It was one of those beautiful fall afternoons, when the sun shines brightly and the wind is out of the south, that I got a call from my old navigator friend, Joe, who invited me out for a row across the bay. I knew it might be the last chance we'd have this season, so I jumped on it. I told everyone I might be a little late getting back from lunch and headed down to met Joe at the dock at 1:30. The smell of late fall was in the air, as Joe drove up in his latest used car, an old pickup in great condition for its twenty-plus years of service.
"Where'd you find that beauty," I inquired.
"Got it at an estate sale. I've already got a buyer lined up for it, so don't ask," said Joe.
I pulled the six-pack of Labatts out of my trunk, while Joe got the oars out of his truck. There hadn't been any rain for a couple of weeks, so there wasn't much water in the boat, a classic old eighteen foot lapstrake yawl boat.
"You should get a cover for this baby," I told him, "before it starts to really weather."
As usual, Joe ignored that advice. We got into the boat, cast off from the pilings along the old coal dock, and slipped out into the bay. It was a beautiful afternoon, and the southerly breeze wasn't stirring anything up on the mile long fetch of beautful, fresh, Michigan water.
"So," I asked, "what is going on with the W Jolly Roger ?"
"Well," he began, "there have been a lot of changes around there.
"It all started up around October, 1995, when general manager Jim Long retired after 35 years. The parent company, Capital Cities/ABC, selected Michael Fezzy, the 37-year-old General Sales Manager, to replace Long. Almost immediately, things started to change, with the course heading away from the 45+ audience.
"Music was the first thing to go, turning it from Full Service broadcaster into just another Talk Radio outlet.
"Remember just a little earlier, there was that deal with Warren Pierce? He'd been successfully hosting the 1-3 p.m. shift since 1981 when they told him he was moving to eveings and taking a pay cut. He ending up being forced to resign. Kevin Joyce came on to replace him.
"Then there were all those sports changes. Sports Director Frank Beckmann, long-time sports personality and host of the daily two hour sports talk show Sports Wrap, was released to become the primary play-by-play announcer for the Detroit Tigers. Beckmann was filling one of the vacancies created the year before when they fired the two announcers they had originally hired when they fired Baseball Hall of Fame and legendary broadcaster Ernie Harwell two years earlier.
"After Ernie left, his long-time sidekick Paul Carey decided to retire. Now both are gone, along with their replacements."
"Wait a minute," I said. "What were the names of those two guys that did baseball for a year? And who replaced Frank Beckmann?"
Joe twisted the lid off another Labatts, and leaned back on the oars.
"I'm not telling you their names because that is going to be a great radio-trivia question some day."
There was a little current carrying us along now, so we just drifted for a few minutes as Joe continued his story.
"To replace Frank, they went out-of-town to get a much younger guy, Chuck Swirsky, from Chicago.
"Then late last spring, as Capital Cities/ABC was completing the corporate sale of the place to Disney, J. P. McCarthy, the area's most respected and listened-to morning personality, died suddenly of a rare blood disorder. That tragedy unfortunately speeded up the pace of change even more.
"The old 4-6 p.m. Afternoon News Center show with Joel Alexander and Dana Mills was yanked and replaced with Albom in the Afternoon, hosted by Detroit Free Press sports columnist Mitch Albom and friends. It's targeted directly at 35-year-old listeners. That move necessitated the firing of veteran traffic reporter Dennis Neubacher. He was replaced by Alexander. Mills left. Judy Coy, who had been doing afternoon weather since 1977 was replaced by Albom's own 'weather girl.'
"Rock and roll disc jockey Ken Calvert was hired for the 1-3 p.m. shift, moving Joyce to 9 p.m. - 2 a.m. Dr. Laura Schlessinger, a controversial nationally syndicated radio psychologist from San Francisco, moved into the 3-4 p.m. slot."
"Gawd that's a lot of change," I said. "Give me another beer."
Joe tossed me a fresh one, and went on with his story.
"Yeah," said Joe, "to a lot of people the place seemed to be self-destructing.
"The biggest shock wave of all came when they abruptly terminated Jimmy Launce, the host of the highest rated mid-day show in Michigan.
"I remember that," I said. "He just signed off one Friday without any notice or fanfare. What an awful way to end such a long-running show."
We had rowed almost out to the point now. It looked like the breeze off the lake had shifted and we could pick up a little favorable tail-wind if we headed east a bit farther. We pulled over that way for a minute, until we caught a little eddy heading back to the pier. Joe went on with the story.
"With Launce gone, Calvert was moved from afternoons to Jimmy's old slot from 10 a.m. to noon. Calvert was replaced by expansion of Dr. Laura's shown from 1-4 p.m."
"Oh, yeah," I interrupted. "Didn't this whole Jimmy Launce mess prompt some angry telephone calls and newspaper articles?"
Joe nodded in agreement. "Of course, I haven't told you how they handled replacing J. P.
"Jimmy Barrett was selected to fill-in as the temporary host of the Morning Show until a permanent replacement could be named. Barett's McCarthy-like style quickly caught on, building his own loyal listenership that successfully maintained the ratings throughout the winter Arbitron rating period. Barrett's listeners openly lobbied to name him as the permanent McCarthy replacement.
"During this time, veteran local broadcaster Dick Purtan--who was always positioned just behind McCarthy in the ratings--was being courted to be the permanent Morning Show replacement. When the deal soured with Purtan, it was a Philadelphia announcer named Paul W. Smith, who had hosted McCarthy's old Focus Show, not Barrett, who got the job. Smith, who thought he was out of the running, quickly accepted the position, even though he had just signed a new long-term emplopyment contract with his Philadelphia employer two weeks before. When Smith was announced as the new morning host, his old employer refused to release him from his contract!
"Eventually, it took over six months to get Smith out of Philadelphia, and this left Barrett further entrenched in listener's minds as 'the one who should have gotten the job.' Barrett left for similar work elsewhere.
"Let me get back to Sports for a minute. Beckmann's gone to the Tiger job. Then Larry Henry, who Sports Illustrated says is 'one of the best play-by-play announcers in the country', leaves to join a rival. Then Bruce Martyn, the voice of Red Wing's Hockey, retires. Rich Kincaide leaves for Grand Rapids when he didn't get Martyn's job, which he should have. That's almost the entire department turned over.
"Now, with Kevin Joyce getting fired, it leaves them without a single personality that has been there for more than a year, Monday - Friday, 6 a.m. to midnight."
We were almost back. I asked Joe for another beer, but he said they were gone. I think he was out drinking me 2-to-1. We banged our way against the pilings, as a flight of Canadian geese honked above us in a magnificent V-formation.
"How are the ratings now?" I asked.
Joe stared at the birds overhead for a minute.
"The ratings and those ducks," he said, "are both headed south. In the last three Arbitron rating periods, they have fallen out of the number-one position and gone from an 8.5% to a 6.8% to their current 6.2%—the lowest ratings in their history."
We were back on the coal dock now. The old yawl boat was securely tied up. Joe had the oars in the bed of the pickup. I thanked him for the afternoon of rowing, and for all the news. It had been a terrific little outing, and I felt refreshed from the exercise. The long shadows of the waning daylight were beginning to creep across the dirt and cinders of parking lot. It was time to get indoors and off the water. We shook hands, and Joe drove off, the pickup's temporary license plate dangling from the twisted wire which held it in place. I noticed he had taken the deposit bottles with him.