John Otto: Hold the Phone!

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

 This page first appeared on staffannouncer.com in 2004, and was last updated May 21, 2014.

Weekly vintage John Otto airchecks from buffalostories.com
Weekly vintage John Otto airchecks from buffalostories.com

In celebration of John Otto’s 85th birthday, and mindful that it was 15 years ago this year that your congenial co-communicator signed off, we introduce several hours of John Otto recordings unheard since the day they were first broadcast in 1998.

It’s truly one of Buffalo’s greatest broadcasters at his finest: John Otto, broadcasting live from the Tralfamadore Cafe on the night he was inducted into the Buffalo Broadcasting Hall of Fame.

John talks with and interviews dozens of our city’s finest broadcasters, and they pay tribute to him– on the radio, on the telephone, at long last.

And the more to come sign is up– As we draw nearer the 15th anniversary of our-operator-on’s last show, we will present dozens more recordings from the 1950s through 1999 in this space. We’ll get to that in as soon as it takes to tell it– in the meantime, enjoy that Hall of Fame day broadcast below, and hold the phone.

John Otto played many of his own sound effects on the show… You could often hear him fumbling for the right cart as someone asked to guess the voice, or Joann the Just would call– of course, the trumpet was necessary to announce her presence. Here are a few of the sound effects “Your operator on” would play– taken directly from the broadcast carts which he himself used on the show.

otto-cart-label

John spent most of five decades on Buffalo radio, and his show was introduced by various jingles and production elements through the years. Several of these were given to me by the late Ben Bass, who aside from sending 30 years as a disc jockey himself, was also an engineer on the Otto show in the 1970’s.

Finally, here are some clips of the man himself– These were saved at the radio station by many of John’s producers through the years, including Mike Maniscalco, Brad Riter, Greg Bauch, Ben Bass, and others. They are mostly short, entertaining John Otto clips on pop culture and bad callers– others are just a taste of how John sounded on the air. The last clip is 46 minutes worth of a show– enjoy!

Reformatted & Updated pages from staffannouncer.com finding a new home at buffalostories.com
Reformatted & Updated pages from staffannouncer.com finding a new home at buffalostories.com

Niagara’s Talk Pioneer: John Michael, CKTB/St. Catharines & CJRN, Niagara Falls, Ontario

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Known for being both smart and a smart-aleck, his often raw evaluations of the truth often put him at odds with the management and even the Canadian Government, but never with his loyal listeners.

John Michael
John Michael

CKTB’s John Michael was one of of kind, with as big an audience in Buffalo as he had in the Niagara Region.

Western New Yorkers embrace and appreciate our proximity to Canada in a variety of different ways. We drink Tim Hortons, Molson, and Labatt, we love hockey, we remember our summers at Crystal Beach, we enjoy world class Toronto being an hour away.

Of course, Canadian broadcasting has long been a part of who we are in Buffalo, too. From Mr. Dressup and Uncle Bobby, to Hockey Night in Canada and spending weekend afternoons trying to figure out curling, we are, for all intents and purposes, part Canadian.

Aside from being able to pull $7 in Canadian change out of the seats of my car at any moment, I like to think my inner Canadian runs a little deeper with my long term appreciation of Canadian AM radio.

I remember Rick Jeanneret as a morning DJ on CJRN in Niagara Falls and loved listening to the CBC on 740AM (The CBC, now on 99.1FM, can be a little crunchy in “clean” stereo.)

One of my all-time favorites—regardless of nationality– bounced across the border at 610AM.

Listening to John Michael’s mid-morning talk show on CKTB in the early 2000s was one of my great joys as a fan of good radio.

He was smart, a smart ass, funny, opinionated, a great showman, and a great broadcaster. What a wonderful, rarely-found set of skills and characteristics. It was the timeless sort of show that, as a long time broadcaster and broadcasting manager, I’m sure dozens of producers and program directors and consultants “tried to make better.” But the show was him. That’s what made it great.

He could trip over himself being respectful to an elderly sounding woman, while making a dirty joke at her expense at the same time. And you bought both the respect and the humour–(well, it is Canadian humor, so I’ll add the U).

I loved hearing about his family, his garden, his life. He told a great story once about how, as a young DJ in Niagara Falls in the 1960s, he made a joke about the Mafia and the infamous Apalachian meeting, mentioning a few of the alleged Mafiosos who were collared by name.

He had no idea that one of the guys he mentioned lived only a few minutes from the studio, across the gorge in Lewiston, and was well-respected (and maybe feared?) among the many of the station’s sponsors. He was urged to apologize for the comments.

In the 1980s, he was fired by CJRN after the station was censured when Michael made “generalizations about native peoples,” and said, in part, “what these people forget; and this is what annoys me, is that these people believe that the world revolves around their own penises and it does not.”

From his obituary in the St. Catharines Standard:

“On a few occasions, he was reprimanded by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission and the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council for comments made about groups such as native peoples and French-Canadians.

In a September 2003 interview with The Standard, Michael said “there’s just certain people and certain groups in the world today that if they don’t agree with you, they want you fired.”

Michael told the reporter he was actually shy and felt “hurt” when listeners personally attacked him.

He said his gruff radio personality is part of an on-air “schtick” developed over the years. His purpose was also to entertain, Michael said.”

Here in Buffalo, during a radio station clean out, I was given a box containing some contents of John Otto’s desk drawers from the time right before he died.

I was excited to find among the several cassettes, was one of the John Otto show with guest John Michael… talking about the bum steer of what amounted to the Canadian Government getting him fired. Listen to that late 80’s program, and two others from 2004 before from the links above.

Reformatted & Updated pages from staffannouncer.com finding a new home at buffalostories.com
Reformatted & Updated pages from staffannouncer.com finding a new home at buffalostories.com

WGR’s Biggest Loss Since Shane

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

When you turn on your radio Monday afternoon, you’ll barely—if at all—notice the difference. That’s how they get away with it. An era, however, will have ended in Buffalo radio.

Greg Bauch behind the WGR controls.
Greg Bauch behind the WGR controls.
Greg Bauch’s last day at WGR is Friday.  Listeners to Schopp and The Bulldog might recognize Greg as the guy who plays funny sound effects or through his radio alter ego, Greg Buck.

While Greg is among the best at finding (and playing at the right moment) silly or interesting sound bites, and Greg Buck is the funniest bit ever on Buffalo radio, others will come along and play sound effects and be funny. That’s just what one does on the radio.

The real story is, after 15 years there, Bauch is, without question, the heart and soul of WGR.

He’s the type of guy who becomes the heart and soul wherever he goes, but in a business where heart and soul don’t often last much longer than the time the “ON AIR” light is lit, Greg has managed to strap that station to his back, allowing an institutional continuity and his goodness to permeate the product for a decade and a half.

I first heard Greg Bauch when he started the way everyone started at WGR a generation ago: as the man at the controls of the late night John Otto show.  The astute listener could hear that the brilliant Otto was often frustrated with the fact that his show was a training ground for “the new guy,” especially when that new guy “cared not a FIG!” about Otto or his show.

Broadcasting Hall of Famer Otto loved Greg. You could hear the smile through the radio as John,  John, your operator on referred to him as my humble man servant Gregor.

John Otto was the first in a very long line of wonderfully talented hosts who was able to find something special in Greg, which is someone who was happy with being, and supremely talented at being, a radio producer.

A good producer is someone who lives for the good of the show (not someone who lives for the opportunity to inject himself on the air.)

A good producer does whatever it takes to forge a relationship with the talent on the show he’s producing, and builds an unbreakable trust with that person, allowing the talent to freely host the show with the knowledge that whatever is happening “on the other side of the glass” is being dealt with the proper amount of care.

With all this, a good producer is an equal part of the success of the show which he produces, although any recognition of that fact is almost always an afterthought. He is also accepting of the fact that he might command a quarter of the pay of the talent, while often working at least twice as hard.

Speak to Chris Parker or Mike Schopp or Chuck Dickerson or Tom Bauerle or the late Clip Smith or the late John Otto.  They will tell you, invariably, that their shows were better because they had Bauch at the controls.

A thankless, lunch bucket kind of job in the midst of the glitz, glamour and fame of radio. Greg excels at it because that’s who he is.

But, as Van Miller used to say, that’s only the half of it.

To use a hokey hockey analogy, Greg has worn the “C” in the WGR dressing room for at least a decade as the quiet, stay at home defenseman, who not only moves easily among the superstar goal scorers, but always takes the new guys under his wing and shows them what they need to know.

Name anyone you’ve heard do a sports update on WGR in the last decade, and they were trained by Greg Bauch.  Or trained by someone who went to the Greg Bauch College of WGR Knowledge.

To use another stupid sports analogy, Greg is the quarterback who stands back and sees everything at the station, from all perspectives- the talk show hosts, the update guys, the producers, even promotions and engineering, and successfully has them all working together.

It’s ironic and rare in this day and age, that he has been able to force all that’s good out of that radio station, and the people working there, by his gentle touch, and the fact that you aren’t likely to meet a better human being.  Unless you know Howard Simon.  But Greg has hair, so Greg > Howard.

This isn’t just the end of an era because Greg won’t be there anymore. It’s the end of an era, because it’s almost certain there’ll never be another like Greg Bauch in radio in Buffalo ever again.

Like in many fields, the corporatization of radio has eliminated the middle ground where good producers once stood. Radio is ever increasingly becoming a place where there are a few reasonably well-paid on-air talents, and everyone else makes minimum wage without benefits.

Even if someone had the drive, personality, voice, comedic timing, leadership skills and hot wife that Greg Bauch has, it’s nearly impossible that the person could remain in a job that is no longer valued in the corporate structure of radio the way Greg has been able.

So, talk show callers… Your time to harass a legend is running out. Post game coming up.

This page originally appeared at TrendingBuffalo.com

John Otto’s Love Rubs Off: The best ever never lost his fire and passion

By Steve Cichon | steve@buffalostories.com | @stevebuffalo

johnottopicSometimes the way life lines a series of seemingly unrelated events like lights on an airport runway can make a guy pause and question his sanity, because the answer is almost too clear.

For the past three days, I’ve been filling in for John Zach on Buffalo’s Early News on WBEN. The four-hour news show starts at 5am, and John does most of the writing when he’s here. For me, that meant getting up at 2:45am, in order to give myself about 90 minutes to put the local news together. John gets here earlier than that, and has been doing it just about every day for most of the 50 years he’s worked in radio.

I question myself often, would I be able to do this; get up like this. I did early morning weekends for a few years, but in 19 years of broadcasting, never a regular Monday-Friday, in-to-get-the morning show ready gig. John, who has worked the morning shift in parts of 7 different decades has said, “You never get used to it.”

I’ve filled in on the shift before, even for just a week or two, and always walked around feeling like a two-hour old grilled cheese; still crusty and gooey, but crusty and gooey in the wrong places. I just didn’t feel right, and never felt like I sounded as good as I could or should. And it always bothers me that when I set my alarm for 2:45am, my wife is rattled awake, too.

But this week, in the midst of working this early morning shift, one of the guys at work was cleaning out some files and handed me an old envelope he thought I might be interested in labeled MASTER TAPES– JOHN OTTO HALL OF FAME. Aside from being a master of the English language, the father of talk radio in Buffalo, and one of the top 5 broadcasters to ever grace the airwaves in Buffalo, John is somewhat of a personal hero to me.

Needless to say, I snatched the envelope, and delved inside not only to find hours of reels, cassettes, and DATs (an early digital tape format), but I also found a paper-filled folder labelled “John Otto.”

On top were a couple dozen e-mails and cards sent to WGR in the days following John’s death. Touching memories from fans and friends far and wide. Beautiful and filled with raw emotion. Then came John’s handwritten professional biography, tracing his radio career from the early 50s to the late 90s, only a year or so before his passing.

johnottoautograph

But what I found most gratifying were the notes that had been sent back and forth over the years to a succession of 5 or 6 supervisors at WGR. And while even a John Otto note complaining about a co-worker’s tardiness or an equipment problem flows across the paper the way a ballerina glides across the stage, that’s still not the point.

It started to strike me when I saw the note he wrote in 1995 asking to work Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Years Eve, and New Years Day. He was begging to work those days. Days most of us would curse the boss who forced us to work, but here, 43 years into his broadcasting career, and John’s tone was nearly inconsolable, worried that some other program might pre-empt his conference call of all interested parties.

In case the point be lost, John writes it quite plainly in one note. “The very principle on which I’ve always conducted myself, to wit, if one is in radio, you want to be on radio at every opportunity.”

After an illness took him off the air for a spell, he wrote in another missive that he’s ready to come back “if you’ll have me,” adding, ” My appetite is restored, miracle of all, my taste buds are a-bloom once more. You’ve got no idea what life is like without the ability to taste… ’til you’ve not got it.”

John Otto, almost 50 years into his career had such a fire in his belly for it. Not a soul better, universally lauded; but still fearful that it could be taken away. Would that we all felt that way about anything in our lives, let alone our job.

It made me think of my friend Ed Little, who was that way, too. He worked a tremendous 62 years in radio, starting as a child actor. I was with him in 2000 when he delivered his last newscast on WBEN, also the last program to originate from the studios on Elmwood Avenue.

Septuagenarian Ed couldn’t get a handle on the new computers, despite going through extra training on his own. Within a few months, he passed away. His heart was bad, but I know it was a broken heart, too.

Twenty years ago, my fire was inexhaustible. I can remember going to work as an 18 year old within hours of my grandma’s cancer death.

Thinking back on it, it makes me sad that I went in to board op Buffalo’s Evening News that night, and didn’t spend the time with my family. But that’s what I was and what I did. I think I’ve learned a little about life and about work since then.

Family’s much more important. I write books. I have a website. I’m on Boards of Directors, and I give talks about Buffalo History. I also work a pretty much 9-5 job these days. It’s not often I’m challenged to see how hot that fire burns.

I know it there, because it has to be there to be working in radio, or in any number of jobs similar in that there really isn’t much money. And its not the fame or the notoriety,either. Its having the blessing of doing a job that thousands would line up behind you to do for free. And just having that job, and being blessed with the gift of it, and being able to live a dream. And not wanting to give it up for the world.

So I’ve been thinking about whether or not I could work the morning shift, and the answer is of course. And though I sometimes play the curmudgeon, and complain about getting up early on those days when the job calls for it, the fact of the matter is, I’d do just about whatever they told me to do to keep it going. And this week, I even loved the early mornings. Loved every minute of hosting that show with Susan Rose. Loved it with that John Otto fire.

Just today, I read a Forbes Magazine article, which talks about the only three questions employers need to ask perspective employees. I say, you only need to ask one of those three. Will you love this job?

If the answer is no, go find something else. When I say love, I mean LOVE. Not ‘like the hours,’ or the pay, or the doors it might open. Love the job. Put your heart into it. Life is just too short.

“You know me,” John Otto closes one note with, “I just want to be on the radio.” Me too.