50 Years Of WBBM Newsradio Sports Reporters: Jeff Joniak & Josh Liss

Josh Liss
May 08, 2018 - 2:22 pm

WBBM Newsradio

CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- In honor of WBBM Newsradio's 50th anniversary, some of WBBM Newradio's sportscasters, past and present, have shared their Newsradio memories.

WBBM Newsradio's Josh Liss and Jeff Joniak sat down to look back at their careers with the station and talk shop.

Liss: Here I am Jeff in my 20th year with WBBM, you're pretty much right there at WBBM, almost two decades, we both anchor :15 and :45 updates, a.m. and p.m. drive, report on all sorts of stories, and of course, you are the play-by-play radio voice for Bears football. I'm looking forward to this conversation. 

Joniak: Should be fun, I've known you since you were a baby Josh...Josh was an intern at WMAQ and basically volunteered to cover training camp in Plattesville, Wisconsin and that's where we learned about this man's work ethic and his talent, because he basically bunked in Plattesville, which you know we've all done, but he didn't have to do it, but he did it and was outstanding at what he did and that opened the door for him. I hired you and I saw his job offer on paper, he sent it to me the other day, I literally could not stop laughing. It was a pretty good salary for a young guy.

Liss: It's been fun. It's been fun back in the 'MAQ days, we were apart of a fun sports team there, and we've been around the block obviously a few times with Bears, Bulls, Cubs, Sox, Hawks and more. Where do we even start? I remember it was sort of unique how we got paired up here at WBBM, because I was out of 'MAQ in the summer of '98 and you hung on there still doing some Bears and sports work with that whole team for another year or two after that.

Photo provided by Josh Liss

Joniak: Yeah, and we had the Bears after the Bulls left, and I was playing post-game host for the Bears and was able to travel with the Bears. Right when they got the broadcast, I was with Brian Davis at that time, Wayne Larrivee was the play-by-play guy, so I learned a ton from Wayne as a broadcaster, as I did from Neil Funk being on the sidelines during Bulls pre and post all those years during the Jordan era. And when the shift came at 'MAQ was going to turn into something else, and there was one news operation in town, I was fortunate enough to be tethered to the Bears and the Bears were coming over to 'BBM...it was like the old ABA/NBA merger so to speak, because there was so many talented people over here at WBBM. I do remember, I was at Iowa State and I think it was my sophomore year, I had changed into broadcasting from meteorology and I went to see if I could get an internship at 'BBM and they put you through a writing test and you go into the old newsroom at McClurg Court and literally it was an adrenaline rush. Like this is big. Like this is not just your run of the mill radio station and I did not get an internship there and then to be able to work there with the great talent that has decorated this radio station for 50 years and the lineage of sportscasters that we have had before us and have laid the groundwork for us, and in some case been able to work with in the field in various forms and in some cases, some very dear friends like Brian Davis and Dave Eanet, big honor.

Josh Liss

Liss: Yes, so many interesting moments during that transition period and now it is like, wow, it is hard to even think back to those days and here you are reminiscing of missing out of an internship here once. So WBBM Newsradio, 50 years...of course, sportscasts twice an hour and we will get into some of your Bears stuff, getting that play-by-play thing, which was amazing for you and the station and it continues to this day, but the core sort of sports that we do, :15 and :45, what's it like doing your updates in the morning? I come in, in the morning and I am sort of blind to what's going on, and here you have a whole day to see what is going on, you're maybe more in the preview of what's going on, I'm maybe more in the review. What is at the core of how you build your updates?

Joniak: That is true. You are recapping and I am previewing and in some cases, when stories break, you are reacting and that's really where you have to stay focused on. I over 33 years of doing sportscasts, I do it a little differently, and I think our whole staff does, and I think you and I, co-managing this department, we have always allowed our staff to use their own style and substance and so forth and build their own cast in the same way. I don't write as much, I am more of an ad-lib sportscaster, so I write some notes and I roll with it and I try and talk the sports as best as I can. And in afternoons, and the same case in the mornings, you never know how long your cast is going to be. Everybody thinks it is two minutes, but in some cases it can be 40 seconds, so you have to have the ability to edit on the fly and I think that is one of the more difficult things young broadcasters are still trying to learn, for example, but you have to do economical in your word usage, you have to be able to have the confidence and patience to deal with what is being thrown at you at any given moment at this station. 

Liss: I am glad you mentioned "at any given moment," because just when you think you have just the right sportscast ready to go, or you are going to ad-lib it, or you have the best sound bite, you are going to write around it, news breaks. Someone quits, someone gets fired, some team does something, maybe it's good, maybe it's bad and everything needs to change on the dime. And guess what? You are on the air in 30 seconds. 

Photo provided by Josh Liss

Joniak: And to me, I am always looking at my watch. People have shot videos of me working at the Bears, for example, and I am always looking at my watch. And that's just what we are.

Liss: I am in the newsroom, just have a conversation with someone, and I almost have to apologize because I am glancing up over their shoulder every few seconds, is it 10 after, is it 12 after, is it 14 after? I better get in the studio at :14:30 for that :15 post.

Joniak: Nah, I am the one that is not worried about time, because I will go in there with two seconds to spare and I am a reactive guy. I get fidgety waiting for a sportscast or to be on the air, so I don't like to over plan, because sometimes I will go in there, and sometimes to my detriment to be quite blunt, but I go in there, I just want to react to even what I am thinking about saying or what is going on.

Liss: You would not have been able to do that a few decades ago, so you kind of earned that ability through equity. You've done it enough, where you are confident enough to roll in, bang it out of the park, and that is a certain kind of confidence that comes with experience. 

Joniak: It sure does, and I think that is makes it more conversational. I'm big on conversational. It's hard to take what you put on paper and be able to talk to somebody, instead of at somebody. Over the course of my career, I have tutored a lot of young people, as you have, and my biggest thing is, if you are going to write your sports or you are going to write your copy, make sure you talk the copy, don't read the copy, and there's a big difference.

Liss: To further your point, and be more precise and paraphrase you, and I remember this back pre-'BBM days, just pretend you are talking to the person in the car seat next to you. 

David Jones/Facebook

Liss: Cubs, Bears, Bulls, Hawks, Sox, we've been at all. Why don't you say we go through each team? We will save the Bears for last. How about we start with Blackhawks? We covered, we've done parade coverage together. 

Joniak: That was very rewarding. When the Blackhawks won their first one, I think you were on vacation, so it was Pat Cassidy and myself going over to Crain's Chicago Business's old office building, we're peering out the window, there are pictures of it. I think Lisa Fielding was there with us, and we were just peering out, and just the thrill of doing that. It was just an awesome experience of that section of the city, with the Wrigley Building and the Tribune Tower in the background. It's a visual you just can't get out of your head and just the throng, the red, the red sea, the thrill of Blackhawk hockey being back on the map in a very, very big way; which turns out to be the start of a legacy team for their championships. That was fun.

Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/MCT/Sipa USA

WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding

Liss: Yes, three of those Blackhawks runs. I am reminiscing incorrectly, it's the Cubs victory parade that we did, and the rally, just a couple years ago and for me, probably the top story I've covered. Maybe the top story of the history of sports in America, if you look at the lovable loser angle. But either way, the '85 Bears was good too, if we were around that one, the personalities, but hey, let's just stick to this Cubs thing. That for me, being at Game 6 and Game 7, being able to work that out, to go to Cleveland, and be there and be the voice for that station, from the event. It was special. It really was to know that each of these words was going to live on, the way I described it now, is going to be the same way it sounds when I listen back to this and play it for my grandkids.

Joniak: It is no different than what I do as a play-by-play announcer, and every time I get a chance to talk about it, or even the Hester call, is that you are charting the history of the game. We are charting the games people play, and we are in life's toy department a little bit, but you are capturing history. That's why we have a historical log here, that's why we have the things that come to life, when unfortunately people pass away that have made a mark on this city in sports or the big moments, when we have reunions and anniversaries. No different than what we are doing right here with the 50th year of WBBM, broadcasting to our great city. These things live on forever, they take on a life of their own a little bit, and the special moments you have to capture and that's a reaction. That is something that you cannot script. 

Liss: Standing at the foot of the stage at the rally downtown, at the conclusion after we traveled on a media truck during the '05 White Sox parade, World Series Championship parade, going from the South Side, up through the neighborhoods into downtown. And then who could have predicted Paul Konerko handing the baseball that made the final out to the owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, who finally got his World Series Championship.

Joniak: Could you imagine having to have broadcast in your career in a city unlike this one, that is just dripping in nostalgia and creating new chapters in its great sports history, in a great sports town? I think we are blessed to have been raised in this town.

Liss: Well let's hear some of yours, whether they are Bears or not. What stands out?

Joniak: What stands out is that...

Liss: Bulls championship run was memorable too, but that was pre-'BBM.

Joniak: Yes it was, but it is still my history, and it allowed me to be in a position where I can prove to people who put their faith in me that I could do long-form sports reporting, whether it be shows, or in my case doing play-by-play. But the unforgettable moments of just my personal career of just watching Michael Jordan play, still the best athlete I've ever witnessed, the greatest competitor, the greatest clutch perform that literally moved you to emotion, one way or another, and you know, I save all that stuff. That's in my own boxes of history and just how I then captured things. I will sometimes look at that stuff, how I framed it, the story, and that is my job now as a play-by-play announcer, I have to frame the moment, every single snap of a game, because you never know what's going to happen. But, I've shifted my entire focus, as you know, to football. I do obviously report on other sports, but I don't attend other sports, we leave that to our other reporters; with the exception of the Cubs and doing fill-in games for Pat Hughes. I'm obsessed with football, I am obsessed with the Bears. I have invested myself, so for me, it's the day-to-day operation of Bears football and what I have been able to do and relationships I have been able to create, because of football - whether it be ex-coaches, scouts over the course of the league - and then how can you use that information to provide context for the sport and how we cover the Chicago Bears and how we broadcast the Bears. So that is really my focus and mission, and our staff. We have brought some new people along, over the course of time, and just seeing them develop and that to me I have taken great pride in over my career as well; whether it was at WMAQ or Illinois News Network, where I started, and working with people to carve out new careers and new paths.

Liss: I think that is amazing to hear how proud you are, the arch of your career and especially where you are now, sort of in the heyday. What is your favorite football play to call? Is it the touchdown? Where do you like to really make your mark in a call? When do you think you are at your best during a football game?

Joniak: You never know what is coming. You have to be [your best> for the big moments, because they live forever. They are going to be on NFL films. It is all reactive and you just hope it gets from your brain to your mouth and its a short distance, but a lot could go wrong. So I try my best to capture a moment, because when you do a game, there's so much going on around you aside from the field. It's your own booth, it's your stat guy, it's your spotter, your producer - there's a whole team in there, and your focus is intense, it is so specific to what is going on. You also have to have the knowledge, the patience to have two ears and one mouth, sometimes listen twice as much as you speak because you have a color man, who may have something more pertinent to say than you setting the field. So the drama is in the unknown and when those big plays happen, you are trusting your own instincts and knowledge, and you never know what is really going to come out of your mouth.

Steve Dahl/Facebook

Liss: Let's get into the area of difficult stories. Where do you start with difficult stories, and do any stand out? Have you ever been asked to make a compromise or not say something?

Joniak: No that has never happened, and I give credit to the Bears organization for that. I am in a unique situation at this station. I am an employee of what is now Entercom and WBBM, but I am also hired to do things for the Chicago Bears with the coaches show that is hear on this station and other shows, and internet and TV, and so forth; so I have many different people that influence me in terms of terms of being in a leadership role or in a boss role, so I have just learned how to walk the fine line. And I have earned that by virtue of the fact that I have never burned anybody and have still met my responsibilities, and that is now 18 years deep, but you have to earn it every day; in the NFL, which is my only reference of being the play-by-play guy, whether it be general managers or coaches, you only get one chance. If you burn them one time, you are done. They are not going to trust you, so I rather have the trust in the context. Am I going to reveal company secrets? No, I am not going to do that. Am I privy to company secrets? I would say no, but I ask for context and as long as I have the context and I know what I am reporting is accurate, I will leave it up to everybody else to have their opinions about it, as fans and what not. So I do take it very seriously and you just have to have instincts about it and you have to be smart. It's not about me, it's about the station, it's about the team. And Tom Thayer and I are both in that position and I think we have done a very good job at that and still giving the fans that raw passion when we do the games, and our knowledge to report on it day to day. 

Liss: And from my prospective, obviously I am a fan of your guys, listening to the broadcast and highlights every week when I am playing them on the air and at :15 and :45s in the mornings, but I can honestly say you've never missed a story or held off from reporting on a story, unless you have had the facts right, and I think it has been a positive...

Joniak: The hardest thing is when a coach is in trouble, so when Lovie Smith was let go. I was on the team bus...there was that dead silence when we got to Halas Hall and I had to go and interview him for the Bears television show later that night - the uncomfortability of that moment, because you had a sneaking suspicion that things could go either way and it was uncomfortable, but you still have to ask the questions. To all these coaches and general managers that I have worked with very closely, because I interview them so much, maybe more so than anyone else in the city, they know you have a job to do, but you also have to earn that. Those are tough ones for me, because I do develop tight relationships with people.

Kirk Gillespie/Pinterest

Liss: It is great to hear your voice from Halas Hall all these years, and working together and talking shop. Here I am debriefing you, I know a lot of this stuff already, but it is still fun to hear back, and I hope the listeners are enjoying this too. Before we call this off, what do you want to know about me?

Joniak: I was going to say it is not all about me, but it is about us, and we have had an unbelievable working relationship over the years. We are one of the rare stations in town now that actually staff games and have people package stories about them, and that is what we do. And we are here to chart the history of Chicago sports at a non-sports station. We are a news outfit, so we are not throwing opinions around, we give it to you straight. I think over the course of your career you have continued to expand your horizons, your work with the Chicago Marathon for example has been impressive, I'm sure you have loved that opportunity to work on the Score. It is not 'BBM related, but it is your career, and what have you pulled out of the course of your career in terms of your style and how you go about approaching your day, everyday? 

Liss: I am probably like you. I want to make sure I am not missing anything. At least if I am going to ad-lib a big, long list of notes and scores, I just don't want to miss something. Is something from the golf tournament that ended yesterday worth putting in? Is something from some random beach volleyball tournament interesting enough to mention at least a sentence or two? You always want to get that good content in there. It has come to the point of how quickly information travels these days, everybody has got the score, as soon as the game ends and it's going on. How am I going to go on the radio, six, eight, 12, 15 hours later and tell you about the same game and still make it interesting and entertaining? That's how I challenge myself on a daily basis. Do I have all the content? And how am I going to tell the story of something that happened hours ago in a still new, fresh and entertaining way?

Photo provided by Josh Liss

Joniak: Do you miss covering games?

Liss: Sometimes. I would say yes and no, because access to athletes and coaches is extremely limited from what it used to be. You used to be able to walk into a locker room and really tap on the shoulder anyone you want, and maybe if they are pitching tomorrow you leave them alone, but people would talk.

Joniak: Back in the old days, you could pick up the phone and go meet them at a hotel.

Liss: So those times have changed, I understand these teams are brands and businesses of their own and they are protecting their own messages, just like WBBM is. Interacting with this new world of sports journalism, when we are trying to get the news and information, they are reporting their own news and information themselves through social media and other outlets, so we have competitors that aren't just radio stations. They are media companies as well. So the changing landscape has been interesting to sort of intermingle with and still be able to put new, fresh and interesting information on the air.

Photo provided by Josh Liss

Joniak: Do you remember the moment you were hired here?

Liss: Oh boy, August 1998 and Georgeann Herbert was the Program Director and Brian Davis helped me get an interview, because he had worked her before and then went to 'MAQ and we had worked together and now he is with the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball, we love Brian. I remember the thrill, I get to call my wife, I get to call my mom. Those moments you never forget. 

Joniak: ASs you have grown in the business and what you have seen in terms of the landscape of our profession and just within our own company, what do you see for the future?

Liss: Man, I asked Zack Zaidman that question in one of our other interviews, is radio even going to be around? And I think I agree with his answer and you will probably agree with it too, it is sort of generic. Good stories, information you can trust, the WBBM Newsradio brand, and here we are 50 years, it is going to keep going when we are gone. We are a utility and it is information you can trust, so if you are streaming us through Radio.com or getting us over the air 780 AM or 105.9 FM, or some other future form of digital distribution, I think newsradio on WBBM is going to maintain that trust with the audience and the connection and we will be able to tell our stories and talk sports at :15 and :45 for many years to come; whether it is over terrestrial radio or not. 

WBBM Newsradio

Joniak: I think the history of sportscasters that have been here, from the early days with Brent Musburger...the one thing that is constant to me, and it continues to our staff today, is the high character and the solid men that have done sports here and you go back to Brent Musburger and you go back to Brad Palmer, Rich King, everybody loved Rich, everybody. He is now in retirement. Dave Eanet certainly most respectful guy in town. Ron Gleason, we can go down the list and we have all carried that torch. Chris Boden, one of my close friends who I started in the business with a long, long time ago and I'll forget all the different things he did for me both personally and professionally. The list goes on and on, these are good people in the business - that must make you feel a big part of that family.

Liss: Absolutely. I think that is one of the goals when you start here, you think of those names and you just want to try and follow in the footsteps of what they have established - sports information you can trust, in a timely manner, and it just sounds darn good. And I hope we all do. You sound great in the afternoon. I am giving it my all and energy in the mornings, those 3 a.m. alarm clocks don't get any easier at age 45.

Joniak: I couldn't do it anymore. God bless you. I did it a long time ago. I won't do it again. You can have that for the rest of your career. 

Liss: I think we have hit it all. It's been a fun conversation.