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.