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A decade of Downtown - Local drive-time radio show marks 10 years on the air

August 30, 2021
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BANGOR – A local afternoon staple is about to turn 10.

Radio show Downtown with Rich Kimball is set to mark its first decade in early September. For 10 years, host Rich Kimball has been bringing his own unique spin on drive-time to the area’s airwaves.

Ostensibly a sports-forward show, Downtown has always been much more than that, thanks to Kimball’s wide-ranging interests and his willingness to embrace those interests on the air. Yes, there’s plenty of sports coverage – local, regional and national – but there’s also plenty of conversation on other topics. Movies, music, literature, the performing arts, local business and events – everything gets some play from 4-6 p.m. on AM 620.

(Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll note that I am a frequent guest on Downtown, appearing twice weekly on the program since the very beginning.)

The show has changed broadcast frequencies and locations numerous times during its 10-year run. It began on FM before moving to AM. It briefly broadcast from the Blueberry Broadcasting Studios before its extended run at the now-defunct studio space at Seasons Restaurant and Sports Bar, followed by its current location at the WZON studios.

But even as the show changed – from its focus to its physical location to its position on the dial – it just kept going. And the audience came along for the ride.

After such a lengthy run, one might guess that getting things started was a no-brainer. But as Kimball says, he was only part of the process that first birthed the show.

“I’ll give credit where credit is due,” he said. “It was Jim Churchill’s idea to do a show that was different than what was out there for locally produced sports themed radio, and also Jim’s idea to operate the show out of [Seasons], as we did for the first several years.

“My stipulation was that it be a show that treated sports as another form of entertainment,” he added. “That it be guest-driven, as opposed to local yahoos weighing in on games they watch on TV, and that we venture beyond sports for other entertainment content.”

Of course, having the idea is one thing. Getting it off the ground is quite another. Luckily for Kimball, his years of experience in the broadcast world had left him with a number of contacts that could help build an initial guest list to get things rolling.

“The first step was finding a station that would air the show,” he said. “We were fortunate that Bruce Biette and the good people at Blueberry Broadcasting were willing to take a chance. Then we had to create a format and a rough schedule for what a week might look like and – because we wanted a guest-oriented show – make sure we could get the caliber of people we wanted.

“My old friend Gary Tanguay, who was with Comcast Sports in Boston at the time, was a huge help, sharing numbers and contact information with a number of Boston sports-related guests and opening the door for us.”

Of course, just because a door is open, there’s no guarantee that it STAYS open.

“I remember Gary saying, ‘I’ll help you get them once. It’s up to you if they come back.’ Meaning you need to make it a good experience for those guests, that you come prepared, and you help them promote their work to your audience.”

Putting a radio show on the air involves a lot of logistical challenges – not just a host and guests. You need sponsors and a producer, among myriad other things. It’s not the sort of thing that just happens.

“We went through several months of planning, from discussing possible segments, guests, and the overall tone of the show, to lining up sponsors and most importantly, a producer,” said Kimball. “We struck gold there with Bryan Stackpole, who was just out of college, but had done great work producing UMaine broadcasts through Learfield and seemed like a guy willing to work hard and one who also had some good ideas.

“Stack turned out to be a godsend,” he continued. “For his work ethic and knowledge of sports, yes, but he was also an incredible judge of talent, spotting really good writers and personalities long before they had become well-known. Guys like Jared Carrabis and John Karalis were only known to the real insiders when they began doing regular appearances with us and they have gone on to become tremendously popular and clearly quite good at what they do. Stack helped us create our own roster of smart, funny and knowledgeable people who weren’t being heard anywhere else in Maine at the time.”

Initially, Downtown was intended to be a sports-driven show. But while sports remain a central part of the show’s ethos, it was clear even early on that this would be more than just sports talk. That attitude springs largely from Kimball’s philosophy on the matter, though changes in the market have certainly contributed to the shift.

“As time has gone on and market conditions changed, we’ve moved away from the amount of time we devote to sports,” he said. “Part of that was in response to having another sports show in the afternoon that talked about a lot of the same things and with some of the same guests.

“The bigger reason was that we always got the best response from listeners when we featured entertainment guests and that was because it was something unique. By 2015, you had lots of options if you wanted sports conversation, not just locally but with the ability to stream the Boston stations and the national networks. It didn’t seem to make sense to have local guys talking non-stop sports when someone in this area could just as easily listen to 98.5 The Sports Hub or WEEI.”

Another contributing factor to the wider net being cast is the fact that Kimball himself is a man of varied interests. Yes, he loves sports, but as a broadcaster, teacher and performer, he is also just as connected to the world of the arts. It’s only logical for someone like that – who I’m going to call a Renaissance man, even though he’s going to hate it – to want to explore different avenues.

“I’m [just] interested in a lot more than sports,” he said. “Frankly, unless it’s a playoff game or something close, I’d rather watch a great movie than a game. From a radio perspective, I just find sports talk tired. It’s either local guys spewing opinions about games they watched on TV, without ever talking to the players or coaches, or the arguments for the sake of arguments approach, which you could basically get sitting around any bar in town. It’s not particularly enlightening or entertaining to me.”

When you’re doing a guest-driven show like Downtown, one can’t overstate just how much preparation is necessary. There’s the general stuff, of course: Kimball spends each morning checking various newspapers and social media platforms to get a sense of what’s happening and what’s being talked about. He arrives at the studio mid-afternoon to go over the rundown of that day’s guests and segments. Maybe he also works on the podcast linked to the show (available wherever fine podcasts are downloaded) or the weekly Best of Downtown show that airs on Sunday morning.

But it’s in the evening when a lot of the heavy lifting happens.

“Nights are all about preparation and lining up guests,” Kimball said. “Scheduling social media posts and looking several weeks out at things like new movies, books, albums or shows. Making note of anniversaries that would be logical tie-ins for guests.”

One of the things that Kimball takes particular pride in is his dedication to preparation with regard to the work produced by the guests he has on. As you might imagine, that leads to a LOT of content consumption.

“[It] is the monster I’ve created myself, which is to try my best to out-prepare everybody else in the business,” he said. “I read well over 100 books last year because I won’t interview an author if I haven’t read their book. It makes a difference; we’ve heard that countless times from writers who are often surprised that we put in the time. Same goes for movies, television shows, albums – I have to manage my time really well to be able to ask good questions, but I wouldn’t do it any other way.”

Relying on guests comes with its own difficulties, to be sure. But Kimball and his crew are very particular about the people that join them on the air. That discernment with regard to guest selection is a big reason why the show continues to thrive. The host’s attitude as far as who to seek out starts from a very simple place.

“Someone whose work I love!” he exclaimed. “That’s certainly provided all of us involved with the show with incredible moments of realizing you’re talking with one of your heroes. Beyond that, smart and funny always goes a long way with me. I can’t get enough of people like David Roth, Colin Fleming, Bob Ryan, Stephen Tobolowsky and Paula Poundstone, who can talk about anything and will just take a cue from you and run with it.

“One of the things I’m most proud of is how many people have become regulars,” he added. “By and large, our favorite guests seem to enjoy it as much as we do and keep coming back.”

It’s clear that Downtown with Rich Kimball is a lot of things, a show for those with interests as wide-ranging as the man behind the mic. From the beginning, Kimball has stressed the importance of trying to give audiences plenty to choose from. His ultimate goal?

“Give our listeners an experience they can’t find anywhere else in radio,” he said. “We pride ourselves on a guest list that nobody can touch and with the eclectic nature of the show. On any given day, we might talk with an actor, a singer, a sportswriter, a historian, and a businessperson. They’re not all going to resonate with everybody. but we like to say, ‘If you don’t like this conversation, you might really enjoy the next one.’ That challenge of finding interesting people to talk with still excites me and then within each conversation, the hope of finding something magic.”

Kimball went on to talk about a moment from Downtown’s early days that really cemented for him the kind of interviewer he wanted to be and the kind of show he wanted to do.

“I blame Micky Dolenz of The Monkees! Very early in the show’s history, he was on and I asked him about being invited by Frank Zappa to join the Mothers of Invention. He paused for a moment and said, ‘How did you know that? I’ve never talked about that in an interview.’ That was an amazing feeling – and an intoxicating one – that has driven me ever since to dig deep and do the research, which then encourages people to open up and reveal more of themselves.”

To finish up, there was one obvious question that needed to be asked. After all, 10 years is a nice round number as far as anniversaries go, but it also begs the question: What happens next? What does the future look like for Downtown?

“Who knows?” said Kimball. “I always say I’m like the old Dodgers manager Walter Alston. I go one year at a time. The show is still great fun, but it also takes a lot of time. If we’re on the air January 1, we’re probably good for the rest of next year.”

Here’s hoping that we get another decade and then some of unique radio fun from Rich Kimball and company. It’s a show unlike any other.

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Behind the board: Downtown’s producers

When we listen to a show like Downtown with Rich Kimball, it’s easy to focus solely on the mic work – what’s being said, how and who is saying it, that sort of thing. However, there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes to make every episode of a show like this possible.

A lot of this work falls to the show’s producer. Downtown has seen three full-time producers over the course of its decade-long run: Bryan Stackpole, Ryan Waning and Carey Haskell. Each brought their own skill set and sensibilities to their duties at the board and on the microphone.

Kimball speaks highly of the work done by all three.

“Bryan knows sports and, as I mentioned, is a great judge of talent, plus as a younger guy, had a feel for what a different demographic would be interested in hearing.

“Ryan Waning stepped in after Stack left and took us in a slightly different direction. He’s got a brilliant sports mind and the ability to think quickly on his feet that comes with being a stand-up comic and we tried to give that talent room to shine, and also took advantage of his many contacts in the comedy world to add some great names to our guest list.

“Carey Haskell came to the job with 30-plus years of radio experience and tremendous technical skills, which allowed us to do more with things like the podcast and some very fun in-depth specials. Carey’s a sports fan but also loves movies, television and music, knows history and shares a similar political perspective and that’s coincided with our shift toward more entertainment guests and a lineup of historians and journalists that few shows can match.”

While speaking to the star of the show is important – his name is in the title, after all – each of these men have contributed mightily to Downtown’s success along the way. So it seemed appropriate to talk to each of them a little about their experience with the show, as well as some of the highlights of their time there.

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How long are/were you involved with the show?

Bryan Stackpole (former producer): I worked with Rich and the Downtown show from the beginning, actually receiving a call about the show the day after I graduated from UMaine. On the show from September 2011 to April 2016 (just over four and a half years).  During my tenure I was the Executive Producer in charge of show coordination, show booking, producing content, and on-air co-host.

Ryan Waning (former producer): While I’m not one hundred percent certain one what my actual official starting date was, I know that I left the show in the fall of 2016, just as my ailing father was about to move in with us and live out his final days with our family. At the time of my departure, I was the co-host and producer and was also doing some ad sales to help Rich. It was a heck of a climb, considering my first exposure to the show was as a guest promoting a local comedy show I was headlining. After my segment shilling the event, I hung around to talk UMaine football and we were off to the races. I’ve done a fair amount of radio, but never had the type of on-air chemistry with anyone like I had with Rich. It was evident even on that first day together.

Carey Haskell (current producer): I started working with Rich on Downtown in the fall of 2016 doing some occasional fill-ins for Rich’s co-host at that time Ryan Waning and became the full-time technical producer of the show in late November 2016 when Ryan had to step away from the role.  I’ve worked for WZON and it’s associated stations since 1993 and had co-hosted afternoon talk shows with a heavy sports focus with both Ernie Clark and then Dan Hannigan on WZON back in the mid-90s, but had stepped away from full-time on-air duties by 2000 to shift to the administrative side of the stations and had been doing just occasional fill-ins for WKIT since.  My main role as technical producer on the show is making sure all the technical aspects(running breaks, transitioning from one audio source to another, music bumps back, connecting to guests via phone or skype, editing pre-recorded interviews, etc.)  of the show happen cleanly and if I’ve done my job right as the technical producer then nobody is aware of the work.  I also serve as a co-host, having conversations with Rich and joining in on interviews when appropriate.  Beyond the daily on-air work for the show I also am responsible for editing our weekly podcast and "Best of" show, as well as any specialty shows we air, such as the recent "Music of 1971" specials.

What’s it like being part of Downtown? What kind of value do you think it provides to the community and as a creative endeavor?

BS: Downtown always gave the opportunity to provide a listener with such a wide array of topics.  If you were looking to find something to do in your community, we had a guest for that. Looking to hear insight on your favorite sports franchise, we would talk to those who were in the clubhouse and locker rooms for the best content available. You didn’t even have to like sports to enjoy Downtown because the show would veer into every avenue and talk to stars you wouldn’t even believe would give their time and they always said yes.  I give all the credit to the kind approach and the meticulous research done by Rich that made the interview subject appreciate giving up time in their busy schedules. Downtown really is a smorgasbord of content that should be revered in this community because the show is something you really can’t find anywhere else, it’s the most unique radio endeavor I’ve ever seen and I’m just happy to have been a small piece of it.

In addition, the show opened up incredible avenues for me to pursue so many of my other passions. Being associated with Downtown has allowed me the opportunity to broadcast almost every sport at UMaine in a professional capacity, on television and also allowed me to become a sought-after asset to other radio programs and media positions in the market, and helped earn me to gain recognition in the community to elevate my career outside the broadcasting realm. Without this show and the guidance of Rich over the years, there is no way I would have achieved everything I have to this point.  I owe Rich and everyone involved in this show everything and I’m so grateful for everything.

RW: I loved being on Downtown. The amount of people I was able to ask questions of was fantastic. I mean, how much better can it get for a sports or pop culture fan than to ask the people directly involved with the things you love the things you’ve always wanted to know? Let alone the education I was provided with, having a ringside seat and getting to watch one of the best and most thoughtful interviewers ever (not hyperbole) do his thing. I don’t think I’ve ever learned so much in such a short period of time. It was a radio masterclass.

As a creative endeavour, I defy any other radio show, locally, regionally, or nationally, to have covered the ground we were able to cover with the level of skill and professionalism that has become the show’s signature. The reason why it’s so hard to categorize just what Downtown is speaks to the varied chameleon-like nature of the program. Sports? Pop culture? Music? Theater? Comedy? Literature? Downtown does it all; it brings you the people that know the answers to the questions and the conversations that start new conversations.

CH:  Working on Downtown with Rich has been a great experience; while I really enjoy the administrative work I do for the stations, I had missed being on-air on a regular basis and after the few fill-ins went so well, I was eager to say "yes" when Rich approached me about coming on in a permanent role.

My biggest takeaway from my time on Downtown is the appreciation that my involvement with the show has given me the opportunity to be part of conversations with so many interesting and talented people that I would likely have never interacted with otherwise, including people whose work I have admired for a long time(like Carl Reiner, Bryan Cranston, Yeardley Smith, Ed Asner, Dave Foley, Ken Burns and so many more) as well as individuals who I wasn’t really aware of until we had them on and I have since become very appreciative of their work. Working with Rich has also been a real learning experience for me, his interviewing abilities are truly extraordinary and simply working with him has greatly improved my abilities in that area. 

For the community, Downtown provides an outlet unlike any other in Maine to hear in-depth conversations with people, both locally and nationally, that create art and entertainment (including sports). That exploration of creativity, which is an often overlooked yet vital aspect of daily life, helps to enrich everyone that listens.  

What are some highlights from your time on the show?

BS: Every guest was a treat from the local recurring guests (my favorites of course being Allen Adams and Bruce Pratt), to the large-scale movie stars.  Moments that always stand out will be the infamous Coolio interview and him judging our local rap battle and my interaction with Vanilla Ice. Being able to speak to Vanilla Ice and asking him if he preferred to be called Rob, Mr. Van Winkle, Vanilla Ice, etc. will be something that sticks with me. Also interviewing basically all the UFC stars you see on each PPV today is something I hold in high standing in my life and helped me greatly in my MMA broadcasting after my time with the show. More importantly just the conversations before, after, and during the breaks with Rich, Ryan, Pat, Jim and the rest of the guests are something that I’ll never forget.

RW: It’d be pretty easy to throw out a list of guests that we had during my run that blew my mind. Talking to Bryan Cranston, Bill Walton and Mike Gorman were truly moments in my life that I’ll never forget. But I think my favorite times on the show were when Rich and I had fifteen minutes to fill for one reason or another and we just started talking about something seemingly benign. A movie we both just saw, a long-forgotten cut from an old rock album, or just a story we had read that day in the paper. Our conversational chemistry was such that the fifteen minutes flew by like it was a segment we had worked out before we went on the air. We could make each other laugh and I believe we brought out the best in each other. Me, the idiot horse fueled by punchlines, and Rich at the helm of the stagecoach carefully looking ahead and making sure we didn’t go too far off the road.

CH: The first four that spring to mind:

The time I spent with Stephen Tobolowsky and Ann Hearn Tobolowsky, helping them get around Maine, when Downtown hosted Stephen for a reading of his book "My Adventures with God."

Our interview with Carl Reiner, a literal legend in the world of comedy.

Our on-air interview with Jeff Daniels before his musical performance in Rockland, then chatting with him backstage at the show and hearing his thoughts about the then upcoming debut of "To Kill a Mockingbird" on Broadway. 

Getting the chance to meet and chat with Ed Asner when he was performing a one-man show at the Gracie Theater.

(Downtown with Rich Kimball airs from 4-6 p.m. Monday through Friday on AM 620, with a weekly Best Of show airing on Sunday mornings. In addition, the Downtown podcast – consisting of a curated collection of highlighted interviews – is also available weekly.)

 

Last modified on Wednesday, 01 September 2021 11:40

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