Thursday, November 13, 2008

Big Ears, A Big Heart and A Big Life

As I begin to write this, a friend of mine is dying...before I publish it, he will be dead.

I didn't always call him a friend. In fact during the time period when we actually were in daily contact, he was not in the "friend" category at all...he was my boss. We didn't hang out or share many interests. Except radio.

I wrote about him a little over a year ago. He was going toe to toe with cancer and determined to be the victor.

Our relationship blossomed into friendship during that battle over these past few years. We had some very good communications regarding things like fear, and faith, and God.

I didn't mention his name when I initially wrote about him. I was respecting his privacy.


Over the past 33 years or so in the radio industry, I have worked with a lot of people. I have crossed paths and swords with a lot of big egos, big voices, big opinions, big backstabbers, big talkers, big liars and a healthy dose of blustering blowhards. They come with the territory and frankly many radio stations wouldn't succeed if they didn't have people on staff with those very big traits.

In all honestly though, I believe I've only worked with one person who lived a truly big life: Andrew Ashwood.

I'm naming him now, out of respect for the friend. Moments ago I learned my friend died tonight.

In 1997, Andrew blasted into San Antonio like a giant, amiable, eager, energetic serial killer... on speed. It didn't take anyone long to realize that they may not know exactly where Andrew was or where he was going, but you sure as Hell knew where he'd been.

He was tasked with an enormous challenge: take a heritage 50,000 watt blow torch News Talk station in an entirely new direction - sorry, no instruction manual.

He was under the gun: kick off the dust, find ways to make a rather stogy, set in its ways radio station and its staff, exciting and fresh. Attract a larger and younger audience, but be certain to maintain the station's well earned integrity and respected image in the market.

There was one other caveat to his marching orders: remember that the station is the flagship News Talk station of the largest broadcasting company on the planet which happens to be headquartered in the same city. Remember the founders of the company along with every Tom, Dick or Mary with a title and permission to enter the corporate headquarters building whether they worked in San Antonio or in Boise, would be judging your progress...listening at every opportunity. Expect a lot of phone calls from people who wanted to look impressive at the corporate offices...not necessarily make a lasting impression on the industry.

Andrew would occasionally remind me and others that "Big Ears" were listening in reference to all the corporate folks he was often filtering us from. Eventually it didn't matter who was listening or the size of their ears...we could defend our product against any critic. We still can and Andrew is a huge reason that's possible. He taught me, and every employee whether they were his charges or not, to always seek to do better, never to rest on our laurels and he taught us there is no goal that is unattainable.

Andrew made huge changes, and he made them rapidly because he believed in himself, his vision, and his co-workers. He was convinced he knew what needed to be done. He also knew he was going to face a lot of backlash and so I suppose he figured there wasn't much sense in being delicate about it.

Recent political campaign slogans notwithstanding, I've found most people are actually resistant to change, especially when it comes to big things, like their jobs.

Some of the radio station employees who didn't respect Andrew's philosophy, or whose egos felt threatened, quit in occasionally comical huffs. One self-professed "talk show superstar" actually brought in body guards to block the studio door as he unexpectedly announced that immediately after he got his last "two cents" in, he was walking out and never looking back.

His "body guarded" bravado lasted 10 or 15 minutes during which he put all the blame for his apparently rash and emotionally gooey departure on Andrew. He told the audience how he was being forced to leave to maintain his integrity and that he could not in good conscious be on a radio station that was also going to carry a show which he characterized as evil, in fact satanic.

In hindsight, it was hysterical. With hypocrisy levels almost unimaginable anywhere but the broadcasting industry and Washington D.C., he said he was taking the moral high ground because his "young son" would be destroyed by a horrifying program the evil Andrew Ashwood was scheming to air. Then he and his "body guards" stormed out, leaving the microphones open, a number of people - including his wife, a station employee and also the mother of that impressionable little boy he was sparing from damnation by using as a prop - somewhat stunned. The only thing he failed to mention during his on-air fit was that he had already signed a contract with another station across town which required him to guarantee he could bring a large number of his program's sponsors to them. The stunt was so convincing to some that the then Archbishop of San Antonio got sucked into commenting on whether the "devil" was being allowed onto the legendary WOAI airwaves.

Andrew took all the heat...and there was a lot. Andrew and I didn't always agree, but after a while even thick headed folks like me tend to notice people who aren't running away or pointing fingers when lynch parties are organizing. I once sent Andrew an email telling him that, "We may fight over some of your methods, but I've never worked for anyone whom I could count on more to 'take the arrows' when hard decisions had to be made." Andrew's reply was atypical for his personality. I won't share that except to say I don't think he was expecting compliments from me at that time in our relationship.

By the way, the demonically sinister program Andrew put on the air on WOAI at 9pm on a tape delayed basis which was destined to corrupt small boys and lure them into to Hell...was a sports talk show hosted by a young guy who was making an impression and shaking things up in the industry.

Today, the Jim Rome radio show is perhaps the most syndicated sports talk show in the nation carried on hundreds of radio stations. To the best of my knowledge the devil has never been among Mr. Rome's guests.

The talk show host who rode out that day on his moral high horse with his trusted "body guards" at his side, lasted five or six years at his new station. The "loyalty" of most of the sponsors he promised to bring with him lasted only a few months. Last I heard he was out of radio and trying to sell his own self-professed one of a kind special extra delicious barbecue from a trailer on the side of a freeway. That venture didn't last long. I suppose people can only stomach so much.

Let me be clear, that is only one example of what Andrew not only endured but instigated within days of his arrival at WOAI. Many of the radio station's listeners rebelled at Andrew's wholesale programming modifications as well. Especially since Andrew imposed many of them with little or no notice, but always with great after-the-fact public fanfare. Andrew led the cheers for the changes within the walls of the radio station and in front of every TV camera, or newspaper reporter he could rally to outrage. He never flinched. He took on all comers who disagreed and he did so with gusto...he relished the challenge and lived in the moment.

I wasn't a quick convert either. I resisted too...but I learned something important. When I vehemently disagreed with Andrew, he did something that I had never experienced before with any other programming chief with whom I worked up to that point...he listened. I occasionally might see a hint that my objections were getting under his skin a bit, but he never lashed out, he never yelled, he rarely ever took the easiest step for any boss to take which is to simply say, "Tough luck I'm the boss."

The most telling of my personal "disagreements" with Andrew occurred in December of 1998. The House of Representatives was beginning the process of impeaching then President Clinton. Instead of turning over the radio station to a direct feed from the House floor where politician after politician was speechifying, Andrew threw together a rather motley bunch of quasi-talk show personalities and talk show host wannabes who ended up doing what a lot of folks suddenly tossed into a position like that do, they talked...they talked a lot. Remember, the station's self proclaimed "Super Star" host had already deserted.

This makeshift group yakked and yukked and rarely offered insight into the current situation. They were ill prepared for the task of dealing with an event the nation had not witnessed in modern history.

I was furious. A once in a lifetime historical event was playing out and the future of the country's President might well be dictated by what was being said, yet our station was broadcasting banter.

Sometimes the stories tell don't need announcers. I believed this was one of those occasions.

I didn't have to listen long before I simply blew.

I remember vividly storming around the radio station desperately trying to find Andrew, only to end up confronting him in the office of his boss. I didn't care. I interrupted their conversation without giving it a thought, spewing out everything I believed was wrong with what was happening on our airwaves, and not mincing words. I mean I blasted him. I blasted the gaggle of gossip we had on the air. I lectured Andrew on history like he was a schoolboy in knickers.

And I did it all, directly in front of his boss, the person who hired him only months prior and who stood there... mouth agape.

When my tirade was complete I turned to walk away, quickly realizing I might not get out the office door before being fired and then... Andrew laid me low with four words, "I appreciate your passion." He didn't yell them, he didn't seem mad or even embarrassed that one of his employees was questioning his judgment in front of his boss. He was calm and he was sincere.

A short time later, Andrew came into the newsroom. He called several of us together and asked for all our thoughts and then he acted. He culled some of the quasi-talk show hosts from the gaggle, carried much more of the live feed and made sure that everyone knew that they should bring him any other ideas right away.

It was the right move and a move that symbolized one of Andrew's greatest traits, he believed in people. He often believed in them more than they believed in themselves and he wasn't afraid to encourage them, or take advice, or seek ideas from anyone. He really did listen.

Andrew made careers for many people in my industry because of that attitude. He knew all his employees' names, he wasn't someone employees saw once in a while. He was hands on, all the time.

Andrew was my Operations Manager for six years before he left for his "dream job." He became the Vice President of Fox Sports Radio and moved to L.A. with the woman who soon became his wife.

When he left, News Radio 1200 WOAI had the highest ratings and largest audience in its history and I honestly believe there wasn't one employee who wanted to see him go.

How many bosses can you say that about?

Andrew was a giant of a man in many ways, his nickname was "The Gorilla" but he wasn't intimidating. He certainly demanded the best, but that was because he saw the best in people. He brought it out in those that let him.

Following his cancer diagnosis we exchanged a lot of emails and no matter the setbacks he endured, the treatments he was tortured by, and the occasional unsolicited prognosis of pessimism, never once did Andrew Ashwood stop believing he could win.

His faith in God grew stronger as his body at times grew weaker. His love for his wife Sandra also grew as he at times relied heavily on her strength and faith.

Andrew, who was 51 years old, died tonight after suffering a massive heart attack earlier this week. I will miss him and the radio industry certainly will never be the same.

I suspect Andrew Ashwood's heart may have been too big for this world...but I can guarantee that Heaven is a livelier place tonight than it has ever been.

Please enjoy him many of us praise You for allowing us that privilege.

Andrew Ashwood
1957 - 2008

Pure gold put in the fire comes out of it proved pure; genuine faith put through this suffering comes out proved genuine. When Jesus wraps this all up, it's your faith, not your gold, that God will have on display as evidence of His victory.
- 1 Peter 1:6-7(MSG)

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