Guest Column: Fred Speer will be missed
By John Russell Ghrist
With much sadness, I read in last weeks Rock River Times about the retirement of veteran news reporter Fred Speer. I grew up in Hammond, Ind., and last year moved to Rockford. In Hammond, we had someone just like Fred, by the name of Cosmo Currier, who worked at WJOB. Cool Cos started out as a DJ like Fred did, but soon developed an interest for immediate news coverage. While our Cos was busy chasing ambulances, bank robbers, and reporting from the scene of live news events, Fred Speer was no doubt doing the same thing in Rockford. I had the pleasure of working with Cosmo at several northwest Indiana radio stations. If anything happened in our city, we were there to cover it. Fred and Cosmo could have changed places. Both became dedicated journalists to their respective audiences and had a nose for news.
A couple of years ago, when I published my radio history book, Valley Voices, Fred and a number of long-time Rockford radio personalities showed up at a book signing at Barnes and Noble to promote my work. That day, The Rock River Times Senior Editor Joe Baker and others spent the afternoon trading old radio yarns, and remembering how the industry used to be. The back section of my book has some of those stories in it about early Rockford radio. (The older spiral bound edition in the library has more pictures.)
Probably every city has someone like Fred Speer or a Cosmo Courier who spent their careers covering local incidents. Many times, Fred beat the authorities to the news scenes, and brought professional journalism and the immediacy of reporting live news events to his listeners. A few years ago, I remember hearing Fred report from a tragic accident on U.S. 20. As long as I have been coming to Rockford for visits, I remember hearing his authoritative voice and seeing his news vehicle around the city.
These days, radio is in a very sad shape of affairs. FCC deregulation has allowed companies to own too many stations. When I drive by WROKs monstrosity of towers and wires, I think to myself, What a waste of watts and energy. That used to be a good station,, but now its dominated by canned syndicated programming designed to cut out local airtime and increase profits for its owners. The Nolte Family would have never run a station like that. Even Rev. Andrew Frykman, who founded WROK when it was KFLV, had a better sense for local programming than what is on the air today. The days when Doug McDuff used to spin records and went around to garage sales with Dan Willis are gone, along with the Big Sound Clock and Morey Owens doing the local games. Calling distinguished news commentator Paul Harvey Uncle Paul on the air was another way that WROK has attempted to discredit and eliminate the way quality radio used to be. WZOKs endless thumping of non-melodic garbage is another waste of electricity. Why does every station have to be for younger audiences?
Todays radio is a tasteless menagerie of boring talk, rock music and other nonsense that most people couldnt care less about. When I moved here, I approached several stations about hosting a program to play orchestra music for older folks, and no one was interested. Older people have money in banks, buy cars, products and services, and are an untapped market. Seniors are left out when it comes to radio service, and now only a major storm or news incident will cause them to turn their sets back on. The problem with the industry today is that younger business people, not real broadcasters, own and operate the stations. Take a quality radio and turn across both the AM and FM bands, especially at night. You will find a useless duplication of programs and virtually nothing worth listening to.
No one can blame Fred Speer for calling it quits after 44 years of dedicated service to the community. But the industry is the same in Rockford as it is in Chicago and elsewhere. Todays station owners know that talk programming is cheap. They dont care that it reduces local programming and job opportunities in the industry. It has made fine broadcasters like Fred Speer lose interest in the business.
Radio today needs more diversification, and an honest effort to serve the community. Owning a radio station license is like taking an oath of service. If a station cannot allow coverage for a fine newscaster like Fred Speer to report from the scene of a news incident, and fills in time with canned nonsense talk from a variety of wind-up mouths, or insists on playing 24 hours of music just for younger people, then its operation is worthless.
Congratulations and well done, Fred. You have given your listeners 44 years of the kind of fine and dedicated service that we will never hear again on Rockford radio.
John Ghrist is an amateur historian and author who lives in Rockford.