Donald J. “Don” Newberg has passed away in Illinois at the age of 84, after what I’m told was a brief bout with cancer. As much as I’d like to write about “Don,” I have always called him Mr. Newberg, and that isn’t going to change now. He would probably prefer to be written about as “Don,” but it is with great affection and respect that I write about “Mr. Newberg.” He started in radio in the 1950s in Illinois as a newscaster, and retained his interest in journalism throughout his management career.
For (approximately) fourteen years, he was at the helm of what was then “Radio Chattanooga.” It was the umbrella name for two radio stations that operated out of Pineville Road, commonly known as the Radio Ranch. In 1978, Bloomington (IL) Broadcasting purchased the stations from Ted Turner, who had moved on to bigger things, quickly losing interest in his Chattanooga properties.
The Bloomington group, led by Mr. Newberg as general manager, inherited a mess. Many of the stations’ key people bailed out during a year of uncertainty (and a shrinking budget) while Turner and the FCC untangled his records. When the smoke finally cleared, Mr. Newberg and company set out to put Turner’s old stations back on their feet.
Barely into my twenties, I was holding on for dear life. The previous management had installed me as WGOW’s morning drive guy, and I wasn’t exactly setting the woods on fire. The station had gone automated a few years earlier, pretty much ceding the top-40 battle to WFLI. Our automation would frequently misfire, and our pre-recorded voices would identify a Carpenters song as “Marvin Gaye.” Listeners were not impressed.
The first thing Mr. Newberg did was shut down the automation. The station went “live,” as it should have been all along.
The second thing he did changed my life, along with many others. The 100,000 watt FM “elevator music” station, WYNQ (wink!) had lots of listeners, but few advertisers. Mr. Newberg, and his programming manager, the brilliant Jim Wood, were plotting to rock our town, literally. Wood was working on computers when they were the size of a Buick, and he used one for music research. Both men took me to lunch one day at Wendy’s in Red Bank. I still think of them every time I eat there, which is way too often.
At that lunch, they revealed their plan to me. WYNQ would soon become WSKZ. Why, I asked? After all “skuz” didn’t sound like a very catchy nickname. “SKZ,” I was told, stood for Stereo KZ. What was the significance of “KZ,” I wondered? Nothing, it just sounds good, and would make a cool bumper sticker logo, they said. It would become a rock station, and there would be no advance publicity. In a few weeks, the elevator music fans would be awakened with the sounds of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, and Steely Dan. They wanted me to be music director, and switch my morning show from WGOW-AM to the new KZ-106.
Mr. Newberg told me it was his goal to raise the level of radio in our town. “We’ll make our stations better, and the other stations will have to improve too. When they all sound better, we can all charge more for commercials, and that’s good for the Chattanooga radio market.”
I should note here that I left that lunch feeling a bit down. Keep in mind, I was young, and even less radio-savvy than I am today. I felt like I was being demoted, because my “young” audience didn’t listen to FM in 1978. I sort of wanted to beg them to keep me on AM radio, but I was also grateful they weren’t getting rid of me, which is what new owners often do. So I sighed, and accepted that I would soon be an FM guy.
Let’s just say it worked out well for all parties. FM finally started catching on, and Chattanooga responded enthusiastically to KZ-106. We stole WFLI’s audience within a few months, and started nipping at top-rated WDEF too.
Mr. Newberg met his goal. His two stations got better, and the competitors did too.
Through it all, he was the grown-up in the room. He wore a suit, patted us on the back, and kicked our butt when necessary.
Here’s my favorite personal Mr. Newberg story. In the early 1980s, I spent a couple of weeks on my KZ morning show skewering one of the era’s political figures. (I won’t go into detail here, because this story isn’t about politics, which is a powder keg these days). Some people thought it was funny, while others thought it was terrible. It certainly got attention, even on a national level, and that was my goal.
One morning, at the peak of my little brouhaha, Mr. Newberg knocked on the control room door. “How’s it going, fella?” he asked. “Seems to be going great,” I replied, while wondering why I was getting a rare visit from the boss. “I just wanted to tell you,” he said, “We’re getting a lot of complaints about this thing you’re doing.” I gulped, turned fifty shades of red, and said, “Mr. Newberg, I’m so sorry. Listen, if you want me to, I’ll stop doing it.” His comeback startled me. “No, no!” he said. “Keep it up! If they’re not complaining, they’re not listening,” he said. “I’ll deal with the complaints, you just keep doing what you’re doing. You’ve got people talking, and that’s what radio is supposed to do. Now carry on!”
I never forgot that. The big boss had my back. He wasn’t trying to censor me, or discourage me from being creative, no matter how badly I might stumble now and then. When I told other radio people that story, they would say, “What? The GM got complaints, and didn’t try to shut you down? Man, I wish I had a boss like that!”
That was Mr. Newberg. I was fortunate enough to work for him for five years. I only got to talk to him a couple of times in the past decade, and we also exchanged e-mails after his successor at WGOW/WSKZ, the equally wonderful Dan Brown, sent him a copy of my first book. I told him what a hero he was to me, and he humbly thanked me before changing the subject to how fortunate he was to have worked with so many great people in Chattanooga.
My radio co-workers always referred to him as “The Big Guy.” He was tall, but we weren’t referring to his height. He had a big heart, big talent, and made a big impact on our lives. When you think back to that era of local radio, which included Garry and Dale, the Morning Zoo, the arrival of Jim Reynolds, the hiring of David Earl Hughes, Mike Allison, Scott Chase, the Window Wings, the Gold Card, the discovery of Rush Limbaugh, the Studio in the Sky, a team of great news reporters (including my wife Cindy), the sponsorship of countless concerts, Dancin’ Dorothy, and so much more, it all has Mr. Newberg’s fingerprints on it.
To borrow a phrase from my friend Jerry Pond, I’m sure Don Newberg missed radio during his retirement years. But not nearly as much as it missed him.