Sunday, May 15, 2016

Remembering radio programmer John Rook (1937-2016)

by Larry Miller

Some sixty years ago in Chadron, Nebraska — a bespectacled youngster named John Rook seemed to many local folks an unlikely candidate for finding success.  He was a bit uncoordinated and talked with a slight lisp.  But he would prove them wrong shortly after graduating from high school, forging  ahead  to a highly successful career in broadcasting.  He became a top name disc jockey, but found his real talent as a nationally-recognized programmer during the heyday of rock and roll.

That career, and his life, came to an end March 1, 2016 in at Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

John Harlan Rook was born in Ohio.  He and his brother, Charles, moved to Nebraska at a young age and grew up in Chadron.  Both attended Chadron Prep.

"I certainly was not the most popular guy in my elementary and high school days," he wrote in later years.  

After breaking his glasses playing football as a high school freshman, John discontinued playing sports.  He had difficulty seeing until a year later when the local Lions Club replaced his glasses. John's relationship with his father was strained — to say the least — and it was with his step-mother, Della, and his grandmother Rook that he was closest.

"I held down three jobs…and while I didn't play sports, hunting and fishing became my time to get away from home on a limited basis."

Interestingly, it was a popular classmate — Eddie Kuska —  with whom he became friends.  Ed was all that John was not:  class president, a talented musician, and a good football and basketball player — even helping the Prep Junior Eagles win the Nebraska state class "C" basketball tournament.

"How he ever accepted me as a friend is beyond me, but Eddie was my protector as we walked the many blocks to school each day."

Rook was proud to be photographed with one of Chadron's biggest sports boosters for many years, Joe Lichty, a long-time barber best known for ringing his cow bells at sporting events.  This photo appeared in the Omaha World-Herald.

John Rook - 1955
One of John's jobs while in school was working as a fry cook at the old Frontier Drive-In.  After his junior year, he took a summer job with the Gering (Nebr) Courier, doing a many of the  menial tasks it took to run a small town paper.  Gaining some writing skills, he became editor of the high school newspaper during his senior year at Prep, and his senior yearbook predicted that Rook  might end up as publisher of a newspaper.  A good prediction — but the wrong medium.  It would be broadcasting, not newspapering, where John Rook would find a career and much success — but it was a wild and circuitous journey via Hollywood.

"I was on a Trailways bus to California within a few weeks of graduating from Chadron Prep in 1955," Rook later recalled.

"Dad insisted I take a job crawling under and greasing steam locomotives at the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad or a full time job as a cook at the Niles Cafe and Hotel.  Having already sampled both of those jobs part time during the school year, nothing would hold me back from escaping to California, even if it did mean I would start my venture with only $38 left to my name after purchasing my bus ticket."

Rook's two years in California found him working a variety of odd jobs, but fortuitously crossing paths with a few celebrities and ending up in a classroom at the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse, rubbing shoulders with fellow students like Sal Mineo, Natalie Wood, and James Dean, among others.  

During this period, he also became acquainted with an up-and-coming rock and roll singer named Eddie Cochran.  A southern California transplant from Minnesota, Cochran and his family became fast friends with the young man from Nebraska.

Although he landed an "extra" job on the "Wild Bill Hickok" television series and a small part in the 1957 June Allyson movie re-make of "My Man Godfrey," John soon decided that acting was not for him. 

"After just two bit parts, my desire was waning on being an actor."

John Rook - KOBH 1958
In the Los Angeles area, John had been exposed to a wide variety of radio stations and radio announcers.  Too, he recalled a chance meeting at lunch with legendary singer and television star Tennessee Ernie Ford, who suggested that radio offered the best opportunities for a young man in those days.  Many radio announcers were leaving for television jobs, and the field would be "wide open".

Interviews for radio jobs in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and Denver resulted in dead ends, accompanied by suggestions that he start in a smaller market — like Scottsbluff, Nebraska, where he showed up to apply for a job in 1957, only to learn it had been filled a few days earlier.

Low on cash, John returned to his home in Chadron— and a less than pleasant reception from his father.  Nonetheless, a visit with friend Freeman Hover at Chadron's KCSR resulted in a good lead:  the radio station in Newcastle, Wyoming was looking for an announcer.

Rock & Roll star Eddie Cochran received a "Key to the city"
in October 1959 in Chadron.  L-R are Lucille Redfern, Janet
Redfern, Eddie Cochran, and John Rook.
Within days, John was on the job at KASL Radio in Newcastle.   While the station's format was a bit alien to him, it served as a stepping stone to an opportunity at a new 1,000-watt radio station in Hot Springs, South Dakota the following year.  KOBH was an AM station at 580 on the dial, and it quickly became a favorite station not only in the Black Hills, but throughout much of eastern Wyoming and the northern Nebraska panhandle.  The reach of the station, coupled with numerous personal interviews with music artists crossing the region on tour, helped catapult John to larger market radio stations over the next five years.

In the fall of 1959, Rook brought rock performer Eddie Cochran to KOBH and organized live concerts in Hot Springs and Chadron.  When Cochran performed on his 21st birthday at Chadron's Assumption Arena on October 3, 1959, he was presented with a "Key to the City."  It was only a few months later that Cochran was killed in a taxi accident in England.  He was later named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

For John Rook, the next career stop was KALL in Salt Lake City, following by KTLN in Denver.   He earned an even bigger break in January 1965 when he was hired by ABC Radio as Program Director of its Pittsburgh  station, KQV.  After three successful years in Pittsburgh — including a short on-air stint as "Johnny Rowe" on WABC New York during a strike by radio and television artists — John Rook was a part of "management."

In 1967 he moved to WLS in Chicago as program manager and helped the station move to #1 in the market the following year, reaching an audience of some 4.2 million listeners each week.  In 1969, he was named "Radio's Man of the Year"  

Among the many industry people with whom John would become good friends was Bill Gavin.  A legendary figure in Top 40 radio, Gavin published The Gavin Report, widely used by stations across the country. 

"His (Gavin's) advice not only guided my career moves, but even my personal life.  'It will be the most important thing you could do in life,' he said, urging me — a single parent — to adopt two young lads, David and Clifford, from the Lena Pope orphanage in Fort Worth.  Guided by his wisdom, I would raise them to manhood and watch them get married.  From time to time, Bill visiting our hom 'beaming' his approval of my family.  He sent Christmas gifts to the boys each year."

In the early 1970's, John left Chicago to become a programming consultant with Drake-Chenault and Draper-Blore, only to return to the Windy City in 1972 as a consultant to WCFL Radio, engineering what Billboard magazine Radio Editor Claude Hall called "a miracle" turn-around for the station.  It was an early win for his newly-created John Rook & Associates consulting firm which went on to provide programming advice for some 30 stations across the country over the next few years.

By 1977, John returned to California, accepting the top programming job at KFI in Los Angeles.  The station, considered one of the most powerful in the country, beamed its 640 AM signal westward to Hawaii and could even reach portions of the eastern United States.  With a home in Northridge, John remained with KFI for nearly seven years, but departed after a dispute with a new station manager.   

"While I loved programming, it was time to be the P.D. of the entire station. I scraped every penny together and purchased my Spokane FM (licensed to Couer D'Alene, Idaho) in 1983." He bought a place in the country, "Rook Ranch," where he could have his horses and enjoy a bit of solace from city life.

"Son Clifford and I arrived on July 4th 1983.  Later, David would arrive with his bride, Rhonda, and still later sister, Dottie, would call Coeur d'Alene home.  In time, brother Charles would take a job anchoring the news on a nearby Spokane TV station." (Photo at right of Rook gathering.  You can also read an earlier story about about the career of John's older brother, Charley Rook.)

It wasn't long, however, before he and some partners bought an FM radio station in Spokane, adding an AM station there the following year.  In 1986, the Rook group activated a new FM station in Spokane, followed by the purchase of two additional stations — one in Pasco, Washington, and the other in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Seeking a bit of tranquility from the rush of working in an urban environment, but still desiring to keep a hand in the business he loved, John Rook moved to the country just south of Couer D'Alene, Idaho. 
Then, in 1988-89, John took something of a sabbatical from his new life in Idaho, returning to Los Angeles for a brief tour as program director of KABC Radio.  Managed by his friend George Green, John worked with some of the top talent in the country as the station struggled in its efforts to migrate from a music format to talk.  People like Wink Martindale, Bill Smith, Sonya Friedman, Bill Press, and many more. But it became increasingly clear that his friend George Green was making the programming decisions — not all of them to John's liking.  In one instance, Green cancelled a popular team (Martindale & Smith) that John had brought aboard, later learning that the ratings would place them at #1 in the market during their time slot.  John also recalled recommending the hire of a hot Sacramento talk-show host for an evening block, only to have the plan nixed by Green.  Alas, the ascending star from Sacramento — Rush Limbaugh — would not be hired by KABC.

John Rook (1937-2016)
"I truly loved being program director of KABC…but I really wasn't…..George was."  John saddled up and returned to his ranch and business interests in Idaho.  Although he sold most of his stations by the early 1990s, John kept hold of KCDA, the Couer D'Alene area station, until 2000.

At one point in his career, John Rook was considered for a seat on the Federal Communications Commission.  He later reflected that his staunch opposition to the frenzy for deregulation in broadcasting probably cost him the appointment.

Deregulation of the media, he later opined, was even more destructive than he had earlier predicted.

"Perhaps it would have been best if regulators had not allowed the monopolization of radio that resulted…a feeding frenzy of unethical lawyers devoured anyone offering competition.  Within days of congressional passage, the nation's media was gobbled up by three billionaires."

Retaining close ties with many of his former colleagues and friends in the entertainment business, John took the initiative in 2007 to organize the Hit Parade Hall of Fame.  It was largely intended to pay tribute to the many performers who weren't selected for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but yet were clearly deserving of more recognition for their enormous contributions to the music business. 

John enjoyed the pastoral setting of his rural Idaho ranch, where he kept a few horses and dogs.  He died of natural causes on March 1, 2016 at his home near Couer D'Alene.  He was 78 years old.

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