Friday, June 21, 2013

James Gandolfini-An Everyman For Our Generation

The other night I was sitting at dinner waiting for the Chicago Blackhawks  to start their finals playoff with Boston.  It was then that a CNN alert came across my phone reporting that James Gandolfini  had died.  I must say that was an alert that I really didn't want to see nor did I believe.  The last time I was shocked like this by a celebrity death was 33 years ago when John Lennon was killed. Really!

I have met James Gandolfini at least 86 times.  Not in person mind you but every Sunday when the A3 song came on (woke up this morning, got myself a gun). You know what I'm talking about. When I first heard about the HBO show The Sopranos I said to myself "who wants to watch a drama about opera singers?" I was not the early adopter that people thought I was of this, now classic, piece of TV history.  It took me about 5 or six episodes to find out what this show was really about.  When I was able to retrieve the back episodes of this suburban gangster yuppie show, that was it , I was hooked!  Hooked in a big way.  I think I had a 27 inch screen at the time but when James Gandolfini came on I realized that the TV in my living room just wasn't big enough for the talent and presence that came before me in the form of Tony Soprano. 

The James Gandolfini we saw in season 1 of The Sopranos was certainly not the same looking James Gandolfini we saw in the final season 6.  I think he must have gained at least 70 lbs. during the 86 episode run.  I read that this weight gain was by design.  Mr. Gandolfini once said that his weight gain wasn't a concern to him.  As a matter of fact it made him more believable.  "Who wants to see a skinny mob boss?"

We saw him befriend ducks that would camp out in his pool.  We saw him barbeque sausiche on his grill during family parties as well as attend Meadow's soccer games and music recitals and boating with son AJ.  We also saw him murder, cheat on his wife Carmela, beat the crap out of people as he was being a devoted son to a narcissistic, joyless mother Livia Soprano. It was the first episode that we also saw the beginning of his panic attacks which necessitated the need for him to see a psychiatrist (Dr. Jennifer Melfi).

Now for all you Sopranos fans I won't go into a total summary of the series here but just the above contradictions in Tony's personality made him a VERY compelling human being.  I really don't know what part of him was most compelling but I can tell you I don't think it was the murder part.  I did like his rage and his impatience with people who pissed him off, actively or passively.  I also admired his loyalty to his friends and family and creatures great and small.  This is what the genius of James Gandolfini brought to the "little" screen. The ability to pull it off so freakin' well. Fuggedaboutit!

As the series went on (too much time between seasons) it was almost an event when a new episode came on.  Especially the first one of a new season.  It was always worth the wait. It's hard to believe that this series has been off the air for almost 6 years now but like The Beatles music I have replayed these episodes over and over and over again after purchasing the box set.

The Sopranos was not the first time I had seen James Gandolfini present his acting genius. Whether it was the role of Virgil in True Romance, Bear in Get Shorty, Al Love in Civil Action, the gay hitman Winston Baldry in The Mexican the despicable Eddie Poole in 8mm or even Leon Panetta in the recent Zero Dark Thirty his Cinema Verite of 45 films is an acting class for those who want to survive as an actor without necessarily being the lead.  He has played characters that we are sympathetic to and characters we totally hate..even characters who were quite comedic such as Tom Valco in Surviving Christmas.  

Yes it was Tony Soprano who cemented James Gandolfini into an acting treasure but I dare say that if someone wanted to create a film festival featuring just movies he has been in it will be one of the best.  I miss Tony Soprano and just like the Beatles there will be no sequel or prequel because it just wouldn't translate into the work of art that the Emmy award winning James Gandolfini made it. I would like to think that the blackout of the final episode of the series was not "lights out" for Tony but just an abrupt way of telling us that even though their lives will go on we just won't be able to see it anymore.  Rest In Peace T!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Why I Started Vinyl Schminyl Radio

I haven't blogged much in a while.  I do a lot of Facebook posting as my friends (real and Facebook alike) can attest to but as I have reached the cusp of our third anniversary people and myself ask me why I started Vinyl Schminyl Radio. That's what this blog posting is about.

Why Radio? 

It was many years ago, as a child old enough to go to downtown Chicago on the train by myself (probably 12 or 13) that I picked up the "I want to be a radio announcer" bug. I would first go over to the Marina City 16 story office building where the studios of WCFL were. At that time they allowed visitors to come up and observe through the studio windows the disc jockeys that you listened to everyday.  The ones that were on at the time I was there were Joel Sebastian (died at the age of 53 in 1986) and Dick Williamson (passed away a couple years ago at 78).
I thought that what they did was pretty cool a matter of fact they just raised their hands and the engineer played the music or commercials for them.  How easy was that?  All you had to do is talk and listen to Top 40 music for a few hours while millions listened to you.

I then do the same field trip to WLS at 360 N. Michigan Ave. in the Stone Container building at the corner of Wacker Dr.  They had a visitors gallery as well but it seemed a lot further away from the "action" if you will.  Nevertheless, like John Lennon said when he first saw Elvis, I said "that looks like a good job, I'll do that."

Well, high school came and went (in the prescribed 4 years) and I had not done anything in any kind of radio.  We had a reel to reel recorder at home and my next door neighbor and I used to do funny recordings. (Boy I wish I could find those).
It wasn't until I went to Lincoln College in Lincoln, IL that I found out that there were a few students and a faculty adviser starting up a small 10 watt radio station.  I immediately signed on to that.  The format was AOR (album oriented rock). I had one or two shows a week and playing very NON Top 40 music but becoming quite the aficionado on "progressive" rock which many years later was called "Classic Rock."

My efforts at Lincoln earned me the school's first Communications Award for Broadcasting.  Unbeknownst to me they passed out the award at a ceremony held while I was actually on the air.  If I knew that, I might have switched shifts with someone not so fortunate to be honored.
Since Lincoln was a junior college I was ecstatic when I was accepted to the University Of Illinois, Urbana for my final 2 years and where I knew they had the biggest and coolest student run radio station in the country. WPGU was my home away from home at college.  I spent more hours there than at my dorm or apartment, sometimes staying up all night working at my production craft and co-mingling with fellow PGUers. I rummaged through the extensive music library, I learned the on air studios as well as the politics of this 3000 watt powerhouse.
My first shift there was on DBS (Dormitory Broadcast Service) that just transmitted to the dorms on campus.  I figured if I screwed up I wouldn't offend but a few students that even knew that service existed. I didn't stay there long because I was promoted to the "major league" WPGU with my first once a week shift from 3-6am! It was like going from a small minor league team to playing at Wrigley Field or Yankee Stadium.  It was a brand new studio with colorfully carpeted walls, cooler microphones and a much wider audience. (Yes there were others besides me up that late at night). After a short time on that gig I had a Monday through Friday slot from 12-2am (The show was called After Midnight). I really enjoyed that show because it put me into the regular M-F lineup and I was able to hone my broadcasting skills quicker with the regular work (or play at that point). My senior year finally moved me to "prime time".  The 8-10pm shift where they had the Garcias pizza (best pizza at U Of I) giveaway and at that point of the broadcast schedule everybody was listening, if for no other reason, so they could win a pizza!
After graduation I had this unrealistic expectation that I would start in a major market (preferably Chicago) and my dreams of waiving my hands and having music and commercials being played would be realized. Then I woke up and mustered up all my intelligence and realized that my chances of starting out professionally at a station as well equipped and as cool as WPGU would be slim and none.

 Woodstock, Illinois

My job hunt took me to the historical town of Woodstock, IL where I was turned on to this little progressive rock station, WXRD, where I was offered a weekend shift. I already had a couple of "day" jobs but this was the one that really excited me. Ultimately I was offered a full time slot during the week but that meant I would have to move up to Woodstock and leave the other jobs behind to make less money.  Initially I declined their offer but I then went to an open house they were having in the Old Courthouse (where the station was located) and immediately fell in love with the people and the town.  I asked if their offer was still open and they said it was. I then moved out of the "nest" and rented my first apartment in Woodstock.  At first I worked the night shift and then I finally made it to the morning 6a-10a shift. Having to get up that early was not so glamorous but I felt that is where I would get the most exposure.  At this time in WXRD's history they became less of a free form progressive rock station and more of a semi structured AOR station playing more familiar tunes with day-parting and regular rotation. I didn't feel stymied but I did feel that after a few years making my bones I felt it was time to move on.  I told myself that I didn't want to move from one small market to another across the United States and if I didn't move to a better market by the time I was 25 I would get out of broadcasting and into sales.

So there we were at the cusp of my 25th birthday with no better offers on the horizon.  I needed to start making more money and I stood by my guns (I used to do those kind of things then) and oddly enough the day after my 25th birthday I started selling radio time in Chicago for a somewhat well known buying and selling service. This is the part of my life where I actually had to work hard and face rejection in the process.  If any of you have been in sales, regardless of the product, rejection is a part of the gig.  Although looking for jobs in radio had it's fair amount of rejection too but at least I was making a lot more money in sales while being rejected on a day to day basis. My on the air career had ended. The fun I had doing that became not much fun anymore at my new career.
I had more than a few sales jobs over the years and in the early 90s I even got back on the air for a short time as a weekend host on WCBR in Arlington Heights, IL That perked me up a bit, working for another progressive rocker.  That gig lasted about a year and I voluntarily said that this really wasn't going anywhere.

 VINYL SCHMINYL RADIO 20 years later (see how I fast-forwarded here?) and being out of radio for that amount of time, PODCASTING was starting to have a rise in popularity. I always knew that if I ever wanted to get back into terrestrial radio I still had "game" and it wouldn't take long to get warmed up.  Kind of like riding a bike. However, this pod casting thing interested me and I thought I would give it a try.  I knew it would be music based.  I had a lot of that to work with. I knew I could do it at home.  I had the equipment. Also I knew it wouldn't cost me much money to do, save the expense of internet hosting and purchasing more music.  I also knew that initially I probably wouldn't make money either. So what do I do to get this thing spinning? I came up with the idea of using my vinyl, digitizing it to MP3 format and come up with a back story and talk about the music being featured.  The harder part was coming up with a name for this podcast.  I was lying in bed one night and in my mind I was playing around with words and I remembered the Harry Nilsson album Nilsson Schmilsson.  I said that's it!! I will call it Vinyl Schminyl Radio. Whoo hoo!! I loved it, my wife loved it and now I could get this thing on the world wide web.

Vinyl Schminyl Radio made it's debut on April 26th 2010.  Our first song was actually from that aforementioned Harry Nilsson album. The cut was Jump Into The Fire ( an appropriate title for my undertaking). I was so happy that my voice and musical expertise were back on the air (so to speak). Every day Monday through Friday I would feature a song and then tell the story about the song. How it charted, sometimes who played on it, how it was conceived etc. I would take Saturday and Sunday off. I did this every week until I decided that I would like to expand what I was doing and create a long form hour show to be posted bi-weekly. And thus the Vinyl Schminyl Radio Hour was born. I still did the Monday through Friday Classic Deep Cuts and every 2 weeks a Radio Hour. The podcast was picking up steam slowly but surely. My pod casting peers were starting to notice.  I became personal friends with some of them.  I was also interviewed about the show by another pod caster. Internet radio stations put me into their schedules and I publicized as much as I could with no money being spent to do it.  I have a website,(that costs a little) I have Facebook, Twitter and word of mouth (those are free).  The only thing that I didn't have  (and still don't)was income from this undertaking.  My dream now is that terrestrial radio stations would pick it up and play it. Also maybe satellite stations too. Maybe this would be a nice audition for a gig on a Chicago station.  The most important thing you have to remember is that this was MY show and nobody could tell me how to do it. They could make suggestions (which I actually listened to and have implemented) I was pretty confident in my abilities as a talker and a music programmer so that I could put all my past skills together and do this the right way to make it a quality product.  Eventually iTunes picked up the podcast as did Tune In Radio  and a few others.  One of the bigger boosts that we got is an interview I did with The Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan who I met at an opening for a local wine shop around the corner from me.  Billy lives in Highland Park IL. and I would run into him at various locations from time to time. He agreed to be interviewed by me for a special Radio Hour which with the help of the Pumpkins Facebook page gave us many thousands of worldwide downloads for that conversation.  He eventually asked me if I could do some kind of event having to do with featuring artists with vinyl and talking about them at his Madame Zuzus Tea House, which he opened in September of 2012.  We refined the concept and it turned into me recording 2 live radio hours there for broadcast later.  The first one was this past February featuring the music of Pink Floyd and the second in early April featuring Led Zeppelin.  Billy was in the audience for the latter and appeared on the show with us for a few minutes.  Both were very successful.

So now we are ready to start our 4th year of doing this with over 700 shows, including 63 radio hours, in the archives.  These shows can always be accessed through our website Vinyl or through our hosting service Libsyn.  They can be subscribed to on iTunes or by RSS feed.

The reason I wanted to do this is because I wanted to keep this genre of music alive and ultimately be the definitive source for information on the sounds of our life for the past, gulp, half century. There are many pod casters out there with millions of different topics.  I was asked in an interview recently, what advice I would give to pod casters? My answer was simple.  Make sure you have a quality product because with the saturation of podcasts out there yours needs to stand out.  If it's crap or not compelling enough for future listening it will fail and you will see it fail with the amount of downloads you are getting..or not getting as the case may be. Just because you can do a podcast doesn't mean you should.  Just because you can play a guitar doesn't mean you will be a rock star. Put out the best product you can and people will notice it positively. It still blows me away to think about people in over 160 countries are hearing my voice talking about classic rock and in some cases them being turned on to it for the first time. We have a few hundred thousand downloads so far in 3 years with the rate climbing every month.  There are some real radio stations that would love those kind of numbers.  Yes, I would still like to monetize this but I really do it for the love of the music.  I know it sounds cliche but I really do. Granted it's harder to find songs to feature or themes to come up with but I always do. I actually take a week off now and then but with the amount of songs in the archive there is always something you can go back to.

I hope this gives you an idea of Why I Started Vinyl Schminyl Radio.  Tell your friends.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Bob Stern's Vinyl Schminyl Radio Interview

Music to His Ears: Stern’s Vinyl Schminyl plays little-heard songs —and tells their stories

by gregg shapiro
Longtime Highland Park resident Bob Stern has the cure for what ails your radio.
Bored with the same songs being played repeatedly without the enthusiasm and insight of the disc jockeys of old? Tune into his podcast Vinyl Schminyl Radio ( Stern includes intros and outros for each track and background information about the performers and the songs.

The North Shore Weekend: What are your three favorite things about living in Highland Park?

Bob Stern: Open spaces to take our dog, Tzahi, to. The feeling of community. The Ravinia Music Festival.

TNSW: I’m glad that you mentioned Ravinia. As a music person, how many shows a year do you attend there?

Stern: Not as many as I used to and not as many as you would think [laughs]. I do have the luxury of hearing the concerts from my backyard a half mile away. James Taylor, Hall and Oates, Jethro Tull. Pretty cool stuff. I’ve seen some great concerts there over the years. Joni Mitchell in ‘74. Jim Croce, Ringo Starr, Steely Dan and the maestro himself, Leonard Bernstein.

TNSW: For the uninitiated, please define what a podcast is.

Stern: Well, the official answer is a type of digital media consisting of an episodic series of audio, video, PDF or ePub files subscribed to and downloaded through web syndication or streamed online to a computer or mobile device. The word “pod” was used in conjunction with broadcast because of the popularity of the iPod.

TNSW: As someone who has such a substantial background in radio, why did you feel the need to create your own podcast?

Stern: I felt that podcasting is now a natural way of creating your own content without the restrictions of a playlist or a program director telling you what and when to play it. The Web opens you up to the world, if you will. Instead of just having this show being heard locally I have people in more than 160 countries that have heard it. That blows me away that my voice is heard in all of those countries. I have not monetized Vinyl Schminyl Radio yet. Actually, it costs me money, but I love doing it.

TNSW: Since vinyl plays such an important role in your life, what was the first 7” single that you ever bought with your own money and do you still have it in
your collection?

Stern: If I remember correctly, the first single that I bought with my own money was “Last Time Around” by The Del Vettes and I still have it. They are actually a group from Highland Park and it was probably the first heavy metal song ever played on the radio. I remember as a 13 year old running into them at a great music store in Highland Park, back in the day, called the Holiday Concert Shop which was at the Crossroads Shopping Center.

TNSW: What is your all-time favorite rock recording and who is your all-time favorite rock band?

Stern: The first part of that question is so much more difficult than the second. I am a Beatles fanatic and aficionado and have been since I first saw them on Ed Sullivan on Feb. 9, 1964. I would have to say, now that I think of it, that Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon was one that I couldn’t get off my turntable.

TNSW: What do you think about the revival of vinyl among music enthusiasts?

Stern: I know there are a lot of enthusiasts that spend untold thousands of dollars on turntables now and that, with the revival of vinyl releases, it pleases them to no end. The debate will always exist whether vinyl is better than digital but, truth be told, unless a vinyl iPod comes out it will be tough to totally resurrect the old standard of music completely. At the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame store in Cleveland there is a very large vinyl section. They are now re-releasing a few of the Beatles albums on vinyl. Best Buy has a pretty substantial vinyl section.

TNSW: What can people look forward to when they tune into Vinyl Schminyl?

Stern: They can look forward to hearing songs that they may not have heard in many years. More importantly what Vinyl Schminyl Radio is known for is putting out the story behind the song. Classic Rock is now approaching the 50-year mark and there is a lot of that music out there. We have done more than 600 shows since we have been on and you can access those any time by visiting our website,