Remembering the Inspiring Brad Saul

| December 7, 2015

By Mike Kinosian,
Managing Editor
TALKERS

 

kinosianlgCHICAGO — Not the least bit hyperbolic is the assertion that Brad Saul was a successful entrepreneur the greater part of his 55 years of life.

Formerly president of Matrix Media and president/chief executive officer of WebTalkRadio.net, Saul was one of the most inspiring individuals in this medium; he passed away over the weekend at his home in Chicago.

Approximately 10 years ago, Saul was extensively profiled by TALKERS managing editor Mike Kinosian, who was then special features editor of Inside Radio. Highlighted here are excerpts from that piece.

Those were the formative days

Metro Chicago provided the early-1970s backdrop as Saul accompanied his parents to a Saturday afternoon Street Fair.

WLTD, Evanston, Illinois’ Chuck Schaden is broadcasting “Those Were The Days,” a retro show instantly making a momentous impression on 13-year-old Saul, who – ironically – would later become general manager of WLTD. Schaden also had a Saturday morning “Radio for Kids” show, which featured a different weekly co-host. That was Saul’s first on-air radio opportunity and he kept the script where he read the first weather forecast he ever did on the air.

Witnessing Schaden do his thing on that Saturday remote prompted the barely-teen Saul to sell copies of old radio shows.

After buying an ad in a physician’s journal, Saul was “flooded” with orders. “There was no such thing as high-speed duplication then,” explained Saul, whose “Radio Nostalgia” emanated from his bedroom after school. “I literally had to make copies from one cassette recorder to another.”

Operations had to be suspended because the lad – whose stepfather was a physician and his biological father played in the Washington Senators minor league system and died when Saul was four – literally had too much business.

Blood, sweat, & orange juice

Late in his freshman year at the University of Missouri (“I absolutely hated it”), Saul was contacted by Chicago’s WBBM. “I couldn’t quit college because guilt would be with me forever,” he confided to Kinosian.

Consequently, he applied to the one school he was absolutely sure he would not get into – Northwestern University.

From a field of 400 that year, Northwestern accepted seven transfer students – including Saul – who claimed the only reason he was chosen was that the dean of students liked him.

To subsidize his education, Spanish-fluent Saul performed a coterie of jobs, including Spanish talk show host. “I did whatever I could up to – and including – giving blood,” he convincingly told Kinosian. “It came with a free meal – orange juice and cookies. I ate peanut butter and crackers six nights a week and cauliflower the seventh because I needed a vegetable.”

Along the way, he ran WEEF, Highland Park, Illinois and turned WONX – formerly WLTD – from a money-losing beautiful music AM outlet into a brokered Spanish operation.

Problem issue addressed

Fulltime radio jobs and a packed academic load lasted through Saul’s senior year when the seed for an idea to initiate (another) business sprouted.

One “horrible” responsibility he had at WEEF and WONX was making sure public affairs programming covered material on the then-annual “Issues & Problem” lists. That usually meant calling someone from a local non-profit and getting them to the station to do a show. “It would be great,” Saul theorized, “if a syndicated barter program could do that and be customized so it sounded like I did it from my station.”

That is precisely what he and a partner attempted in 1981. On Thanksgiving weekend that year, 19 of what Saul jested were “the smallest stations you have ever heard of” carried his show which launched PIA – Public Interest Affiliates. A second half-hour on health issues soon followed on what would lead to the nucleus of a much bigger 1983 business.

Flying high

Golden-voiced John Doremus supplied in-flight audio (“Music In The Air”) to several airlines, but following deregulation in 1981, airlines no longer wanted to pay for such programming.

It occurred to Saul there were similarities between in-flight programming and bartered syndication. Eastern became the first airline to allow him to sell in-flight audio commercials and he kick-started that on a barter basis. “It was so successful they asked us to do the same for their in-flight television programming,” Saul revealed to Kinosian. “We were involved in doing in-flight programming/ad sales for American, Eastern, TWA, United, and Western.”

Triple threat

At the height of the home-shopping craze (1986), there was Saul creating Value Radio. “People laughed and asked how we would sell things that couldn’t be seen,” the executive producer of the first two Radio Hall Of Fame broadcasts reflected in that interview. “To me, if you don’t believe you can sell things people can’t see, you should not be in this business. We put together a string of stations for this overnight talk show and did close to $2 million in merchandise a month. We got 5% commission on merchandise sold – as did radio stations in their individual markets. We were a last resort for weird ideas of the world because we made them work.”

Included was his 1987 brainchild to put a radio station studio in the middle of a Chicagoland amusement park and sell sponsorships to it. The idea for “Great America Radio” was to talk about food service times and ride-wait times and traffic to/from the park. It lasted for a year but Saul conceded that Bob Pittman later did it much more successfully with televisions everywhere. “I wrote a high school newspaper column and interviewed Bob when he was the 21-year-old PD of [Chicago’s WMAQ].”

Yet another epiphany came to Saul when, in 1998, he realized the NBA was professional sports’ only league without a network radio deal, so he began courting the league. “Nobody cared who I was or who PIA was – the product was the NBA,” he stressed to Kinosian. “Other deals were on the table and the money was greater than ours but the thing I truly believe that sealed the deal was we said it would be the NBA Radio Network.”

Most imperative to underscore in all this is that every milestone noted thus far was reached prior to Saul’s 30th birthday. “Fear and hunger are great motivators,” he modestly downplayed. “I needed to support myself.”

Maintaining an important pledge

On June 29, 1990 at 10:17am, Saul fulfilled a promise to quit smoking when he turned 30.

Five weeks later, while having drinks at the Ritz Carlton with a woman (Debbie) who captivated his attention when he made the NBA pitch, he experienced blurry vision. It was nerve-related – he was told – and that it would clear up in a few weeks.

The problem did disappear and, that fall, he went through thinking everything was fine as his relationship with Debbie intensified.

Devastating diagnosis

By January of 1991, however, Saul experienced problems with his balance. On advice of a neurologist, an MRI was done President’s Day weekend 1991 and Saul candidly admitted to Kinosian that he was “scared to death.” The three possibilities were a brain tumor, aneurism – which is what claimed the life of his biological father – or MS.

Less than eight months after turning 30 (2-17-1991) and after kicking a smoking habit, Brad Saul was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, although he had no idea what that meant.

There are many different kinds of MS and Saul would become very educated about the affliction. Some have one bout and nothing happens ever again – or – you can have significant disability as Saul did. “I believe there was a connection between quitting smoking and the onset of MS – not that I wouldn’t have [contracted MS] anyway,” he opined to Kinosian. “Nicotine is an enhancer of neurotransmission. If you take it away cold turkey from someone predisposed to needing a little help, you cause a stress event that opens Pandora’s Box and you’re done.”

With only slight hesitation and crackle in his voice in that interview, Saul did not second-guess the decision that paid priceless dividends. “Debbie would never have married me if I didn’t quit smoking. She’s the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me.”

Their 14-month engagement followed Saul’s MS diagnosis. “I told her I’d prefer that, as much as I’d be devastated and never recover from it, I’d rather she break off the engagement than go forward with it; marry me; have kids; and then decide she couldn’t deal with it. That would have been horrendous.”     

Such was not the case, as triplets Brennan, Gabrielle, and Griffen – who will turn 17 next month (1/14/2016) – became the “reason for being” for wheelchair-bound Saul.

Country’s largest minority 

Scenes of a doting dad and loving husband served as a stunning contrast to Saul’s earlier family situation. “I didn’t speak to my parents for 15 years until I ran into them on an airplane,” Saul noted in that interview with Kinosian. “I struggled for most of the flight if I should say hello and decided I should. Debbie comes from a close-knit family. It was impossible for her to understand how a family could not speak to each other. She opened the door to creating that relationship with my family.”

So savagely did MS riddle Saul’s body that the once most independent person one could find and who put himself through Northwestern (dual major of Radio/TV/Film and Spanish); Northwestern graduate school; and Loyola Law School needed help to do the most menial things. “The only Achilles heel I have is my physical being,” he commented. “Suddenly, I am the most physically dependent guy in the whole world. If you looked at an MRI of my brain, you’d never know I had MS.”

Some in such straits might seriously contemplate suicide and Saul acknowledged, “In the state I’m in, I really don’t want to be here. I can’t do things I used to and want to do.”

Taking his own life though was not an option because, “That is the most narcissistic thing one could possibly do – it hurts everyone around you.”

Instead of preying on people’s pity, the ever-resourceful Saul in 1999 established The Radio Center For People With Disabilities, a 501(c) 3 non-profit agency that recruits, trains, and places people with disabilities in off-air radio jobs. President Bill Clinton was the one “who paved the way” for him to do it.

Enlisting the help of Yellow Cab, Chicago owner Pat Corrigan, Saul made The Windy City more responsive to the disability community and he became president of Chicago Disability Transit, which provided on-demand para-transit services for people with disabilities. “After employment, transportation is the second biggest problem for people with disabilities,” he pointed out to Kinosian. “We are the largest minority group in the country and the only one that doesn’t discriminate by age, sex or ethnicity; anybody can join us in a heartbeat.”

Deity deal

Roughly 16 years ago (early-2000), the former PIA became a three-tiered enterprise: UBC Radio Network; Matrix (short form feature syndication with several features airing on 400 stations); and EBN (24/7 Talk). Finding programs geared to very narrow-targeted audiences was Saul’s goal. “There is no barrier to enter syndication – people try something new every day. You have to be very creative and innovative with your business model and programming. Particularly with HD Radio and internet radio, traditional syndication’s model will no longer work.”

Satellite radio was among the things of which Saul was skeptical. “Every pay radio service in the history of this country – going back to 1940 when the first one was created for five cents a day – has failed,” he maintained. “The country’s average commute time is 37 minutes and over 90% of radio listenership takes place in cars. People are being asked to pay for essentially 74 minutes of commute time every day. It is possible satellite will survive because of truckers who are in their vehicles a lot.”

Wireless internet, he felt, would be more threatening. “You will have access to thousands of radio stations versus paying more than $10 a month for about 150 stations,” stated Saul, who thought Howard Stern is one of radio’s greatest talents. “The important point is that if every Sirius subscriber listened to him, he would [still only] have 20% of the audience he had on terrestrial radio.”

Fire for the business clearly burned within Saul’s belly and the former part-owner of Independent (baseball) League’s Schaumburg Flyers concluded that interview with Kinosian by emphasizing, “The day I am no longer passionate about this is the day I will no longer do it; however, I am concerned new young minds are going other places. I hope there is a 13-year-old out there [who] will be bitten by the radio bug like I was. The deal I made with God is I’ll be a sport and deal with this disease in this life, but if she does this again in my next life – and I do hope God is a she – I’ll really have a problem.”

Services for Brad Saul will be held later today (Monday, 12/7) at 3751 Broadway in Chicago, with interment at Zion Gardens Cemetery. The family – which includes his widow Debbie and their triplets – asks that donations be made to the MS Society or another charity.

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Email TALKERS managing editor Mike Kinosian at Kinosian@TALKERS.com

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Category: Features