There are three things any Chicagoan would be familiar with; The Magnificent Mile, The Gold Coast, and Bob Sirott. Generations have grown up with the life-long Midwesterner. First as a top Chicago rock and roll DJ with WLS in the 70s and later as a news anchor on CBS2, NBC5 and Chicago Tonight on WTTW and on Fox32. After several previous stints on WGN Radio, Sirott is back home on “Chicago’s Very Own” AM 720 weekday mornings from 6-10 am.
The Chicago radio legend went to Columbia College located in the South Loop. It leans a bit artsy with alumni such as Pat Sajak, Bob Odenkirk, Andy Richter, and Janusz Kaminski (1982–87) – Academy Award-winning cinematographer for Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan.
“I went there for four years in the late 60s,” Sirott said. “The faculty was more radical than the students. A tremendous place to learn. I knew a lot of cinematographers, film people, those like me who went into broadcasting or advertising.”
Columbia’s philosophy is to turn out working professionals, not professors working on getting published or future game show hosts. (Sorry Mr. Sajak.)
“As a student, I was able to do a lot of networking in the city. Al Parker is one person who was instrumental in my success at Columbia.”
I think our mission at Columbia is a very simple one and always has been. And that is: To provide the finest education that we can to our students so that they’ll understand what communications is all about and pick an aspect of it that has some appeal to them, that they are obviously suited for. –Al Parker
Parker’s name is synonymous with the radio/audio department at Columbia. He was a huge influence on Sirott until the day he died.
“We often had coffee together and I’d ask his advice on this and that,” Sirott said. “I realized early that I didn’t want to go to school to learn how to work in radio, flip switches, and work the reel-to-reel. I could learn that later.”
Sirott said the physical aspects of the job weren’t going to take him four years to learn. Instead, he focused on classes like European literature, the art of cinema, advertising and science classes. He felt he needed a general education.
“Nobody hires you solely because you went to this school or that school,” Sirott explained. “Especially in broadcasting. You’re better off to have a general sense of knowledge so you’ll be able to discuss things intelligently on the air.”
His father was a furrier in downtown Chicago, near State Street and Wabash.
Sirott is a sharp guy. Always into learning something new. A self-described dabbler. Jack of all trades, master of none. He was also a very introverted kid. “I never had a huge ego. I was always a shy type of kid. We lived in apartments and growing up when my mother gave me the rent check to take to the landlord of the building, I was terrified.”
Growing up, Sirott always liked to learn a little about a lot.
“I grew up in a household that was interested in news, documentaries. I remember my father always watching programs about U.S. History, watching different kinds of interviews. That served me well. Gave me the desire for a broader curriculum in college.”
Growing up on the north side, Sirott was a Cubs fan. “I grew up watching WGN when all the games were on Channel 9. Then things got weird when not every game was on WGN. You could find them here and there. With Marquee Sports Network, at least the games are in one place. Baseball is all I wanted to do. I wanted to do what Jack Quinlan did.”
Quinlan was best known for doing radio play-by-play for the Chicago Cubs, first on WIND and then on WGN. His broadcast partners were Lou Boudreau and Charlie Grimm. He currently hosts “Icons of the Ivy,” a series of interviews with Chicago Cubs legends, on the Cubs Marquee Sports Network.
“I know a little about baseball. I’m not like an X’s and O’s guy that follows it every day,” Sirott said. “I always made fun of the TV news live shots when they were interviewing fans at a bar. If I want insight or commentary I want to hear it from a player or manager. I can go and interview my friends and ask what they think. It’s the same thing.”
Sirott said he’s always tried to focus on the personality angle whether on the radio or television. He strived to get to know the players, the musicians. That curiosity served him well in both mediums.
His radio career began when he was 21. While working as a producer and writer at NBC Radio in Chicago, he landed a summer on-air job at WBBM-FM.
Way to go, Columbia College.
Sirott achieved great success for the next seven years before moving to television in 1980.
“Radio is a lot more creative than television,” he said. “It’s harder. My early radio career allowed me to adapt to television. It goes the other way too. I think the television work has made me better at the radio the second time around.”
Radio prepared Sirott to roll with it if things went wrong in television. Doing something live with a news cam definitely helped me on the radio with the kind of shows I do.
He says he’s a kind of ‘dabbler.’ Likes sports but isn’t interested enough to do it full-time. Likes hard news, but not only hard news.
“I can’t fake it. I’m a terrible actor,” Sirott said. “I can only be me and it’s sort of worked out okay. I was always this way. Influenced by everybody I grew up listening to. I’ve anchored news at quite a few different stations and I always did it the same way.”
Sirott recalled it was Johnny Carson who said if you’re always yourself, there is no guarantee of success. But if you’re not yourself on-air, there’s a guarantee you won’t make it. Hopefully, whoever you are, you’ll find an audience who likes you.
“John Chancellor was an NBC news reporter and anchor I always listened to,” Sirott said. “He was natural. “I can go back to tapes and watch him. I was always struck by how he talked to you as a viewer. It wasn’t announcing.”
Sirott said he used to do a newscast for WBBM-FM in the morning in 1971. The FCC required 15 minutes of news. He couldn’t fake the news-guy voice.
“I just tried to be as conversational as I could. I didn’t want to be a high-energy guy who couldn’t maintain that persona. I wanted to be natural and comfortable.”
He recalled how Conan O’Brien was a real guy when he interviewed him a while back. “I’d interviewed him before,” Sirott said. “He was the real deal as a person. I think that comes through in whatever you’re doing. Whatever that quality is. He was really cool and would go into a lot of funny schtick with me, but I always felt he was the real Conan. He was just talking about things. That’s who I am. I had done quite a bit of research on Conan. I asked him what he was like in high school and he told me he wasn’t the most popular kid. Not a leader. O’Brien jumped in and said, ‘I don’t’ like the way this questioning is going.’ He was joking, that is just his sardonic way.”
After being hugely successful in radio at WLS, Sirott dipped his toe into the hugely competitive Chicago television pool.
“I did some guest shots on television in 1980 at CBS 2,” he said. “This was during the reign of Walter Jacobson and Bill Kurtis,” Sirott said. Kurtis and Jacobson were a big deal in Chicago–‘newsmen, not announcers,’ as proclaimed in a 1975 promo for WBBM TV.
“The first week I was there I had to do a live shot from Chicagofest, a short-lived music festival on Navy Pier,” Sirott said. “When I got back to the station everybody was very complimentary. I’d just come from a job where I was doing four hours live, six days a week. I do a three-minute segment on WBBM, and I’m a hero.”
Sirott was and still is a bit uncomfortable with the notoriety.
“When somebody in my family came across someone asking, ‘Are you related to Bob Sirott?’ I’d feel so uncomfortable. I can talk to tens of thousands of people using the microphone or camera, but feel uncomfortable in front of three people.”
Other things kept Sirott from getting a big head. When he joined WLS in 1973, he worked with a great DJ staff that wasn’t afraid to pop the proverbial balloon if it became over-inflated.
“We were cohesive, worked hard and respected each other,” he said. “If anybody showed a sign of a swollen ego, they’d get shot down by the other six people. We were all very close and hung out off the air. We helped keep each other in line. If you got too big for your britches, you were heckled to death and would never hear the end of it. I was grateful for that, always have been.”
In college, Sirott wasn’t one of those guys that hung out at clubs, despite Chicago having an immense music scene.
“For one thing I didn’t drink, hated the taste of alcohol,” Sirott said. “To me, it always tasted like the first time you took a sip of your father’s drink. I didn’t like it. If I went to concerts it would be at the Arie Crown Theater. We’d also go up to Belmont to see performers.” Sirott said folk clubs like The Quiet Knight were also a destination to listen to music.
In addition to his morning gig at WGN, Sirott hosts Icons of the Ivy for Marquee Sports Network. It’s all about players, not about salaries or statistics.
“I’m able to get to know players,” he said. “This kind of stuff brings me back to the love of the game. The fun and inside stories. Inside baseball, that’s where the stories are.”
As a kid going to Wrigley Field, Sirott would sit in the grandstands and then at the end of the game, he would get to work.
“The grounds crew would give each kid a row and say if you step on the cups in this entire row, we’ll give you a ticket to tomorrow’s game because stepping on the cups would make it easier for the crew to clean it up.”
He still loves going to Wrigley Field. As a fan, he said it’s harder to get access to players than it used to be. But he also recognizes the love of the game is still there. Among players as well.
“One time I was at Wrigley and saw Mark Grace sitting at the top of the dugout stairs during batting practice before a game,” Sirott said. “I could just tell he was taking it all in. Loved the game. How wonderful it was when you talked to some of these guys who were baseball purists. It’s so generational. My dad took me to my first game. No other sport has the same quality. Poets don’t write about football or basketball. Baseball is romantic.”
Jim Cryns writes features for Barrett News Media. He has spent time in radio as a reporter for WTMJ, and has served as an author and former writer for the Milwaukee Brewers. To touch base or pick up a copy of his new book: Talk To Me – Profiles on News Talkers and Media Leaders From Top 50 Markets, log on to Amazon or shoot Jim an email at [email protected].
An Unofficial Radio Study Through the Eyes of Gen Z
We really need to step up if we’re going to have another generation of radio listeners, regardless of the distribution system.
One of my non-radio pursuits since moving to Bowling Green has been to take advantage of a Kentucky law — KRS 164.284 — which grants free tuition to any state-supported institution of higher education for state residents who are 65 or older. That’s a lot of words, but put simply, those of us who are older can take university classes for free! Bowling Green, besides being the home of the Corvette, is also home to Western Kentucky University. The name of the school is a little odd because this is south central Kentucky and you can drive two hours west of here and still be in the state. However, the team name, Hilltoppers, is deadly accurate as the school is on top of a hill in Bowling Green, and walking uphill to class burns quite a few calories.
I’m wrapping up my first class and for me, it’s my first university-level class as a student since the ‘80s. If you’re like me and haven’t taken a class this century, it’s different because, like most everything else, education has moved online. WKU uses Blackboard, an online tool, and I’ve adapted to sending in assignments and papers online as well as taking exams online in the comfort of my home office.
My reason for all this background is that in the last session of History 349, American History from 1945 to the Present, our instructor, Dr. Tony Harkins, asked us to form small groups and determine the three biggest events of the last 30 years. When each group presented their choices, one was unanimous: the Internet. Sure, there was 9/11, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the COVID pandemic, but no other choices were unanimous. Even 9/11 was problematic for most of the students as they weren’t alive when it took place 22 years ago.
That led to a class discussion and listening in, you really appreciate the difference in outlook when the rest of the group is a half-century younger than you! They referred to their parents adapting to being online and considering that I’m old enough to be a grandparent to any of them, it made me think back to my first PC, a Compaq dual floppy that I purchased in 1984. The Hayes 1200 baud modem was almost $500 extra, but it was worth it to be that far ahead of the technology curve! They have never known a time without the smartphone, high-speed internet, and the ability to find out almost anything they want to know instantly.
Admittedly, a group of WKU history students is not a random sample and is not projectable to the population, but I also heard some misgivings about AI and the perils of the internet. They know the power of the internet to ruin people’s lives if used for nefarious purposes.
What does all this mean for radio? I wish I had been able to ask about their use of broadcast radio, if they use any at all, but to no great surprise, this group is in another world. That’s not a negative statement, but for all formats, we’ve done things the same way for so long that we likely don’t know another way to accomplish our tasks. Yes, radio is multi-platform like just about any other medium today, but as this cohort ages, what happens to our medium?
I’m not the first to bring this up, but we really need to step up if we’re going to have another generation of radio listeners, regardless of the distribution system. What will it take to make radio relevant to their needs and desires? Being in close quarters with them for a class lets me see some of the similarities of what I can remember from my undergraduate days and their different attitudes and experiences, which are very different from what I went through in the ‘70s.
Time to study for this week’s final (I’m auditing, but for the purpose of keeping my brain busy, I do all the required work)! If you’re in the golden years like me, you might want to consider going back to school, too. Most states have some kind of tuition waiver (for more info about your state’s options) and try it out! Not only will you learn something and interact with much younger people, you can even get student discounts as well! Thanks to Dr. Tony Harkins for putting up with me for the semester and “Go Tops!”.
Let’s meet again next week.
One of the radio industry’s most respected researchers, Dr. Ed Cohen writes a weekly column for Barrett News Media. His career experiences include serving as VP of Ratings and Research at Cumulus Media, occupying the role of VP of Measurement Innovation at Nielsen Audio, and its predecessor Arbitron. While with Arbitron, Cohen spent five years as the company’s President of Research Policy and Communication, and eight years as VP of Domestic Radio Research. He has also held the title of Vice President of Research for iHeartMedia/Clear Channel, and held research positions for the National Association of Broadcasters and Birch/Scarborough Research. Dr. Ed always enjoys hearing your thoughts so please feel free to reach him at [email protected].
Hollie McKay Has Seen The Good and Bad of Foreign Conflict
“They sort of called on me to give them a little bit of my human experience and storylines and I guess, make the experience of that video game a little bit more human-based as opposed to very military,”
Young, slender, and tenacious, Independent Journalist Hollie McKay has dedicated her career to immersive war and foreign relations storytelling but the job doesn’t come easy.
“It’s something you have to be willing to fight for,” she said over Zoom. Since 2006, Hollie McKay has traveled the world, chasing some of the biggest wars and foreign conflicts of our time, spending much of her career in countries like Syria, Afghanistan, and Ukraine.
Growing up in North Queensland, Australia, McKay never saw writing as a career. She wanted to be a ballet dancer. At 18, a broken ankle changed those plans. “I sort of had to go back to school and to university, got bored a little bit, and ended up going to New York to finish my degree.”
A “random” internship turned into her zealous passion. “It’s all a really big baptism by fire,” she recalled, “I really had to kind of teach myself what journalism was in many ways, because it predated the social media era.”
Her internship was with the then up-and-coming Fox News Digital department, a place she stayed for 14 years. “You could write, you could get a byline, you could go out and do things, I found that to be really sort of fascinating and do it all sort of in that real-time,” McKay said.
Beginning in Los Angeles she covered everything from The Oscars to the courtroom but travel ignited a passion. “[I] was just very interested in the foreign space. And that was more out of curiosity than anything because I felt like I was learning things that I should have learned in school, things that I felt like, why didn’t I know this if I didn’t know this? How many other people didn’t know this?”
For Hollie McKay, reporting on a foreign conflict without her boots on the ground was not an option. “I wanted to go to these places and live with people and spend as long as I could really there and be part of their communities,” she said.
Becoming a part of the community is what distinguished her stories from those of other journalists of our time but it does have risks.
Danger is always present in a war zone but it rarely, if ever, fazed McKay. “I always felt quite comfortable in places that I think the majority of people would probably want to have no part of,” she said.
From 2014-2019 she documented the rise and fall of ISIS, spending much of her time in Syria and Iraq. Her presence in the region allowed millions of readers to comprehend the human toll of war. Her reporting also gave life to a character in the video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.
“They sort of called on me to give them a little bit of my human experience and storylines and I guess, make the experience of that video game a little bit more human-based as opposed to very military,” she said.
She brought the human experience again in 2020 when the Taliban took over the Afghani government. “You just sort of saw the Taliban coming in on motorcycles and shooting in the air. And and that was that. There really was no resistance,” McKay recalled, “We certainly didn’t know how the Taliban was going to respond to a woman, to a journalist, to a Westerner. And it was a lot of unknowns.”
The Taliban let her stay for several months before she left on her own accord in December 2020 saying, “It was probably the most rewarding aspect of my career. I think, in that I felt like I could really be there in that very crucial moment and document what was happening and document the changes as they were happening in real time.”
She criticized media coverage of the takeover, saying “You look on social media and you see sort of very alarming stories and headlines, which, some of it is true, but an awful lot of it was just not. So it highlights for me the importance of having that on the ground perspective and experience.”
In contrast, her coverage of the War in Ukraine just a few months later was jarring. “I did find it to be a kind of stressful, overwhelming experience. And it highlighted to me that the challenge actually, of working independently,” McKay said.
However, she stressed the importance of independent journalism saying, “There is so many different agendas and backgrounds and my goal with it is to be able to come with something without sort of any political background or bias in that and to hopefully deliver a story that is of interest to people. And that’s at the end of the day, that’s the best that I could do.”
She calls war reporting nothing more than a balancing act saying, “I don’t think that any story is worth you losing your life or someone around you that is helping you, losing their life.” She noted, “I think if you can get to the story as much as you can, whilst kind of weighing up the challenges around that, then that is something that is worthwhile doing.”
While the players at war change, there is one common thread she found for the average person living in a conflict zone. “War is a funny thing in the sense that you really do see the worst of humanity in the bombing and the violence and sort of the ugliness,” she said, “But you also see the incredible good of human beings in that, too. And everywhere you go, you see people supporting one another.”
Reflecting on her nearly 20-year career she made one thing clear, “Nothing was ever handed to me… Everything I did in my career I had to push for.” McKay’s advice to aspiring journalists is to be relentless, “You’re going to have to be prepared to fight. In many cases, you may not make a lot of money,” she continued on with this example, “I was talking to [a friend] and in early in his career, he made less than $10,000 a year. So it’s really a job that you have to be prepared to do it because you really want to do it and you love it and you can’t imagine doing anything else.”
McKay is not sure what comes next, currently, she is in motherhood-bliss, giving birth to a child this year but travel in the future is not out of the question, “I think life is chapters and we don’t want to be stuck in the same chapter forever and we want to continue to grow and branch out and see what else we can do to evolve,” she continued on to say, “I’ll always be connected to wars and humanitarian issues, and I will continue to travel to the best of my ability.”
Hollie McKay is the author of three books, Afghanistan: The End of the U.S. Footprint and the Rise of the Taliban Rule, Only Cry for the Living , and Words that Never Leave You. She is also an Ambassador for Emergency USA and Burnt Children Relief Foundation.
Krystina Alarcon Carroll is a columnist and features writer for Barrett News Media.She currently freelances at WPIX in New York, and has previously worked on live, streamed, and syndicated TV programs. Her prior employers have included NY1, Fox News Digital, Law & Crime Network, and Newsmax. You can find Krystina on X (formerly twitter) @KrystinaAlaCarr.
Broadcast Attorney Steven A. Lerman Reminisces About Radio’s Heyday in New Memoir
“When I wrote the book, I was very mindful of both defamation and, even more problematic, attorney-client privilege.”
If the name Steven A. Lerman doesn’t immediately ring a bell, you are forgiven. Steve served as the de facto General Counsel for Infinity Broadcasting and then for CBS Radio, among many other credits. Those who attended any of the legendary Infinity Managers Meetings saw Steve’s presentations on FCC regulatory issues and compliance.
Lerman wrote a book called, The Enchanted Path: My Unexpected Journey from Loss to Leadership, which is out now. I highly recommend it to broadcasters, and anyone interested in broadcasting or curious about the path to the top of any competitive field.
I first met Lerman in 1986, less than a year after joining Infinity Broadcasting as program director of WYSP in Philadelphia. After years of poor ratings, our first attempt to set the station on the right and good path was to dismiss most of the veteran airstaff over Labor Day Weekend 1985, something Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Gail Shister referred to as “The Labor Day Massacre” for years afterward.
I had information that at least one person might not accept termination gracefully. Indeed, one air staff member screamed that I couldn’t fire them before storming out of my office. Several months later, the station received a lawsuit over that termination.
A few weeks later, Infinity’s general counsel, Steven A. Lerman, came to Philly to strategize how to deal with the lawsuit. I was scared. I’d been there less than a year and had little to show for my efforts, I didn’t know the company’s appetite for a lawsuit, but I also knew the truth was on my side.
In that era, we let people go by calling them into our office without the aid of an HR person or, for that matter, anybody else.
I told Lerman that the claims were fiction and that nothing remotely similar to the allegations happened. Further, I could prove it.
I had recorded the entire episode, starting before the person entered my office through their storming out and slamming the door. Lerman listened to the recording. Then, a wry smile appeared on his face.
I vividly remember Lerman saying: “I have good and bad news. The bad news is that you broke the law by recording them surreptitiously. Don’t do that again. The good news is that the lawsuit is over and done.”
Lerman pocketed the tape, and the meeting ended in less than 15 minutes. I never heard another word about the lawsuit.
I dealt with Lerman regularly over the years. Especially when the FCC began targeting Howard Stern, and the definitions of indecency and obscenity became moving targets.
Lerman explained indecency by telling us to imagine him reading a transcript of Stern in front of the Supreme Court. It was an amusing thought. Lerman’s delivery is dry and monotone. Think Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
The Enchanted Path: My Unexpected Journey from Loss to Leadership details the Stern FCC battles, including Lerman’s meetings with two FCC Chairmen (one which is particularly humorous) and when Stern signed with Sirius Satellite Radio, and the relationship became adversarial.
He writes short, crisp chapters that give readers a taste of his dealings with Stern, as well as Don Imus, O.J. Simpson, Oliver North (another project Lerman and I worked together on), Bob Kraft, G. Gordon Liddy, Donald Trump, Mel Karmazin, and the many important people in his life.
I asked Lerman if he considered sharing more stories and details about the many celebrities he encountered and the legal issues. He told me, “As a media/constitutional lawyer when I wrote the book, I was very mindful of both defamation and, even more problematic, attorney-client privilege, which limited what I could say and how I could say it.”
Several times in the book, he states that confidentiality clauses prevent him from sharing details of the outcome. Yet Steven A. Lerman provides enough insight into the legal situations, specifically who had leverage, that the reader gets a good idea of who walked away the winner in each case.
The greatest details and biggest surprises are about Lerman’s personal life, starting with the death of his father when he was 12 years old. His mother remarried twice, and both men died young. That is the “loss” referred to in the title.
There is a chapter devoted to his mother, each of the two men she remarried, his grandmothers, and many other people (as well as one dog) who were vital in forming who he is today.
He reveals a lot about himself, including an incident with an elementary school teacher, brushes with the law, drugs, his health issues, the end of his first marriage, the sad death of an associate, how he got into Penn, his first job out of law school, his love for Boston sports teams – especially the Red Sox, and much more. Although Lerman presents the topics with good humor, they are not all flattering, although he does make a good case for his golf game.
If Lerman’s primary goal were to sell the maximum number of books, he would have filled the pages with more colorful celebrity stories. But that wasn’t what he set out to do. “I wrote the book to explain the arc of my life; it’s more about how I turned a challenging start into a philanthropic, impactful, worthwhile finish,” Lerman told me. On that level, he succeeded spectacularly.
The book also explains how Steve Lerman became who he is – which is a genuinely decent, kind, intelligent, and giving person. In the book, somebody refers to him as a mensch. Steve Lerman is a mensch, and the book is a blueprint for becoming one.
I highly recommend The Enchanted Path: My Unexpected Journey from Loss to Leadership by Steven A. Lerman, which is available on Amazon now.
Andy Bloom is president of Andy Bloom Communications. He specializes in media training and political communications. He has programmed legendary stations including WIP, WPHT and WYSP/Philadelphia, KLSX, Los Angeles and WCCO Minneapolis. He was Vice President Programming for Emmis International, Greater Media Inc. and Coleman Research. Andy also served as communications director for Rep. Michael R. Turner, R-Ohio. He can be reached by email at an[email protected] or you can follow him on Twitter @AndyBloomCom.