By Scott Westerman
July in Michigan represents all that’s appealing about the Great Lakes State. The 7th Month is the zenith of organized Summer activities.
As the decade rolled from the 70s to the 80s in Ann Arbor, baseball, swim team, camp and summer band kept us focused and out of trouble. If we were lucky, we might spend a couple of weeks at the University of Michigan’s All-State music program at Interlochen, or load our suitcases in the family car for the requisite summer vacation to Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon.
1971 was the summer of my love affair with radio. I had a ’61 Plymouth Valiant with a tube-type receiver in the dash and an FM converter under the seat. The AM buttons were set to WCBS, WJR, WPAG, WKNR, WOIA and WAAM, with the turning knob well worn across everything in between. At night, the band was a treasure trove of 50,000 watt clear-channel flame throwers. WGN, WLS and WCFL in Chicago, WLAC – “Blues Radio 15” in Nashville, KYW in Philly, KMOX in St. Louis, WBZ in Boston, WNBC in New York (WABC was two close to WJR to be received reliably on my radio) and WOWO in Fort Wayne.
Via all of these electronic role models, I endeavored to learn the trade, emulating the DJs I loved and avoiding the rest. Bob Dearborn, Larry Glick, John R., Dick Summer and Carol Ford were my heroes.
The nighttime jocks might not have enjoyed the same local fame as their drive time counterparts, but the sky waves that bounced their signals across the country gave them an exponentially larger stage. To those of us with radio stars in our eyes they were magicians who wove symphonies of music and commentary into an harmonious whole that kept the listener glued to the channel even when the commercial stop-sets came along.
In Ann Arbor, we had the good fortune to be able to hear two notable personalities who influenced the development of talk radio. Our local star was Ted Heusel, an Ann Arbor High graduate who was host of the long running Community Comment program on WPAG.
Down the road in Detroit, the big fish was Joseph Priestly, J.P. McCarthy on WJR. While Ted sometimes flew by the seat of his pants, J.P. was always meticulously prepared. He often seemed to know as much about a subject as did his expert guests. And his smooth, friendly delivery became the norm for all others who coveted the extra paychecks he earned doing voice work for a dozen different major advertisers.
Ted used to tell me that, “sometimes your wits are all the preparation you get”. That often happened during my tenure at WPAG. As the lowest man on the totem pole (I was just 16 then), I drew the assignments that nobody else wanted. I attacked these gigs with the energy and enthusiasm of inexperience and tried to learn from the dues that they exacted.
When station owner Ted Baughn thought there might be advertising dollars next door in Ypsilanti, I was dispatched as the City Council reporter. In the days before iPhones and the Internet, I sat, beyond boredom, in the council chambers watching the glacial pace of government in action (or more often inaction), trying to think of a relevant question to ask when the proceedings broke up.
My rare shots at hosting Community Comment came along when the fairness doctrine forced us to include third tier political candidates in our coverage. Lewis C. Ernst was one memorable character. Charlie Bross, our program director called him, “Ann Arbor’s political gadfly.” Ernst came in third behind Jack Garris and future mayor Louis Belcher in the 1971 Republican mayoral primary and didn’t fare much better two years later.
I don’t remember a thing we talked about, except his encouragement. “You did pretty well for a young man.” Being a teenager with the normal appetites and aversions, I knew more about the Pioneer cheerleader squad than I did about the major issues facing the City. I found his kind words bit stunning.
My most interesting interview experiences came out of my association with Howard Heath, erstwhile farm director at WPAG and founder of the Michigan Farm Radio Network. Howard was the most popular personality at the station (Ted was a close second) and his two daily farm programs were our top rated shows.
Howard was, on the surface, the most disorganized man I ever met. But few did a better job building a strong personal connection with his audience.
When he came into the station, Howard brought a huge pile of papers with him that he dropped in disarray on the studio desk, seconds before airtime. In spite of appearances, he always pulled together an excellent show. He seemed to know exactly where within the volcano of documents his rough notes for the Howell Livestock Auction commercials were. A few unintelligible scribbles on the back of some wire copy morphed into a five minute discourse on hog prices at the Andersons in Maumee, Ohio. And if it was a special occasion in a listener’s life, Howard never failed to mention it on the air. He ended every commercial with, “.. and won’t you tell them that Howard sent you?”
Whereas entry in the fraternity of disk jockeys was a never ending gauntlet of negative feedback and cut throat competition, Howard accepted me immediately. I was invited to “Radio Acres, Southwest of Milan” to see his home studio, equally in disarray, and was treated as an insider and friend at several events where Howard was center stage.
Between Ted and Howard, I picked up enough skill to be sent occasionally into the world with a tape recorder. And that’s how I came to experience the 1971 Manchester Chicken Broil.
From it’s inception, Rollie was a key Manchester Chicken Broil organizer. He was renown in the area for his skill in producing tomato plants that could throw off five bushels a piece, something that earned him a photo spread in the Manchester Enterprise. Rollie could discuss the fine points of Michigan Cappett hens, the main course at the chicken broil, with the same detail and enthusiasm my dad held for his automobiles.
“How many chickens does it take to put on an event like this,” I asked.
Rollie pulled Earl Koebbe over to the microphone to report that again this year, over six thousand pounds of chicken had been consumed, with attendees coming from as far as Florida to enjoy Manchester’s particular brand of hospitality.
Here I stood, dressed in my Ann Arbor Pioneer High School Percussion t-shirt, Levi blue jeans and Adidas Rom running shoes. I looked every inch the rookie that I was and these guys treated me just like J.P.
WPAG’s local sunset sign-off was near 9PM. I hopped into my car for the run back to our Hutzel Bulding studios to edit my tape. On the radio, Joe Steffek was wrapping up his broadcast.
“And now we must we pack up and leave the 1971 Manchester Chicken Broil. The ghosts of 12,500 chickens float high above the fairgrounds and an equal number of visitors return to their cars, feeling the satisfaction only a Manchester chicken dinner can bring. As we return you to the WPAG studios in Ann Arbor, this is Joe Steffek saying chao and peace to you!”
Gabor Szabo’s rendition of the Carpenters’ “It’s Gonna Take Some Time” swelled to full volume as the clock wound toward ABC News at the top of the hour. I could picture Joe loading the control room record library into his trunk, we took all the records with us on remote in those days, making his own mad dash back to the station before Mike Carter, the control board operator, ran out of stuff to play.
I put together four five minute segments, thinking that they could rotate throughout Ted’s morning news cycle. Howard ran them, back to back.
“Scott had such a great conversation with Rollie Grossman and Earl Koebbe last night,” Howard said, “I thought you neighbors would like to hear the whole thing.”
I felt like a million bucks. And while not a single one of my high school peers heard my work (WPAG’s format was the antitheses of what kids listened to in 1971), I got a round of applause when I went to share lunch with my Grandfather at the Chelsea Methodist Home soon thereafter.
The cassettes of those conversations have long since been over-written. Howard and Ted belong to the ages. And as of July, 2009, I was looking at life from the base of the Sandia Mountains in New Mexico, 1,546 miles from my beloved Ann Arbor hometown.
What few air checks remain of my WPAG career make me cringe. Even then I was amazed at how patient and generous Rollie and Earl were. And I can still taste those delicious Michigan Cappetts, smell the cotton candy and hear the happy undercurrent of neighbors talking with old friends and making new ones on a Michigan summer night 38 years ago.
The Manchester Chicken Broil is still -the- July thing to do in the County. Join them on July 16th at Memorial Field.