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A good man’s job in radio is never done: Nebraska broadcasting legend Gary Sadlemyer


KFAB

KFAB (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a working journalist who depends on assignments from several different Omaha area publications  for my living, I once in a while find myself in the position of accepting assignments from two different clients to profile the same individual in their respective pages. That happened in the case of KFAB radio program director and on-air personality Gary Sadlemyer.  Both the City Weekly and B2B Magazine asked me to profile him within a few weeks of each other, and so not for the first time and I suspect not for the last time I ended up writing two separate profiles for two different publications, the stories appearing only a couple months apart.  It’s a challenge I enjoy.   I am sharing those stories back-to-back here and I will let you be the judge of how I handled crafting two distinct articles from the same source material.

Future posts will feature a few more examples of my facing the same challenge and hopefully being up to it.

 

A good man’s job in radio is never done: Nebraska broadcasting legend Gary Sadlemyer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com)

 

Omaha’s KFAB bills itself as Nebraska’s radio “superstation.” The designation refers to the long reach of its 50,000 watt signal, the tradition that comes with 84 years on the air and the market share dominance the commercial giant’s enjoyed since the 1950s. It’s a full service institution, minus complete music tracks.

KFAB was once so ingrained in ”the fabric” of listeners’ lives, program director Gary Sadlemyer said, radio dials remained set to 1110 AM for decades in people’s homes, offices, vehicles. The middle-of-the-road broadcasts were the first thing heard upon rising and the last thing heard before retiring. The music, news, ag reports, weather alerts, sports coverage, personalities and corny banter became familiar, comfortable touchstones. The call letters synonymous with Husker football in its glory years. All of which made KFAB a hard-to-break habit.

Radio does not exert the hold it once did on people’s time and loyalty in an era of cookie-cutter programming, remote ownership, the Internet, iPods, CDs and cable television. So has radio lost its relevance in this new media age?

“Not according to the numbers,” said Sadlemyer, host of KFAB’s popular Good Morning Show weekdays from 5:30 to 9. “The latest industry figures I’ve seen indicate something like 93 percent of Americans listen to radio.”

FM rock/pop has its devotees. Public radio claims a niche audience. Satellite or subscription radio may be the next wave. Satellite purveyors’ maneuvering to do local programming draws Sadlemyer’s ire because local news/talk is not in their original charter. For now though AM talk rules. KFAB is that format’s local cock-of-the-walk. While studies confirm folks don’t tune into radio as often as they once did, he said the medium’s ubiquitousness keeps it vital.

“What’s not to like? It’s free and it’s easily accessible. You don’t have to worry about remembering to program it,” the veteran broadcaster said. “It’s amusing to me that people proclaim the death of AM radio. AM radio is really the strongest of them all. Talk radio is the number one format because it’s always local, at least to one extent or another. You’ve got local shows with guys talking about local issues and local news and weather. No iPod’s going to give you that.”

Talk is the medium’s version of blogging. Gossip, bullshitting and rant turned genre.

Now in his 32nd year at KFAB and 35th overall in radio, Sadlemyer’s experience reflects how the biz has changed in that time. He’s not crazy about the direction radio’s gone, especially stations being in the hands of fewer, larger multi-national companies. “I’m on my seventh or eight owner now,” he said.

He weathered the without-a-parachute jump from middle-of-the-road to talk radio in 1989. In the wake of deregulation the industry was in turmoil — mergers, acquisitions, spin-offs, staff cuts, format changes.

“The year we made that switch,” he said, “we didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t know how to do talk radio. I was our first talk show host. It was a natural progression for a news station like ours but we needed to do that on a more gradual basis…So KFAB went through this horrible down slide. I managed to survive it. Now we’re back up there, but it was a climb. It was a tough time.”

He can laugh about it now but he recalls the “show from hell” when he booked, without pre-screening, an expert to discuss radon gas. The guest turned out to be “the meekest, mild-mannered little nerd you ever heard. No personality whatsoever. No voice. Now if that happened today,” Sadlemyer said, “I would do maybe five minutes and move on. But I had him on the full hour. The sound of radios turning off was deafening.”

But talk radio was the future and KFAB forged ahead before figuring things out. That’s the kind of misstep that comes from unstable ownership.

For years KFAB was owned by May Broadcasting, a venerable Shenandoah, Iowa company. The Lincoln Journal-Star bought the station, selling it in ‘86 to Henry Broadcasting. Beginning in ‘96 KFAB went through a series of absentee owners — American Radio Systems, Triathlon, Capstar, Chancellor Broadcasting — before current owner Clear Channel Worldwide bought it in 2000. This “owner-of-the-month club,” Sadlemyer said, “was like, Who’s our owner now? That period in the history of the station is not my favorite.” While entrenched at KFAB, where he envisions himself to be another 10 years, he knows nothing’s guaranteed in today’s revolving-door, bottom-line environment that keeps budgets tight and staffs small.

“Hey, I don’t know if I get to work 10 more years. They might blow me out of there tomorrow,” he said. “What I mean by that is that when you’re talking about these huge mega corporations, nothing’s ever personal.  If you’re a good professional you like it to be personal because than you’re safer. If it’s impersonal it’s easier for some bean counter in a suit to downsize you out of a job. That’s the difference.

“I don’t think radio was designed to be a Wall Street-driven enterprise. Radio’s meant to be an integral part of whatever community it’s in. The difference is you don’t have complete autonomy and access like you do with local ownership. At least there’s a connection. Big companies driven by investors, rates of return, boards of directors and Wall Street need to have efficiency. Sometimes they go too far and you end up with not enough people but that’s true in a lot of industries now. I mean, ideally, could we use more people in our building? Yes, we could.”

The days of full radio news crews are gone, although KFAB’s an exception locally.
Still, he said, an overall tighter ship has meant doing more with less.

“What I really have is three jobs — program director, operations manager, Morning Show host,” he said. “When I get off the air at 9 we have a meeting right after the show every day to prepare for the next day. And then my administrative role kicks in. On the programming side it’s OK, how do we sound? We could have done this better. Operations is about this train having to run on time. Technical things, schedules. It’s just so multi-faceted. I enjoy it all but there are times when it gets frustrating to just not be able to do justice to everything.”

For all the ownership merry-go-rounds and format changes he said he still feels like that young guy fresh out of Brown Institute in Minneapolis, a technical school the Minnesota farm boy attended. Brown placed him at KRGI in Grand Island, Neb., where he learned the ropes announcing, reporting, producing.

“I’m still doing the same thing as far as I’m concerned I did from day one. I just love it. I don’t feel any differently from what I did when I was 24. I don’t think, God, I can’t wait to get out of here. I never think that way.”

By choice he still runs his own audio board when hosting the Morning Show. “I like it that way because I like to depend on myself for the pacing, and if there’s something I want to do and I’ve got in my head I can just move things around and make it happen. I’m responsible for the show and this gives me control,” he said. “Besides, it kind of like a dues-paying thing. It’s a lost art in a way. That’s just the way I learned to do it and I like it.”

It may be a carry-over from his old-school ways but the business of radio is vastly different than when he started.

Stations built strong identities-followings based on readily discernible differences. That’s changed with the move toward digital automation, canned, subscription service content and a generic one-size-fits-all approach.

“The Top 40 stations had personality jocks and they were all over the community,” Sadlemyer said. “Some stations still have some of that but it isn’t like it was back then. You don’t have the freedom now to go crazy and create things on the air. To create promotions. The budgets aren’t there. So local radio is not what it was.”

Back when KFAB commanded a 37 share Sadlemyer said the station’s “neighborly style” engendered trust, which in turn earned loyalty. On-air figures like wry Lyell Bremser, Cronkitesque-Walt Kavanaugh and high energy Kent Pavelka were household names. As Sadlemyer’s Morning Show cohort Jim Rose might say, they had “more name recognition in my home than me.” Even ag man Roger Flemmer, whom Otis Twelve described as “a real Les Nessman,” had a certain flair.

KFAB was a Rock of Gibraltar in radio terms. Solid, stable. A bedrock of family values and Midwestern work ethic.

The guys-next-door vibe is still there but now it’s married to that ironic, satiric edge so endemic in media today. KFAB’s conservative, Fox News-allied, Clear Channel-owned corporate character plays to Nebraska’s Red state sensibilities. Sadlemyer’s own right-wing Republican colors play as folksy rather than polemical.

It’s not all straight-laced, as the predominantly male, testosterone-driven broadcasts and off-air studio discussion have a boys locker room-schoolyard humor side. The slams, barbs, retorts, asides and repartee can be a bit silly.

“I revert to the 11-year-old in me,” Sadlemyer said. “I always take that with me.”

The fast-paced show is part conversation, part schtick. In response to Rose’s cranky complaints about the host’s music selections one morning, Sadlemyer said, “You’re a ticking time bomb.”

 

 

 

 

Serious issues mix with trivia, celeb gossip and syndicated comedy bits. It’s mostly light and glib. The ad-libs reminiscent of Jay Leno or David Letterman. Sadlemyer always seems to find the right phrase to encapsulate things, which is why his homespun charm makes him such an in-demand “pimp” for sponsors/advertisers.

KFAB flirts with sexism. Its web site features a “Babes” tab with photos of hotties. It’s enough to make the Mount Rushmore icons of Nebraska radio — Bremser, Kavanaugh, Ken Headrick — roll over in their graves. On-air, divas like Rosie O’Donnell and Hillary Clinton are the objects of digs. Items on sexcapades and sex studies provide ready fodder. Once the mikes go cold the innuendo grows thick. When someone pushes things too far, the avuncular Sadlemyer sounds his disapproval like a Presbyterian minister reining in his disobedient flock.

Producer Roger Olson’s suggestive off-air comments one morning prompted Sadlemyer to say, “I don’t think I want to hear about it.” “Gary, you’re a prude,” Olson teased. “No I’m not,” Sadlemyer replied. “That’s the deal now if you have any standards,” Sadlemyer said with a wink and a smile to a studio guest. “That’s why I’m a dinosaur — I’ll never make it in radio.”

He has little to worry about. Anyone who can command roasters the caliber of Sens. Chuck Hagel and Ben Nelson and Husker athletic director and coaching legend Tom Osborne, as Sadlemyer did for his February Omaha Press Club Face on the Ballroom Floor induction, is far from extinct.

His run in radio still has legs. His place in Nebraska broadcast lore is secure. That doesn’t mean he can’t be moved. Only last fall his cool facade was tested by the breaking Von Maur tragedy, when his dry humor gave way to sober deliberation.

“You just have to do the best you can in that circumstance and try to transmit information, which we had very little of in the first hours,” he said.

Besides the Von Maur shootings, he said the hardest thing he’s dealt with on-air was the “internal tug of war” he felt over reports that ex-Husker football player Brook Berringer was killed in a small plane crash. Sadlemyer had gotten to know Berringer working on Husker football broadcasts. On the day of the crash in 1996 the first information coming in was “pure speculation,” said Sadlemyer. He erred on the side of caution, waiting for confirmation, before putting Berringer’s name out there where family could hear it before authorities notified them.

Nebraska Radio Legend Gary Sadlemyer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in B2B Magazine

 

1110 KFAB’s Gary Sadlemyer is a calm, considered voice of reason amid the shock jock stunts and blow hard rants that can pass as radio announcing these days. The consummate professional, host of the popular Good Morning Show weekdays from 5:30 to 9 when not attending to his program director and operations director duties, is the last holdover from a golden era at the AM giant.

KFAB ruled the airwaves among Omaha broadcasters in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. It was THE station of choice for vast numbers of listeners and THE place to work for news hounds or middle-of-the-road DJs.

When the then-24-year-old Sadlemyer started at KFAB in 1977 he joined seasoned veterans and certifiable legends in Walt Kavanaugh, Lyell Bremser and Ken Headrick. He counted himself lucky to be in their company.

Growing up on a farm near Eagle Bend, Minn., where he went to school and his father ran a trucking company, Sadlemyer didn’t hear KFAB, whose 50,000 watt signal carries long distances but not quite that far north. Even listening to some backwoods station was enough to spark his imagination.

“I’ll never forget, I was around 10 years old, running an errand in the car with my mother and the radio was tuned into our little local station,” he said. “I remember listening to the announcer and thinking, I’ll bet that’s fun. Listening to that guy I imagined what it looked like in the booth. At some point I realized I don’t listen to radio the way other people do. They didn’t pay attention to it like I did.”

Par for the course for kids he went from being enamored with radio to dreaming of being a landscape architect, then a teacher-coach, then a lawyer. After a stint at Concordia College (Moorhead, Minn.) he reset his ambitions on radio and attended the Brown Institute in Minneapolis, where he received rudimentary training. What sold him on the technical school was a guaranteed placement working at a real live station. He wanted a job in radio so bad he told Brown officials, “I don’t care — I’ll go anywhere. Just give me a box of records and a microphone.”

To his surprise he was hired by KRGI in Grand Island, Neb., a big station in a good-sized town — not the typical way a green radio hand starts out.

“I was so lucky. The program director at KRGI was on vacation and the general manager, who knew virtually nothing about radio, called Brown. He’d fired someone or had someone quit, and he needed a guy right now. So I ended up being the guy. The program director got back from vacation and he was like, What have you done to me? But I survived that somehow.”

He learned the biz from the ground up, announcing, spinning records, covering news, running the board. “I got to learn all that stuff. It was fun,” he said.

Good fortune played a part in his leaving KRGI for this region’s radio mecca — KFAB. Not that he wasn’t happy in Grand Island — he was. If he were going to leave it would have to be for a special opportunity.

“I didn’t want to come to Omaha unless it was KFAB,” he said. “I knew there was one station in that market worth working for at the time, and in my opinion it was KFAB. I thought, That thing is the Rock of Gibraltar. Husker sports, a tremendous reputation, a tremendous name. This is the kind of place that can really provide some stability.”

Holding out for KFAB was one thing. Getting on there was another. Luckily he was befriended by “a real character” in Grand Island, Charlie Winkler, who just happened to be friends with Lyell Bremser, the genial voice of Big Red sports and the general manager at KFAB. Sadlemyer said Winkler “was kind of like a father figure” and when asked “if he’d put in a good word for me — he did.”

In his best Bremser imitation, Sadlemyer recalled what the inimitable radio icon told him when the novice called to inquire about a job. “Well, I’ll tell you, we don’t really have anything at the moment, but send a tape and we’ll keep it on file.”

 

 

 

 

Sadlemyer didn’t think much more about it. A year or two passed. “And out of the blue one day in November of ‘76,” he recalled, “station manager Ken Headrick called and said, We have an opening — we’d like you to come and talk about it.” He was offered the job the same day he interviewed. After talking it over with his first wife he did what anyone in his position would do — he took the job and ran with it.

On top of the usual hassles that come with settling in a new place the young couple dealt with extra challenges.

“It was rough right away because we didn’t know a soul. I was working seven to midnight and Saturday and Sunday,” he said. “Not making much money. And then we found out we were going to have a baby. It was just a tough stretch but we got through that.”

It wasn’t long before office politics turned ugly. A group of disgruntled employees agitated to make KFAB a union shop. Bremser wasn’t having it. Sadlemyer wisely chose management’s side. At the end of the fray the agitators were let go and Sadlemyer moved to the more plum weekday morning shift. Life was good. He absorbed everything he could from the old radio pros around him.

“I’d go in and bug them to tell me stuff,” he said. “How does this work? Take me through this process. They were wonderful about it. They all became friends.”

They all showed him the ropes but the one who really took him under his wing, he said, was Headrick, the boss. “He spoke to me like a dad. A very no-nonsense guy. He wasn’t warm and fuzzy but he was a mentor to me.” Headrick was there for him when he “went through a very painful divorce” in 1986. Three years later KFAB made the awkward leap into what was ballyhooed as the next big thing on the AM band — talk radio. It’s proven to be just that. Sadlemyer hosted KFAB’s first live talk show. The transition took time for a station whose announcers were previously “not encouraged to be funny or to talk a lot,” he said.

What won listeners over in the end, he said, was “KFAB’s neighborly style.” It’s a vibe Sadlemyer’s perfected with his folksy, homespun manner and dry wit. His personal life got better, too, as he remarried and his kids thrived.

The ‘90s saw many of his trusted colleagues at the station retire and KFAB go through what he disdainfully calls “the owner of the month club” — changing hands several times. “It was like, Who’s our owner now? That period in the history of the station is not my favorite,” he said.

His own duties changed to include more administrative responsibilities. The biz changed to a more controlled, corporate model. Less personality. Less soul. He’s not crazy about what’s happened in radio but he’s never lost his passion for it.

“I just love it. The work is fun. I don’t feel any differently from what I did when I was 24.”

He said his favorite part of the job “is not promotions and it’s not the business-sales end of it, but it’s the relationships with the listener and with the advertiser. With all due modesty I think I’m a pretty good commercial spokesman for people because I don’t do any spots where I don’t know ‘em and I don’t believe ‘em. And I love telling their story, absolutely love it. And getting to know ‘em and hearing about the latest offer they have. I just love that part.

“And getting out on remotes and at public events and meeting listeners, yeah, I enjoy that, too, because everybody’s different, everybody’s got a story.”

By choice he still runs his own audio board when hosting the Morning Show.

“I like it that way because I like to depend on myself for the pacing, and if there’s
something I want to do and I’ve got it in my head I can just move things around and make it happen. I’m responsible for the show and this gives me control,” he said. “Besides, it kind of like a dues-paying thing. It’s a lost art in a way. That’s just the way I learned to do it and I like it.”

At age 55 he figures he has 10 more years as a radio personality. A sure sign of how entrenched he is in the public’s mind and in media circles is his recent induction in the Omaha Press Club’s Face on the Ballroom Floor. Thirty-one years after signing on with KFAB and its roster of legends he’s now a legend himself.

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