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Thursday, May 15, 2003 02:20 pm

Good-bye, One-Eye

Shock jock takes stock

art182
Don "One-Eyed Jack" Jackson
Nick Steinkamp

The official word on last week's firing of longtime talk-radio ringmaster Don "One-Eyed Jack" Jackson is that Capitol Radio Group had decided WTAX-AM needed a new format. Something more informative and less offensive. Something better able to deliver breaking stories. Something the new general manager, Leanne Arndt, calls "a structured news wheel."

Insiders, however, call this format change a sham. Numerous sources tell Illinois Times that the real reason One-Eyed Jack left WTAX is that he plans to have a sex change operation next year, and the hormone therapy he has recently commenced as a precursor to this transition will soon affect his voice, necessitating a break from radio. Sources say the operation is part of a total transformation for which "Jackie"--as he now wishes to be known--has stopped smoking, drinking, and swearing, become a vegan, registered as a Democrat, and joined the ACLU.

Of course, unless hogs are flapping their wings in the skies above Springfield, not one word of the above paragraph is true. Consider it homage to the man who made his name saying similarly outrageous things about other people.

Like the time in the early 1990s that he announced on air that labor activist Mike Hade was a "communist homosexual." That got Jackson sued. Hade collected a settlement, but Jackson still just laughs. "Oh, c'mon. Think about it. No matter who you apply it to, the term 'communist homosexual' is funny," Jackson says. "It's two things that don't even go together! It's funny!"

The mention of that lawsuit triggers another memory--about the time he got in trouble for referring, on the air, to the man reading the news as a "dickweed."

"People were all, 'Oh my god, it sounds bad!' But what does 'dickweed' mean? It doesn't mean anything!" Jackson says. "It was just some silly crap that we made up, and it was funny!"

Of course, not everything that's tickled One-Eyed Jack's funny bone has struck listeners the same way. His most recent foul ball smacked a State Journal-Register reporter, who Jackson accused, on-air, of being romantically involved with a high-ranking police officer. That wild yarn resulted in a lengthy article plus an editorial in the SJ-R demanding a retraction, as well as the cancellation of the SJ-R's advertising contract with WTAX. It may also have cost Jackson his job.

But Jackson says the reason he was given for his ouster was poor ratings. Arndt had met with him a week or so earlier to talk about his ratings, and ratings were again the topic last Friday. Only on Friday, the conversation ended with Jackson's firing, which Jackson says was no surprise. "On a Friday, on a payday, in radio--you always know what that meeting is," he says.

Arndt has a slightly different recollection of the earlier meeting. She says she told Jackson that Capitol Radio Group would be looking at ratings and revenues. "But we do not subscribe to the [Arbitron ratings] book, so I don't have access to the numbers," Arndt says.

She declined to answer the question of whether the SJ-R had yanked $20,000-plus in advertising from WTAX, saying it was "not my account," but other sources associated with the SJ-R and Capitol Radio confirm that it did. Ed Christian, the president and CEO of Capitol Radio's parent company, Saga Communications, also cited ratings and revenues in his responses to e-mails from Jackson's loyal fans.

"It was discouraging for us (and I'm sure for Jack too) to watch the erosion of his audience that has occurred over the last year and a half," Christian wrote in one response. "Coupled with this was the resistance of many of our WTAX clients to advertise on his show.

"It was not an easy decision for us. . . . We had hoped that the most recent rating book would show a change, but alas that did not happen."

In another e-mail, Christian wrote: "The numbers that have been referred to are Industry standard numbers supplied by the Arbitron Company. . . . Mr. Jackson certainly has talents; we do not diminish this. However, based on the results of the survey, his appeal is limited to a waning core audience, of which you must be part."

The most current Arbitron ratings, released in late January, are "embargoed" and can't be made public, because only one local radio group, Clear Channel, subscribed to the service for Fall 2002. But publicly available data from prior rating periods show a slip in WTAX's general ratings (not just for the morning drive-time slot). Its market share among listeners 12 and older was 5.7 during the first half of 2001, 5.9 for the second half, and 4.8 for the first half of 2002. By comparison, the top-rated station, WFMB-FM, has a market share ranging from 15.0 to 17.5.

Besides ratings and ad revenues, Jackson was running his usual deficit in the public relations department. The word that consistently pops up among his former co-workers is "team," as in "team work" or "team spirit" or loyalty to a team--all qualities Jackson admits he couldn't care less about.

"Where is the team on the One-Eyed Jack show? The team was the listeners that called in," he says. "I work hard. I don't depend on anybody. I run with scissors."

One former co-worker describes Jackson as "extremely difficult to work with." Another has a cruder way of phrasing his opinion: "I found that the more you get to know Jack, the more you get to see what an [expletive] he is."

But at least one former competitor grudgingly admits that Jackson has a certain gift.

"You don't last as long as he did in this town without having talent and an ability to inspire a reaction in people," says Jim Leach, host of afternoon drive-time talk on WMAY-AM. "There's no doubt that to get the calls and inspire the loyalty and to recognize what buttons on people to push, that takes talent. I can't deny that."

Jackson, who was born and raised in Springfield, worked radio jobs in Tulsa, Corpus Christi, and Cleveland, playing country or rock music like a traditional deejay. He was fired from the Cleveland job after only four months, but he didn't care.

"They made me be Polish, and I'm Irish," Jackson says. The station managers wanted him to use the last name Kovac, to appeal to the large ethnic population in Cleveland. "People started trying to fix me up with their daughters. They'd bring me this food I knew nothing about, ask me where 'my people' were from. . . . I was living a lie!"

He returned to Springfield, where he could go on air using only the nickname bestowed upon him years earlier by another patient in a military hospital. Jackson was in the Navy and had lost an eye in an "accident" while on shore patrol duty in Charleston, South Carolina. In the same hospital ward was a Stars and Stripes cartoonist who passed the time drawing caricatures of all the other patients. When Jackson spoke of his plans to pursue a career in radio, the cartoonist drew him with an eye patch and came up with a jazzier suggestion for his on-air name.

So it was that One-Eyed Jack landed on WMAY-AM in 1976, trying to play "middle of the road country" every morning instead of talking. He worked there off and on over the next 15 years, and eventually he persuaded his bosses that his own patter was more interesting than any platter.

"I kept leaving because they said, 'You've gotta play all these records.' I said no, because I'm more entertaining than the records are," Jackson says. He finally got permission to be a talk jock instead of a disc jock in the early 1990s--or, as he puts it, "just before Bill Clinton was elected president. I hated his politics and his attitude and his age and everything about him, and I loved Ronald Reagan, and so it was appalling to me that this guy could end up being president of our country." Jackson has been talking ever since.

A news junkie, Jackson says he had a habit of getting up every day at 2 a.m. to read various newspapers on-line, to get a variety of perspectives on the news. He would spend hours making musical montages and stitching together little sound clips to make funny openers for his show.

Until February 7, that is.

Jackson's fans--and there is a small but fiercely loyal group of them--are taking his firing much harder than he is. They've been phoning and e-mailing Jackson, WTAX, and the SJ-R. Once they learned about this article, they began swamping me with e-mails too.

Jackson, though, claims he isn't surprised or angry about his firing. "This is not a big deal. In radio, you expect it. This is like a really neat opportunity," he says. He doesn't know what he'll do next, but he swears it will be fun. Bruce Mackey, editor of the Springfield Business Journal, has asked Jackson to write for his publication. And on Tuesday afternoon, Jackson received a tempting job offer he would describe only as "radio and something else."

But Mike Hade, the labor activist who sued Jackson years ago, would just as soon see Jackson not get a new job.

"I hope that the radio stations will remember that there is more than just profits. The stations should strive for at least a touch of reality and truth, and in my opinion One-Eyed Jack represented neither," Hade says.

Stay tuned.