Rubin: Ex-anchor Guy Gordon bucks a trend at WJR

Neal Rubin, The Detroit News

There are surely many things Guy Gordon has that Ryan Seacrest doesn’t, but as Gordon rolls through his first week on the radio, the most important is this:

Knowledge. Specifically, local knowledge. As in, understanding the difference between Woodward and Woodhaven. Or the fact that when someone around here says “Tram,” it doesn’t mean a streetcar.

To be clear, Gordon did not replace Seacrest on the 3-5 p.m. weekday shift at WJR-AM (760). He replaced syndicated right-wing commentator Michael Savage, who probably doesn’t know Woodward from Woodhaven either.

But the empire-building Seacrest, who is rapidly becoming the polite Howard Stern, has a radio show that’s heard in 130 markets. He represents the unfortunate future of radio.

Gordon’s relocation from WDIV-TV (Channel 4) to the Fisher Building represents the past, in the best and most progressive way.

It’s a throwback for Gordon, the former news anchor who spent 32 years on Detroit television: His first paying job in broadcasting was at WBRN in Big Rapids, spinning the hits for $3.75 an hour as a weekend fill-in after his freshman year at Central Michigan.

It’s a throwback for WJR, the Great Voice of the Great Lakes, which has wasted too many of its 50,000 watts the past few decades on grumpy out-of-town hosts.

And it’s a throwback for an industry dominated by chain ownership, hobbled by debt, and eager to cut corners with one-size-fits-all programming that costs markedly less than an in-studio ringmaster and a producer.

Gordon took his first call on his first afternoon show Tuesday from morning fixture Paul W. Smith, who is on vacation this week — with Gordon, starting at the station in full gallop, serving as his fill-in.

With another live and local show, Smith said, listeners “will actually be able to have a guy like you, Guy Gordon, talking about the things that matter most to them.”

Well, yeah.

Things to celebrate

Gordon, 58, was hired into the Detroit market by Channel 7 in October 1984. Tram, as in Alan Trammell, and his Detroit Tigers teammates had just won the World Series, but a pot-bellied teenager named Bubba Helms had managed to become the face of the celebration by posing with a team pennant in front of a burning police car.

Aside from the Tigers, “you had everything else going to blazes. Literally,” Gordon says.

Since then, he estimates that he’s been to seven news conferences announcing something fabulous and ultimately imaginary for the old Hudson’s property.

Now, with a geographically targeted but undeniable resurgence in the city, “There are things to talk about. To celebrate.” And he’s the right voice at the right time.

His contract at WDIV, he says, expired in August — though the station made it clear that it wanted him to re-enlist. He’d been pulled off the late-morning “Live in the D” show 15 months ago in favor of Chuck Gaidica, and he acknowledges that it was easier to leave a reporting job than it would have been to abandon an anchor slot.

But he might have jumped anyway. “Guys my age,” he points out, “don’t get a chance at an Act III.”

A moderate lead-in

He joins a station that ranked third overall in the latest Arbitron ratings, behind the Christmas carols of WOMC-FM and WNIC-FM, and delivers an audience that’s historically awash in movers and shakers.

Some 75 percent of its listeners are 55 or older, though, and there’s been a steep drop in audience from Rush Limbaugh’s noon-3 p.m. program to Savage and then from Savage to 5-7 p.m. host Mitch Albom.

“The goal isn’t necessarily to skew younger. It’s just to have more local programming,” says Tom O’Brien, who oversees the Detroit market for WJR owner Cumulus Media.

He not only bucked a trend in dumping Savage, he offloaded a show Cumulus owns. The hope is to provide a better gateway to Albom, whose syndicated lead-ins have always been far-right.

“Somebody more in the middle leading to Mitch,” O’Brien says, “is a big plus.”

Gordon says that shouldn’t be a problem: after 32 years of being Switzerland, he’s not sure how to be partisan even if the mood strikes. A more immediate concern is refining his skills as an interviewer after a career spent more as an interrogator.

So far, his scheduled guests have tried to make it easy for him. Old friend Michael Bouchard, the Oakland County sheriff, broke the ice on the opening show.

Long-time listener, Bouchard told him.

First-time caller.