One of the highlights of Conclave 42 last week was being there to see John Gehron receive his much-deserved Rockwell Award. If you've worked in the radio business for any length of time, chances are good that you've run across John – one of the truly great programmers in radio history.
While John has had many successful stints in the business – at all levels – including heavyweight jobs with CBS Radio, iHeartRadio, American Radio Systems, and now AccuRadio, he is perhaps best known for building and growing the WLS brand back in the '70s and early '80s when it was arguably the best music station in America.
As John explained to the Conclave crowd gathered around to hear the words of a master, one of the secrets of his WLS stewardship was to let his amazing talent – or as he referred to them – his “treasures” – do their jobs. It wasn't often easy, The term “high maintenance” best describes that WLS group of legends that included Larry Lujack, Tommy Edwards, John Records Landecker, Fred Winston, Brant Miller, and so many others.
But it was the arrival of Steve Dahl and Gary Meier that caused Gehron to reassess his position about the relationship between music and talk on WLS. Those guys tested Gehron – on many fronts. But the sign of a truly great leader is the ability to learn new lessons – and reverse course, when necessary. In the case of Steve & Gary, that teaching moment was the realization “they were bigger than the music.”
For me, John was one of my radio mentors. I joined ABC in 1978 when John and WLS were both at the top of their games. Unlike some prima donna programmers, John was always willing to spend time with younger people in the business, often teaching by example. By the way he envisioned and managed WLS back in those days, I learned a great deal about how to build a mega-brand. I applied many of those lessons to the way I programmed and managed WRIF just a few years later, and of course in my consulting work here at Jacobs Media where I've been blessed to work with some of the biggest stations in radio.
In John's address to the Conclave, he talked about the importance of returning every letter he received. He came to learn the power and influence of those WLS call letters, especially to fledgling radio talent and would-be programmers. And John told the story of the box of letters, tapes, and resumes he would receive every week as hundreds of aspiring radio people took their best shot at a job at that iconic radio station located in the Stone Container Building at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive.
And because he understood the value of acknowledgment, he took the time to listen to every aircheck and respond to every letter and job application. As John explained, a few encouraging words, a tip here and there, and a written response from the program director of WLS meant so much to people trying to make their way in the business. In a video that proceeded the award, Jay Philpott told the story of writing John back in the day, and receiving an aircheck compilation of WLS from John – something he has kept to this day.
I know that every executive listening to John's words last Friday – myself included – thought about how we respond to letters and nowadays, the hundreds of emails we receive from the many people looking for jobs, advice, and a kind word each week. Given the volume of these emails – including the spam and the scams – it is often difficult to discern the phony stuff, the ads, and the junk email from the real people looking for an opportunity to get in touch. But Gehron's example certainly inspired me to redouble my efforts to always acknowledge. So, you have my word – I will do my best.
Gehron told the story of how his “respond to everyone” policy paid off many years later. He found himself in one of those big meetings with the CBS bigwigs, including Mel Karmazin and Dan Mason, the guys running the company at that time. Before they even got to their agenda, Mason told the story of how he applied for a WLS job when John was PD. And of course, John had that sinking feeling – did he respond and if so, how was the acknowledgment handled? Mason took out his wallet, pulled out a small square of paper, and opened it up to reveal a personal, encouraging response from Gehron.
Cue the sigh of relief.
But in that moment, John communicated an important lesson about guidance and mentorship for young people trying to break into radio or get ahead. And for those of us in positions of responsibility, the importance of taking the time to provide some direction, and a few kind words.
There are a lot of industry awards handed out throughout the year at one industry convention of another. In the case of this year's Rockwell award winner, John Gehron, they got it right.