Monday, March 22, 2010

RETIRE? You're Purtan Me On

Starting next Monday, hundreds of thousands of metro Detroit women will have to start talking to their husbands again on weekday mornings.

For 45 years, they've been waking up with Dick Purtan--until Friday, when the radio veteran hangs up his microphone.

For over three decades, the women around town got their news from Bill Bonds at 11:00 p.m., went to bed with Johnny Carson, and woke up with either Purtan or J.P. McCarthy. But then Johnny retired in 1992, Bonds left channel 7 in 1995, and J.P. passed away later that same year.

That left Purtan as the last true media giant in Detroit. And, maybe, the last we'll ever know.

Longtime radio observers like Specs Howard Institute's Dick Kernen disagree with me. Kernen says that as long as someone "has the magic, like Dick, to create quality content," then "personality radio" will stick around, despite that medium's changing landscape.

As much as I'd like to believe that, I'm not as confident as Kernen. Mainly, because I don't see anyone who's even close to assuming Purtan's role, at least not on today's airwaves.

Drew and Mike over at WRIF have reunited, and they are once again running roughshod over their competition in the mornings. John Mason, for 18 years at WJLB and now in syndication from WGPR, is another uber-strong morning guy in Detroit. Yet neither of those shows is woven into the fabric of the city as was Purtan's and J.P.'s.

Purtan's audience was always a tad older than the rockers and urban guys, anyway. His main competition for years was McCarthy.

"J.P.'s show was serious and political, and ours was funny and satirical," Purtan told the Free Press in recollecting those days from the late-1960s thru the mid-1990s.

Purtan, unlike McCarthy, was a radio vagabond, making himself available to the highest bidder. He makes no bones about it, nor apologizes for it. Where J.P. stayed with WJR, Purtan didn't stay too long at any one station; he had many radio homes: WKNR, CKLW, WXYZ, WCZY, and ending at WOMC.



Purtan told the Freep that his picking up stakes fueled his longevity. McCarthy was the anomaly; to make the big bucks and stay appealing, Purtan realized that his audience would move with him, giving him leverage in contract negotiations.

But the changing face of radio---specifically, the unseen face of upper management and the business side of things---made yapping into a mike from 5:30-10:00 a.m. less fun for Purtan. Hence, he's at peace with his decision to retire.

I once asked the late Mark (Doc) Andrews, a longtime member of "Purtan's People" before passing away in 2004, to describe a typical morning working with Purtan.

"Laughing. We laugh and have fun, and laugh some more. It's a great gig," Doc told me.

That's all Purtan wanted to do---make his audience laugh, even when there wasn't a whole hell of a lot to laugh about in Detroit.

He did it for 45 years, and when he signs off Friday, the laughter will stop.

"The immediate future is filled with sleep---staying up late and waking up even later," Purtan says of his retirement plans. He'll also write a book, which should be a big seller. And lots more time will be spent with wife Gail, a breast cancer survivor who was also diagnosed with ovarian cancer 13 years ago.

But at least Purtan leaves on his own accord, read: healthy. His longtime rival McCarthy was forced out due to the cancer that eventually took his life.

Purtan won't totally vanish; he plans on spending a lot of time maintaining and providing content for http://www.dickpurtan.com/.

"It's pretty hard to stop when you've done this as long as I have, and I want to be involved," he says.

After a little sleeping in, of course.

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