The Estlackian Way

December 17, 2013

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 EstlackLarry 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.

Grand Haven Musical FountainOne 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 ReidFred Doelker, Brad GrahamJeff 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.


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20 Responses to The Estlackian Way

  1. Jim DeLine on December 17, 2013 at 8:26 AM

    Thanks, Fred. From one of your TR201 students who also went on to work with Larry at WILS “Rock 101FM.” Larry holds a special place for many, many of us.

    • Fred Jacobs
      Fred Jacobs on December 17, 2013 at 10:02 AM

      To Jim and all other commenters: unlike the way I typically respond to comments, I’m going to pull out today and let everyone else own this page. All comments about Larry welcome, but I’m going to just read them like you all do. Thanks for taking the time to share your memories, condolences, and thoughts.

  2. Dave Savage on December 17, 2013 at 8:59 AM

    This is a very nice tribute to Larry. He was a tremendous gift to you and our industry.

    Larry was the engineer at many stations I worked at in Lansing so I knew him but never got to know him well. Over the past week I’ve been reading posts about Larry from friends and former colleagues and I realize how unfortunate it was that I never got to know Larry better. There are many people who live and breathe radio that were greatly influenced by Larry. There are many who recall being a green, wet-behind-the-ears novice who Larry took a chance on to give them their first job in the business when others wouldn’t.

    Larry was a rare, gifted individual who we can honestly say that not just the world of broadcasting, but the world is a better place because he was here.

  3. Sheila Smith on December 17, 2013 at 9:17 AM

    Thank you, Fred Jacobs, for sharing this awesome tribute. I had heard and read a lot about him and he helped us with our public files at one time and I was blown away by his knowledge. I must add the FCC always scared the crap out of me with the examination of the Public Files, but, that year it was a breeze. Thanks to Mr. Estlack’s perusal and great sense of humor. He told Mark Trombley and I quote a few stories and he remembered all that Mark told and had a great sense of humor. Prayers to his family and friends.

  4. Bob Ottaway on December 17, 2013 at 10:03 AM

    Fred: Beautifully done! What a nice tribute. He was the heart and soul of WMMQ from 1981 on. Selfless. Caring. Committed. Just a beautiful person. Another “Crown Royal” double please.

  5. Adam Acey on December 17, 2013 at 10:05 AM

    Thanks Fred. What a fantastic tribute!

  6. Andrew Salive on December 17, 2013 at 10:30 AM

    Larry was a mentor and dear Friend. This was a great piece. I my mind he will always and forever be one of the radio greats.

  7. Lindsay Wood Davis on December 17, 2013 at 10:41 AM

    That is so well done, Fred. Just an excellent salute…LWD

  8. Katey McGuckin-Woolam on December 17, 2013 at 11:00 AM

    I did not know Larry personally, but we all have our own Larry. Great tribute to him. Those that give their talent unconditionally instill in all of us the importance of giving back to the industry we love. Thank you for sharing. He lives on in everyone he touched.

  9. Vic Doucette on December 17, 2013 at 4:09 PM

    I worked with Larry Estlack for 7 or 8 months in the early days of my professional radio life at WILS-AM in Lansing. I remember a big, friendly bear of a guy with a great voice who knew more about music than anyone I’d ever met. The same guy who offered me lifts home when my notoriously unreliable car crapped out at 6 a.m. Sunday morning. I’d also listen over the years when I’d be near Lansing on a Saturday night to his all-request radio show. He’d blend the familiar and the obscure as well as anybody I ever heard. This all went down when he was working full-time engineering gigs in TV and radio. I guess I was one of only several hundred or more people he helped along the way. Rest well, Larry. Thanks.

  10. Goodbye, Dear Friend on December 17, 2013 at 4:30 PM

    […] Jacobs also wrote up a wonderful tribute to […]

  11. Dan Drolett on December 17, 2013 at 5:55 PM

    I met Larry in 1983 on my first radio gig at WDTB-AM. He walked into the studio, introduced himself, and diplomatically informed me that my transmitter readings were all messed up (which, of course, they were). He then went through them with me step-by-step, patiently explaining what the proper readings should be, and so began our friendship.

    Two years later, I found myself suddenly out of work (such is radio). Larry called me to interview for a TV master control position he was looking to fill. I remember sitting in his office and saying “you know Lar, I don’t know the first thing about TV”. He smiled that gentle Larry smile and said “don’t worry Dan…it’s just radio with pictures…you’ll do fine”. Larry had a way of instilling confidence in you even if you didn’t have confidence in yourself. That was one of the endearing qualities that made him so special to so many people.

    Fred, I did not know until reading your article that Larry designed the sound system for the musical fountain. I’ve seen it many times, but future trips to Grand Haven will now hold a special significance. Thank you for the wonderful tribute to Larry!

  12. Jeff Szmulewicz on December 18, 2013 at 6:45 AM

    Passion, desire, and understanding were just words until the experience that was the MSU radio labs. Larry took in many strays over the years and always treated them with kindness and respect. He helped anyone that expressed interest with a warm and open heart. The farmhouse was a place “you could get anything you want” and I remember well a wonderful Thanksgiving spent with Larry, Fred and many other friends enjoying long hours discussing music, trends and techniques in the industry. The wonderful world of broadcasting is a better place for having had Larry Estlack in it. He added a form and dimension to the business that is rare and much appreciated. He changed my life and many others for the better over the years and will be missed. Thanks Fred for that wonderful post. And remember – no anchovies!

    • Fred Jacobs
      Fred Jacobs on December 18, 2013 at 7:16 AM

      Jeff, great to hear from you, and thanks for adding to the memories and the legacy created by Larry. (And I’ve actually grown to like anchovies!)

  13. Dave Lange on December 18, 2013 at 9:35 AM

    Thanks Fred for the tribute- Larry was a legend who could work magic in a studio. Working with him at MSU, WILS and WMMQ you could always count on great things coming out of the speakers and a gentle style. We all learned a ton from Larry.

  14. Ira Lawson on December 18, 2013 at 10:47 AM

    As another alum of Estlackian University, this loss really hits home. Larry was not only a radio genius and an incredible educator, he was one of the kindest, most compassionate people I’ve ever had the pleasure to have known.

  15. ART VUOLO on December 18, 2013 at 11:10 AM

    Karole White at the MAB told me that Larry Estlack was not doing well, and slipping fast. I thought 1995 was a bad year when we lost Bryan MacGregor, Nick Arama, Fat Bob Taylor, J.P. McCarthy and Tom Clay…but Fred, you’re right 2013 was a bad year for losing radio friends. I know. I lost my dear Mother on 10-10-13. Larry was very low-key and I am SO glad that you brought to our attention all of his incredible talents and abilities. I had no idea that you guys were so close. We can rejoice in the fact that he is in pain no longer and will have the best seat at the Rose Bowl to watch the Spartan’s crush Stanford. Gonna miss the big guy!

  16. Fred on December 18, 2013 at 4:03 PM

    It is so nice to hear these great memories of Larry. And also a good feeling to hear from several old friends, too. I think I may have missated in the post that Larry had influenced, mentored, taught, and guided hundreds of people along the way. I think the more accurate description is “the thousands.” Larry was always an educator, whether working for a school or not. And even in the last few months, expressed concern to me about students who he was worried about and/or wanted to be sure got off on the best career path. Thanks again for all your comments or for taking the time.

  17. Jack Taddeo on December 26, 2013 at 1:42 PM

    What a great story. I had never heard of Larry but his story clicked with me. Glad you took some time to relate it to all of us.

    • Fred Jacobs
      Fred Jacobs on December 26, 2013 at 9:40 PM

      A great guy who will be missed. Thanks for kind comment, Jack.

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