Behind the Radio Curtain Part 3: “Enjoying Life Like Goodfellas”

Here’s another excerpt from my book “Raised on the Radio” which I look to release later this year.

(The perks of  a Goodfella)

I produced Chicago radio shows from 1985 to 2003. One of the benefits of the job was being extended countless courtesies at no expense to me. Some call it S.W.A.G (stuff we all get) and it was comforting to know that we in the media had plenty of perks at our disposal.

EXTRAS, FREEBIES AND GUESTLISTS

Seeing movies, concerts and ballgames was how most of my free time away from radio was spent. The money I paid out for newspapers, books, magazines, cable TV and cell-phone bills all got written off as tax deductions. Carefully tracking expenditures throughout my time in radio, I used to joke that my whole life was one giant tax write-off.

Good seats at concerts were regularly available and rare was the time I had to pay for my tickets. I got friends of mine and ladies I dated into plenty of big shows. The “He’s So Cool” factor might be the kick for some but I just enjoyed the convenience. No standing in lines for tickets plus VIP parking made life much easier. For me, sitting in skyboxes or other preferred areas never got old. And if a freebie that I wanted wasn’t offered, a quick phone call would be made and usually it was, “Yes, we can put you on that guest list. No problem.” Looking back on all the extras that were there for the taking, I think of Ray Liotta talking about the gangster life in “GoodFellas” when he said, “For us, to live any other way was nuts.

(Ray Liotta in “Goodfellas”)

Concerts, Premieres and Special Shows

My favorite places to see concerts in Chicago were the smaller venues like the Riviera, The Vic , Park West and House of Blues. These theatres had the best sound and sightlines. I was often able to get what I called ‘The Lincoln Seats’ in these places. Those were the ones on the raised level to the side of the stage in a private box. I’m just glad I never encountered a bitter John Wilkes Booth at these shows. At a Wang Chung concert at the Riviera, I saw some attractive models sitting in a nearby balcony box. They were REALLY hot. In fact these women were so hot they tore off their bras from under their tops and slingshot them onto Wang Chung’s stage. Next, these ladies flashed their bare breasts to the band. I thought to tell them this was not Mardi Gras and there were no cheap plastic beads to earn, but why spoil their fun?

One of the coolest exclusive shows I ever went to was in the fall of 1992 when Neil Young was promoting his superb “Harvest Moon” album. I got to be in the small studio audience to see him tape a solo acoustic show at the WTTW TV Soundstage. Neil covered everything from music with Buffalo Springfield to his current release. Playing just his guitars and harmonica he did sit at a pipe organ to close the night with “Like a Hurricane.” The show went on for two hours and Neil told us he didn’t know how long he was supposed to play so he thought to just keep rolling. It was a really special night and to this day I still use the key ring I got from VH-1, the show’s sponsor.

(Neil Young playing in the acoustic or ‘unplugged’ way)

Another time I attended a TV taping of a duet concert starring Beach Boy Brian Wilson and country star Deana Carter. This was another small exclusive event and it was held at a suburban high school auditorium.

I’ve often been asked, “What’s the best concert you ever saw?” So many shows stand out for different reasons. The first time seeing Elton John, The Who or Springsteen before I worked in radio were very special but I can’t nail down THE best. I will tell you the second best show ever for me was the 1986 “Conspiracy of Hope” concert to benefit Amnesty International at the Rosemont Horizon. Joan Baez opened followed by the Neville Brothers, Lou Reed, Bryan Adams, Peter Gabriel, U2 and the Police who reunited for that event. Robin Williams was a surprise guest who did a stand-up act that was manic and had the sold-out crowd laughing so hard our sides hurt. It was a diverse show and U2 blew the roof off the joint. This was almost a year before their monster selling “Joshua Tree” album would be released. It didn’t matter because their earlier songs and a medley of covers like “Maggie’s Farm” and “Candle in the Wind” had the crowd spellbound. U2’s performance was so dynamic that the set done by The Police was actually anti-climactic. I loved U2’ music since 1981 and there now was no doubt Bono and company were on the precipice of worldwide mega-stardom.

(Bono leading U2 in concert)

Movie premieres and attending critics’ screenings were also part of my world. I would sit a couple of rows in front of movie review icons Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, who did not sit together but near each other at these previews. It was fun to be part of that subsection of the media but the convenience of seeing movies I was interested in and having the jump on them before the general public was the juice.

Of course meeting and hanging around famous music, movie and TV stars was a great perk. It made for cool conversations at parties but it was simply part of our business. Most of the time it was just another day at the office when Penn Gillette was in studio to talk up the latest Penn & Teller Stage show or Dennis De Young of Styx came by to promote a new project. Most of the time I’d get to share a few minutes of private time chatting up with the stars. One time backstage I got to tell Vince Gill that his hit “When I Call Your Name” was the best country heartbreak song since “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and that was pretty neat.

(Radio listener parties were always a big blast of fun)

Listener parties were special too. Even when you don’t know many of these good folks personally, THEY know you. One time I talked on the air about burning my hand badly on a grill while at a family barbecue on Memorial Day. Weeks later, while talking about the coming Fourth of July weekend, a listener called to warn me not to burn my hand again. These fans take this stuff in. You’re among friends at listener parties and it was easy to and important to express our appreciation for their loyalty to our show. What some people forget is radio is so personal. For many listeners, we were the first voices they heard as their radio alarm clocks woke them up in the morning or as they drove into work. Depending on their daily life situations, we might be the only ones who talked to them until they got to their workplace.

At WCKG, we had some rowdy night time boat cruise parties with listeners on Lake Michigan. I recall one in particular when John Howell and his Apologizers band was blasting away on Grand Funk’s “We’re an American Band” and co-workers and I were in the middle of the packed dance floor shaking it up with fans. As we were sailing along, the lighted outlines of the buildings on Chicago’s beautiful lakefront were in perfect view. I clearly remember thinking, “This is a great way to make a living.”

Like I said, “To live any other way was nuts!”