John Lanigan knows what he will be doing about a week from now: Nothing.
No complaining on WMJI (105.7-FM) about the stupidity of a public proposal, no pushing Jimmy Malone for specifics about a news story, no chatting about Justin Bieber’s deposition or someone’s new book or much of anything else — at least, not for listener consumption. Lanigan is retiring.
It’s past time to go, the radio legend said in a recent chat in the Independence offices and studios of Clear Channel, which owns WMJI and a fistful of other local radio stations. He is in his 70s, and “I thought about it for a long time.”
“There was just a point where it got too hard to get up at 4 o’clock [in the morning]. I just thought, I’d like to live some other way for a while.”
But, after half a century in radio and about 40 years in Northeast Ohio, what will he do then? “That’s a question that bothers me a lot,” Lanigan said, the familiar snap entering his tone.
“Everybody says the same thing: ‘Oh, you’re going to retire, what are you going to do then?’ … I’m retiring, The idea is I’m quitting. I’m not doing anything, so I don’t have to plan anything. And I don’t have anything in mind. … I’ll figure it out when I get there, I’m sure. But right now it will be to sleep in and enjoy the day and spend some time at home, and that’s it.”
He said he even prepared for it some this winter, taking time off to see what it felt like to be at home and relaxing with his wife, Sandy, and their two dogs.
Asked if that means he will spend his retirement in his Bay Village home, he said, “Probably not.”
“I’ve got homes in Florida and Colorado, which I’ve had quite a while,” said Lanigan. “So basically I’ll go to Florida whenever there’s snow on the ground and out to Colorado … in the summertime. The mountains of Colorado are gorgeous in the summer and Florida is great in the winter.”
That’s not to say Lanigan dislikes the Cleveland area as a workplace. “It was very competitive. There was good talent in the market, a lot of good people working in radio here, and I thought the people were terrific. They expected a lot, and you tried to give that to them. This was a market that was pretty choosy about who it supported.”
Lanigan left briefly in the ’80s, departing the old WGAR-AM for a job in Florida; when he returned and settled in at WMJI, he said, a local newspaper columnist tried to find bad things he had said about Cleveland upon leaving “and she couldn’t find anything.” Indeed, Lanigan says Florida was disappointing because it was simply not up to the quality he had seen in Cleveland.
A radio man
Instead, when you talk to Lanigan for a bit, it becomes clear that there is little reason for him to keep going. He has tried TV — not only as the host of Prize Movie on WUAB (Channel 43) for about 20 years but as a weatherman in Albuquerque — “but I never thought about TV full time,” he said. “I did radio.”
And not just radio but morning radio. “That’s where the most listeners are, that’s where the most money is, that’s where the most entertainment is, and that’s the hardest one to succeed in,” he said. He once had a chance at a job in Los Angeles and turned it down; it was overnight, and that didn’t fit.
Still, he has been town to town, up and down the dial. Before Cleveland came jobs in Nebraska when he was growing up there, Denver, Colorado Springs, Albuquerque, Denver again and Dallas.
“It’s not that I was looking for anything,” he said. “That’s the way radio was then. … Now people stay in the same place for a longer period of time. It was so much different from any other kind of job. If you were selling shoes, nobody came to you from another shoe store and tried to steal you away by doubling your salary or whatever. Most of the people came to you and said, ‘I want you here.’ That was exciting to me, to go to a new place and start over. I didn’t go anywhere from Nebraska much when I was growing up.”
He has worked on AM and FM. He has known what it’s like to be a new guy, especially the new guy following a star. When he came to WGAR, he followed Don Imus, who had gone on to New York City.
“It was difficult, there’s no doubt,” he said. “Everybody’s going to compare what you were doing to what he was doing. … It took a while to get over being the Imus replacement, and I was scared to death. … You just went in and did what you were already doing.”
And he knows what it means to be a star. People who never get off their iPods and SiriusXM may not understand how big a radio personality can become. But dip into Beacon Journal clips from the ’70s and early ’80s when he was on WGAR, and you find him treated like, well, Justin Bieber.
He had a Lanigan’s nightclub, which was fun for a time but “just cost us all money.” It was worth a full story in 1979 when his jokes at a Ravenna Jaycees dinner offended a priest being honored at the event. (“They knew exactly what they were getting,” Lanigan said at the time.) A year earlier, a Lanigan speeding ticket also merited repeat coverage.
OK, he was going 94 on Interstate 77. Still, the story included a photo of Lanigan and comments from one of the Akron officers who pulled him over.
So now, he said, “I’ve done everything I want to do. … I’ve been everywhere in the world that I want to go, and I don’t need to go back.”
It seems as well that he has talked to everyone worth talking to. He has stories about radio stars Don Imus and Howard Stern; political lights including the late Ted Kennedy and a then-young Illinois senator named Barack Obama; porn star Marilyn Chambers, auto dealer and friend Rick Case and author Nelson DeMille. Drew Carey wrote jokes for him. So did Dan O’Shannon, later famous as a producer of ABC’s Modern Family.
Lanigan’s regrets are few. He never quite made the big jump to radio in New York City. In retirement he will no longer get advance copies of books by the authors he loves.
But he feels the business is not what he came into.
“It’s really changed a lot,” he said. “It was really fun a long time ago when we did crazy promotions and attacked each other.” One magazine cover had Lanigan choking his competitor Gary Dee, he said. John Gorman, then a programmer for WMMS (100.7-FM), would pretend to be from Lanigan’s show and cancel guests scheduled for the rival. “He lives across the street from me now. He’s a really good friend. … But we competed. It was really fun radio. Lots of promotions, lots of personalities that came through. Now it’s corporate and everybody wants to work for the same team, it seems. …
“Corporate has got to worry about, ‘Well, I don’t know if that would be a good idea or not. We might get in trouble.’ Everybody’s covering their butts.” What used to be considered shock jocks would now seem mild. And even the famously outrageous Howard Stern has moved on to satellite radio.
So the farewells have begun. Although he planned to retire quietly at the end of 2013, the company wanted to give him a big send-off. Tribute will be paid at the annual Moondog Coronation Ball on Saturday. His last day on the air will be the following Monday. The next day, Mark Nolan will join Jimmy Malone, Chip Kullik and Tracey Carroll on the early shift; Kat Jackson will take over Nolan’s midday slot (while still working for WGAR-FM).
And Lanigan will be sleeping in.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.