This is the story of when I learned I butted heads and had to get fired from a job to find out. Sometimes it’s good to do it, other times it’s emotionally painful.
People like me butt heads instead of go along with the crowd to make a point of right versus wrong, make an impact, or at times, make people uncomfortable. I see a lot of people who butt heads today, specifically in politics. Some of them do a great job for us butting heads while others butt heads with others in their sphere, but it’s us who feel the pain of their head butting.
I also learned that because I butt heads with people, I am often a conflicted person. But at my age, it doesn’t hurt to butt heads when I can put things in perspective, or see a result that is positive or beneficial. That eases the pain of head butting in life, because along the way, there can be a wake of personal losses. And in this story, it cost me not just a job, but a relationship with someone who probably could have easily married, but instead, put distance between us in our connection and geography.
Improved vision can result from a head butt
I was stunned when I was fired 35 years ago on January 4, 1985 after a great two-year run as news and sports director of WDND-FM, Wilmington, Illinois. Aside from my work as a radio reporter in Kansas City, working at WDND represents my best body of work with the highest impact for people I was talking to on the radio.
It was a station that was still fairly new to the area after going back on the air in November 1982 when the previous owner of it when called WLMT-FM failed and went off the air. In my 2 years at WDND, We’d won 5 big United Press International awards for news and sports coverage (1983 Best Newscast, Best Sportscast, Best News Reporting and 1984 Best Newscast and Best News Reporting in 1984). I wasn’t even 29 years old. I was growing a reputation and it result in being elected to one term on the Board of Directors for the Illinois News Broadcasters Association.
When I was at WDND, I was part of an operation that produced results and made money, something the previous owner failed to do. And we were getting publicity in area newspapers like the Joliet Herald News, Kankakee Daily Journal, Coal City Courant, Braidwood Journal, and Wilmington Free Press. Much of the publicity originated when I began free-lancing stories to these papers because they had limited staffs. My bylines and where I worked full-time gave the station free publicity for advertising and marketing they couldn’t afford.
It should have been a win-win for both of us, but it wasn’t, and that’s when I learned right versus wrong, working to create reward instead of risk, and do things for the greater good took a back seat to “my way or the highway.” I am using the highway analogy because I had actually broadcast live play-by-play of a Illinois Department of Corrections shooting on Interstate 55 at Braidwood, Illinois when prisoners escaped down the road at Dwight, drove north, and began a gunfight at the OK Corral just a 1/4 mile from the back door of our station, where I safely hid and described on-air what was going on.
After all was done, years later, I realized I was a head butter. I’m not ashamed of it. I learned it from my dad, who was a head butter in his field of aerospace engineering and years later after he retired, learned what it cost him.
I am proud to be my father’s son. He was a real leader, at work, home and away from home and work.
For me, WDND and the Wilmington-Coal City area was a great place to report news and sports. I knew it, being in the shadow of Chicago, just 55 miles away from the Loop. I don’t think Don Burgeson, the owner of WDND-FM knew it. He had come to the area from WLNR-FM Lansing, Illinois, and bought WDND-FM with a partner, Dr. Dave Cox. Burgeson worked his entire career in radio advertising at a radio station whose claim to fame was the controversial Warren Freiberg – Libby Collins Show, and not noted for news coverage. Freiberg and Collins were way ahead of their time in regards to stirring controversy doing a talk show. Later, Dr. Cox turned out to be a cancer for the station which I’ll explain later in this column.
I wasn’t shy to controversy when it came to news coverage. A story series I did about the Coal City, Illinois school district awarding and renewing without bids for at least 20 years a bus contract to an Ford dealership who’s owner was directly related to two of the school district’s board members didn’t sit well with some of the town’s pooh-bahs. And they let Burgeson know it.
Funny, but none of the station’s 4 primary news sponsors who were located in that school district bailed (although to be fair, one was a competitor of the Ford dealership) and just a year earlier, the station was earning $0.00 in news sponsorship. I’d like to think I had a big part of the revenue growth, not because of my news coverage, but because I was active in my community. The mayor appointed me to a special commission on annexation (and I did report on air my connection when there were stories about the annexation of Coal City and Eileen). I was a member of a non-profit group, the Coal Valley Baseball Old-Timers, raising money for youth baseball in the area, and hosting still to this day, some of the best banquets with big names to attend. I was thrilled to drive childhood hero Lou Brock from O’Hare to-and-from the banquet, and someday, I’ll write about what we talked about in the car because it was very informative and entertaining.
I didn’t set out everyday at work and say, “How controversial can I be today.” Smaller areas like that afforded more time and opportunity to air “good” news. Local sports also shined a light on the station. Heck, for fun (because I was paid salary and not hourly), I’d cover Cubs and White Sox games on weekends. I was on the air live June 23, 1984 when Ryne Sandberg hit the 2nd of his 2 famous home runs for a Cubs come-from-behind win over the hated rival St. Louis Cardinals on national television and easily considered one of the 100 greatest regular season games in baseball history. Heck, it was a game where Willie McGee hit for the cycle, and his team lost! That’s a great sports trivia event.
Ok, I’ve written a lot about my time at the station when I need to address the title topic, but consider this just a small piece of my career memoir.
To say I was entrenched in the Will and Grundy County area is a bit of a stretch, but not far from it. I did whatever it took to bring good light to the station because I knew I would benefit in the long-run. I worked hard and delivered positive results. I was active in my community.
That’s because of my dad, who told me more than once, “Right versus wrong is more important than their way versus your way.” What he didn’t tell me is that if I did that, I would butt heads, and it would cost me. It also would cost Burgeson, the station owner, in more ways than one.
Don’t get trapped by being caught in the middle
In early 1984, some prominent Coal City and Grundy County businessmen and women who I interacted with a lot more often than Burgeson (who should have been on their radar screen but wasn’t, but to be fair, he was just 1 guy trying to do 3 jobs at the station like me) approached me saying they wanted to make an offer to buy the station. I told them the thing I learned from the late Dr. John Kurtz at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, “Everything is for sale at the right price.” They didn’t give me a figure but asked me what I thought they should offer, so I told them.
We left it at that for the time being. Afterward, I told Burgeson about it, “Don, there are some people who’ve approached me and expressed interest in buying the station.” He got a little upset, but I was only the messenger, not the source, and felt it was my obligation and the right thing to do to let him know, since I was his employee and he should know everything about his station.
I quickly found out it was the right thing to do in the big picture, but it wronged my future at the station. After that day, our relationship turned out to be downright frosty. He thought I was conspiring against him and that I approached this group to buy his station. It resulted in a working environment that Burgeson could not trust me. He could trust his partner Dr. Cox, at least at one time. Remember when I wrote Dr. Cox was a cancer?
Six months before I reported to Burgeson about the group who met with me, I came into work one day and our UPI machine didn’t work. I called the Chicago UPI office. Bob Kieckhoefer, the affiliate manager, told me we were cut off because the bill hadn’t been paid. That last 3 months. Turns out Burgeson found hidden away unopened bills that were supposed to be handled by Cox.
We never saw Cox at the station again. Maybe that’s when Burgeson stopped trusting people. He fired the program director Jim Michaels. He fired Dale Boe our weekend oldies host. He fired a gofer Randy Thomas. I ended up being fired by him too.
Risk versus reward is the name of the game in gambling. I went the high road for the long-term reward. I didn’t think it was gambling at the time to tell him. But it was. It turned out to be a risk because the other party had no trust – or common sense.
It was ridiculous for him to think I was conspiring against him. Why would I tell him if I was engineering it? Who tips off their hole card in poker? That’s the right way to gamble, limit the risk for the greater chance at reward.
Well, I ended up playing his game of gamble but as a test of finality. A few months later, the nearby Dwight high school’s girls basketball team was doing so well that town people wanted us to air their games when we could and the president of a bank in town, Jack Smith, said he’d underwrite the entire cost of a game broadcast if no other sponsors could be found. Jack liked radio and learned he once worked in the business before moving into the banking industry.
That turned out to be $250 for a game broadcast, decent money at the time for a small station. But Burgeson’s hand-picked program director, Scott Thomas, denied it. He wasn’t keen on sports, even though this game was at night, when the station had no sustaining sponsors of any program after 7 p.m. Broadcasting this game was nearly 100 percent profit. The program director made the decision, not in person, but by phone. He lived 50 miles away from the station, and the reason why I write this will be explained below.
I called the president of the bank and he told me, “If you decide to come down and air the game, I’ll personally tell your boss I’d never spend another cent with the station again if you didn’t air it!”
In the right-vs-wrong, risk-vs-reward, their-way-or-my-way world, I chose to air the game. The risk was my standing at the station. The reward was the station (and me to a small degree with the $25 talent fee for broadcasting it) made money. It also was a positive image in Dwight that a station not in their town was interested in their town and school.
The station made money at a time when every cent counted. It didn’t matter. The program director and Burgeson marched me behind closed doors. They were angry. I had defied the program
director. I then found out the place was about their way instead of right vs. wrong, reward vs. risk.
The didn’t suspend me, but I was on their Dean Vernon Woermer’s double-secret probation list. I concluded the meeting by saying, “So you would have been happier not making the ad money from the game. Does that mean profit vs. loss doesn’t matter? How does not doing the game help the station in the long-run?”
They let it be known that they were in charge, that they would determine what was best. Their way.
I knew it really wasn’t much of place to have a future for me. I didn’t tell the bank president but I did go back to the Grundy County group who wanted to buy the station and let them know what was going on. Finally, Rick Roseland, the late mayor of Coal City, a community leader, an employee of one of the station’s biggest advertisers, and spokesperson for the group, said at a small informal meeting, “The reason we want to buy the station is because Burgeson doesn’t want to live here. He wants to live up at Lansing where you can’t hear the station. And he hires a progrfam director who lives 50 miles away.
“Neither are really part of the community. They come in, do their thing, and go home. That’s not what we’re all about here. We see a lot more potential in the station than what they provide.”
Somehow, that informal meeting, which was held at Bum’s Tavern in Carbon Hill, Illinois where a lot of us hung out, got back to Burgeson.
The end result of some head butting is being cut off
On January 4, 1985 it was all over. He and his new program director, Larry Jensen, who replaced Thomas because he didn’t like the 100 mile round-trip commute while battling a cancer discovery which he recovered from, marched me behind closed doors. I thought nothing of it, since Larry, who was our morning show host and who I was on the air with every day for 2 years Monday-Friday, had become a good friend off the air.
Forget it. Bad judgement there. He and Burgeson worked together before coming to WDND. Turns out the Lansing, Illinois radio mafia was on one side and the rest of us on the other. They told me the knew about the “meeting.” I told them it was no meeting since it wasn’t planned, that we just happened to be in the same public place together, as the 5 of us had been at together many times before informally. They just wanted me out, no matter what. They wanted the ball to themselves.
They got it. Now we get more into right vs. wrong against doing things for the greater good. They wanted the ball to themselves. That meant the ball of broadcasting sports in the area. In those days, if we didn’t transmit the games over a phone line, we used a private FM radio frequency licensed by the Federal Communications Commission for transmission.
We had the transmitter for 2 such private frequencies and used them for not just sports broadcasts, but news and special events as well. One problem – we didn’t have the licenses for them. The 2 frequencies were pirated by Burgeson. One was licensed to nearby WJOL, Joliet and the other to nearby WKAN, Kankakee. I knew they were pirated. I knew using them was illegal. I did it anyway out of loyalty to my employer, a mea culpa doing it for the greater good of the station.
In was funny in a way having to use the illegal frequencies. If we were transmitting south-to-north from a remote location, we used the WKAN frequency so we wouldn’t interfere with the WJOL frequency. If we were transmitting west-to-east, we used the WJOL frequency to protect WKAN’s. Sometimes, it was a half-way thing for both frequencies and had to rely on trial-and-error to get us through.
Somehow, over 2 years and a lot of illegal transmissions, they never found out. Well, since I was out, I wasn’t obligated to do anything more for the greater good of the station. I called the managers and chief engineers of WJOL and WKAN and let them know what I had been complicit with under the direction of the station.
I heard from someone who worked at the station the managers of the 2 radio stations read Burgeson the riot act and threatened to file FCC charges against him. Burgeson had to rely on installing phone lines from then on for remote broadcasts and I’ll bet since the margin was pretty small, that expense took their per-event income net from a profit to a loss.
Burgeson didn’t like that so when I filed for unemployed with the State of Illinois, he opposed it. His reason given was that I was conspiring against the greater good of the station, per the informal meeting with the group interested in buying the station. I don’t remember what I exactly wrote in my appeal, but it was something to the effect of I voluntarily told Burgeson about the group when I wasn’t obligated to, and if I was going to conspire, why would I tell him in advance of an offer?
But the coup ‘de grace was the illegal private FM frequency usage. I not only outlined the legal rules and regulations Burgeson needed to comply with to use the frequencies, but I gave the unemployment office the names, addresses and phone numbers for the managers at WJOL and WKAN.
10 days later, I got notice I won my unemployment appeal. I was then done with WDND. I only talked to Larry Jensen once since then, accidentally bumping into him at a nearby Walmart 5 years later. I still speak with my good friend Dale Boe, who was our weekend oldies host, of a great show called The Greaser Club. Burgeson and Thomas fired him like they did me. They produced a crappy show at Wilmington’s annual catfish festival that Dale had to host, who made a comment about it, and they went ballastic. I think those two had skins weaker than wet toilet paper.
A few years later, I exacted my revenge on Burgeson. The FCC opened up new FM frequencies for stations across the country and one was licensed to Coal City, Illinois. It would be direct face-to-face competition against Burgeson and WDND. It took very little to convince the late Don Barden of the cable TV and casino empire out of Detroit to hire me to build his station. After leaving WDND, I managed a Missouri station for a couple of years, but loved Coal City and Grundy County so much, I wanted to get back, even though I was working part-time as a sportscaster at legendary KMOX radio in St. Louis.
It was a blast, albeit short, to manage WKBM-FM in Coal City. The station got on the air February 10, 1990 (almost 30 years on the air for them). Burgeson ended up losing money operating WDND and sold it three years later. He bought it in 1982 for $160,000 and sold it in 1993 for $257,000, but after 3 years of losses, that was a wash. The real estate near I-55 and Illinois Route 113 was probably worth half that amount. An RV dealership operates on the property today.
What my dad taught me that I don’t regret at all
After my dad retired, he and I had long talks. While he had a successful career in aerospace engineering, on pioneer teams such as Gemini, the first space station and the Harrier, he admitted he didn’t not rise through the ranks because he was a head butter.
“I didn’t go along with management at times when doing so could have resulted in people being killed in air or space craft, and I saw men die before me for those mistakes over the years,” he told me. “It cost me promotions but not my peace of mine. Safety and success matter. High reward and no risk mattered. It cost me, working at McDonnell-Douglas, and also at General Dynamics and Chrysler Missile.
“I butted heads and it was right over wrong.”
Now I know why we moved so much before I was 10. And then I realize I realized I was a product of my dad. I butted heads. I ended up being on the short end of the stick more often than not. Today, at age 63, I’m fine with that. Because it matters.
In today’s volatile social media world, care about right versus wrong has nearly completely given way to my-way-or-the-highway, and few can tell what really is right verses wrong. The tip of course is reward versus risk. If you end up seeing more risk than is required, and less attention to the reward, or end result that is a benefit for the whole, then chance are you’re going to be part of a FUBAR or SNAFU.
Look up the terms on the Internet if you don’t know what they mean. Doing your homework is the first step in the right direction to a better reward and lowering the easy way out of risk or guess. We’ve got way too much guessing in our culture which is pretty sad in the big picture of advancement from generation to generation.
Being a head butter was painful, but like a physical one, the pain goes away. And with clear eyesight, I have few regrets, because I’ve seen and done a lot of things that have been fun and good. As for the folks listed in this column in a not-so-flattering light, I have little information where they are or what they are doing. I found out Burgeson moved to the southwest like I did; he lives in Mesa, Arizona. Burgeson must have gotten into the federal witness protection plan. That’s about it for him. No pics searching Google, nothing.
Ironic thing about the Phoenix area; I learned a couple of years ago my wife at the time at started at WDND dies in Phoenix 27 years ago. Don’t know why she was there, if she moved there, or what. All I know is she was somewhat forgettable too.
Jensen lives in Morris where I last saw him some 30 years ago. He got out of the radio business which is a shame because he was really good on air. He married an evening announcer at WDND and they own a vacuum cleaner and sewing machine business. Larry must have gone into witness protection too; you’d think for someone who owns a business for as long as he has, there would be pictures of him searchable on Facebook. Nada.
Dale Boe and I connect regularly on Facebook. He lives in Lemont, Illinois and I know I’ll be seeing him the next trip I make to Chicagoland. Dale and I connected quickly and easily at WDND. His oldies show was great. The world needs more Dale Boe’s. In a big world of 7 billion people, there are many more who are better to be around and follow than the 2 years I experienced with some of the folks at WDND who wanted me gone.
I’ve made hundreds of friends I value that never would have happened had I not been fired from WDND and stayed there longer. I still have times when I’m unhappy, thinking I missed out a lot in my broadcasting career that I left in 2007, because I butted a few too many heads along the way. Being fired from WDND ended up costing me a loving relationship that most likely would have resulted in marriage and starting a family. There are times today it hurts to be single and alone, especially when I suffered a near-fatal heart failure in late 2017. With the grace of God, he brought me through that, just as He has brought me through the pain of head butting.
After all, wasn’t his son Jesus the ultimate head butter? And look what it cost him? His life, given up for us.
I love Frank Sinatra. He was on target singing, “I did it my way.” His life and career had ups-and-downs, roller coasters of magnanimous proportions. But millions loved him. Me one of them. So I don’t mind butting heads, most of the time. When it does hurt, I have to find out how to make the pain go away.
That’s a story for another day. Thanks for reading.