Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Roger Coleman: Mr. Galesburg Radio and Mentor #3

Roger Coleman at Cubs Spring Training in Mesa, AZ
Mentor #3 in the life of Jim Wyman is Roger H. Coleman, former general manager of WGIL and WAAG radio stations in Galesburg.

As I said in a prior posting, Roger hired me in March of 1971 to come to work as the first full-time country disc jockey on what was then WGIL-FM and is now FM-95, WAAG, "THE Country Station."

My buddy Frank Shear, who also worked at WGIL, always said that Galesburg was like a mini-Chicago, and in 1971 Galesburg was booming like Chicago, with a vibrant middle-class that had lots of spendable income.  And local radio in Galesburg was a big part of the community with three stations battling for supremacy and new ideas constantly being tried.

Lots of people laugh when Al Gore says he invented the internet, and they should because I think Roger Coleman invented it.  Roger was an innovator and was way ahead of his time.

Galesburg was a hotbed for high school basketball during that time (it still is today but not to the same extent), and WGIL broadcast all of the Silver Streak games.  When great players like Dale Kelley and Zach Thiel graduated from Galesburg High School, Roger would take a crew and travel to to the college where the GHS grad was playing.  The WGIL crew would then broadcast one of the college team's big games back to Galesburg.

Kelley went to Northwestern and Thiel to SMU.  So off the WGIL sports team would go to broadcast a game on a night the  Streaks basketball team was off.

The listeners loved it!  They were able to stay at home, sit by the radio and listen to a college game with the announcers giving the broadcast a local flavor.  It's very similar to today when you listen or watch a game on the internet.

If I'm not mistaken, Mark Cuban made millions of dollars with the same concept, putting games on the Internet, which allowed Cuban to purchase the Dallas Mavericks when he sold his internet company.

Coleman and the sales staff sold these college games to local advertisers but never made the money that Cuban made 30 years later.
John Thiel
John Thiel, Zach's dad, was the head boys basketball coach at GHS and was legendary around the state--he still is today!  Roger Coleman sensed correctly that John's personality would translate to radio so Roger hired him to host a radio show called Sportsline.  John would play jazz records, interview other coaches, and expound on the issues of the day.  The show was a huge hit.  Roger the innovator had struck again!

Streaks' fans in Galesburg still talk about the post-game shows after GHS basketball games that Roger created.  There would be the usual post-game show at the gym; then the announcers and Coach Thiel would move to the Harbor Lights Supper Club on North Henderson Street in Galesburg where the post-post-game show would resume.

Area coaches would stop in on their way home from their games and chat with John Thiel on the air.  Other coaches would call in and be included in the conversation.

All this was on WGIL-AM.  I was working on WGIL-FM at the time, and I would get off the air at midnight.  Many Friday nights the post-game show would still be going strong when my shift ended--the game had been over for three hours!  I remember sitting down with the board operator in the AM studio and listening to Coach Thiel and his guests until the wee hours of the morning.

Chicago readers will see a similarity of the post-game show to Kup's show, hosted by Irv Kupcinet, which aired in the 1960's.  There was no end time established for the program, guests would just stop by, and the conversation was lively and witty.  Of course Roger and the sales staff had sold the post-post game show so this was another way for the radio station to make money.

During the years that the Silver Streaks went downstate, Roger produced a phonograph record of the highlights of the season, with the legendary Bill Pearson narrating.  I've seen these phonograph records on e-bay selling for hundreds of dollars--another successful venture for Roger and for WGIL.

But perhaps Roger's greatest triumph in Galesburg radio was when he established WGIL-FM in 1966.  In those days no one listened to FM radio; it was all AM.  Roger sensed the coming of FM, and he and chief engineer Jim Thompson (just a prince of a guy!) were able to get a 50,000 watt frequency (94.9 megahertz) moved from Iowa to Galesburg.

Roger told Burrell Barash, who was the station's attorney and chairman of the board and who was skeptical of the future FM station, that one day WGIL-FM would be more valuable than WGIL-AM.  Burrell frowned at that, but he let Roger go ahead.

Roger was right!  Today WAAG-FM (the station changed its call letters in the mid-70's) is the crown jewel in current owner John Pritchard's string of radio stations in western Illinois and eastern Iowa.

I always joke with the guys at FM-95 that they should get down on their knees every night and say a "thank you prayer" for Roger Coleman because without him there would probably be no FM-95.

Roger decided to partially switch the music format on WGIL-FM from elevator music to country and western in 1970.  WGIL-FM played beautiful music during the day and then country at night.

Roger and Jim Thompson set up a remote studio in the basement of Bill Reeves, a local music store owner, and Bill played country records with all his friends gathered around.  Later Roger hired Gordon Wilson, the Singing Farmer, to DJ and to provide entertainment at station remotes.  This was all before I arrived on the scene.  FM-95 went full-time country in the fall of 1971.
FM Converter
 At that time there were no FM radios in cars so this important audience was lost to FM stations.  Roger found a company that manufactured FM radio converters, which fastened under the dash board and sent FM into the car's AM radio and speakers.  They sold for $10.00, and Roger didn't raise the price when we sold them.  He wanted the FM penetration in the market.  He didn't care about making money on the converters.

I had been there a year or so when Roger came up with the idea that the radio station could have a day when the disc jockeys and chief engineer Jim Thompson would go to a local business (in this case Farm King) and install the radios in listeners' cars.

When I got to Farm King on the east side of town on that Saturday morning in the spring of 1972, there were already cars lined up out onto Route 34.  We had six lines of installers, and we worked all day.  About 5:00 p.m. here comes Roger with a case of beer for us.  He always knows the classy thing to do!

Roger and his beautiful wife Marilyn were the perfect couple for hosting parties and station events.  The Christmas parties at WGIL/WAAG were LEGENDARY.  All the employees would meet at Colemans' house at Soangetaha Country Club for cocktails, and then the party would move to the country club for dinner.

I could go on about these Christmas parties for a long time, but I'll save that for another blog posting.  Suffice it to say, no one ever left the WGIL/WAAG Holiday Party hungry or THIRSTY!

Roger always talks about how the period of time I was at the station (1971-76) was his favorite time in radio.  "All the employees were dedicated to their jobs.  Their jobs were their hobbies," he says.

But what he doesn't say is that HE was able to spot talent and put that talent in the right place.  Roger needed a play-by-play man in the early 1960's, and the one he wanted, Bill Pearson, was in the military.  Roger contacted Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen from Peoria, and Dirksen was able to get Pearson out of the service early so Bill could start the season as the voice of the Silver Streaks.

John Block
Roger hired news director Mike Briggs when Briggs was still in college at Knox, and when Briggs came up with the idea for of choosing listeners to comment on current events, Roger recommended local farmer John Block to Mike.  John Block later became President Reagan's Secretary of Agriculture, and John still does commentary on the Tribune Radio Network.  Mike Briggs went on to become a press secretary for former Illinois Senator Carol Mosely Braun, and he now is press secretary for Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Lon Helton
Roger also hired Lon Helton out of Monmouth College to be a country disc jockey on FM-95.  Lon is the host of American Country Countdown, a nationally syndicated radio program, and he is also in the Country Radio Hall of Fame.

I'm not sure but I think that Roger even came up with the idea of a country countdown show on Sunday mornings.

Sixteen year old Galesburg High School sophomore Bob Parker was hired by Roger in May of 1971.  Bob went on to become one of the first hosts of a sports talk show at WMRO Radio in Aurora.  He later became a stock broker in Phoenix, AZ and parlayed his radio talent into a stock market call-in show on KTAR radio.  Bob is still the go-to guy in Phoenix when TV stations need a stock broker to speak on the air about the highs or lows in the markets.

Roger also hired WIU grad Bill Moehle, who is now the chief engineer at KCBS-TV in Los Angeles.
Jimmie Carr
But in my mind the best hire Roger Coleman ever made was hiring Jimmie Carr, the current basketball analyst on WAIK-AM, WGIL's competitor.  Jimmie was a star on the 1959 Galesburg High School basketball team that finished third in the state.  WGIL had run through a bunch of analysts, and Roger wanted one that he knew would stick around a while.

Roger asked John Thiel if he thought Jimmie would be a good choice, and Thiel said "yes."  So Roger hired Jimmie--not only as an analyst but also as a full-time advertising salesman at the radio station.

Jimmie and Bill Pearson were magic on the air, just magic.  I only got to hear them one year, but I've listened to the tapes and records.  Jimmie went on to work with many play-by-play announcers, including me.

When you think of the great analysts--Billy Packer, Steve Stone, Johnny Miller--no one compares to Jimmie Carr.  I was fortunate to work with him on a handful of games last year on WAIK, and he is as good today as he was back in 1976 when we called the Richwoods vs. Galesburg game together.

Even though Roger is a Republican, he is a "progressive Republican," and I always tell him that we agree on more things than we disagree on.  When Roger would bring Jimmie Carr out to the country club in the 1970's to play golf, some of the members at Soangetaha objected.  The country club even passed a resolution that Jimmie could only play so many times.  Oh, yeah, I guess I never said that Jimmie Carr is an African-American.

Roger was an advocate for Jimmie in the face of hostility from his friends at the country club.  I'm sure some of them quit talking to him because of Jimmie, but Roger never wavered.  Today we can't imagine the racism that existed during the 1960's and 70's.

Roger Coleman just has a feel for radio and for people.  Everything he touches turns to gold.  He left WGIL in 1976, went to Monmouth, resurrected the radio station (WRAM) there, and then put WRMJ in Aledo on the air.

After he sold the Monmouth and Aledo radio stations, Roger went to Morris, Illinois where he put the two dead Morris stations back on the air.  He operated them to profitability, sold them, and then bought the radio station in Geneseo.  Roger built that station up, sold it, and then started a station in Galva from scratch. He sold that radio station and went on to own, operate, and eventually sell the AM & FM stations in Effingham.

Roger Coleman is retired now, but his legacy in the broadcasting business will forever stand.  I'm just glad that I was able to work for him for five years.

Thanks, Roger!  Your friendship and kindness over these 41 years will never be forgotten.

1 comment:

  1. You, Jim Wyman, was one of my Mentors. At WAAG Radio. Judt commented on Terry Jennings F.B. that I was in trouble at the station for playing too much Waylon and the Boys. You, Jim, named me " Country Rock Jock" Lol! Thank You Jim, the memories have lasted a life time. Currently working at Gibson Guitar, Nashville, 17 yrs, as a Tech. Prayerfully, Montana. (Tim Morss)