Media Watch: John Zach—from rock 'n' roll to radio
More than half a century ago, John Zach founded a high school garage band called John Zach and the Furies. If the dream had worked out, Zach may have been another Brian Wilson, Bruce Springsteen, or Mick Jagger. But as the song goes, you can’t always get what you want, so Zach, now seventy-two, instead became one of Western New York’s most celebrated newsmen.
Zach’s magnificent voice has been heard on all three commercial news stations in town—WKBW, WGR, and now WBEN. And while many of his peers retired years ago, Zach has no plans to stop cohosting the WBEN morning news with Susan Rose. His fascinating and accidental career path might be inspiring to young people wanting to break into radio—as long as they know they aren’t doing it for the money.
Zach certainly isn’t. He started in radio earning about $90 a week, and over the years has supplemented his radio income by installing TV antennas and garage door openers in business with his brother-in-law. He also made $15 and “all you can eat” as the Bills press box announcer for eighteen years. Currently, he makes about $60,000, which still makes him far less rich than his distinctive baritone voice.
For his current job, Zach gets up each day at 1:15 a.m.—he showers and makes his lunch the night before—and spends an hour getting ready before starting off on the forty-five minute commute from the Colden farmhouse he shares with his wife, Victoria, two cats, a dog, and thirty chickens. Working in radio is clearly a labor of love if he’s willing to get up before the chickens.
Born John I. Zachwieja (which Zach says means “very windy” in Polish), Zach was the son of a Kaisertown legend who built the first crystal radio set in the area. “Kids in the neighborhood on Barnard Street would come over to listen to this new curiosity,” Zach recalls, tracing his interest in electronics and radio to the fascinating stories his father told. At Seneca Vocational School, he and a friend also became interested in music, coming home every day to listen to American Bandstand and learning how to play the guitar.
In the late 1950s, Zach dropped out of Seneca to become a rock star, because his garage band had “become very popular. We traveled all over New York State, to Pennsylvania, we did record hops in eastern Ohio,” Zach says. The notion was supported by a young DJ at WBNY named Danny Neaverth, who remains Zach’s best friend. Neaverth liked “Space Charge,” one of Zach’s instrumental songs, and was able to get Warner Brothers Records interested enough to offer Zach and the Furies a contract.
“I was so excited, I thought we’re going to be famous,” remembers Zach, who said his parents wouldn’t allow it, because “they’d heard horror stories about parents signing contracts and kids going no place.” The record was never released and Zach still has “tons of copies.”
“For its time, it was okay,” Neaverth says. “It was up-tempo, rock ’n’ roll. It was never going to become a top ten hit.” Once the record deal died, Neaverth suggested that Zach become a disc jockey, so Zach moved into a Syracuse YMCA for several months while he took courses in radio and public speaking. For one class exercise, he recalls describing an imaginary parade.
Zach’s first radio “job” was as a volunteer announcer for WNED-TV. At the same time, he created audition tapes in Neaverth’s attic; one of them landed him his first paying job as a disc jockey for a rock ’n’ roll station in Albany, Georgia.
“Because of my association with Danny, I knew you had to be a little different, a little wacky, a little nuts at times,” says Zach, who sought to emulate his friend. On one summer morning show, Zach complained about flies in the studio and asked listeners to kill all the flies in town and mail them to him.
“Two days later, someone from the post office called the station and said ‘tell that idiot to stop this. The letters are coming in filled with flies. They are going through machines. There are dead flies all over the floor at the post office,’” Zach laughs. “I thought it was funny; they didn’t. I still have in my scrapbook a little glassine envelope with a dead fly in it.”
Zach left Georgia for a job in Pennsylvania, but never made it there because legendary WKBW DJ Tommy Shannon told him to take a shot at an opening in the station’s newsroom. Zach didn’t think the idea would fly: “I said I don’t know anything about news. I was really nervous. I auditioned. I was terrible. I wouldn’t have hired me on a bet.” But hired he was, by programmer Russ Syracuse, who offered him $90 a week and asked, “Can you start tonight?”
As the story goes, Irv Weinstein, who was at KB radio at the time before his TV career flourished, wasn’t impressed. “My understanding is Irv went into Russ Syracuse’s office and asked ‘Where did you find this guy?’” says Zach, who claims the mentoring of radio legends Jim Fagan, Don Yerke, and others saved him. “[Fagan] yelled and screamed at me like there was no tomorrow but he never gave up on me.”
By age forty-eight, Zach had risen to news director and was making about $31,000 a year when an ownership change led to the dismantling of the news department. After that, Zach subbed at local radio stations, and wrote The Train Man, a popular self-published book about a South Buffalo legend named Spoonley. After some book success, Zach wrote a letter to WGR owner Bob Rich, Jr. asking for a job in public relations, and was hired at $35,000; five years later, he took a job—and a $14,000 pay cut—on the WBEN news team. “Even though I thought the amount of money was insulting, I took the job,” says Zach, who shares his salaries as a caveat for would-be broadcasters.
“The business is a ‘prove it’ business,” says WBEN/WGR/WWKB operations manager Tim Wenger, who didn’t think his salary offer was an insult. “I don’t consider anything insulting, just reality. Once you perform, people make more than $21,000. Based on ratings and performance, John has done really well.” In fact, Zach’s salary has almost tripled as cohost of the top-rated morning news program with Wenger’s wife, Susan Rose. “John is Susan’s ‘second husband,’” Wenger says. “They have that intuition. He knows what she is thinking and she knows what he is thinking.”