following is an excerpt from a chapter of a forthcoming book by John Rook
Passing Thru - WLS 890 and Art Roberts
Gene Taylor was not very pleased with my arrival. I had been placed in charge of programming against his wishes by ABC radio's president, Hal Neal and given complete autonomy. As a manager who came from the programming side of the hall, obviously Gene was upset from day one, sitting in his office behind closed doors for most of the first six months I was there. When I did see him in the hallway, it was me who offered a greeting, Gene always frowned and seldom engaged me in any conversation.
He didn't bother to introduce me to the staff and I could feel the chill from the executive suite, including the sales manager. Neal had suggested I "clean out the place" and start from scratch rebuilding the station. WLS had been badly bruised in the ratings by Ken Draper's WCFL the previous year. Hal Neal was a man who spoke what he felt and I was assured Gene Taylor would offer no interference to me. However, the office I was given was in the very back of the building, across from the men's restroom. It was to be shared with the music librarian.
The entire staff including on air talent had been hired by Gene and I could understand his concern for their continued employment. He had preceded my arrival apologizing for his inability to prevent my appointment, it was Hal Neal's idea, not his.
I attempted to give him respect due a V.P. general manager, but Gene wore his feelings on his shirt sleeve for all to see and it was clear he felt uncomfortable with me.
While everyone expected me to replace the air staff, first blood did not come from there.
Gene had apparently transferred disrespect for me to the sales manager and within weeks of my arrival I ran into interference when instructing traffic to install a new program log with my format. After waiting for several days I inquired of the delay and the traffic department informed me the sales manager had declared, "Rook is in programming, not sales" and refused to allow a change in the program log. I had no doubt of my authority so I requested a meeting with Gene Taylor to make him aware of my need to format the program log.
Walking into his office, Gene and the sales manager were waiting and questioned why I was interfering with the sales manager's log. I held the log up and asked him to read what it said ... he just smiled and told me to go back to my "hole in the back" and stop trying to create problems. Before leaving I held the log up and read the top line PROGRAM LOG, I said and I'm responsible for programming. Laughing at me they dismissed my request as interfering with sales.
I walked from his office to "my hole in the back" telephoning Hal Neal in New York to explain my problem. Neal was always easy for me to communicate with, we both said what we meant in as few words as possible and he reminded everyone on a regular basis, sales would have nothing to sell without good programming. He calmly questioned, "Who's in the damn sales department you can work with John".
I suggested Bob Williams, with Hal asking me to repeat his last name. "Sit tight and I'll take care of it", he stated as he hung up.
When the phone rang at home that evening, I wasn't surprised to hear Gene's voice. It would be the one and only time he would telephone me at home, or in the office.
"John", his hesitant voice started, "I wish you hadn't of called Hal over that silly log thing, now I have a real problem in sales".
"I'm sorry", I said, "but I have a job to do and I don't need to have hurdles placed in front of me". I could hear him taking a long deep breath before saying, "Rook, you're something else, always in such a damn hurry". I added, "Radio is immediacy you know Gene" as he hung up.
Arriving at WLS the following morning a memo on my desk announced the previous sales manager was no longer employed at the station. It also announced a new sales manager, Bob Williams. The crowning touch came that afternoon when building maintenance came to my office to ask what I wanted moved to my new office, the former sales manage's office in the executive area. It would be Hal Neal's way of making everyone aware of my authority.
Early on, I could see that two of the WLS disc jockeys would be important to our future success. Larry Lujack and Art Roberts handled themselves professionally and by my estimation were very talented.
Lujack was shy and just needed someone to fuel his fire and Art was on fire and needed someone to slow him down. Hal Neal had told me, "Lujack is a sarcastic bastard", but I could see that as part of his image and talent that if given the right leeway and motivation, would be a big hit with listeners. I reasoned, everyone likes to find fault with their boss, and Lujack could play on that theme beautifully.
It wasn't long before "big John, the barn boss" would be his prime candidate for ridicule. The fire was lit and their was no stopping him as he took on every "dim witted light weight" in town. Larry's sarcastic edge was a major plus.
Just as he was beginning to feel his oats, Hal Neal called one day, he had been listening to Lujack on the listen line and was concerned "He's really putting you down and you don't have to take that you know". Explaining what I was trying to mold, Hal interrupted before hanging up, "Rook, you're the boss", to my chuckle, "That's right Hal".
WLS featured a large plate glass window where visitors could watch the stations personalities while they were on the air. Lujack hated the window and always closed the drapes at the start of his shift. I was the same way when I was on the air, so I understood the need to invent myself in private. Sales complained, saying clients visiting the station should be able to watch Larry perform. Bull Shit I said, Larry's audience is the listening audience who make up the ratings, not the friends you are trying to impress.
Art Roberts could adlib a commercial better than anybody I knew. Often his believability would take a listener through a commercial without knowing it was a commercial. In those days, live copy was requested by agencies interested in being endorsed by the air personality. Disc jockeys were stars, not announcers and clients paid dearly for these personal sales pitches. Art asked to have all copy well before his show and on his own often visited the client without any one requesting it. He wanted to experience the product and because of this was able to imply an endorsement like no one else.
Art was also one of the best music ears I have ever known. I named him music director at WLS within weeks of my arrival and the list is long of the hits he personally broke for the entire nation thanks to WLS's giant night time signal. He had a great ear, one of the best.
He was also a wonderful father and husband. Art Roberts became my friend upon my arrival at WLS and continued to be until he died. We talked regularly and I'll never forget his compassion for others. Few are more upbeat on life and yet down to earth more than him. Paralyzed in his last year, he lifted my spirits with his steadfast determination to succeed in accomplishing ways to provide for himself.
He fueled my fire. A great human being, that Art Roberts!
Content on this Web Page © 2003 John H. Rook