The Right Hand Man
John “Swany” Swanson (pictured right, blue shirt) had already made a name for himself as a radio producer in Chicago by producing broadcasting legends like Jonathon Brandmeier, Kevin Matthews, and Steve Cochran before he took the job at WTMX nineteen years ago. But that job that was very different than it is today. “Kathy (Hart) and I worked together for almost a year before they decided they wanted to put together a male/female morning team. They got tapes from all over the country, and chose Eric (Ferguson) to team up with her. He was originally from the area, and had the sound they were looking for.”
So, if Kathy was on board first, why didn’t they call it the Kathy & Eric show? “Believe it or not,” Swanson says, “there was a big discussion about that. We couldn’t agree which name sounded better first, so we sat down in (WTMX program director) Barry James’ office and decided to flip a coin. Heads, it would be Eric & Kathy, tails it would be Kathy & Eric. It landed on heads.”
No one in that room eighteen years ago could have possibly foreseen the juggernaut the Eric and Kathy show became. It didn’t happen overnight, but after spending a good deal of money marketing the show, and a great deal of time hustling to make a name for themselves, the show climbed up the ratings ladder. It’s been on the top rung now for over a decade; a truly incredible feat.
Swanson thinks the secret to the show’s popularity hasn’t been the many big-name celebrities they’ve had on the show, or the billboards they plastered around the city for the past eighteen years, it’s something else entirely: A connection with the listeners.
“The biggest compliment we get from listeners is that they feel like we are part of their family.”
Of course, creating that family atmosphere was easier said than done. The listeners had to get to know them all personally to connect so strongly, and that required everyone contributing to the show, on-air and off.
“That’s true,” Swany admits. “Eric runs the show, but Eric, Kathy, (traffic reporter) Melissa (McGurren), (newsman Brian) Whip (Paruch), (assistant producer) Cynthia (DeNicolo) and I all contribute topics, ideas, and stories from our lives. As a matter of fact, the whole radio station contributes. Our social media director (Chris Petlak) does voices for us. Our marketing director Dave Karwowski is in here early in the morning every day, and he has some great ideas. I walked into the promotions office yesterday and four of the promotions girls were huddled around speaking to each other, and I asked what they were talking about, because I figured if it was interesting to them, it might be a show topic. You just need to pay attention to what is happening around you all the time. When you have this many people working on show prep nearly 24 hours a day, you’re bound to get good material.” They’ve been together for so long now, they aren’t just a part of the listeners’ families, they are a family themselves. But when a family spends as much time together as this family has for the past eighteen years, with the pressure they’re under, and the tiny amount of sleep they can squeeze into their jam-packed schedules, nerves are bound to fray. Swanson admits it has happened a few times.
“It’s like a rock band – we’re basically in the same hotel room and venue everyday together, and we can get on each other’s nerves a little bit. But when we get to the point where ridiculous things start bugging us, like the way one of us is eating oatmeal, we know it’s time for a vacation.”
Despite these “very occasional” bumps in the road, the highlights have far outnumbered the lowlights for the executive producer of the show. As a music lover, he particularly enjoys the perk of meeting his heroes. “Meeting Paul McCartney – I was star struck that day. Sting, Bon Jovi, Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony, Def Leppard, Rush. They were all great guys. 98% of all the experiences with celebrities have been great, even with the stars of today like Pink and Katy Perry.”
But ironically, those are not the stars he thinks about when he looks back on Eric & Kathy’s historic run. The real stars of the show are, and always have been, the listeners. They are the ones that provide the show’s most memorable moments.
“I’m always blown away that listeners are willing to call up and tell the stories that they tell. There are days we finish the show and I think ‘We’ll never hear a better story than that’, and then wouldn’t you know it? The next day we get an even better one. They deliver for us every single time.”
After all of those years, and 3AM wake up calls, Swanson still enjoys coming in to work every day. “I still love it. I really do. I still get that thrill when I sit behind the console and press the buttons or create an audio package for the show. I just love it. When I meet people the first thing they say to me is ‘what a cool job!’ and you know what? I agree. It’s been a heck of a ride.”
It’s been more than that. It’s been one of the most legendary rides in Chicago radio history.
- Rick Kaempfer
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