• Three years at one of the best radio stations anywhere, any time
• A pilfered uniform, a stolen Led Zeppelin film, a porn prosecution
• Jerry Springer and I conspire to commit standup comedy
By midsummer ’75, I was hired as WEBN-FM’s first news director. This was a wonderful, family-owned radio station that had captured Cincinnati’s imagination since 1967 with talented air personalities, great rock music, and extremely creative disc jockeys, on-air promotions and comedy bits.
At Riverfront Stadium The Big Red Machine was cruising into the fall atop the National League and would play the Boston Red Sox in one of the best World Series ever. (The following October, as I rooted for my childhood favorite NY Yankees, the Reds swept them in four games.) More on baseball later.
A Cincinnati city councilman who had resigned a few years earlier when a check he had written for the services of a hooker at a Northern Kentucky brothel surfaced, was re-elected to his council post and was on his way to becoming Mayor. His name was Jerry Springer and his unlikely rehabilitation was attributable to his powerful charisma and wit. He, of course, would go on to become the host of a boundary-pushing, sometimes appalling syndicated TV show that regularly featured brawls among guests and bouncers.
Every Friday morning, Jerry would stop by WEBN around 6 AM. I would buzz him into the offices and studios and he would hand me the draft of his “Springer Memorandum,” a weekly commentary aired on Robin Wood’s morning show, where I did the news. I’d proofread it and then record him for playback later in the morning.
Once, in 1978, Jerry wanted to try his hand at stand-up comedy. He got booked into Bogart’s, the city’s best rock club, near the university in the Clifton neighborhood. His gig was covered the next morning in an above-the-fold story in the Cincinnati Post. It read, in part, “Springer arrived around 8:30, accompanied by Mark Scheerer of radio station WEBN. Together, they tried to work out some jokes while pacing around the cocktail lounge.” Add to my résumé: comedy writer…for one night.
(In 1996 I was at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, working for CNN and ran into Jerry at a party. We had a great time reminiscing and marveling at the ground we’d covered. And I tried to say something nice about his TV show, which was at its height of notoriety.)
There were some big stories to be covered in Cincinnati. Hamilton County had a very aggressive, conservative District Attorney who was an anti-pornography crusader. The colorfully named Simon Leis (pronounced “lease”) brought obscenity charges against the publisher of Hustler magazine, Larry Flynt, who had built his fortune with strip clubs in Ohio cities. The first of his many legal battles played out in a Cincinnati courthouse. His defense team welcomed an interview request from the top rock station in town, figuring, presumably, our audience of libertines would help generate a friendly jury pool. I remember he struck me as shrewd and genuinely interested in pushing the pornography law envelope as far as he could, understandably. But he was creepy; his dirtball side showed through. Flynt was convicted and sentenced to jail. His attorney, one of the best First Amendment lawyers in the country, got it overturned on prosecutorial misconduct and judicial and jury bias.
Then there was that time prosecutors came after me. Someone stole canisters containing a film from the lobby of a movie theater across the river in Kentucky. It was the Led Zeppelin concert film, “The Song Remains the Same.” The theater called WEBN News and said they would pay a $100 reward, no questions asked, for its return. I put the story on the air and the phone rang. A guy said he knew a guy who said he took the film (he hadn’t believed him until he heard the story on the radio). I said I’d meet him, bring the reward money and retrieve the film. I promised anonymity. If you enlarge the image of the Cincinnati Post article below, you can follow the story from there. Nothing came of the suggestion that I was going to be hauled before a judge to “tell all.” It might have been an interesting First Amendment case: a newsman’s notes and photos might be protected from judicial overreach…but what if he becomes a middleman in the return of stolen goods?
It is here, with a bit of shame, and considerable regret, I will confess what those closest to me already know: I once “liberated” a game-worn baseball jersey from the Boston Red Sox’ locker room. It was the night of the 4th game of the 1975 World Series, at Riverfront Stadium. Louis Tiant had pitched a complete-game victory, his second of the Series, throwing 173 pitches – astounding from today’s perspective. Sportswriters were gathered around his clubhouse cubicle afterward while he took questions. Joe Garagiola came and took him away for a taped Today Show interview, and the reporters melted away. I looked down and there was Louie’s tobacco-juice-stained jersey in a pile on the floor.
Now, I swear to you, as far as I was concerned the sports memorabilia market was barely a thing in 1975. To whatever extent it was in existence, I had absolutely no thoughts as to what the value of the item might be in the future. I just wanted a neat souvenir of what was shaping up to the a pretty good Series.
In fact, if I had had any concept of value appreciation, I never would have subsequently moved the little cloth patch that said “1975” from inside the jersey to the base of the front so that I could display it in my apartment and it would be readily recognized as being from what has long been considered one of the best World Series ever. When, in the mid 2000s, I decided to see what I might get for selling the Tiant keepsake, I found out how costly that tiny “alteration” was. “Mint condition” went right out the window with that little move. I did manage to find a buyer in Massachusetts who got it for a steal, so to speak.
The WEBN days were the best I ever experienced in local radio. The station was chock full of the most creative, smart, funny people, on-air and off. It was a family-owned station (an endangered species even then) run by an extended family of broadcasting nonpareils. It had an institutional sense of humor manifested in on-air ads for fictional products, an imaginary April Fools Day parade that brought puzzled people out looking for it on the streets of the station’s Hyde Park neighborhood, and an annual fireworks display over the Ohio River synched to music that I have never seen equaled anywhere else in the world. I was only in Cincinnati for three years but had a lifetime of experiences and I cling to a lifetime of memories.
A coda: About 6 months into my tenure, the station’s general manager, Bo Wood, was at my apartment playing bumper pool on a table I had acquired in Toledo. He casually said, “You know, I almost fired you a while back.”
“What?” I exclaimed.
He reminded me that the program director who had hired me had been let go himself shortly after I came on board. “And,” Bo said, “since we hadn’t liked many of his decisions, we naturally were skeptical of you.”
I had passed the audition…without knowing there had been one.