The old uneasiness about CBS and longevity in the radio business returned. I was approaching 50. Jo and I had openly discussed the problem with two of our best friends, George and Marge Kline, our across the alley neighbors in Wilmette. George was a brilliant lawyer, General Counsel for All State Insurance. Also included was Harold Shapiro, lawyer in one of Chicago’s premier law firms, Sonnenschein, Levinson, Carlin and Nath. Harold had guided the Klines and us in several property ventures.
One night Harold made the statement that would alter the focus of my life, as well as our family. He said, “Mal, as long as you stay with CBS you’re just high priced talent. You give it all back in taxes. You need something of your own that will build equity and provide you with tax advantages not possible as long as you remain in your present employee status."
“And just what do you suggest we do?" I asked.
He fired back, “You go out and buy a station of your own. You and Jo run it together. Mal, it’s just like buying an old apartment building. The buyer paints it, puts on a new roof, adds a new furnace, dresses up the outside, raises the rent and eventually sells it, pays the capital gains tax and is left with a handsome nest egg. If you do that you become your own boss, you call the shots, stop worrying about getting old and no longer needed by a big corporation that really doesn’t care whether you live or die."
This line of thinking occupied us for several months, sitting in the back yard, traveling to football games, coming home from the theater. Over the years, I developed a system that I use whenever I am faced with a really big decision. I get out my big legal size yellow pad, draw a line down the center of the page and sharpen my pencil. The left side of the page is dedicated to “Yes, go for it," and the right, “Don’t be stupid, No." I have heard that President Nixon used the same technique. I suspect he somehow learned it from me. Anyway:
|Left side: Yes||Right Side: No|
|1. You’re not getting younger! What will you be doing 10 years from now as you close in on 60?||1. You’ve never worked in a small station. You cannot even run a control board. You’ve always been surrounded by record turners, engineers and producers.|
|2. You’re not getting younger! What will you be doing 10 years from now as you close in on 60?||2. You have no idea what it takes to run a business. You probably don’t have the stomach for hiring and firing, for becoming involved in employee problems.|
|3. You’ve done better than your share financially but you haven’t saved much. Sure it takes a lot to put shoes on 7 kids, and take care of two elderly grandparents, but what have you saved for the future?||3. You have no technical knowledge of radio.|
|4. My wife Jo is a very talented woman, writer, performer and has a fine business sense. The minute you two were married she gave it up to raise children, to be the mother at home when kids came home from school, to carry the home front so you could go off and be the big star. Doesn’t she deserve her chance now that the family is getting old enough?||4. You know nothing about FCC regulations, tax law, bookkeeping/accounting, all of the work that goes into running a business.|
|5. You are well known because of your work on the air. Jo is now doing a series of vignettes with you called “Mal & Jo On the Go," bits and pieces on Chicago shows, restaurants, events, places to go and things to do. Why not move our two personalities into our own business and create the greatest Mom and Pop radio station in the country.||5. You really don’t want to leave Wilmette, You’ve lived there nearly 20 years and you’re content.|
|6. There is urgency. If you wait much longer you won’t have the energy to tackle it.||6. It means starting all over, putting up every dime you have and borrowing the kind of money that can cause heart attacks. All this and you with seven kids who still require a lot of raising.|
|7. What happens to your career? Are you willing to leave a top career in one of the best stations in the country?|
|8. These are high stakes. Are you ready to gamble everything?|
The tiny pieces began to come together. We agreed to look around and see what was available. My first thoughts were on a friend named Art Thorsen. Art was the Program Director of WBBM. In addition to his duties in Chicago, he and two friends, a Chicago advertising agency vice president, and a Crystal Lake, Illinois businessman had applied for and been granted a license for a 500 watt daytime AM station in Crystal Lake. They put the station on the air in 1965 with a nice combination of chewing gum, spit and bailing wire. I had picked up a rumor that the station was struggling.
Jo and I had a survey done in an attempt to discover where in the midwest were the areas offering the best potential for growth, essential to any radio station. It was pure coincidence again, but the most recommended area was northwest of Chicago roughly paralleling the Northwestern Railroad from Arlington Heights up to Palatine, Crystal Lake and Woodstock. Wasn’t that interesting! Here was a distressed station in a good growth area, and still in the listening area where the audience knew us.
Another piece of the jigsaw puzzle was the fact that we knew people in the Woodstock area which is only seven or eight miles from Crystal Lake. We were friends of Tom and Ginnie Byrnes and their twelve kids. Tom was a writer, a very good one, who had written a book called All My Darlings. On one of our auto trips, Jo had read the book to our small ones, a good way to keep them from killing each other while Dad drove. Tom also wrote scripts for companies like Ford on which Jo and I had done the voice work.
Jo and I agreed that if we were to buy the station, WCLR, short for Wonderful Crystal Lake Radio, we would have to relocate to that area. We would want to become an integral part of the community. We worried about our children and what a move would mean to them.
Wouldn’t you know it! During this time I was invited to go to New York for a week and replace Arthur Godfrey on his show. We went as a family and had an exciting experience.
I was asked if I would be interested in moving to New York. I declined with thanks. The mere thought of transplanting the Bellairs clan to that rat race gave me chills.
The indecision continued until the fall of 1968. I could tell that Jo was ready for the move, ready to take the risk, ready to join me in the work to come. I must honestly say that this was the hardest decision in my life. Moving from a powerhouse in Chicago to owning a tiny station in the northwest suburbs was literally going from something to nothing. My ego was having a terrible time.
We agreed. I gritted my teeth. We made an offer. On November 9, my birthday, 1968, we all took a ride out to the area to look more closely at Crystal Lake and Woodstock. We stopped for lunch at Bob Virig’s Restaurant across the street from the historic Opera House on the Square and while enjoying one of the Virig homemade apple pies, Jo said, “I could live in this community. I think we’d all be happy in a place smaller than Wilmette, the North Shore and New Trier High School. What do you think?"
After lunch we met with a local real estate agent, Ted Buck, and we went looking. The house we liked best was a contemporary two story in six acres woods. We made an offer with a closing date set for the following May so we would not have to change schools in mid-term. It was accepted , so whether we got the station or not we would be leaving Wilmette. I remember, as Christmas rolled around, thinking about the tree and decorations and where would they be next year? What about all the traditional local parties that we would miss? I hope I did my suffering in silence. I hope it did not show. I truly loved Wilmette and our big yellow frame house at 720 Lake.
One Sunday morning in February the phone rang. It was one of the owners. They, the three partners, had agreed to sell to us. It was a strange feeling. Happiness, relief and sadness completely took over my poor head.
Now came the hard part, arranging the financing and making the necessary applications to the FCC. Harold helped us with the First National Bank of Chicago, bless their dear hearts. Little did they know how little I really knew. I did projections, put on my big front, gave my presentation and they backed us.
The second part of the equation, the FCC application, was more in Jo’s department and I recall her spending hours over her typewriter as we filled out forms and more forms. We had to prove that we were not felons or spies for a foreign country.
Over spring break of ’69 we rented a house on Hilton Head Island. It turned out to be a bad time. The Reverend Martin Luther King was shot. Fire and riots broke out in Atlanta and Chicago. President Lyndon Johnson, looking like a worn out warrior, came on TV and announced he would not run again. The Vietnam War and the dissent at home had finally gotten to him. Our country was deeply troubled.
We returned home and I went back to work. My phone rang and it was John Calloway, News Director, asking me to drop into his office for a visit. When I had left for vacation, WBBM was an all-talk station. Now, John looked at me and said, “I have news, Mal. I just returned from a meeting of all the affiliate CBS stations. In one week, we go to a brand new format — All News, All Day and All Night."
I was taken a-back and asked just what that would mean. John produced a drawing of the face of a clock. It was divided into segments — a minute for this, a minute for that — on and on for a full hour. There would be a segment for network news, weather, local news, sports, traffic and specific time slots for commercials.
I then made one of my famous, impetuous comments, “John, it will never work. You cannot just compartmentalize a station into bits. People will die of boredom, and besides, how many times can you repeat the story that Mrs. Jones’ car hit a Mr. Smith’s car, and what do you do on a completely no-news day?!"
John looked at me, gave me that twinkle in the eye and said, “we’ll see next week."
My Guardian Angel was sitting on my shoulder. During the first week of All News, I received a call from Harold Shapiro who had received a call from our Washington attorney. Yes, at this point we had two legal eagles working for us. Harold reported that the FCC approval was imminent, and it would be made official soon.
Jo and I had the same reaction. “Thank God! Now I won’t be in an All News format." The timing was incredible. I knew I would have eventually been forced to leave. My joy in broadcasting was in a free wheeling exchange of ideas, live entertainment and a totally ad lib style. The rigid ticking of the clock, segment by segment would have killed me.
In all fairness, I must now eat some crow. WBBM went on quite happily, as did all the CBS sister stations. The All News format was a success and has been repeatedly copied across the country.
One note on John Calloway. At one point when I was still there, John stepped in for somebody and did a fine show. I remember approaching him in the hall and saying, “John, you were great. Get on the air yourself. Build your own show." John went on the air later on WTTW, the PBS station in Chicago and as the host of Chicago Tonite, he is one of the most admired journalist-reporters in the area. It must also be noted that his format gives him a complete 30 minute show without those horrible bits and pieces. Hah!
We moved. It was a wonderful home in Bull Valley. I regret I did not have more time to get to know it. I continued at WBBM and it was a daily drive from Woodstock to Chicago or the commute on the train. I felt like a lame duck politician just marking time.
A telegram from the FCC. Now the secret that we had kept was published in Broadcasting Magazine. The word was out on the street — that is Michigan Avenue — that “Bellairs had lost his mind. No one ever left WBBM willingly. The other comment was, “He just couldn’t handle the All News format." What was not widely known was the fact that we had been negotiating forever. The timing was strange.
My Chicago career came to an end. As a child, I had been brought to the World’s Fair in 1933. It made such an impression on me that I vowed to come back someday to live and work in “the city with the broad shoulders." I did it. My break into the radio business had come in May of ’46 when Uncle Sam let me return to civilian life. WCFL gave me the opportunity to learn the skills of broadcasting. I was part of the early days of TV in Chicago — all exciting and wonderful years. My WBBM experience gave me the chance to mature in my profession and work with the greatest most versatile performers in the country; Lee Phillips, Dave Garroway, Paul Gibson, John Harrington, Hugh Downs, Fahey Flynn, Eric Sevareid, Kukla Fran and Ollie, Joe Foss, Jim Conway, the Art Van Damme Quintet, the DoubleMint Twins and Tom Clark. My work with the many musicians at WBBM, who helped in creating our live show, gave me the greatest pleasure. I cherish their friendship and professionalism.
I requested a meeting with Bill O’Donnell, General Manager of WBBM. Over the last few years, after my first boss Ernie Schomo had left, Bill and his family and I and mine had become good friends.
“Bill, I’m here to give you notice, whatever time you say. I’ve decided to go it alone."
“Mal, we’d like you to stay. Is there a problem? Is it the news format?"
I explained that I felt I had done just about every kind of program in radio, that from an economic point of view it was time to try the business of achieving equity in a station. We talked awhile and Bill finally said, “Mal, that’s a good idea and I wish you the best. You know, I might just try that myself, someday." Actually , he did and became very successful.
A little side note here is that one of the O’Donnell sons has entered into the movie business with a bang. If you saw Scent of a Woman, Batman, Circle of Friends, or The Chamber, well that is Chris, a hot new talent.
WBBM gave me a big farewell party at the Sheraton Hotel. I knew I would miss these wonderful friends.
The next day, we had a big party at the Bakery in Chicago and invited Ad Agency reps, press, and clients. Louis and Sada Szathmary were good friends and went all out to make it special. Officially, we took over the new station on October 31, 1969. It was a Saturday, Halloween, and we even had “trick or treats" as we moved in with piles of boxes and all the records I had accumulated.
As of the next day, November 1, the station was renamed WIVS. Our Chief Engineer, Barney Carlson, gave me a lesson on the actual operation of the “beast." I was all thumbs. We were a small staff with Jo and me mostly on the air. The station had $84 in the checking account ! I knew there were plenty of people in Chicago waiting for us to lay an enormous egg. We had burned the bridge and were officially out on the limb. We named the station WIVS because it had to start with a W, consist of four letters, and I always felt that call letters that made up an actual word would be easier for the audience to remember. I recall saying, “This is WIVS but we don’t mind if you men listen." Pretty corny.
We dived in with all our strength. I was the Sales Department. Jo handled administrative details. We had a staff of six. We all did everything. It was music and talk, and even a Swap Shop segment that had worked so well on WBBM. The UP wire service was our news department. No memos were needed because we were all breathing down each other’s necks. The first month we grossed $25,000.00. We met our bills.
Our kids were in new schools. We were living in a different environment. We worked it out and did not forget our family. Christmas in the country was a great event. We bought a snowmobile. I did my annual Christmas show that I had begun on WBBM in 1955.
Jo loved being so totally involved. The audience related to her in a very positive way. She found the pulse of the listeners naturally without even having to think about it. I kept on as I always had. Working for WIVS as a team was exciting. We could feel the responsiveness of the area. People were listening to “their station." We never tried to compete with Chicago stations. We wanted to be the best local station in the northwest suburbs. We concentrated on local news, politics, meetings, weather, football and basketball plus a music format designed for adults, not the rock that had taken over so many Chicago stations.