My Al Schottelkotte Dream Come True

The legendary Cincinnati TV newsman once did me a big favor.
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I had never met Al Schottelkotte, and he certainly had no clue I existed. Those were just the first two reasons, they all said, why phoning him was such a stupid idea. The guy was famous and busy, and even if he took my call he’d never agree to the favor I planned to ask. No chance, they insisted. He was Al Fricking Schottelkotte.

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

If you aren’t familiar with that name—minus the Fricking—or if you think it looks like a typo or it says “A-One” Schottelkotte, you’re obviously not from Cincinnati. Or maybe your youth is showing. Here’s how familiar and formidable that name once was: From the 1960s through the early 1980s, WCPO-TV’s evening newscast was not called The Channel 9 News With Al Schottelkotte. It was literally called The Al Schottelkotte News. This man overwhelmingly ruled local television during an era when television overwhelmingly ruled all media. His newscast first reached the top of Cincinnati’s TV ratings in 1960 and stayed there like a planted flag for 22 straight years. Sometimes he even beat the combined numbers of all the other stations.

I’d lived in Cincinnati for only about a year at that point, so I had no idea how crazy it was to just casually telephone WCPO and get through to him. Crazy, though, was a common option at my place of employment, WEBN rock and roll radio of the mid-1970s. Taking chances was encouraged and occasional failures forgiven. What’s the worst that could happen? Schottelkotte might refuse to talk to me or, if he did hear me out, might shoot me down. That seemed survivable, so I made the call. I needed him to help make my dream come true.

My dream, I should point out, was not really mine—it was an actual while-I-was-sleeping dream. It had been described in a letter sent to WEBN by a listener who claimed he’d dreamed of a magical visit from the Great and Powerful Schottelkotte. Why would a guy send in a letter like that to a radio station? Because the station had asked listeners to submit exactly that kind of story. And we received hundreds. We were in the midst of WEBN’s “Winter Indoor Games,” a season-length promotion where our audience participated in various quirky events. In this one, they were encouraged to send us descriptions of their favorite dreams. The Dream Contest would not only award prizes for the best entries, but the entire audience would then get to hear dramatic presentations of the top three dreams as performed by the WEBN Repertory Theatre.

Jay, they said, you just don’t get this guy. He’s an old-school west side Catholic with 12 children. He probably thinks of WEBN with bottomless disgust.

To be honest, we had invented this contest for ourselves. It gave us the perfect excuse to splash around in our audio kiddie pool because, hey, we were young Baby Boomers. And while we were often called the first TV generation, we were also the last generation to enjoy the final days of old-time radio. When we were kids, a small handful of radio dramas and sitcoms—vibrantly mixed voices, music, and sound effects—were still around to thrill us in the dark. The Dream Contest would let us re-create that kind of fun. Entrants had the chance to win prizes (waterbeds, sleeping bags, hammocks), but we’d also get our own prize: making the audio theater we remembered from our youth.

I was fascinated by one entry from a guy named Jim, who dreamed he’d been watching The Al Schottelkotte News. As he began to watch more closely, Jim saw Al do something unusual. Then, suddenly….

We interrupt this program to remind you that the WEBN Dream Contest’s purpose was to provide an entertaining experience unique to the medium of radio. You won’t experience the magic if we simply describe what happened, so we demand that you hear it. There’s a link below to the original audio of Jim’s winning dream.

Allow me to describe the mountain I had to move to make this thing even happen. When the station’s judging team met, I voted for Jim’s adventure to be among the winners, because how damn cool would it be to feature a surprise appearance on WEBN by “A-One” Schottelkotte himself! Who’s with me, everybody?

The room full of Cincinnati natives laughed. Jay, they said, you just don’t get this guy. He’s an old-school west side Catholic with 12 children, the very embodiment of stodgy. He probably thinks of WEBN with bottomless disgust. Even if you reached him and even if he didn’t hang up as soon as you identified yourself, he’d definitely refuse your request.

Well, he didn’t. Allow me to congratulate myself a little, because I was strategic about every step. First, I phoned WCPO at 2:30 in the afternoon, which was comfortably past Al’s noon newscast and well past lunch (although maybe he was a “lunch is for wimps” kind of guy), but was also well ahead of any deadline pressures the 6 o’clock show might bring. When the receptionist answered, I took what was probably the most dangerous step of my plan: identifying myself as “Jay Gilbert from WEBN radio.” If my coworkers had been correct about Al, he might assume I’m trying to sell him drugs and reject my call. But I’d decided that describing myself as a fellow media professional would improve my chances at getting through. It did.

And then, there he was. Speaking in my very best I respect my elders and especially you, Mr. Schottelkotte, sir voice, I introduced myself. We traded pleasantries, and then I went into my well-rehearsed description of WEBN’s winter promotion. It included just a shade of a suggestion that Cincinnati’s most famous and serious journalist showing his whimsical side might be a cool move. A pause. Then a soft chuckle, and he said, “Sure, that sounds like fun.” Bang! Hah! They were all wrong!

The next afternoon at 2:45—I’d been right that this hour was his most flexible—Al welcomed me to his kingdom, the WCPO newsroom. I did not receive a grand tour; we had a job to do. Al went into a small announcer’s booth and read his lines expertly in one take, without changing a thing. I’ll take some credit for that, having carefully studied his on-air cadence and phrasing. The engineer handed me the finished tape reel, I shook Schottelkotte’s hand and never saw him again.

I’d made my dream come true! Now, though, there was Jim’s dream to complete. Back in my own studio, I wielded the editing tools of the era—splicing tape and a razor blade—to combine some actual Schottelkotte newscast audio with Al’s scripted lines, integrating myself as Jim. That’s all I’ll reveal, because you’re going to listen to the dream after you’re finished reading this, right? Here’s the link, with an extra bonus of hearing my geeky voice from 42 years ago.

The station promotion did its job well. All three dreams entertained and engaged our audience, and I’d like to think this bit contributed to the station’s steady rise in ratings through the mid-’70s. It undoubtedly contributed to Schottelkotte’s standing at home, because at a social event some months later, Al happened to see WEBN General Manager Frank Wood and told him this: “You know, I’ve got 12 children. None of them cares in the least that I’m the most familiar face and name in Cincinnati. But when they and their friends heard me on WEBN, I suddenly became a cool dad. So thanks for that.”

Al’s positive experience probably helped him decide a few years later to try something even more daring: appearing in a rock music video. During the explosive popularity of MTV in 1983, WEBN hired WXIX-TV’s production team to make a music video of a song from our latest Album Project series. This resulted in the infamous “Bus Full of Nuns,” an old childish joke turned into three minutes of childish footage. The video is, in its loopy way, historic. It features cameos from many of the era’s local news reporters, who agreed to share screen time with their rivals. The crowning scene is of Mr. Cincinnati himself, Al Schottelkotte, lip-syncing the refrain at his anchor desk: It was a bus full of nuns holding babies. Readers can decide for themselves whether to look this up on YouTube. Oh, come on, you know you want to. Here’s that link.

The Dream Contest worked well enough for us to do it again in 1978, but that was the final time. By then, WEBN had begun channeling its energies into an event that was the opposite of sleep: the annual riverfront fireworks show. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s like a fantastic dream, and it always makes the evening news.

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