Neal Rubin: Hearing from J.P. McCarthy one last time
Time marches on? No.
Detroit Public Television will air a documentary at 8 Thursday night called “J.P. McCarthy — The Voice of Detroit.”
“J.P. on ‘JR in the A.M.,” the billboards said, and that was all you needed to know. Close your eyes and you can still hear the greeting that began three decades of radio shows: “Good mornin,’ world.”
His ratings were the highest, his reach the widest. One morning in 1992, he interviewed President George H.W. Bush and his two significant opponents, Bill Clinton and H. Ross Perot — in the same hour.
The talent pool in Detroit was deep — and still is — but there was only one J.P.
And then there wasn’t. He was 62 when he died, quickly, of a rare blood disease ...
Twenty years ago.
Twenty years, seven months and a day, to be precise. If you’re 35 or younger, you might never have heard his voice. If you’re 25 or younger, you’ve probably never heard his name.
Time sprints. Memories stay behind, locked in place.
“We’ll get this turkey on the road in just a minute,” McCarthy would say, and maybe he’d still be saying it today. Heck, Ernie Harwell worked until he was 84.
But the show? The one we remember?
That, said McCarthy’s youngest son, would be different.
A big reach
Jamie McCarthy was co-executive producer of the special with Fred Nahhat of WTVS-TV (Channel 56).
They interviewed historians, friends of McCarthy, his competitors, his radio heir and a mayor. They taped producers and station managers, people who were with McCarthy near the beginning of his career and at the end.
The program debuted Sunday night with pledge breaks and in-studio guests, among them Jamie, 40, and J.P.’s widow, Judy.
Off camera, Judy said her husband “would be overwhelmed by this. Despite what people might think, he had great humility.”
Jamie said his dad was intrigued with technology and open to change, and would have evolved his program with the times.
McCarthy’s show began as the “Morning Music Hall,” after all — and it was successful. But as interviews became more of a focal point, the music faded out.
Blowing up his schedule to react to breaking news, McCarthy could seemingly reach anyone, anywhere. Before the Internet and cellphones, he’d track down the governor, the manager of the Detroit Tigers or, one morning, forensic psychologist Emanuel Tanay at a ski resort in Utah.
My husband forgot his briefcase, a caller might say: Could you tell him he needs to turn around and come home?
Neutral, but persistent
Jamie McCarthy, the chief creative officer at a marketing agency, dabbled briefly in radio and then went his own way. He remains proud not only of what his father accomplished, but how he did it.
McCarthy was rarely combative on the air. The CEOs and newsmakers had become his friends over the years, and the interviews were more like conversations. But he always asked the key questions, and he wouldn’t settle for evasive answers.
“I’m guessing he wouldn’t have liked what Bill O’Reilly and Chris Matthews have helped invent,” the son said. “They’re always creating a fabricated fight. They’re not treating their guests with respect.”
J.P. McCarthy remained consciously neutral, even at home.
“I know he voted for JFK,” Jamie said, and for two-term Democratic Gov. James Blanchard at least once. “But he never told anybody his politics, even us.”
He saw himself as the conductor, and he wanted the attention on the orchestra — and the audience. The audience responded, and still does.
Judy McCarthy said a clerk at a department store recognized her name on a credit card two weeks ago.
“I listened to him all the time,” the woman said, and then she started to cry, and then they were crying together.
Time marches on? No.
Sometimes, time stands still.