A couple years back, Larry Rosin offhandedly mentioned to me that one of the grim realities of an aging radio business is that seemingly every week, you read about another radio professional who has passed away. In thinking back over this past year, there is a lot of truth there.
From Jerry Boulding to Ron Ruth to Kidd Kraddick, it’s sadly been a busy year for notable departures.
Yesterday, however, someone that most people outside the state of Michigan don’t really know passed away. This sad news may not even make the trades, but I can tell you that a broadcasting genius and a great guy has left us, and I just wanted to say a few words about a good friend, mentor, and big influence on my life – as well as the careers of hundreds of people along the way.
Larry Estlack was a contemporary of mine in every way. We’re about the same age, and we grew up in radio at the same time in East Lansing at Michigan State’s Telecommunication Department – then known as the TV & Radio Department.
Back in the early ’70s, Larry and I taught TR201 and TR350 together on the fourth floor of the Union Building – the introductory and advanced radio production classes that no one else on the faculty wanted to teach. Larry designed and built the studios, and they were metaphorically more than one floor removed from the rest of the department. In every way, the studios were a haven and a laboratory, and they gave us the opportunity to work with hundreds of kids, teach them how to edit, produce commercials, conduct interviews, and more importantly, what it took to be a radio professional. It also was a world of our own, and we took it and ran with it.
Larry and I also roomed together for a year, although truth be told, I was just a tenant at Larry’s farmhouse in Williamston. There, he built a radio studio, designed a listening room (dubbed “The Pepto Bismol” room because of its pink insulated walls), and lovingly alphabetized his thousands of record albums. In that facility, Larry produced and recorded a weekly progressive rock show that ended up on stations throughout Michigan and Indiana. At the time, it was called “Divergence” (subtitled “a deviation from a norm or standard”), and featured a lot of rock that you knew, along with a lot of music that you should know from bands like Hawkwind, Renaissance, the Strawbs, and Roy Harper. For a year, we hosted it together, but he was the force behind the show. Until just a couple weeks ago, the modern version of it was a fixture on Lansing’s WMMQ.
Larry was one of those rare people who was a brilliant studio engineer, and he designed radio (and eventually TV) studios all over the state of Michigan. Talk to broadcasters here in “The Mitten” and chances are that Larry had a hand in designing or building their studios at one time or another. But he was also an amazing air personality, DJ, writer, and producer, gifted with a great voice, an amazing ear for music, and a love for doing radio the right way. He knew how to speak into a microphone, and he knew how it worked, too.
Throughout his entire career after leaving MSU and starting up a TV production program at Lansing’s Harry Hill High School, and eventually building a career at the Michigan Association of Broadcasters, one of Larry’s signatures was that he always had several projects going at the same time. Actually, too many projects, but as they say, that’s the way he rolled.
A typical week might involve Larry recording the Lansing Symphony on Sunday night, and then recording the MSU Board of Trustees meeting on the next evening.
One day, he told me he wanted to take a road trip to Grand Haven, Michigan (no, I had never been there before). On the way, he told me that he had designed and built the sound system for the city’s “Musical Fountain.” I came to find out that this was – and still is – one of the big attractions in the city – a downtown water + music display where residents by the hundreds gather on summer nights to listen to music and enjoy an accompanying water show.
So there we were in the pits of the “Musical Fountain.” And when it came time to test the audio on that weekday morning, Larry chose Zeppelin’s “Rock n’ Roll” which provided some nice accompaniment to the entire city of Grand Haven that day.
During the summer of ’73, we took a road trip in Larry’s tiny Porsche 914. It was a small car, Larry was a big guy, and the two of us spent close to three weeks traveling out to Colorado where we “smuggled” a whole lot of Coors (it was not available outside of the Rocky Mountain State in those days). There I was in the passenger seat with the Broadcast Yearbook on my lap. We tuned in small, medium, and large market stations on our journey, critiquing, talking trash, listening to “Tradio,” and enjoying all that hometown radio. We were both students of the game and this was our radio version of “study abroad.”
Every quarter, 48 students would come trudging into our required radio production class. It got so that you could pretty much tell who was serious about radio and who was just filling a chair along their way through their second or third major. In each class, there would always be 3, 4, or maybe 5 people who you could just tell wanted to be radio stars.
And that group became Union Building rats, lovingly spending endless hours learning the nuances of radio and audio production. And Larry was at the center of it all, freely giving his expertise to anyone and everyone who was interested. People like Sheila Sorvari (then Romano), Ira Lawson, Kip Bohne, Doug Gondek, Gary Reid, Fred Doelker, Brad Graham, Jeff Szmulewicz, and many many others who camped out in those studios, earning their chops, and honing their craft. We produced “News Blimps” for Ben Manillla’s Progressive Radio Network – short featurettes that combined lyrically matched songs with a news or human interest story that aired on stations all over the U.S. There was constant activity producing other projects, including documentaries, films, and features where everyone worked together to help each other out.
From Larry, I learned all about being a professional, doing the job right, taking on every cool project you could, and helping others (especially students) grow in the business. Of course, there was a lot of stupidity and snark along the way, but the real deal is that we all wanted “in” to the radio business so bad, and took our goals and desires very seriously. And as Kip reminded me a day or so ago, we were all grateful students of “Estlackian University.”
I also learned how to be a broadcasting professional, and even mastered how to use tools like the patch panel and a soldering iron. Larry encouraged me to build my own radio, and I subsequently bought a Heathkit AM/FM receiver, and spent weeks putting it together. He stood over my shoulder at times, muttering and harrumphing, but every solder joint was mine. And that moment of truth when you finally plug it in and hope you don’t see blue smoke? Yeah, the damn thing worked, and I got one of those outsized Estlackian smiles and nods.
So if you’re reading this and wondering why you haven’t heard of Larry, to a great degree it was in the schematics. The guy intentionally stayed below the radar. As I got to know Larry in the early years, I was pretty convinced that he had a major market career in front of him, and would end up in a major market like Detroit or even New York City at some point – he was that good.
But I was wrong. Larry had absolutely no desire or taste for that life. He loved being in Michigan, especially the Lansing/East Lansing area, and never defined his career or his goals by the size of the market he was living in or his paycheck. He didn’t have a blog, didn’t publicize his exploits, nor did he ever do anything especially controversial. Larry was inducted into the Michigan Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame a few years back, but to those of us who knew him, that honor was assumptive and was overshadowed by his passion for radio, excellence, and helping others.
His heart was in the Great Lakes State where he served the broadcasting and academic communities well. As the days go on and more people read about Larry’s passing, more accolades and memories will come flowing in from all sorts of people in the industry with their own memories of “The Estlackian Way.”
I hope I got this reasonably right, and I’m sure many will add to my memories, any holes in this post, and hopefully some embellishment and stories along the way. Thanks to all the people – especially Kip and Jane – and many others who cared for Larry during his final months, weeks, and days.
To paraphrase one of Larry’s go-to artists, Roy Harper, “an old cricketer has left the crease.”
Larry, you touched many lives and you will be missed.