Gene's Blog: Happy birthday, Frank...

Gene Mueller's Blog

"Radio," the old-time looking notice says to me from my Facebook feed. "Helping ugly people with nice voices get employed since 1897!"

A funny thought, especially when targeted at yours truly who does, indeed, have a face made for radio.

Then, it got weird.

"It's Frank Richardson's birthday," the reminder went on to say. "We thought you wouldn't want to miss the chance to wish Frank a happy birthday!"

Thanks for the nudge, social media asset. You do a lot of really nice things. You let me stay in touch with high school friends, and message my kids when life keeps us apart. You show me pictures of what my buddies had for dinner, and allow me to snark about the pop culture outrage of the moment.

But  you didn't remember that Frank died last August.

That's okay. Algorithms can only do so much. In fact, your little reminder--off, but well-intentioned--stirred up good memories and a sad one about a life ended too soon.

Longtime WTMJ listeners remember Frank as the baritoned news sidekick riding shotgun with Gordon Hinckley and Jim Irwin on the morning show in the 70's, 80's and 90's.  He was what I always thought a major market radio news guy should sound like and, when I got to meet him upon arriving at 720 East Capitol Drive in 1982, he was all I could hope a colleague would be. I technically worked for "the competition": WKTI which at the time was TMJ's FM stepbrother: weaker, far less known, seen by some within the building as a distraction or, even worse, as extra work even though we all worked for "Ma Journal." AM and TV kept Radio City's lights on. KTI? It was where "the hippies" hung out, playing weird music and doing goofy contests, whose program director once wore a diaper in front of the building on St. Patrick's Day, handing out green bagels to listeners while TMJ piled up huge ratings and industry journalism honors. I was part of a new wave meant to turn the sleeping giant at 94.5 FM a boost. We didn't consider ourselves threats to our AM brothers and sisters. We just wanted to do good radio.

Frank got that, and treated us as such. We'd sit side-by-each in the newsroom every morning starting at three, typing our own stories, swapping notes, dubbing tape and sharing wire copy. We'd bust each other's chops all the way and make some noises/odors best kept to our little corner. At five a.m. we'd go to our respective studios and try beating each other's brains out in the ratings.

And, we'd laugh. When Bob Reitman and I were about to mark our first on-air anniversary with a live show (in tuxedos) in the lobby of the what was then First Wisconsin Center downtown, it was Frank who made sure my bow tie was straight as I walked out the newsroom door, like a dad sending his son off to prom. I'm surprised he didn't give me a corsage for Reitman.

When our respective days were done, one of us would invariably ask the other if he was thirsty and off we'd go to the first incarnation of Buckley's on Keefe, just blocks from the station. There, we'd gossip and giggle and solve all of broadcasting's problems, dissect the woes of local sports teams, the federal government and the planet as a whole. Since no one bothered to take notes, we'd have to come back the next day to do it all over again.

Frank shared the tough stuff, too--Army stories from Vietnam where he served the media on the front lines, getting reporters to and from the hot zones so they could file their stuff. Some of the tales were funny. Others were sad. All admittedly left their mark on Frank who'd later get help to deal with what he'd encountered up country.

We'd stay in touch after he called it a career, he from his home down south where he'd hang with his fellow vets at the local VFW. On occasion, he'd file a story for CBS radio and those dulcet tones would once again pour out of a speaker. Virginia was his home and it was always in his pipes except when he was in front of a mike, at which time he'd sound as if he'd grown up in Brookfield. How do you do that, I once asked early on in our relationship, turning an accent on and off like that, "If you pay me what they pay me," he said, his words lush with the tones of his native state, "then I'll sound any way you want me too," finishing in the north-of-Mason-Dixon voice southeastern Wisconsin woke up to for decades.

And then, he'd laugh.

Thanks for the reminder, Facebook, not of a birthday wish that can't be acknowledged by the celebrant but of a relationship that was such a part of my early life here. We accumulate a lot of acquaintances though life, but very few people we can call friends, who we can dial up at the drop of a hat and carry on with in virtual mid-sentence, as if time and distance made no difference in closeness or affection. For me, Frank was one of those guys. It would be a lie to say we never had a cross word. That's how friendships go. But, for three decades, there was a helluva lot of good and very, very little bad. No one could've asked for more.

Happy birthday, Frank. Nice voice. Great friend.


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