Sunday, March 31, 2019

Ken Alexander celebrates 60 years in radio

Today I made the 25-mile trek from my downtown digs to the burbs to gather with a hundred presumably suburban people to celebrate the 60th radio anniversary of Ken Alexander, who's part of the Those Were the Days show, which can be heard every Saturday on WDCB (which became infamous at one point for employing a thief, housed within the reportedly corrupt College of DuPage, which made the City Colleges of Chicago seem relatively clean). The celebration was at The Framemakers in Westmont, which sponsors the show (a shameless plug because it's incredible that they support old-school radio endeavors).

Steve Darnall, Ken Alexander, Chuck Schaden
Chuck Schaden (right) reads a Fakebook post for Ken Alexander
because Ken isn't online at all, thus why it's important for folks like me to do online posts such as this,
though I don't know if current TWTD host Steve Darnall (left) agrees.

Mr. Alexander (don't know if I'm allowed to refer to him as "Ken," since he's an elder statesman and I have never met the guy) told his radio story, which includes the following that I scribed on my phone while "Those Were The Days" creator Chuck Schaden told us that Mr. A doesn't have any type of portable phone, thus making this means of reporting ironic.

In 1947, Mr. Alexander graduated from from Austin High School on Chicago's west side (which is probably way different now than when he went there). He didn't go to college because he had to work (which I think was typical of those times, thanks to a more forgiving, booming post-war economy). He was told about a radio job as an errand boy at WGN, and he went for an interview and thought he had a good chance of getting it. But alas, just like today, it was about who you knew, and he was predictably told that it was given to a relative of someone who was already working there (gotta love nepotism...and I wonder what ended up happening to that lucky lad).

Ken Alexander
Ken Alexander reading an old-school radio story that was featured on the show.
And in case you didn't know, the war is over! 

With his radio dream sidelined, he needed to make a living elsewhere, so he worked in the railroad biz from 1948-1957. He quit that demanding job (I'm not being really was demanding, according to him) to work at Musicraft on Oak Street near Michigan Avenue (i.e., the Gold if you need clarification). Then in 1959, he got a chance to broadcast from the Edgewater Beach Hotel on WEBH as a Sunday volunteer after the owner, Buddy Black (who was previously at WGN), heard his demo. Radio geekery that Mr. A shared: Amos and Andy kick-started their radio career at WEBH in the 1920s.

crowd at The Framemakers
Ken Alexander (very far left) making the rounds before the event. The Framemakers (celebrating their 50th year) ended up bursting with standing-room only. Note the pro photographer...his pics will be way better than mine.

He eventually got paid when they got rid of the volunteers, and he played his own classical music records on the air. Then the owner of WNIB, Bill Florian, wanted to hire him, though there were no openings because FM stations didn't have much money in the 1950s (as if there's any money now). More radio geekery shared by Mr. A: Bill Plante, who became a major CBS TV news guy, did announcing at WNIB while he was on his way to major national news success. When Bill (don't know the guy but I'll use his first name anyway) left to do news elsewhere, Mr. A eventually replaced him. At that point, he was working at the Gold Coast store, WEBH, and WNIB at the same time.

Eventually he gave up the store and initially held on to WNIB while getting an opportunity at WAIT in the early 1960s. He said he scored that sweet gig because he had a good demo; unlike the out-of-towners, he understood WAIT's style because he lived in Chicago. He quit WNIB when he got a normal job at WAIT, which even included overtime (imagine that, you underpaid radio folks). He started at WAIT in 1964 and left about 22 years later, in 1986 after the situation became more volatile.

Nostalgia Digest with memorabilia
Some nostalgic items from Chuck Schaden's collection sharing space with Nostalgia Digest, which is also now a podcast!

It was interesting timing, because the station was sold a few months later for a mere half-million (while the Florians banked 165 million bucks for WNIB in 2001). Then he joined Chuck Scheiden's "Those Were the Days" show after that, as permanent guest host. His radio career continued in the 1990s when he went back to WNIB as a fill-in for announcers. So far, he's been with "Those Were the Days" for over 30 years.

radio nostalgia and Nipper
More radio nostalgia from Chuck Schaden's home...sorry to the man who I had to squeeze by to shoot this. And note the picture of Darnall, Alexander, and Schaden near Nipper, of "His Master's Voice" fame. Or he could just be a dog.

After sharing his radio story, he took questions from the large audience, but I had to get back downtown for my own radio gig, so I couldn't stay in Westmont (which is a lovely burb...check out their downtown...worth the trip, easy by car or Metra).

NBC's the Monitor
Have you been listening to NBC Radio's Monitor this weekend?

Friday, March 8, 2019

History made: the WGA finally hangs out here

It's been a couple years since I first passive-aggressively complained about the Writers Guild of America East (WGA), which is the east-coast version of the Writers Guild of America West (the seemingly more trendy version, where Conan O'Brien and other Hollywood heavyweights grew beards or whatever as the WGA West went on strike and got lots of attention and forced multimillionaire talent to, *gasp*, write their own stuff). Then I followed up with a less passive-aggressive post about the WGA East, where I documented my failure to get an event in Chicago.

During those two years, I've sent detailed, aggressively whiny emails to the WGA overlords in New York, first getting no response, then eventually getting a response, then actually meeting a couple live human beings who bothered to come here, who were subjected to my venting about how New York-centric that ridiculous union is. So, after several years of having absolutely *no* events in Chicago, we finally had an event tonight. Which makes this day historic: for the first time, the WGA has actually made an effort to leave Manhattan, stop in flyover country, and organize an event, right here in Chicago.

It was a social event and celebration of contracts for The Onion and WBBM-TV. I thought some TV people would be there, but there were none, and I have no idea why. But the room was filled with Onion people. First of all, I didn't know The Onion was based here, and I didn't know it employed so many people. And someone told me their office was nearby, so it was easy to get to the bar. Since I was the minority (because I was one of only two people from WBBM Newsradio), I figured that since The Onion is a creative site and they had just had a victory, they'd be friendly and quirky and interesting, especially since we're part of the same union. So I tried to talk to people, with mixed results. I approached one group and asked them what they did, and asked if it would be okay if I took a picture to post here. No dice. They broke apart and gave me uncomfortable sideways glances. So I returned to the two non-Onion people I knew and planned another intervention.

Shereen Mo and Margaret Larkin
Shereen Mo and I, two of the only WBBM people there (symbolized by the super-bright light above our heads), during a break from my Onion-attempting socialization. The guy behind Shereen is an enthusiastic Onion union guy who[m] I didn't approach because he seemed busy circulating among his Onion compatriots.

Surely these creative types would want to meet someone new such as moi, and while I planned my next attempt at peeling the Onion, I took some pictures of the general scene.

The Onion staff in Chicago
Hipsters? I report, you decide.
The Onion staff in Chicago
I didn't sit at that empty table or anywhere else for that matter. And is a knit cap a hipster thing?

I took random pictures while the Onion groups seemed self-conscious and avoidant, though I managed to have a couple brief conversations with people who managed to segue away.

The Onion staff in Chicago
One of many Onion clusters at the event. I may have scared off one of these women when I intensely complained about union dues and bad wages, but the guy in the white hat marks a bit of foreshadowing.

I retreated once again, returning to the two people I knew, one of whom was someone I'd just gotten to know after sending him combative emails and having a one-hour conversation the previous day about various issues (thus I've calmed down, don't worry). He also happened to be one of two people I was consistently able to talk to, which made the event seem less like a high school cafeteria.

Chris Aiken Writers Guild of America East
Chris Aiken from the WGA, the person who was ready to talk whenever, creating a welcome space in the midst of a bunch of people whose tribe was theirs.

Eventually, after being one of only two people from WBBM, a third person showed up, news writer Mark Friedman. After I chatted with him a bit, I told him I was going to make another attempt to engage Onion folk in conversation, and something actually happened...I met two people who were friendly and wanted to talk, in spite of the fact that I was outside their orbit.

Joshua Patterson and Bryan Petcoff
Joshua and Bryan: glad to participate.

Joshua Patterson and Bryan Petcoff are producers at The Onion, and I had a great time talking with them. After Bryan left to tend to his dog, I talked to Joshua for a while about how great Chicago is, his hometown, Burbank, California, his interests and pursuits, including Feeltrip Records. Thus I did end up meeting someone who positively confirmed The Onion image, and talking to him about his life in Chicago reminded me of what the city was several years ago: a place to do lots of creative things and to explore while not spending a ton to live.

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