Posts Tagged ‘Radio’

A Man for All Reasons: Legacy Omaha Investor John Webster Was a Go-To Guy for The Reader

March 10, 2019 Leave a comment

The Reader newspaper is celebrating 25 years with a special anniversary March 2019 issue. This is one of two articles I have in that milestone edition. In commemorating the paper’s quarter century serving the community, we’re noting some behind the scenes figures and events that helped get the paper this far. This piece profiles legacy Omaha investor John Webster, whose capital allowed publisher John Heaston to reacquire the paper and whose money and advice helped Heaston stabilize the operation through the economic downturn and the changing landscape for print media. Another Omaha investor who stepped up at the same time as Webster to aid The Reader was John Blazek, a social entrepreneur I profile in the second article. It takes a lot of talents and resources to put out a paper and it’s good to recognize some of the untold stories and unsung heroes who have a hand in making it reality. I didn’t know of Webster until I got the assignment to interview him. His role was eye-opening to me and I personally appreciate the way he assisted Heaston and bailed out the paper because I have been a Reader contributing writer for 23 of its 25 years. The bulk of my wide-ranging work as a journalist has been with the publication, where I have had something like a thousand or so pieces appear in its pages, including hundreds of cover stories. It’s been an eventful marriage filled with highs, lows, opportunities, adventures and all the usual stuff that attends a relationship that long-standing. I am glad to have some presence in this landmark edition and I look forward to being part of The Reader reaching new milestones over time.


A Man for All Reasons

Legacy Omaha Investor John Webster Was a Go-To Guy for The Reader

by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (


Being from a legacy family carries expectations. Retired broadcaster John Webster, 70, grew up knowing he was part of a historical line. Even though making his own mark as a Webster was expected, it wasn’t a given.

“I’m a fifth generation in Omaha on my dad’s side and sixth generation on my mother’s, so we’ve been around for a while. I come from a great family. It’s one thing to come out of a good family, but if you don’t have the desire to do something with yourself, it’s just not going to happen,” said Webster, whose family was successful in investments and transportation.

Blessed with creative and enterprising genes, he made his biggest imprint as owner of Omaha radio station KEFM. He was also a director of Ash Grove Cement Company, a cement and cement kiln dust provider to the construction industry. Additionally, he’s served on numerous community boards and committees.

“I was heavily involved in the masonic organizations in Omaha. I got to meet people from all walks of life. That was a big part of how I formed myself.”

When Reader publisher John Heaston needed capital to buy back the paper and stabilize it in this disruptive media space, Webster became an investor. He kept a low profile doing it, which is the Webster way.

“My grandfather and father were big influences on me. As a family we’ve always been pretty private and quiet as to what we do with investments or philanthropy. I’ve followed suit.”

Webster attended Shattuck, a private boarding school in Faribault, Minnesota, when it was a military academy. He earned a business administration degree from Menlo College in Menlo Park, California. His interest in the radio business was stoked visiting a West Coast station.

“I became fascinated with the broadcast side of things. I thought it was terribly creative.”

Back in Omaha, the licenses of radio stations KEFM and KOIL were suspended after owner Don Burden ran afoul of the FCC in 1976.

“When the properties came up I thought this would be a thing I would enjoy doing for a living and I might be pretty good at,” Webster said. “My father and I and Joe Baker formed a small company to go after the licenses.

We thought nobody would want to file against us but

11 other groups did. We went through a seven-year comparative hearing process I wouldn’t wish on anybody. We thought we could serve the community as well as anyone else given our strong Omaha history.

“After seven years the FCC finally decided the same thing. We went on the air officially in 1983. We started from scratch and we built it. Joe Baker left and my father and I continued on and I basically ran the thing.”

He said a lesson he learned is that “you can’t be a broadcaster and be thin-skinned.”

After a nearly two-decade run as a local independent, Webster saw the competitive landscape change when the FCC opened ownership to unlimited stations and markets.

“I could see the writing on the wall that I wasn’t going to be able to compete with somebody that had many more stations and resources. I called a friend of mine who was a license station broker and said, ‘It’s time for me to get out.’ And I got out at the right time.”

Webster made a cool $10 million selling his profitable stations to Clear Channel.

“I think if I had waited six months it would have been a totally different game.”

He added, “If the FCC hadn’t changed things, I’d probably still be in broadcasting.”

He misses it, especially the people.

“When it’s all gone, there’s a vacuum.”

Other business opportunities have popped up, he said,

“but broadcasting was my bread and butter,” adding, “Being in the business and being able to grow the business through creativity and drive meant a lot to me.”

He served as president of the Nebraska Broadcasters Association and was instrumental in creating its charitable foundation. In 2001, he was inducted into the association’s Hall of Fame.

Besides owning his own specialty advertising company, his only other media foray was The Reader.

“I met John Heaston and I liked him, and I liked what he was doing. John Blazek and I got involved as investors.

It was interesting.”

Webster appreciates the publisher’s entrepreneurial zeal. “I think a lot of John Heaston. He’s creative. He has worthwhile ideas. He pursues stories that maybe mainstream publishers wouldn’t lay a hand on. I think there’s something to be said for an alternative newspaper. It adds a different viewpoint.

“The Reader may not be the biggest operation, but I think it serves a very vital part in providing information to the Omaha community.”

Webster and Blazek’s infusion of cash helped The Reader through some tough times.

“It hasn’t been an easy road. It’s been a real struggle. It’s a real compliment to John Heaston that he stuck with it.”

Webster’s been there himself.

“When you own your own business the buck always stops at your desk,” he said. “You can’t blame it on anybody else.”

Satisfaction, he said, comes in direct proportion “to the degree that you can work things out and solve problems and continue to grow.”

Webster, who’s married with three adult children (a fourth died in 2015), keeps a wintertime residence in South Carolina, but Omaha remains home.

“I’ve always loved Omaha. I don’t think I could ever really cut my ties with the city or Nebraska.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at

Radio DJ-actor-singer Dave Wingert, in the spotlight

August 25, 2010 28 comments

Microphone stands in spotlight

Image by kjeik via Flickr


UPDATE I: I have been noticing a major uptick in views of this Dave Wingert profile and I think at one point I even Googled his name to see if he was in the news, but I didn’t find anything. But the views kept right on aggregating. I just happened to email him Oct. 17 about something totally unrelated to this and he informed me he has been summarily let go by KGOR. Obviously a lot of you out there who listened to him knew about the situation. Apparently the dust-up had to do with an FCC violation – a listener calling-in unloosed a forbidden expletive on air that seems pretty tame to me and my ears, “bullshit,” and Wingy let it through and tried covering his ass just as you or I might do — and after serving a suspension he got canned for his trouble. Please explain how the many obscenities (and I don’t just mean words) of reality TV and shock-jock radio are acceptable, even in prime time, and yet its producers, writers, and hosts only seem to get richer, but a stray “bullshit” said over the radio is grounds for termination? He tells me he was fired without severance, only a goodbye and good luck. He wants to stay put and continue doing his radio gigging in Omaha. He and his agent are busily testing the waters. I hope he gets his wish and perhaps a measure of revenge against the station that dismissed him by killing them in the ratings.

UPDATE II: The story finally made the news, though the reports have him uttering the expletive. Does it really matter? I find it interesting that I broke the story via my blog Monday morning and yet that there was no mention by the Omaha World-Herald or other media of getting a lead on this news from this source and/or from readers of this blog, but I assume that’s precisely what happened.

UPDATE III: After fielding dozens of comments and questions about Wingert’s firing, I am happy to report what some of you probably already know – he’s landed at a new radio home in Omaha, KOOO-FM, 101.9, where he will be the morning host beginning Monday, Jan. 30.  The station plays hits from the 1970s through today and targets a 25-54 demographic.  Does this mean his loyal listeners from KGOR, many of them upset by the way he was let go, will follow him to the new station and boost its ratings?  I wonder how many listeners spurned KGOR in the aftermath of his firing?  Oh, well, all water under the bridge now.  He’s back in the saddle again and if his fans want to hear him they know where to find him.

In my 52 years in Omaha, Neb. I am aware of only a few entertainers and personalities who can compare with Dave Wingert, a multi-talented gentleman who makes whatever medium he’s working in, whether radio or television or theater or cabaret, appear effortless. Those of us who have been around the block a time or two know from experience that things only appear effortless from the outside looking in, and that that apparent ease is only arrived after tremendous study and work. After admiring Wingert from afar for so many years it was a delight to finally meet him and get to know him a bit.  I trust you will like the man I portray in this article for The Reader ( as much as I do.


Radio DJ-actor-singerDave Wingert, in the spotlight

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


The words fearless and morning radio personality don’t usually jive but they do in the case of Clear Channel KGOR 99.9-FM wake-up man Dave Wingert. Far from the madding crowd of shock jocks the veteran broadcaster and stage actor is brave enough to simply be himself on air. Enervating, effusive, empathetic, effeminate.

He’s gallant enough to have accepted the fact his biological father no sooner saw him as a newborn infant than went home and killed himself. His mother laid that messed-up heritage on him when he was a teenager.

“What do you with that?” Wingert asked rhetorically in an interview. What he did was learn all he could about his father, a man who was the love of his mother’s life but who also suffered from manic depression. The revelation of how he died came just as Wingert began pursuing radio and theater at Ohio University. That’s when he discovered his father had worked in those same fields in New York. Weird.

Wingert’s resilient enough to have survived a bullet to the chest in Omaha’s most famous shooting spree until the Van Maur tragedy. In 1977 he and Larry Williams had just begun their cabaret act before a packed house at now defunct Club 89 when Ulysses Cribbs opened fire with a 12-gauge shotgun. In a few seconds rampage that seemed to last forever the gunman killed one and injured 26, including Wingert, who luckily had the round deflect off his chest.

Superman went on the air the next day helping a city heal. He did the same after the Van Maur shootings. The earlier experience was a lesson in how precious life is. “Since that day I try not to take that for granted,” he said. A recent stalking incident made him relive some of that chaos. “Mr. Crazy” made veiled threats before being arrested. Wingert never missed a show.

A triple-threat actor/singer/dancer, he’s daring enough to take on demanding roles requiring huge commitments of time and energy. “I’m drawn to material, content,” he said. Recent roles in Six Degrees of SeparationUrinetown and The Goat fit the bill. Blue Barn Theatre artistic director Susan Clement Toberer, who directed him in Six Degrees andGoat, said, “His work ethic is purely professional yet he is very willing to try anything at least once. I love working with actors like Dave who are fearless and willing to jump off a ledge and not worry if they look the fool.”



Dave Wingert



He’s courageous enough to be an openly gay announcer in Omaha. Not in a flaming, militant way but with a breezy, emotive patter and Jewish motherly demeanor. By addressing, on-air, overtly heterosexual newsman Rich Dennison with, “Oh, honey!,” or female callers with, “Dahling.” He doesn’t use the show as a coming out platform but rather as context for being true to who he is.

“I have come out — if you listen for it. But it comes out in conversation. I haven’t made it a banner,” he said.

Three years ago Wingert showed the courage of his convictions by abandoning his dream for large market radio fame, which had led him from Omaha to the west coast, to venture back here in search of a permanent home to call his own.

More recently, Wingert proved he has the guts to leave a prime gig as a protest. In a show of solidarity with Omaha Community Playhouse artists who’d earlier resigned he and two fellow cast members deserted a production of Moonlight and Magnolias days before its scheduled opening last month. He, Ben Burkholtz and Connie Lee refused to go on in response to a dispute at the theater that led to the temporary departures of Playhouse artistic director Carl Beck, who directed Moonlight, and associate Susan Baer Collins. When Wingert and Co. exited, the show was canceled and Billy McGuigan booked as a fill-in.

Beck appreciated the gesture.

“I was terribly surprised and terribly moved. It received a lot of varied reaction around the city. Some people very much horrified actors would do that. Others, understanding what motivated the actors. I know those actors were taking an uncomfortable positiion and so I admire them seeing it through the way they have.”

Some may view what Wingert did as a grandstanding ploy that undermined the theater. Others, as the loyal action of a man guided by integrity. Either way, Wingert didn’t sit idly by while Rome burned.

Prompting this soap opera was a blunt force effort by executive director Tim Schmad and board president Mark Laughlin to bridge a budget shortfall. The pair reportedly told Beck and Collins their duties and salaries would be reduced. Beck and Collins balked and submitted their resignations. Insiders say it was a classic case of bean counters versus artists.

Once the story broke angry theater supporters deluged the Playhouse with calls and emails. Schmad and Laughlin faced the music at an April 16 open forum that announced the restoration of Beck and Collins to their original posts.

Wingert attended the session, which saw people rant against OCP administrators for what many viewed as their insensitivity, but the actor remained silent. Aside from a comment to a television reporter about Schmad’s well-publicized and much-derided lack of arts experience, Wingert let his actions speak for him.

“What’s really behind this is I keep a list of what I want to be here and do here and one is to make a difference, and this made such a huge difference as it played out,” said Wingert. “I think of that. I guess you could call it a protest. It was saying, ‘You can’t treat my friends this way, this is wrong, you can’t do this.’ It was all about people for me,” said Wingert, who’d worked with Beck before.



Wingert at a script reading



What impact the Wingert-led walkout made in causing Playhouse leaders to rethink their decision no one knows. While Beck and Collins are back on the job Moonlight never made it to curtain, unless you count the fully-dressed and lit but empty set that served as backdrop for the rancorous public forum. A fitting symbol for a show that would not go on in a house divided. Wingert equates what happened to a dysfunctional family airing out some issues.

“I think it’s much like a family having a blowup.”

He said “going to the brink” may have been just the “cathartic” awakening the complacent theater, which has lost much of its membership, needed in order to get both the business and art sides on the same page.

“I see this as all really good for the Playhouse, I really do,” said Wingert. “If this is a situation that has been brewing for some time than the place deserves to implode, it needs to get its shit together. Only time will tell.”

He feels the events that led to Moonlight being canceled sent a message to the Playhouse administration.

“It was more important not to do this show for the reasons we didn’t do it than to get on stage,” said Wingert, who refused overtures from management he reconsider his walkout. “Maybe it wasn’t meant to live.”

Still, he rues losing Moonlight. The play looks at a frantic few days in the making of Gone with the Wind. Wingert went after the plum role of screenwriter Ben Hecht, whose biography’s telling of these true-to-life events inspired the stage comedy. There’s discussion of finding new play dates for Moonlight but that may be difficult given the theater’s tight schedule. Wingert can hope though.

“I would love to play that part,” he said. “It’s so rich and fun.” Wingert said he initially had trouble finding Hecht’s voice, the instrument the actor relies on for fixing in on his characters. Once he did, he said, he “nailed the part.” What he hit upon, he said, was a wry, Woody Allenish, New Yorker smarty pants whine. “That voice had never come out of my mouth before.”



His real-life voice is a warm, mellifluous, inflection-rich concoction hinting at his Bensonhurst-Brooklyn background. It’s not hard to imagine this same voice charming listeners, especially when married with his dynamic personality. He seduces without resorting to blow-hard political agenda, cutesy alter-ago or phony banter. A more theatrical voice comes out for dramatic-comedic affect. “Well, radio lends itself to that, especially if you’re telling a story,” he said. “I mean, it is of course a little bit of extenuated realism there. There’s a bit of schtick.”

He projects a vaugely Jewish vibe, too, as the friendly mensch who says, “let’s check the morning schlep,” or, “love to schmooze with you.”

Filling time between playing what KGOR tags “the super hits of the the ‘60s and ‘70s” he indulges in canned jokes provided by a syndicator of prefab material. Most commercial stations subscribe to such services. The bits, mostly satiric pot shots at headline grabbers like OctaMom, stand on their own but work best when a host can riff on them. If nothing else, Wingert’s an extemporaneous whiz whose decades of live radio and theater experience make improvisation second nature to him.

It’s why he does his show, not from a chair but standing up, moving around, much the way he works on stage.

“I do my show standing up because I think best on my feet. It gives me more more energy.

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

May 31, 2010 1 comment


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 (


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.

Otis Twelve’s Radio Days

May 31, 2010 4 comments

Most any town has a radio DJ who rules the roost through the sheer force of his/her personality, and in my hometown of Omaha, Neb. Otis Twelve has been a popular host for three decades.  A mark of his appeal is his ability to attract and hold audiences across the spectrum of rock, pop, talk, and, most recently, classical radio.  Smart, acerbic, and fun, he seduces you with his voice, his wit, his charm, but also challenges you with his somewhat eccentric and often irreverent take on things.  He is also a fine writer who’s won numerous prizes for his fiction.  The following story originally appeared in the City Weekly, a publication long since ended.


Otis Twelve’s Radio Days

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the City Weekly (


Otis Twelve is pushing 60 but he’s lost none of his youthful satiric bite. He’s long embodied the cool, irreverent, long-haired rock jock in Omaha, only he’s on public radio these days as drive-time morning host for KVNO 90.7 FM. That’s far from the Firesign Theatre-inspired comedy bits he did with longtime DJ partner Diver Dan Doomey (Jim Celer). Kooky characters, silly plots, barbed banter, dead-on parodies.

Influenced by Frisco’s free form KSAN and Lenny Bruce’s anything-is-fair-game call-outs, minus the profanity, glib Doug Wesselmann became Omaha’s top ‘70s-’80s radio personality as Otis Twelve. He “arrived” with the Ogden Edsl Wahalia Blues Ensemble Mondo Bizzario Band, a music-sketch comedy group Diver contributed to. The pair teamed as a standup act. That led to their gig as Omaha’s original shock jocks on KQ-98. Instead of Howard Stern crudity they practiced mature humor mixed with slapstick and dark, surrealist takes on sacrosanct icons. Otis rues “the schoolyard” throwdowns that often pass as adult humor today.

It all began in the late ‘60s at Creighton University’s KOCU, where as students the duo did a show, “Revolution,” that, Otis said, “drove the Jesuits crazy. We played music nobody (locally) was playing. The bootleg, uncensored version of ‘Suzy Q.’ We’d throw in little weird electronic bits, including stuff by our own totally made up band, Electric Bathwater. It was just a blast. Father (Roswell) Williams would come down the basement of Wareham Hall, listen for about 5-10 seconds, then his face would blanch, his mouth sag open and he’d run back up the stairs in terror.”

CU officials threatened to yank the underground provocateurs off the air “but, Otis said, “they couldn’t figure out quite why or how. They just couldn’t come up with a reason. We didn’t use bad words. A lot of things we couched by saying, ‘Of course, this would be absurd to think this.’”

He lived the counter culture experience he projected, “thoroughly partaking of the ‘60s.” His anti-war protest activities even earned him an FBI file. His thirst for experience took him to the San Francisco Bay area, where he indulged in the whole Haight Ashbury, Berkeley, Big Sur, Grateful Dead hippie scene.

He toured with the Ogden Edsl junk band, even moving to L.A., where the group and its cult tunes, “Dead Puppies” and “Kinko the Clown” were staples on the Dr. Demento show. Then came stints at KQ-98, where he and Diver hosted “Midnight Mondo,” and Z-92, where the duo ruled the roost. Those were the days.

“Radio was different then,” he said. “Radio was, Hey, let’s put on a show. It wasn’t consultants telling you what worked. We didn’t need anybody in research to tell us that if the Kinks put out a good song to play it. It was from the gut, let’s have some fun, let’s entertain some people, let’s play some good music. That’s what radio was. There are only hints of that still going now. The River is the closest thing to real radio left here.”

As FM lost its edge, going the way of corporate-engineered culture, he balked at the increasingly automated, homogenized, bland radio that emerged.

He left Z-92, which unsuccessfully sued him, in a if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em funk for KFAB, the AM tradition-bound monolith that represented the antithesis of his style. Going to the other side was a kind of sell-out, except he had duties — a home, a wife, three kids. After that foray into full-service, mainstream radio he gave FM classic rock one last shot at CD-105, whose offer he couldn’t refuse.

“Really my last best experience in radio,” he called it.

After 9/11 things grew restrictive. He said for-profit radio became a vehicle for “jingoistic patriotism.”

“When they start telling you what to say, it’s time to go,” he said. “That gets real old real fast. So for good or bad radio was not for me anymore.”

In reality, he went against the tide all his years in the biz.

“There were always fights and arguments over bits somebody thought crossed the line,” he said. “We always got in trouble for poking fun at-offending advertisers and government officials. Once, to placate a sponsor, we were suspended three days. It was always my opinion that unless you cross a line every once in awhile you’re not doing your job. You gotta always be working on the line.”

He left CD-105 in 2002 for a new life as a full-time fiction writer.

Recasting himself in the image of the expatriate author, he moved to Walnut, Iowa, pop. 983. Always a talented scribe and voracious reader, he soon made a splash in the literary world with his wry, incisive, absurdist work inspired by the Beat writers and Terry Southern. His resolutely American nouveau noir fiction has made its greatest mark in Great Britain, where four of his novels have been short-listed for the British Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger Award, one of them winning it. The island’s Lit Idol award netted him much press, plus a British literary agent.

Back home, his short fiction’s appeared in the prestigious North American Review and placed highly in the Kurt Vonnegut Fiction Prize competition. He also won a $10,000 prize in an essay writing contest. But none of his novels has found a publisher yet and neither his nor anyone’s short fiction ever exactly pays the bills. Not surprisingly, this iconoclast refuses to follow conventions in his novels.

Writers, especially stubborn ones, “can always use a day job,” he said.

So, when in 2006 he saw KVNO was hiring he wrote the station to say he’d like a shot. Why?

“I was real interested in the challenge to see if I could fit into yet another wildly different format in my career,” he said.



Doug Wesselmann, aka Otis Twelve



Otis made clear he doesn’t believe in genuflecting to classical composers-performers. “Music is music. It should have a sense of joy. It shouldn’t be treated with too much reverence. It should be respected like you would respect any music. But, you know, Franz Liszt was as wild on tour in his young days as Mick Jagger. I mean, they were pop stars, too, with scandals and quirks and drugs and then great art…great music. They were human beings. I think it makes the music more real when you put it in context and try to make it relatable. I don’t overdue it. I don’t do skits, I have no opinions on anything. It’s a lighter touch.”

Examples of that deft touch can be heard weekday mornings from 6 to 10. On a March broadcast he riffed:

“6:23…Yes, it’s high maintenance music. It’s Clara’s husband, Robert Schumann. She had all the kids at home, a busy career as a composer and performer herself, and her husband kept throwing himself into the river over and over again. He was –high maintenance…”

He finds “obscure connections or odd angles” to put a dry humorous spin on the dusty classical canon. He engages in witty repartee with news director Cheril Lee.

With KVNO “willing to,” as Otis said, “let me give it a try” he went on the air November 12, 2006. What began as an experiment has turned into a permanent gig.

A recent visit to KVNO found him comfortably ensconced in the classical world, where he knows he’s an outsider even 16 months into his high brow makeover. Whatever probation hidebound listeners initially put him on, including a small dissident group of sticks-in-the-mud who complained about his flippant tone and egregious mistakes, he’s seemingly now accepted. He knows the score.

“I remain a dilettante,” he said, “so I try to give everything from the point of view of a dilettante. We have some real expert listeners but I would guess the bulk of listeners would be more like me. I’ve always liked classical music — I just didn’t know much about it. Now I know how much I don’t know.”

He’s won over some converts, including die-hard rockers.

“I have some friends who’ve started listening to the station and it surprises them how it works for them and how interesting it can be. It’s great fun to listen because the players are real virtuosos. You don’t have to have a degree in music history to know good is good. And the variety — people don’t think of this as variety but there’s 400 years of music and there’s different takes on it. There may be 20 recordings of a certain sonata. We have a vast library.”

Classical’s not so different than rock. It has its standards. Take Sorcerer’s Apprentice, for example. “This is like Stairway to Heaven or Firebird. Everybody knows this one,” he said. It has its own version of pop, too, ala Leroy Anderson’s “Bugler’s Holiday” or most anything by Mozart. “Lighter stuff,” Otis calls it.

Any barriers he can topple to make the music more accessible he does. His goal, he said, “is to give people permission to realize it’s not snob music — it’s music.”

He realizes he’s at KVNO not for “any credibility” he possesses as a musicologist but for his personality. “It’s still radio and some of that knows no boundaries,” he said. “You try to be friendly…welcoming. That part’s always been enjoyable to me. Radio is very one to one. My goodness, you’re with people when they’re alone in their car, in the shower. You wake them up bedside, while they’re standing in the kitchen in their bathrobe making toast.”

KVNO allows him to be himself.

“They’ve told me what they want me to do and they kind of let me do my approach, and that’s nice,” he said. “In that sense it’s like the old times. They don’t tell me what to say or necessarily how to say it. We make it fit.”

Radio suits this laidback free spirit, who comes to work unshaved, unkempt, in T-shirt, jeans and loafers.

This later model Otis is not a pale imitation of his by-the-seat-of-your-pants rock self but given the format and the audience he serves he’s less devil-may-care now. No scathing comments, no naughty improv sketches, no Space Commander Whack, no Mean Farmer, no Lance Stallion. It’s Otis on Prozac. This Baby Boomer’s literally come home to nest. He and wife Debbie — Dagmar to listeners — moved back to Omaha in ‘07. He leaves his rebel persona at home for nostalgic mindwalks.

Ah, but the knowing wink and nod come through loud and clear in his familiar bass voice laced with whimsy, sarcasm and irony.

Getting to the studio around 3:30-4 a.m. his ritual before airtime “is to pull all the music, set up the announcements and research whatever composers or works I have for the day, check email, drink coffee and try to wake up.”

The solitude is appealing. “I really like it. There’s no rush hour, there’s no parking problem, the girl at the convenient mart always knows your name. I even get free coffee sometimes. I get out of here pretty close to 10 and the day’s mine. That’s why these hours are good for me. It leaves time to write. The danger is you get isolated.” All in all, he’s content. “I like doing this. The staff here is the best. Everybody’s been great helping me — when not giggling at my pronunciations. In some ways I’m happier than I’ve ever been between bouts of sheer despair, but that’s normal.”

He calls “serendipitous” his 30-year ride in radio.

“I never studied radio, which I think is probably a good thing. I’ve had a lot of fun, met some cool people and got to do some neat things…”

Culturalist Kurt Andersen wryly observes the American scene as author, essayist, radio talk show host

Although he’s lived in New York longer than he lived in Nebraska, author Kurt Andersen was born and raised here and maintains close ties here.  He is best know to some as a journalist and to others as a public radio show host, but he’s lately established himself as a fine author as well.  If you have not read his work I encourage you to do so.  It is thoughtful and entertaining.  He is another in a long line of superb literary talents from Nebraska.  His books include The Real Thing, Turn of the Century, Heyday, and last year’s Reset, a meditative piece on the current American crisis of confidence he adapted from an essay he wrote for Time.  He is a much-in-demand essayist for leading publications.  Andersen is also a top-rate journalist, pundit, and interviewer. He’s a great interview himself.

The following piece appeared in The Reader ( soon after the publication of his second novel, Heyday. I eagerly await his next.




Culturalist Kurt Andersen wryly observes the American scene as author, essayist, radio talk show host

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (


The world is Kurt Andersen’s oyster.

In a media career of dizzying variety this Omaha native, who co-founded the irreverent Spy magazine and was fired as editor-in-chief of New York magazine for being a provocateur, has become a hip observer of the American cultural scene. He dishes up his wry musings as a columnist/essayist for haute New York pubs, as a novelist, as host/reporter for Public Radio International’s Studio 360 and as a co-founder/contributing editor for the new online content site Very Short List. His earlier cyber foray,, was short-lived.

Two new projects find him fixing his discerning eye on an epoch in the nation’s past and on a watershed moment for his hometown. His new novel Heyday (Random House) explores America at a threshold moment in history and his March 25 New York Times magazine piece examines the cultural boom underway in Omaha.

Whatever the medium, he displays a deep curiosity for and broad knowledge of subjects across the cultural landscape. His vantage point is the center of all things — New York. He’s been there now nearly twice as long as he lived in Omaha, which he left soon after graduating Westside High School for an Ivy League scroll.

“Kurt is a cultural journalism icon in New York City. I can’t think of anyone who’s thought of more highly in the realm of cultural commentary,” said Film Streams Director Rachel Jacobson, who got to know Andersen when they both worked at WNYC in New York. “He’s certainly brilliant, but he’s also incredibly easy-going and wonderful to talk to.”

His brilliance long ago marked him as one of those most-likely-to-succeed types. The magna cum laude Harvard grad soon made good on his promise by rising fast up the journalistic ladder in the ‘80s-‘90s, as a Time magazine writer, critic and editor, as a New Yorker columnist, as editor-in-chief of Spy and New York magazines. He’s been a contributing writer to the New York TimesAtlantic MonthlyVanity FairRolling Stone. He still does a weekly column for NY magazine.

With its look at the excesses of the 1980s, from New York’s garish party scene to bogus health gurus to the elitist Bohemian Grove camp’s weird goings-on, Spy tapped into the ironical Zeitgeist of the time. Its success was a rush.

“Very heady indeed,” he said. “We didn’t know when we started Spy quite how tough it would be to do, and how long the odds against such a thing working were — the classic too-stupid-to-know-better situation. It was heady and intensely fun, but also draining and occasionally terrifying.”

His firing from NY magazine was “more stunning than painful,” he said, as “it came so entirely without warning — circulation…advertising was up, the magazine was reinvigorated…lots of positive buzz. It felt like getting shot out of a cannon in the middle of Times Square, and I hadn’t even known I was inside a cannon.” He felt better when staffers “quit in solidarity” and press accounts unearthed the reason for his firing. “The magazine’s coverage had pissed off various associates” of then-owner Henry Kravis, “who had asked me to stop covering Wall Street,” Andersen said. “I came out of it feeling OK about the whole affair. Plus I got more than a year’s severance pay. And it made me decide finally that if I was going to write novels, as I’d always thought I ought to do, now was the time to try.”

It’s hard to imagine this one-time enfant terrible is now a doyen in New York media salon circles. Read one of his columns or listen to one of his reports though and you find he’s lost none of his youthful urbane wit or acerbic bite.

In recent years he’s taken a longer view of things as an author. His first book, The Real Thing, was a collection of humorous essays. With his best seller first novel, Turn of the Century, in 1999, he proved he could apply his smart, funny, insider’s take on social-cultural trends in the digital media age to the extended format of a book and tell a rousing good story in the process.

With his well-reviewed new novel, Heyday, he looks back to the 19th century at a defining moment in America’s past, when, from 1846 to 1848 a remarkable confluence of events unfolded to usher in the nation we recognize today. He looks through the eyes of well-drawn characters swept up in the American Experiment to reveal a world in flux and speeding toward modernity. The story is ostensibly centered in New York, London and Paris. but these teeming, messy capitals of progress are really the launching points for a cross country trek that allows the paths of its main characters to intersect with the currents and movements of the times. The wide open frontier, the spartan utopian communities, the makeshift settlements in Kanesville and the Great Salt Lake, the rough-hewn town of San Francisco and the wild northern California gold diggings all become key locales.

Heyday goes on sale March 7.

Andersen’s also throwing his attention these days to Omaha, where he researched that Times piece about “the cultural moment” the city’s enjoying thanks to some nontraditional movers and shakers. Since the 2004 death of his mother he has no family left here, yet he finds himself drawn back to this place and its people.

He sat down with The Reader at M’s Pub in December to talk about his new book, the radio show, life after mags and his take on Omaha’s urban renaissance. The tall, graceful man cuts a cosmo figure with his stylishly casual attire and suave air. He’s a careful listener who answers questions thoroughly, eagerly. He wears his ironic intellectualism without affect. His connect-the-dots way of analyzing subjects makes for good conversation.

In a 2003 interview Andersen spoke about facing down the fear of making the leap from journalist to novelist with Turn of the Century.

“I was confident I had the basic level of craft to put together sentences in different ways. Not having the tools, foundations, crutches…of journalism was completely liberating, especially the first two months,” he said of this first turn at novel writing, discounting “a feeble effort” years earlier. “But then it was completely terrifying because writing a long form thing of anything is terrifying, but also because it was this thing I had never done before. And, frankly, part of the attraction to me of trying new things is the scariness. I find if I know how to do something too well I get bored or it’s just not interesting.”

Century’s present-day milieu of New York media wheelings and dealings found Andersen on familiar ground. But Heyday’s 19th century setting meant getting-up-to-speed on an era far removed from today.

He said “to write a historical novel has a whole other set of horrible, technical challenges. You know, I’d read ‘em, but I’d never really thought about, What version of 19th century language do you invent?”

He steeped himself in the times.

“I spent about a year-and-a-half doing nothing but research,” he said, “and it was bliss. I never went to graduate school, so I felt like this is what graduate school in its ideal form would have been like. I had the basic idea for the story and everything, so it was work, but it was the best kind of work because I didn’t have to write anything.

“I read a million books, lots of diaries. Especially I found the diaries very useful because it gives you a sense of the colloquial manner of speech rather than the kind of Hawthorne, Dickens formal literary language which is how we imagine everybody spoke in the 19th century all the time. Obviously it wasn’t. And so in…just immersing myself in all kinds of diaries, it gave me a sense more of how the language was actually spoken.”

To commune as it were with some of the places that comprise his novel he trod the very areas in Paris and in northern California he writes about.

Once he got down to writing, he found a sense of period vermisilitude in the upstate New York home he kept until recently. The isolation and tree-lined fields of this country home “fed the dream” of 19th century life, he said, “in a way that living in New York doesn’t quite as easily.” Still, he wrote more than half the book from the office he keeps upstairs in his Brooklyn home. One advantage to being in the city, he said, is that Studio 360 is recorded in Lower Manhattan, “within blocks of where the Five Points were and where all the Lower Manhattan life in my book is set. It was fantastic walking past these things almost every day.”

He tried hard to avoid a pitfall many novelists fall into. “The thing with a historical novel is you do all this research and it’s tempting to show off your research and contrive the story to go here and contrive it to go there,” he said, “and that’s a real thing I found myself having to watch.” He’s happy with the modicum of “celebrity cameos” he integrated into the story, including “plausible” meetings between select characters and such famous personalities as Charles Darwin, Walt Whitman and Alan Pinkerton.

The whirlwind period at the heart of the book is one that’s held him enthralled.

“I’d had the very germ of the idea for this book for a long time, before I even wrote the first novel (Century),” he said. “And I think it began when something I read made me realize that in this one month of 1848 so much happened that I’d never seen connected before. In the biggest sense, all these revolutions in Europe, gold discovered in California, our winning the war against Mexico, the Communist manifesto published. Of course, I was already aware of the golden moment in literature of Whitman and Poe and Thoreau and all the rest and the beginnings of modern newspapers and photography and all that.

“So before I even decided to write the book I started researching and the more and more I discovered about this moment — of the telegraph and the railroad and feminism and communes, I thought, Why has no one ever said that this was the threshold — that this was when modern life as we know it began? And once I started going down that route, I just became obsessed and then started inventing a story I could use as the armature to tell that larger story.”

If Andersen has his way, scholars and historians will view 1846-1848 in a new light.

“We think of 1776, 1782, 1787 as the birth of America, but I’ve really come to think that in a more holistic cultural, economic, political way this moment bears looking at as when the prototype was getting made,” he said. “I don’t know of any other moment when so much stuff that you can look at from today and say, Yeah, I see where this thing we now experience — the seed of it was there. I mean, beyond the sort of three-branches-of-government-in-civics stuff.”

He said never has America been as swept up in so much change as it was then. The challenge for him as a storyteller, he said, was to “try to make palpable…just the sheer excitement of this and terror of this moment of incredible change and newness.” For him, there’s no comparison between the social-cultural explosion of 1846-1848 and that of, say, Height Ashbury or the digital revolution. The birth of America, the birth of the modern age is a long affair, but I honestly can’t imagine a better couple of years to look at…the sense of world turned upside down.

Andersen also likes the fact he takes on a swath of American history not oversaturated “in fiction or in our popular imagination” the way “the Indian Wars, the Old West and the Civil War” are.

“One of the reasons this period appealed to me, in addition to my thinking it’s an amazing time, “he said, “ is it’s more virgin territory. People saw the Indians were fucked but the Indian Wars were still on the horizon, 20 years hence. It’s the moment before slavery became this thing that busted America apart. Most people didn’t yet have any sense it was the fissure that would explode 10-12 years later. It’s another kind of germ of potential waiting to explode in the same way that all the good things or the new technologies were germs about to explode.”

He also felt pulled into the era by the extant photographs of the time, when the earliest such images on record were produced.

“When I started looking at period photographs I realized that we who live in this highly photographic, video-mediated age today can feel a connection to a period where photography existed in a way we can’t quite feel a connection to ten years earlier, when it didn’t. I just think that’s true,” he said. “When it’s all about drawing, that’s the old days, whereas, when I see these early photographs of the streets in Paris during the revolution, it’s alive. It was amazing to mere there were photographs of that. It gave me this sort of visceral sense of connection because it was real, it was a photograph, rather than simply an account in prose or drawing.”

Then there’s the inventions and innovations the era heralded in that anticipated today’s information age technologies and tools.

“When you look at photography or the telegraph, I mean to me everything from daguerreotype to television, that’s just a refinement,” Andersen said. “This mechanical, instant picture was the big change. The same with the telegraph. The telegraph to the Internet, it’s all just refinements of instant communication.”

There are other reverberations with today he found compelling.

“As I was doing my research about the Mexican War, our first foreign elective war, I was like, Hmmm, what does that sound like? I began writing the book in 2002,” he said, “when Bush was preparing to invade Iraq because they might attack us essentially. That was James K. Polk in 1846. In effect, Polk said, We’ve got to invade Mexico or they’re going to invade us. The Mexican War is a war people don’t know much about today, but so interesting because this was an imperial war…a foreign war…a war we chose to fight. I already had all these other ways in which I thought this time had resonances with that time, but that was yet another.

“It’s just a fresh view of a piece of American history. Not that I made it fresh, but I think by kind of depicting it, people might just realize, God, I never thought of it this way before or I don’t know much about this time.”

The primary characters in Heyday are emblematic of the great enthusiasm and anxiety of the new age dawning.

Ben Knowles is a young, idealistic Brit of means who turns his back on the Old World for the promise of the New Arcadia. His departure for America is hastened by a misadventure in Paris, where he’s both witness and unwitting agent of revolution. In the figure of Ben, Andersen provides a prism for viewing America from a “foreigner’s eyes…seeing “it for all of its ugliness as well as excitement. I wanted somebody who was thrilled about the idea of America and who would then be disappointed or not,” he said. Through Ben we see “this thing being made up as it went along” — what Andersen calls “the early adolescence of America.”

Ben finds an incarnation of the new nation’s spirit in Polly Lucking, an emancipated woman from a luckless family. She, like her late dreamer father, is enamored with all that is new and possible, only more practical about it. As a female of independent persuasions but poor straits she pursues two professions open to feminists then — prostitution and the theater.

Duff Lucking is Polly’s “wounded soul” of a brother. A disgraced veteran of the Mexican War, he’s a fireman with a suspect knack for always smelling out a good blaze. Haunted by the Lucking family’s many tragedies and his own wartime trauma, he sees mendacity all about him and anoints himself avenging angel, like a 19th century Travis Bickle, to cleanse the unholy land.

Timothy Skaggs is a bohemian, bon vivant, journalist, daguerreotyper and would-be astronomer. This cynical commentator on his times, is also a hedonist who indulges his huge appetites for life. The oldest of the bunch, he is at once friend, mentor, devil’s advocate and surrogate father figure to the others.

There are Dickensian overtones to the book, from the harsh class system to familiar types that embody the best and worst of human kind. Among these archetypes are sweet urchin Priscilla Christmas, repulsive b’hoy Fatty Freehorn and the sinister aristocrats, the Primes.

The villain of the piece is Gabriel Drumont, a Corsican whom we meet serving in the Paris national guard. An ugly encounter at the start of the book propels Drumont on a journey half way around the world to avenge his brother’s death. Each character is escaping some aspect of his or her past. Each is pursued by a specter of fate. Drumont is that Angel of Death. He also serves as the old guard counterpoint to what he considers the anarchic, libertine, insurrectionist actions of Ben and Co. A restorer of order to a “disordered world.”

“He (Drumont) is a very different human being than the rest,” Andersen said. “A hard person, driven by honor and duty. To an extreme degree. But I don’t regard him as mad or even evil. As I read and read and read into the period I came to believe this idea of honor and duty was a much more potent presence thing in life 160 years ago than it is today. I just think that’s true.”

Andersen spent three years writing and another year revising his “big tapestry” of a novel. He’s now “trying to figure out” what he’ll make the subject of his next. “I had given myself until the end of the year, (2006)” he said. I have a couple of different novel ideas…I will be onto.”

Meanwhile, he’s busy with Studio 360, the omnibus program that works from the digressive edges to tie the threads of complex subjects. An installment of its “American Icons” series, which explores American works of art, won a 2005 Peabody Award. The honored show considered the search for the Great White Whale in Herman Melville’sMoby Dick. An upcoming “Icon” looks at the Midwestern perspective of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s melancholic The Great Gatsby.

He swears he doesn’t miss the magazine game. “No, I really don’t get a twinge to do that. Various things, including Studio 360, slake that appetite,” he said. “I had ten years of kind of like an unbelievably fantastic magazine-making experience, so I feel like, Why push my luck? Maybe I could do another magazine gig that would be fun, but I kind of don’t think so. No, I’m very happy writing books, doing the radio show. And I’m involved in this little Internet thing….called Very Short List ( We recommend one movie or one book or one piece of music or one web video a day…”

He also doesn’t miss being the boss. “I’m happy frankly not managing a lot of stuff and people,” he said. “You know, I get to have my ideas, talk to artists and filmmakers for radio and write my books, and other people are sort of in charge of the operations. I like having as small a part of my life as possible be about management, deciding how much people should get paid and all that crap.”

He has the freedom to discover his hometown’s emerging new face and persona. “I find it really heartening and hopeful about urban life in a frankly improbable place like this one,” he said, “where like a real vital set of scenes are happening. You know, there’s the Bemis art thing happening…the Old Market-retail-condo gentrification thing…the film scene…the music scene with Saddle Creek Records, Timothy Schaffert’s Lit Fest…It seems as though there’s a kind of critical mass of this stuff developing. I think it’s fantastic. I’d find it delightful and charming if it were in Dayton, but I didn’t come from Dayton, so I find it really nice this sense of it being a really livable place.”

He has more than a passing interest in Film Streams as a member of its advisory board. FS director Jacobson got to know Andersen when she worked at WNYC, which co-produces his radio show.

He has been such a great friend both to me and to Film Streams,” she said. “I’ve felt like I can call on him to ask his opinions about anything, from lobby décor to press ideas to programming choices. He’s also planning to curate a series of regional movies…in the fall…I am thrilled that he’s still interested in having a connection to Omaha, and couldn’t feel more fortunate that his affiliation with Film Streams might play some role in that. ”

What his Times piece and a recent Studio 360 segment reveals is that Omaha’s cultural boom is driven by a new matrix of artists-entrepeneurs, not the Great White Fathers of the past.

“It’s this literally alternative history that I think is important for making it a city that feels pleasant and interesting and civilized to me. I mean, yeah there is the canonical history of Omaha and then there’s this other one, and I find it’s this other one not decided in board rooms…necessarily that’s key.”

“You can point to a relatively small group of individuals starting in the late ‘60s, with the Mercers and Ree Schonlau, up through Robb Nansel and Rachel Jacobson today, who for whatever combination of altruistic, aesthetic reasons made certain choices that made things to my eye and taste nicer here than they could have been. This could all have been knocked down as well as Jobbers Canyon,” he said, meaning the Old Market. “I could point to other cities around America where that is what’s happened.”

Omaha’s emergence as a cool urban center, he said, proves “individuals actually can make a huge difference and that’s part of the story. I’m really happy it happened the way it did and I’ll tell you, it has worked out better for Omaha than probably anyone would have predicted. I think Omaha is very fortunate.”

The Omaha model reinforces a lesson he said he’s learned: “That large risk-taking can work out OK if you really have a singular vision and stick to it and work hard and have fun doing it.”

Studio 360
is carried by many public radio stations. Check your local listings.  Heyday is now in fine bookstores everywhere.

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