As this crazy year winds down, and our holiday plans are almost sure to be disrupted, there is one activity most of us will be engaged in over the next 10 days:
Watching holiday movies.
There are scores of great films, old and new, that remind us of the season. And in the middle of the pandemic and these precarious times, there is great comfort for many of us in enjoying these classic films.
And as we all enjoy doing at this time of year, we love to rank things. We love lists. So, what is the greatest holiday movie of all time? Opinions and traditions will vary, of course, but my Google search reveals a consensus winner, whether you check diverse sources like Esquire, EW or Thrillist:
It's A Wonderful Life
The film is nearly 75 years-old, but resonates today. It's the story of an ordinary guy, George Bailey, who spends his life helping and supporting others. And as director Frank Capra confirms for us throughout this iconic film, “All that you take with you is that which you've given away.”
I couldn't help but be reminded of that universal message when I got the word that my friend, Dick Kernen, passed away last week. For those of you in the Midwest – especially here in Michigan – Dick was perhaps the most well-known figure in the world of Michigan radio. And across the country, Dick's indelible impact affected thousands of careers – and the sound of hundreds of radio stations.
While most of us fixate on the trajectories of our own careers, Dick made his living and his reputation not on furthering his own standing, but being concerned about how all the rest of us were doing.
When I first was hired by WRIF in the mid-1970's, PD Tom Bender was in charge of my Detroit radio “education.” Even though I'm a Motor City native and grew up listening to WRIF, there was so much I did not know. One of the first things Tom said to me was, “You've got to meet and spend some time with Kernen.”
Dick Kernen was WRIF's first ever program director. He's the one who discovered the talent of a young Arthur Penhallow, hiring him from a small station in Ann Arbor where he was working under the pseudonym, Cicero Grimes. It is not known whose idea it was for Art to go on the air at WRIF with his given name. It worked out pretty well. Arthur held court in afternoon drive at WRIF for more than four decades.
Last week, Art left this remembrance of Dick Kernen on his Facebook page:
“Without Dick, I might have never had the career I was so fortunate to have had! He is missed and nothing but fond memories remain!”
Despite his great instincts, Dick realized as a young thirtysomething program director the precariousness of the job, the highly competitive nature of the industry, and the ratings weren't worth the stress and aggravation. And he got out.
His next move was joining former DJ Specs Howard (aka Jerry Liebman) who had launched his radio broadcasting school in Detroit. And the school began training fledgling DJs, salespeople, engineers, and managers. Dick spent more than a half century as the “other face of the school” as it moved from radio to TV to digital. The resume he submitted in 1972 was the last one he would ever write.
Back then, radio was the business everybody wanted to go into. But simply graduating from a radio trade school didn't mean doodly-squat if you can't find a job. That's where Dick fit into the operation. He rapidly became Specs Howard's head of placement. It was his job to open doors, connect students with radio station managers, and owners, and create win/win situations.
And he was great at it.
Dick was LinkedIn before there was LinkedIn.
To broadcasters all over the Midwest, he was a great resource – a talent discovery machine, someone who knew up and coming diamonds in the rough, as well as “pros on the loose.” To his adoring students, he was “Uncle Kernen” or “Uncle Dick” – the face of the school, and a supportive, affable guy who always had that encouraging word you needed to hear.
Screamin' Scott Randall was another Specs-trained air talent who forged a lifelong relationship with Dick.
“Dick helped thousands of careers of graduates at Specs Howard, but always took interest in mine. From my first gig in Ohio in 1982 to many years in Ft Wayne, Indiana, Dick always made a visit to see how I was doing. After 28 years in Detroit radio with Z rock and WRIF, we would have lunches, phone chats, and stories that will stick with me forever. The big story is there are so many other Specs Howard grads he did this with. His sense of humor was the best: ‘Get a clue on the short bus.'”
Dick knew everybody in Michigan, and he made it his business to meet newcomers to the market. If a new PD or manager took over a station in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Flint, or Muskegon, Dick made it a point to introduce himself – and the school. And important connections were made.
As former Greater Media market manager, Steve Chessare, recalled;
“Dick was one of the first people to welcome me to Detroit in 2012. He was always willing to help with open and honest insight into the Detroit radio market. A true gentleman.”
One of the most heartfelt memories of Dick was from former student and friend, Jane Asher Reaney. She recorded a series of podcasts with Dick, “Fun With Dick & Jane.” Here are her thoughts on Facebook:
In time, Dick became the media's go-to guy for all-things radio. He was a wizened Yoda, always providing perspective whenever a major talent went across the street, a station was purchased, or some other big event in radio needed a great sound bite.
It turns out, Dick might have been ahead of his time. A lover of cars (and someone who came to despise air travel), Dick spent a lot of time driving all over the state, introducing himself and the school. Whether it was the guy who bought a station in Ishpeming, the hot shot taking over a Grand Rapids radio cluster, or that Traverse City PD, Dick got to know them all. And he won them over.
As we saw on Facebook over the weekend, Dick didn't touch hundreds of lives and careers in broadcasting. He personally impacted thousands of them – not just in opening that first door to a radio job, but in his positive, inspirational words that people remembered like quotes on etched tablets. I can't tell you how many times I've run across a successful radio pro only to find he or she was a Specs grad. And of course, there was always a Kernen story to tell. Chances are, he got them their first job.
Dick had great wisdom, he loved to share it, and you reveled in hearing it when you joined him for a cup of coffee, a lunch, or a phone call.
We're sad to hear about the passing of WRIF's very first program director, Dick Kernen. Our thoughts go out to his family, friends and everyone at Specs Howard. <3 pic.twitter.com/QNMaCRmjWo
— 101 WRIF Detroit (@101wrif) December 18, 2020
Dick knew what he didn't know. He asked lots of questions, and he was a great listener. I was lucky enough to share so many memorable lunches with Dick, in recent years at a little joint called Stackerz, located near the school. (Yes, they named a sandwich after him.) Dick pelted broadcast veterans with questions – he wanted to understand the changing nature of the business, and how it would impact his beloved school.
The “analog” bonds Dick built and nurtured over the decades are what we will remember, so much more meaningful than the superficial “friendships” we collect on Facebook and other social sites that come and go.
Among other things Dick taught me – and so many other radio vets – what it means to give back. He teamed up with the head of radio and TV at nearby Central Michigan University, Dr. Joe Misiewicz to produce the Great Lakes Radio Conference, an annual event that attracted huge crowds of radio wannabes to a day of panels, sessions, workshops, and hanging out. They came from all over Michigan – college and high school students looking to learn and network. And radio pros who got to hang out with their peers, and share their knowledge.
At my first GLRC, I began to understand the method to Dick and Dr. Joe's collective madness. And I was honored to be invited back every year. Dick never had to strong-arm us into going. Dick reminded us we had something to offer, and without saying so, gave us the sense it was our responsibility to look out for the next generation of radio pros.
The GLRC was fun, it was collegial, and we learned the importance of helping young radio pros learn their craft and make connections that might lead to jobs. Dick attracted everyone who was anyone to these events, from Lee Abrams to Ed Christian to the biggest stars in Michigan radio.
Nowadays, many people in radio are growing concerned about the lack of Gen Z's interest in working in radio, much less listening to it. Dick Kernen may not have been especially tech-savvy, but he emphatically understood the importance of the medium continuing to be relevant to “the next generation.”
An analog guy at heart, Dick's intuitive knowledge went well beyond many of those we consider to be industry leaders. He knew the folly that is young people's disinterest at best, and alienation at worst, in radio. And his life's work is working with young people, reinforcing and nurturing their interest in broadcast radio.
Paul and I are fortunate to not just call Dick Kernen an industry colleague, but a true friend. Dick has quietly cheered me on throughout my career, shooting me emails when one of these blog posts resonated with him. It meant a lot to me.
Condolences to Dick's wife, Char, his kids, Bob, Patty, Chris, and David, his posse of grandkids, and his legions of unabashed fans scattered all over the country and the world.
And in a classic “It's A Wonderful Life Moment,” I'm reminded of that famous Clarence the Angel quote to the distraught George Bailey:
“One man's life touches so many others. When he's not there, it leaves an awfully big hole.”
R.I.P. Dick Kernen
In celebration of WRIF's 50th anniversary next year, Mike Staff and Steve Black have produced a podcast, The History of WRIF. As you might expect, Dick Kernen gets his own chapter. You can listen to it here.
Jane Asher's Fun With Dick & Jane podcast is available here.