Bill Zak Passes Away at 86
This is a bittersweet and gut-wrenching message for today's email, because we've lost someone near and dear to the heart and soul of GardenLine.
It's bitter, because Bill Zak passed away Tuesday morning at age 86. It's sweet, because so many Houstonians and longtime GardenLine fans can't help but smile at the thought of Bill Zak and that amazing voice. Not only was Zak one of the founding voices of GardenLine, he was a voice in Houston radio since the mid-1940s in a career that lasted five decades.
Zak and Dewey Compton were essentially the original pied-pipers of gardening information on the Houston airwaves. Their Farm & Ranch Show was where it all started back in the '50s and '60s. And while Zak is probably most recognized for GardenLine and the Farm & Ranch show, it wasn't always Farm & Ranch, nor was it always GardenLine.
While Zak was commonly referred to as Dewey's sidekick, he had also done time as a country music DJ and as host for a variety of audience-participation programs. In fact, he steered the first "Ask the Expert" shows, setting the style that was the template for GardenLine and other niche radio shows today. Many will also remember Zak as a longtime newsman and "the voice" of KTRH for many years, anchoring during such calamities as the 1947 Texas City explosion. His long history at KTRH includes seeing such young news and sports notables as Dan Rather and Jim Nantz cut their broadcasting teeth at 740 AM.
There are so many great stories about Zak, I would like to invite GardenLine listeners to share them with us on KTRH 6-10 a.m. this Saturday. The call-in number is 713-212-KTRH (5874).
Let me pass one along that I hope whets your appetite for more. I think it will also confirm just how much Zak enjoyed working in radio, because it should certainly demonstrate that it wasn't for the money. As it turns out, there was at least one year when KTRH management might have gotten away without paying him at all. During my first week on the job, I was told this story by his then on-air partner, and my new one, John Burrow. It has also been corroborated by several other KTRH employees along the way.
You see, even while Zak enjoyed his KTRH radio gigs over the years, he also ran a rather successful home construction and development company in West Houston, building houses in the suburbs. One day, as movers were relocating Zak and Burrow's office from one section of the building to another, six months of uncashed KTRH payroll checks tumbled from behind Zak's desk. (This was way before the days of direct deposit.) If you know anything about Zak's reputation for fiscal stewardship, you'll know this wasn't financial irresponsibility. He simply didn't need the money.
While this week's issue is really all about Bill Zak, you should know that I'm employed at KTRH only because of Bill and John Burrow. And although it was incredibly intimidating to have to fill Zak's shoes, he made it so easy for me, as did Burrow. So, I am full of gratitude to both of those men. I have had so much respect for Bill Zak for so many years that I consider it the ultimate compliment when someone says to me, "I've been listening to you since you took over for Zak." I know for a fact I don't have his voice, but I still have some of his audience. I've been blessed to be tutored by some of the best radio professionals Houston has ever offered — old-time radio experts at KTRH and KLOL. And instead of being ignored by the likes of Jim Pruett and Mark Stevens, Crash Collins, Dayna Steele, Brian (Eddie The Boner Sanchez) Shannon and Colonel St. James, I got schooled on the nuances and responsibilities of the business of radio. All of them gave me advice. But guess who put a certain amount of reverence for the business of radio into my learning system? That was, of course, Bill Zak.
He was the consummate radio professional, and there just aren't many in the industry today who can say they were on the air at one radio station for nearly 50 years. While his voice was his calling card, his ultimate gift was his ability to take a simple question and weave it into a radio "experience." You may have heard the old phrase, "If you ask him the time, he'll tell you how to build a clock." That was Zak. He could take a simple fertilizer question and turn it into an entire segment that could be endorsed or sponsored.
Zak was famous for reminding all of us all in radio, "Remember young man ... it's one for the money and two for the show!" And in those early years of what would become talk radio and endorsement-driven advertising, that wasn't a message of greed. It was a great teaching point on "the business of radio."
He is survived by his wife Jean Elizabeth Zak, six children, four step-children, 15 grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.
exclusively on NewsRadio 740 KTRH.
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