mentors is going to come from. Radio jocks, and the craft of radio itself, have been devalued for a generation now, and the pandemic has only made it worse. It may be that the wheel has turned for good. Maybe there are no more inspirations to be found on terrestrial radio. Maybe the next generation of inspiration will be podcast hosts. It’s not for me to say.

I suppose it’s a cliché for an old geezer like me to yammer on about how good it used to be in the olden days and how everything sucks now. (Which could be this website’s mission statement some days, but I hope not every day.) There were probably old guys in Lou Gutenberger’s heyday doing the same thing: “Radio ain’t been worth a damn since the announcers stopped wearing tuxedos.” But I hope that radio, in some form as we have known it, will survive for a new generation. And I hope that the new generation finds inspirations and mentors somewhere. Because those of us who were lucky enough to have them treasure them, not just for what they meant to our careers, but for how they enriched our lives.

9 thoughts on “Good Guys

  1. Gary Omaha

    Amen, Jim.

    Many of those I looked up to in radio are no longer with us, but I was fortunate to work with one who is not only still around, but I see occasionally. He used the air name Bob Wallace here in the Omaha-Council Bluffs market, but prior to that he was Stoney Wallace in Madison so perhaps you’ve heard of him. His sense of humor lined up with mine and I was fortunate to be “that kid” who was hanging around the station when Wallace came to town and proceeded to teach me 1,000 things about radio. He has relatives here so still visits now and then and (barring pandemics) we get together for lunch and tell and re-tell stories of those good old days.

  2. mikehagerty

    Okay, JB—you won’t believe this.

    I remember Lou Gutenberger.

    I knew Lou Gutenberger.

    I worked with Lou Gutenberger.

    When I got to KOLO in Reno in November of 1977 at the age of 21 as the new 6-midnight jock and music director, Lou was doing afternoons there. So I followed Lou.

    I was hired to bring MOR KOLO (how MOR? They had Jerry Lewis’ “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby (With A Dixie Melody”) in the oldies library when I arrived) into the then-present day as an Adult Contemporary station.

    The mandate was—keep the personalities, the news and the presence—but change the music. Out with Sinatra and Patti Page, in with Steely Dan and Linda Ronstadt.

    I’d like to be able to say Lou liked me, but I don’t think he did. I know he didn’t like the music, back-announcing top ten records with things like “Well, it may not be good, but it sure was loud.”

    After about eight months, Lou crossed the street to KSRN, an FM that was playing a bizarre blend of MOR, beautiful music and polkas (!) and I believe he spent the better part of 15 or 20 years there.

    I was stunned years later to learn that Lou had been at KSTT, a Top 40 station. Apparently, when he got to KOLO at around the age of 40, he wanted to play different music. And I kinda messed that up.

    Whether he liked me or not, I liked him. He was devastatingly funny, and absolutely deserved his popularity in Davenport and Reno—and absolutely deserved to be remembered fondly.

  3. mackdaddyg

    Now that you mention it, as I think about all of the dj’s that I’ve heard over the air as of late, none of them are inspiring to listen to at all. I think the golden age of disc jockeys ended a long long long time ago.

    1. My sense is that there isn’t much coaching or critiquing going on anymore, apart from morning shows. Short-staffed stations, or stations programmed from out of town, simply don’t have the resources to do it. What was great about John Sebastian is that you heard from him *every day* about what you were doing and how well you were doing it; he’d come into the studio and critique or compliment your last break. Honing and polishing his jocks’ on-air presentation was among his top priorities, which is not the case for every programmer. (Other priorities aren’t necessarily wrong, they’re just different.) Not every jock liked John’s methods—some of his staff here in Madison detested them—but he scratched an itch I didn’t know I had. Molecular-level critique made me inestimably better at my job.

      As a part-time guy, I don’t qualify for much coaching. It’s been maybe three years since I had a coaching session with anybody, and longer since I sat with an out-of-town consultant. (I have a story about such a session that can’t be published until the consultant is dead, or I am.) I have been on the air long enough so that I can listen to my own airchecks and decide what’s working and what is not, but that isn’t as good as coaching and/or critique from somebody else.

      1. mikehagerty

        JB, you’re right about John Sebastian being meticulous in his coaching ( I got to know John a bit while we were both in Phoenix), and those open to it will be better at their job, but it’s worth keeping in mind that John doesn’t view that job as being inspiring to listen to nor being as memorable as Lou Gutenberger.

        When John took over KHJ, he inherited Charlie Tuna, Dr. John Leader, Bobby Ocean, Machine Gun Kelly, Don Cox and Shana. The only one that survived the year John was there was Bobby Ocean, who has a strong openness and learning ethic. Most of the rest left voluntarily.

        What John wants is for the air talent to be perceived as less of an irritant when the music stops. And that’s because, for better or worse, he internalized what the majority of the radio audience has been telling us for decades—“shut up and play the music.” And he has had the research since the 70s to prove that. Over time, the industry has essentially caught up with him.

  4. T.

    I’ve never been in radio, just a listener. I remember when there were personalities and great music. I believe both of these things will come back. When internet radio starts getting out of hand or too expensive, or a natural disaster demands that local radio step up, the country will need radio. It may happen with little renegade pirate stations, kids looking for a new thrill and tired of stations that won’t play their new sounds. It may be a deregulation of broadcast laws.
    It’ll happen. It’s in the air.

    1. mikehagerty

      T: I love the optimism, but I don’t know.

      I watch Jimmy Kimmel every evening on DVR from the night before. There was a 4:00 a.m. earthquake in Los Angeles this week. Kimmel said it woke him, he grabbed his phone, looked at Twitter for six minutes and went back to sleep. Jimmy Kimmel’s 53 years old. It’s not just the kids who are getting the information they need from their phones.

      And to be tired of stations that won’t play their new sounds, kids would have to be listening to them in the first place—or know they exist.

      Not to go too celeb-heavy, but Tina Fey tells the story of being in California a couple of years ago working on a movie when she gets a text from her 14-year-old daughter at home in New York asking if she can watch Saturday Night Live. Tina figures 14 is old enough, so she texts back “sure”.

      Her daughter texts back: “Thanks. How do I do that?”

      Tina doesn’t understand and texts back “How do you do what?”

      Her daughter: “How do I watch SNL? Literally.”

      So Tina texts: “Turn on the TV Saturday night at 11:30. Turn the cable box to Channel 4.”

      Her daughter texts back: “Ummmm….I’ll just watch it on YouTube Sunday morning.”

      YouTube has replaced radio and MTV for a generation of young music listeners. On-demand songs they like or are interested in finding out if they like.

      A radio station is a garden hose. Only one thing comes out of it at a time. The internet is one of those 32-variety soft drink dispensers at the convenience market.

      1. Responding to two comments here with one note: First, there will always be a *niche* for broadcast radio, I think, but there’s no potential for a “comeback” to anything like the relevance of a generation ago. The Kimmel example is instructive, and he’s a guy who came out of radio. I do the same thing when news breaks. The Internet, with unlimited options and an infinite number of niches, will always beat ad-supported radio for music discovery.

        Second: I did not necessarily agree with all of John Sebastian’s programming philosophy. (All love and respect to the man, but what Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” was doing on a country format I never figured out.) However, encouraging me to maintain a laser focus on every word that came out of my mouth and thinking of the jock’s job as a craft to be honed was revolutionary. There is a shit-ton of mindless blather all up and down the dial, and I contributed to it for years. Thanks to him, I don’t do it nearly so much anymore.

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