Karla Jensen – July 2016
A letter from your listeners:
Dear Bill McCollum:
If you ever wonder about your worth, about your career, about your amazing commitment to your listening community, it’s time to shelf your worries. When you are home in bed wishing for a do-over, or as you contemplate in the wee hours of the morning why you made a lifetime commitment to rise before the sun, don’t worry. Your life, your voice, has made a difference.
With decades of airtime under your belt as a broadcaster, I’m sure you wonder if your audience rooted for you. We did. Between the years of transistor radios to the ones of live streaming from the Internet, we listeners truly welcomed your presence. From our shag-carpeted living rooms with gigantic stereos to the petite waterproof radio in the shower, your distinctive voice made a remarkable impact on our days and our dispositions. You were always a welcome reminder of community and companionship, friendship and progress. You brightened our dark-paneled dens, loosened our tightly wound temperaments and eased our minds from the worldly cares that could wear us down.
As a media sales professional, you may wonder if clients understood your passion for broadcasting and how important their relationships meant to you. Don’t fret. They understood very well. You brought business to their door (that’s us!) and helped make their phones ring.
If you ever second-guessed your ability to make a point, be more eloquent in speech, calmer in demeanor, and more sure-footed under the pressure on live radio, let it go. For 53 years, you talked to us heart to heart and bared your soul like a best friend. As a professional, you promoted area businesses and industry, and worked to perfect your delivery of life-altering and even mundane news. As our neighbor, you educated us and generated inquisitiveness and happiness in our day. Thank you.
When you wondered what song to play, what comments to offer, what note to begin and end on, you chose well. Bill, you should be proud. Not that you need it from us, but this is your permission to retire the famous John and Bill Morning Show with grace, because you deserve it. We’ll think of you in the quiet and recall our best days together. Besides, we know you’ll be leaving the Barn Show door open for us. We’ll meet you there this afternoon, boots on, tapping our toes along with you.
Your collective audience of fans
Here’s the spotlight. There’s Bill McCollum running in the opposite direction. Here’s the truth. There’s one voice that has been able to speak to us, and for us, for 53 years and counting. It’s radio personality Bill McCollum from WBEV/WXRO Radio, and until now, we couldn’t imagine not tuning him in, not waking us up, not informing us, and not being present on the airwaves where many go to get informed, find comfort, seek a confident word or share opinions.
Read the rest of the story below while you listen to Bill’s favorite Polka by Don Peachey
“Horsie Keep Your Tail Up”
SPECIAL THANKS TO DON PEACHEY FOR PROVIDING THIS RECORDING
Originally from Defiance, Iowa, Bill launched his broadcasting career in Beaver Dam on July 4, 1963. He had little inkling his famous Morning Show on WBEV Radio and the Barn Show on WXRO, a late afternoon polka music attraction rivaling any Top 40 countdown, would endure as long as it has. Prevailing while others have come and gone, Bill is a tall tree, a stately sequoia, one with broadly connected rings, signaling years of personal and community prosperity in voice. Grounded in work ethic, McCollum has been a giant, our giant, in the local radio market of our hometown stations.
Most recently, Bill had the privilege of reflecting on his five plus decades of on-air adventures. He also revealed some of the lesser known behind the scenes occurrences of his enduring career and private life. Not because he devised a grand plan years ago to retire in 2016, but because of his physician’s recommendation after paralyzing news. “I got the phone call about my cancer on Christmas Eve. I knew it was coming. I knew it was bad news. I waited two hours to listen to the voicemail from my physician and waited until after Christmas to deliver the news to my colleagues.” Not for the first time, he would consider others before himself. Like that strong tree trunk, he would barely bend and refused to break.
Four hours on the air, on top of a recovering vocal cord cancer diagnosis, left him making a decision he truly did not wish to make. Leave the WBEV Morning Show or the Barn Show. His vocal cords couldn’t withstand retaining both shows. Ultimately, McCollum, along with station manager John Moser, announced Bill’s retirement from the Morning Show. The community was shocked. If one of our tallest trees wavered, the community agreed we’d all stand behind him. His audience served as his root system, the structural support he depended on to keep his spirits high during what turned out to be successful treatment.
For a public figure, McCollum grew where he was planted, encouragement and opportunity oozing from every vibrating watt along the airwaves. Introverted personalities like Bill are usually men of few words, but that’s where McCollum broke the mold. His naturally inquisitive nature lent itself to keeping up with news and topics of interest. Whoever served as his morning sparring partner, each played off each other to discuss local, national and worldly events, whatever seasons of life unfolded at the moment. All to our, the listener’s, benefit.
Bill wisely understands the unique position he holds. His admirers and listeners feel like they know him. All by voice, some by face, others by reputation. “I have been asked for my autograph. I never tire of people talking to me, saying they listen to me. I never want someone to perceive me as stuck up or a snob,” says Bill, adamant that this would never do. “If someone is paying attention to me, I’ll be sure to say hello.”
Bill wasn’t always so humble or notorious. His journey had its lean years and storms like everyone else. “I recall always being interested in radio. At age five, I peered behind one of the vintage floor model radios, thinking some guy must be talking from behind it. As a teenager, I played baseball and basketball, but I worked for my uncle at a local gas station. We always had the radio on.” His attraction to the radio and fascination of the industry persisted. “I also recall driving to the Denison, Iowa, radio station and stood at the entrance but was too frightened to go in.
“I then spent two years at Brown Institute in Minneapolis, graduating in 1962. The school assisted students in finding jobs beyond graduation.” Brown Institute, founded in 1946 and originally known as the American Institute of the Air, offered courses in radio, electronics, computer programming and added television production later on. “I’m sure I borrowed someone’s tape recorder to produce a newscast and was required to write a commercial before being accepted.
“After graduation, I worked briefly in North Dakota and Sheboygan,” says Bill. He quit a job in one location and was fired in another, difficult for a young man finding his way. “In Jamestown, North Dakota, I quit after six weeks. I think I was homesick for Minneapolis. I’m certain the school and my mother were both mad. Then Brown Institute informed me of another opening in Sheboygan. I got fired after six months.
“Before I left, I heard of a job in Beaver Dam.” Soon, a manager offered him a job in July 1963. “When I started at WBEV on the Fourth of July, the words of one of my instructors at Brown came back to me instantly. One teacher said, ‘If you guys aren’t willing to work weekends and holidays, get out of the radio business now.’ That advice has been engrained in my brain since that day.” His early goals included ending up at WLS Radio in Chicago. “I could pick that station up at night and listened to my idol, Clark Weber. Weber sent me a letter, which I kept, because he must have caught me on the air as he passed through the area to vacation in Wisconsin Dells.” Bill remained on air with WBEV until he accepted a position in Wausau in 1969. “I received an offer from a television station to be the 10 p.m. anchor. I took the job then backed out.” I was divorced, my daughter was a toddler at the time, and I wanted to be near her.” He wasn’t prepared to leave Beaver Dam after all.
“Having second thoughts, I quickly sought out my boss, Tom Faile, and asked for my job back. He happened to be at Mac’s Tip Top, the tavern next door to the station. Tom agreed.” Reinstated, McCollum continued to develop his broadcasting stamina, a stronger trunk, adding radio sales in 1972. He called on customers and hit the airwaves with the Barn Show in 1974. “Tom already aired a country western show called Nightline to Nashville. When the new owner, John Klinger, bought the station, we discussed the number of great advertisers connected to that show. What could we do to replace that kind of successful show? I suggested trying a polka program. I had already been playing some polkas so we attempted it for six weeks.” Now, years later, people wonder what makes the Barn Show so successful. According to Bill, “Polkas are happy music, the most requested being Horsey! Keep Your Tail Up by Don Peachey.” Like those robust sequoia, his show experienced tremendous growth year after year, proving its staying power to this day, well over 40 years later.
Bill flourished as an early morning announcer, added sales, became program director and then moved to the news department. “News wasn’t my niche. I attended meetings every night, which were rather dry. As I grew into sales, however, I worried about collecting money from slow paying advertisers. Sales offered a different reward than being an on-air personality. When I’d make a sale, I’d be flying high on my way back to the station without even driving a car.” That natural high, wind in his branches, encouraged further success. “What I found later is how clients became good friends. They trusted me. With some clients, I’d have to call on them 20 times or more before they would talk to me. More than one of my clients became great friends with my wife and I.”
President and GM of WBEV/WXRO Radio from 1973-1998, John Klinger remains good friends with McCollum. “Bill has a tremendous work ethic. He worked long hours, dedicated himself to the station and to me, and continually showed enthusiasm for his on-air work. In sales, he treated his customers royally. People could depend on him. He’s an exceptional, good-hearted person who is loved by the community. He’s also got a lot of friends. I got to know him gradually and found him to be much more of a personality on air than off. He’s more reserved when he’s not behind the mic. I never orchestrated the Morning Show, it just evolved. John Moser was the first new hire when I arrived and Bill was the newsman. I just watched them chitchat and let them go. Bill is quite a guy. They were and are quite the duo.”
With 53 years of memories behind the microphone, Bill recognizes the revolutionary changes and advancements he’s experienced. “I used to walk into a studio with a pen and paper and record on the reel to reel tape, which has gone by the wayside. Now, everything is digital and more convenient, but it’s sometimes difficult for a guy to keep up with all the tech stuff,” confesses Bill. “I owned a reel to reel at home where I’d practice reading commercials, but I didn’t keep it. I’m not a collector of anything.
“One of the most memorable events occurred the day President Kennedy was shot. I was on air. The teletype starting ringing and the sales manager ended up in the control room. He came running down the hall and announced that tragic event. Since we played the National Anthem every morning on a 45, I grabbed that record immediately. I played it so I could gather my thoughts before I spoke. Most of the day was a blur and we cancelled much of our regular programming. No one called in. That Friday evening, I returned to my room and lay down. Restless, I went to the Satellite Bar instead. I found the jukebox playing, not what I expected. I thought people would be talking, drinking and crying. That was not the case.” In disbelief of business as usual at the bar, he returned to his apartment and mourned in solitude.
Bill is as loyal and lasting as nature’s towering skyscrapers. While the evening television news relinquished broadcaster after broadcaster, back in Beaver Dam, McCollum prevailed at the mic year after year. Growing in stamina and devotion, he witnessed events and milestones, commenting daily through the onslaught of historical events, a hearty bridge between the wide world and us. From the shootings of prominent Kennedys, Martin Luther King Jr., the Vietnam War, the Challenger explosion, the turn of the century and even 9/11, Bill’s consistent presence comforted listeners and withstood the test of time.
What’s been Bill’s greatest fear? “The fear of asking dumb questions,” he says, the ghosts of broadcasts past crossing his face. “I’ve been down that road.” He’s also had an aversion to interviewing people on a set expecting to know whom he’ll be interviewing. Alas, a person appears without Bill knowing his or her name and he begins to sweat. He also mentioned the FCC and fear of making errors on meter readings.
“Frankly,”Bill ads, “I’m scared of full retirement. I’ve always had trouble taking vacations. I’m disorganized and don’t feel comfortable out of my element. I love routine.” McCollum recalls a vacation during John Klinger’s management during a very hot week in summer. “I had been the only guy to do the Barn Show and often, I just read live copy rather than play an ad. My replacement played a commercial referring to all the snow on the ground. I had not updated it. Boy, was John smokin’ mad!”
Despite the errors that may have occurred over his career, Bill’s career highlights are positive. Change is inevitable. “I really don’t have anything to complain about,” says Bill to himself and his audience. “I’m retaining my sales clients, and the Barn Show. Knowing the Barn Show’s popularity and sponsorship income for the station, I decided to choose the option with less vocal activity.” Hardly surprising, McCollum’s leaves haven’t all blown to the ground yet. Bill is not ready to retire. His duties are simply shifting. Beyond work, he will continue relaxing at home, as John Moser would say, in his vast wooded estate, watching the news or reading the paper. As a widower, he also enjoys spending time with his girlfriend Linda Smith.
They say sequoias are a natural wonder, a lot like Bill. “It has been said that the giant sequoias are living dinosaurs. In truth they are far more than that. They originated earlier in time and outlived the dinosaurs by 70 million years.” (giant-sequoia.com) Our favorite radio personality is nothing close to a dinosaur, but has outlasted many others in an industry where turnover is sometimes high and competitive. Instead, he’s a legend. He’s also much more than his voice, like a sequoia is so much more than a tree. He’s a sum of many parts – a valuable wonder of the broadcasting world in Wisconsin for sure.
Bill is one of the most respected and well-liked teammates, not only here at WBEV and WXRO, but in our entire parent company. Our Founder and CEO Craig Karmazin often points to Bill as an example to other teammates of the dedication to fans, advertising partners and community that we should aspire to. Bill’s warmth made me feel truly welcome on my first day on the air with him 43+ years ago. He has a unique ability to translate his local knowledge and relationships into on-air content that relates well to his listening fans. Bill and I developed a great friendship over the years, one that I’ll value for the rest of my life, but then, that’s probably no different than the feelings his listeners have developed for him. He’s truly an icon to those of us who have the privilege to work with him and to his fans.
– John Moser