If you've experienced any level of success in broadcasting, chances are excellent that somewhere down the line, you had a great mentor. Or maybe more than one.
I was fortunate to have been inducted in the National Radio Hall of Fame a couple years back. It was a true honor to be among a group of inductees that included people who I've looked up to over the years. In listening to their acceptance speeches, every single honoree took the time to recognize their mentors.
I did as well – my dad, Saga's Ed Christian, and Marty Greenberg were all on my short list of inspirational mentors who took the time to counsel me, help me, guide me, and on occasion, rip me pretty good for being a jerk. Great mentors do all those things.
Greenberg was truly a special person in my career – the first figure in radio who I truly idolized, and wanted to somehow be like. Marty passed away earlier this week. And while many of you have no idea who he was (he was an early retiree from radio), those of you who spent time working for ABC in the '70s know what I'm talking about.
Marty was a boy wonder – a true phenom. He was one of those 5-tool players – smart, savvy, devastatingly charming, a great salesperson, always inspiring, and devilishly handsome. You wanted to be in his aura.
I have never worked with anyone since who possessed so much charisma. Back then, working for one of the broadcasting companies owned by a TV network – they all had radio divisions – was a special charm on your career bracelet. For me, it was always about ABC. They owned all those iconic rock stations – WPLJ, KLOS, WRIF, and others. And during that period, the television side took off, incorporating the Orleans' hit, “Still The One” as their theme song. Hit sitcoms like Happy Days, Three's Company, and Laverne and Shirley helped the network skyrocket to success.
The company's radio network was also hugely successful, with five different news products designed for different demographics and formats, along with stars like Howard Cosell and Paul Harvey.
In an environment like that, all boats rise, including the AM and FM radio station groups.
And the radio division was pretty high-flying, too. Most of the FM stations were rockers with that still-familiar racetrack logo, enjoying the rise and prominence of the AOR format. The AMs were by and large massive – in some cases the most important stations in their markets. KGO, KABC, WABC, and Marty's baby, WLS in Chicago, were all dominant.
Marty ran the amazing WLS when he was just in his thirties, flanked by one of the best programmers ever – John Gehron – and a talent lineup that included the likes of Larry Lujack, Tommy Edwards. Yvonne Daniels, John Records Landecker, and so many others who were stone cold superstars.
It was a great time to work for ABC Radio. But Marty made it more special. There was a JFK/Camelot quality to this guy. He cared about you – and your family. In fact, he stressed the importance of your home life, always asking about that ahead of talking about the station or your ratings.
And even though I never heard him raise his voice or yell at a soul, he was a powerful personality. He used that signature charm to convince you and often got his way.
I remember he was the first boss who “laser-beamed” me. When Greenberg looked you right in the eye and started questioning your logic, you could not bullshit this man.
He was a huge believer in “setting the tone.” It wasn't just about your skillset – it was your ability to be a leader of people with your actions, your style, your credibility, and your substance.
During the Greenberg era, I was lucky enough to work with a group that became some of my closest personal and professional friends – Tom Bender, Alan Burns, John Gehron, Larry Berger, and a long list of talented programmers and personalities. Being in this group made you better.
And we all wanted to “be like Marty.”
So did the 7 GMs who reported to him. (Back then, broadcast companies could only own 7 AMs, 7 FMs, and 5 TVs). There were no “clusters” nor were there “throwaway stations.” The biggest radio companies had strict limitations – every station and every license was precious.
Nick Trigony, Jay Hoker, Marc Morgan, John Hare, Bill Sommers, Larry Divney, and several other GMs and sales managers were all part of Marty's Mafia. They were a quality group of managers and people who modeled Marty, bringing his style and priorities to their stations.
Marty was one of those leaders where there was some degree of urban legend. People buzzed about him. Greenberg said this, or did that. We had no Internet, so some stories about him were spread second and third-hand. He could be brash, arrogant, and did not suffer fools, clowns, incompetents, or clods. Who you were, how you behaved, and how you carried yourself mattered.
I was very lucky. Every time Marty came to visit us in Detroit (he had earlier worked for WXYZ-AM here in town), I got a little time with him. After about a year, he offered me a job to join his small staff – just him, Phil Giordano, and an executive assistant – and to do research for the company's seven owned FM stations.
And I turned him down. I had no desire to move to New York City, and asked him – later pleaded with him – to let me do the job out of Detroit.
He wouldn't have that. He held firm, I caved (of course), and ended up moving to Manhattan. It turned out to be a truly amazing, career shaping experience, and I had the privilege of working closely with him on a very big stage. For a 30 year-old radio guy, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Except he always called me “handsome.” (Check out the photo at left – I told you he had a wicked sense of humor.)
I worked side by side with Greenberg, until they shipped me back to Detroit to program WRIF, locking horns at the time with WLLZ. I had hoped to get back to New York at some point, but Greenberg rocked the world when he pulled up stakes, suddenly left ABC, and moved to Dallas to start up a radio company there. A whole crew of former Marty acolytes joined him, including my brother, Paul and Tom Bender.
Marty story #1: Bender started referring to him (behind his back, of course), as the Ayatollah. (Iran and the Ayatollah Khomeini were in the news during those days.) Getting a phone call from Marty was always an event The Ayatollah title was actually quite respectful. I shared it with Marty a few years ago. I don't think he knew, but seemed to take some pride in it.
Marty story #2: He was a huge fan of jogging. During most lunch hours, Marty took a run in Central Park – just down the street from ABC's Midtown headquarters. But he never ran alone. Marty was always accompanied by a group of other managers and execs, all of whom wanted a little face time with the man. I was invited to join the group, but that was not “my thing.” And I joked with Marty that it was a blessing he was into jogging and not skydiving. I could picture a half a dozen ABC execs jumping out of an airplane with him.
Marty story #3: It's 1981, and I'm programming WRIF. I'm trying to inject a little swagger into the brand in its fight with WLLZ, and I decide I want to produce a KICKASS! bumper sticker. At the time, the station was already producing stickers with just BABY! (Arthur P's rallying cry) and artists. Why not create a KICKASS! sticker, and put that positioner on the air, teeing up high energy rock songs like Zeppelin, AC/DC, and Def Leppard.
I talked my GM and GSM into it, and we ordered thousands of stickers. And then the phone rang. Greenberg. And if it's possible to laser-beam someone over the phone, he asks me point blank to justify what I'm doing. I explain, and I get both barrels – it's inappropriate, it's out of line, and it won't work.
We go back and forth for a few minutes, he's dug in, and he's not happy. Great radio stations wouldn't stoop this low, he tells me.
And then the conversation ends, we agree to disagree (sort of), and we say our good-byes. He never ordered me to take it off the air or leave the stickers in the prize closet. But he clearly questioned my judgment, and in no uncertain terms, he let me know. That's what great mentors do.
Before we called them “north stars,” for many of us in the ABC family during those years, Marty Greenberg was our “north star.”
He influenced and inspired many of us. And his wicked sense of humor and flashing smile always helped him get his message across – even when he had bad news to deliver. He taught us the value and power of mentoring, and the importance of helping young people trying to get a foothold in business – and in life.
After he blew out his knees with all that jogging (I warned him that would happen!), Marty switched to biking. Later, he started teaching spin classes at the local Y.
Before he got sick, he was still teaching several days a week, charming all those younger riders as he pushed them to greater heights. He contacted me a year or so ago because he had a class of mostly women who loved '80s music (definitely not his favorite decade), and asked me to put together an appropriate playlist. I procrastinated on his request because I was too damn busy with my important work to immediately respond to his request.
He re-contacted me a couple weeks later to check on the status of the playlist, and when I admitted I had done nothing, he wasn't pleased. In his best godfather style, I got the “I told you there would come a day I would ask a favor of you.”
Katrina & the Waves, coming right up!
Condolences to Marty's wife, Elin, his kids and grandkids, the spin students at the Y, the choir members at his temple, the kids at children's hospital he visited every week, and of course his ABC family, especially the old WLS crew.
The chance to “run” with this guy early in my career was an honor. He made a huge difference to many of us – who we became, on and off the field.