Confession time: I slept with Marge Schott. It was torture. For weeks, she disrupted my workdays and dominated my nights. God, there was one time I even sang to her, making up new lyrics to Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Through it all, I couldn’t tell anyone, but I will tell you now, as this month marks 30 years since our brief relationship.
To be fair to the ghost of Mrs. Schott, when I say nobody knew, that included her. She was busy running the Cincinnati Reds, completely unaware of me. But me, I couldn’t sleep at all. My long nights were spent struggling to think of ways to make her happy. I had to win her over, just had to. After all, I’d been given an unlimited budget to make it happen.
It was the start of the 1988 Cincinnati Reds season, and I was deep into a crash course of Schott 101. As the sole registered student, I had to learn the things Marge liked and disliked. This was all part of an underground assignment, a covert, behind-the-scenes rescue mission of a 21-year-old damsel in distress: the broadcasting relationship that had existed since 1967 between the Cincinnati Reds and its local radio affiliate, WLW.
You probably think of how “the Reds are on the radio!” the same way you think about your home’s electricity: it’s just there, at 700 WLW on the AM radio dial. Who would blame you? The Reds just started their 51st consecutive season with the station. The idea of separating them is simply unthinkable. In 1988, however, Marge Schott was not only thinking it, she was threatening it. The Reds/WLW contract had an opt-out window that had just opened, and two other local stations were standing outside that window, serenading.
Major dollars were at stake. Today, the Cincinnati station that partners with the team becomes the central nervous system for the Reds Radio Network, a chain of more than 100 AM and FM stations across eight states, with technology and manpower that costs—and earns—a bucket of money for the flagship. The network back then wasn’t quite that big, but the consequences of WLW losing it sure were. Even though I worked across the hall at sister station WEBN, we could feel the heat. Everyone in the building knew about the crisis.
One day, WLW general manager Dave Martin, who I’d known only casually, approached me with a request to become involved in saving the contract. Me? I’d be glad to help, but how? Dave said he wanted a 15-minute video, at a budget of “whatever it takes,” laying out in great detail all of the reasons for maintaining WLW’s bond with the Reds. It would address Marge directly, by name, which was “Mrs. Schott” (never, ever should anyone address her as “Ms.”). The video would be tailored to push the buttons of her specific likes and dislikes, which I, therefore, had to learn in a hurry. This was the launch of my season of sleeping with (and without) Marge.
The video would basically be an extended commercial, which is why Dave Martin thought of me. In addition to being a radio DJ, I have an extensive background in creating ad campaigns. I didn’t have all the resources of an ad agency, but I did have two very important qualities: I was in-house, and I could keep a secret. Everyone knew that WLW was bidding for a new contract, but in any negotiation, you don’t want to give away how worried you might be. And the prospect of losing Marge was a big worry.
“She told me afterward that she never really considered leaving,” says present-day Bill Cunningham. “She just wanted to watch everybody squirm.” Cunningham’s bombastic talk show, fairly new to WLW back then, amused Marge. She could relate to belligerency, and they became fast friends. Which is why Willie was cast as the video’s on-camera pitchman. Now all we needed was a story arc and a script.
A small team assembled and discussed how to integrate our sales pitch with Marge’s turn-ons and turn-offs. To demonstrate WLW’s strong signal, Willie suggested that we go out to the Oldenburg convent in Indiana and watch the nuns, whom Marge adored, easily tuning in WLW’s 50,000 watts. Excellent. Footage of fans in the stands would of course include Marge herself meeting families and kids. And her dog, Schottzie—well, duh. Marge loved her St. Bernard, who had become more famous than the players for “leaving it all out on the field.”
Turn-offs: Marge detested Bengals owner Mike Brown, so alongside his scowling photo we’d list the 10 Reds games per year that the Bengals—then on WKRC—would pre-empt if she moved to that station. Hey, let’s add a reminder that in 1972, the Bengals bumped the Reds from their radio station in the seventh game of the World Series! Let’s show Brown with horns! OK, that’s too much. This wasn’t 2018.
We knew, though, that Priority No. 1 for Marge was not pride. It was money. We had to hammer away at the dollar consequences of dumping WLW. This was easy, because it was simply true: Without the enormous geographical coverage provided by WLW’s superior, clear channel signal, the Reds would be abandoning a huge base of listeners. And broadcast coverage was and is, for the team, essentially a commercial for attracting more butts to the bleachers. A big radio audience was a financial must for the Reds, and our video would show that only WLW could deliver it.
So there I was, singing over the video’s opening scene (“Tune me in to the baaalll gaaame…”). The accompanying footage shows a family picnic, with everyone gathered around a boombox as an excited Marty Brennaman tracks a long fly ball. Then the signal suddenly crackles and fades out. Everyone is disappointed. They shut off the radio, forget the Reds, and decide to go to Kings Island. Cue the horror music! Oh, the humanity! Fade up on Bill Cunningham standing at the Reds ticket window—That’s right, Mrs. Schott—launching into his spiel about strong ticket sales depending on a strong radio station.
To further demonstrate the importance of a long-distance signal, I went with a camera crew to Riverfront Stadium before a game, found several fans who had traveled a good distance to attend, and interviewed them. “Which radio station do you listen to at home for the games?” “Oh, WLW.” “Don’t you have a local station for that?” “Yeah, but it’s weak, especially at night. WLW comes in better.” Almost all of the faraway fans I spoke with gave me this type of response.
We also proved that even within greater Cincinnati, competing stations have spotty coverage. For this, WLW’s engineers knew exactly which neighborhoods to send us to. Willie and a portable radio stopped by some places around Terrace Park and Milford, where he struggled on camera to pick up those stations that had claimed they could broadcast Reds night games. Static. Garble. Lost listeners meant lost dollars, Mrs. Schott. You sure you want to do this?
It worked. At the game on September 20, 1988, it was announced that the Cincinnati Reds were proud to continue with WLW as their flagship radio station. Marge knew that when a radio station carrying your team reaches 38 states, you don’t mess; she just wanted to enjoy a little arm-twisting for a better deal, that’s all. Everybody was happy in the end.
I must note one more thing that happened on this project. It was during the meeting where we were planning my stadium-plaza interviews with out-of-town fans. The date and location were chosen, and then I was given the following instruction: “Only talk to white people. That’s all Marge wants to see.”
Years before it became national news, this side of Marge Schott was not news to anyone who had spent time in her presence. After a lifetime of loose talk about African-Americans, Jews, and Asians, and public comments like, “Hitler was good in the beginning, but he went too far,” Marge’s mouth—often the result of in vodka veritas—finally caught up with her. It got her sent to racial sensitivity training and eventually to the showers, having to sell off her stake in the Reds.
Marge’s supporters, still a surprisingly sizable constituency in this town, continue to echo her version of what happened: The good ol’ boys of Major League Baseball simply couldn’t stand a woman trespassing on their AstroTurf. They engineered a media hit job with anecdotes about her that were probably not much different from their own private behavior, but just intolerable from a female. It’s certainly possible that both sides were right—that Marge relentlessly spouted racist and anti-Semitic slurs, and that MLB used them as an excuse to push her out of their plush locker room.
But in 1988, back when I made that video for the woman I had obsessed over, when I thought I’d learned everything about her, everybody loved Marge Schott. In fact, just four years earlier, her purchase of a controlling interest in the Reds was welcomed as having rescued the team from being gobbled up by non-local owners. The local gratitude was limitless.
I suppose you could say she was good in the beginning, but she went too far.