Thursday, October 23, 2014


Cover Story

Lou’s Life

6/18/2014

Sipolt’s current passion is dirt truck racing. He owns two trucks, and was a rookie of the year racer.

Sipolt’s current passion is dirt truck racing. He owns two trucks, and was a rookie of the year racer.

Lou Sipolt Jr. has been a staple in the Des Moines entertainment landscape for a quarter-century. In a decade spent as one-half of the beloved morning radio team Lou & Larry, Sipolt, along with his partner Larry Morgan, anchored a lineup that saw 95 KGGO stand as the most popular radio station in the city.

The Chicago native has weathered changes in company ownership, changes in lineup and, ultimately, changes in medium, and has continued to thrive. For people who know him, it’s easy to see why. Talk to any of his friends or colleagues, and you’ll hear of Sipolt’s passion for his work, his professionalism, and his selfless, giving personality.

“He’s an asshole. You can quote me,” said Sipolt’s former radio sidekick Steve “Round Guy” Pilchen, before turning serious. “When I moved to town, he was the first guy to offer to have me to his place for Thanksgiving with his family. He didn’t have to do that. Anytime I needed his help, he was more than willing. He deserves every bit of success that he’s achieved.”

Jackie Schmillen, Sipolt’s co-host on KCWI’s “Great Day” morning program, agrees.

DM Art Center

“He would take the shirt off his back to help you if you needed it,” she said. “He’s so compassionate and so loving. He’s amazing about making people feel at ease so they open up and talk. He makes instant friends.”

Sipolt’s warm personality and strong work ethic make him a natural fit for his life in radio and television. And while it’s true that he’s pretty much always been an entertainer, people who only know him through KGGO or KCWI are often surprised to find out just how far back that entertainment streak goes…and where it started.

Little Devils

Those who know Sipolt now are well aware of his passion for motor sports. As a sometime racing commentator for FOX Sports, Sipolt loves anything with a motor. His passion for racing goes back further than his love of radio. Much further.

“My dad was crew chief for Ford Motor Company’s stock car division,” Sipolt recalled. “When I was born, my godfather built me a go-kart as a birthday present. When my brother Mike was born a year later, he built him one. So when we were 3 years old, we were driving cars.”

Not just driving them, but driving them fast. The Sipolt family would add a third son five years after Mike, and the three Sipolt brothers became known as “The World’s Youngest Daredevils.”

“A guy named Joie Chitwood, who was a stunt driver at the time, heard about us and gave us jobs,” he said. “We were 5 and 6 years old, driving stunt karts. We travelled around the country driving mini corvettes in the Joie Chitwood Thrill Show.

“I held the world record for driving on two wheels for years,” Sipolt continued. “In high school, I drove a car 7.5 miles on two wheels on Pocono International Speedway.”

The record stood until 2009.

Sipolt started stunt kart driving at the age of 3, and was a world record holder by high school.

Sipolt started stunt kart driving at the age of 3, and was a world record holder by high school.

Motor sports took Sipolt around the country — even more on that later. But it was an entirely different desire that finally brought him to Iowa.

“I wanted to be a veterinarian,” he explained. “My brothers and I grew up driving and always thought we had the potential to be drivers, but I always had a passion for animals.”

Once he graduated high school, Sipolt began looking toward a life as a vet. He enrolled at Cornell College in Mount Vernon for his undergraduate studies, with the aim of joining a veterinary program. Like many young people, college would indeed be the place where Sipolt’s career would start to take shape. Also like many young people, the shape it took wasn’t the one he arrived looking for.

“I never had any intentions of doing anything with radio,” he admitted. “I was going to school at Cornell and got sucked into doing this one radio show. Couple years later, I’m the general manager. I graduated from Cornell, went to Iowa State for grad school, and said, ‘I’m not going to do radio; it takes up too much of my time.’ Well, that lasted a couple of months. Then, a year later, I’m the general manager of the radio station at Iowa State.”

Sipolt found that he enjoyed the freedom that radio provided at the time. He’d always enjoyed entertaining people, and in radio he’d found a visceral way to do it.

“It just clicked,” he said. “We were looking at things a little differently, and people were responsive. I never got into vet school. But the radio thing kept on advancing.”

Lou & Larry

After graduating from Iowa State, Sipolt made his way to Des Moines, eventually hooking up with KGGO when he wrote a computer program for the station. He was hired on part-time with the station in June of 1985 and would occasionally fill in on the air for the station’s morning show, Moffitt and Morgan.

“After that, there was another show with Larry and another guy that didn’t go over so well,” Sipolt recalled. “And then Lou & Larry started in 1989.”

While perhaps not remembered with the same level of rabid fondness as Floppy, there’s no denying that KGGO’s Lou & Larry morning show was a cultural touchstone in the capital city. In the pair’s heyday, they were featured on billboards and in commercial spots, and were the highest rated program on the city’s most popular radio station.

More than that, though, Lou & Larry was part of the last great wave of local radio in Des Moines. Along with morning voices like Eddie Hatfield at KJJY, Van and Connie on WHO, and Lee Martin, Julie Johnston and Mick Trier on KRNQ (now KSTZ), the early ‘90s were a last-gasp halcyon time before the proliferation of nationally-syndicated shock jocks and bad jokes.

“That was the best time in radio,” Sipolt agreed. “Back then everything was looser and a lot more fun. It was local radio doing local radio, which was very important.”

Lou & Larry helped shape Sipolt’s personal life, as well as his professional one.

“I met my wife though the radio station,” he said. “I was doing a remote broadcast with Larry out of Valley West Mall during the girls basketball tournament. We were shooting hoops outside of Younkers. She was working there, and I threw a basketball up to her. That’s how we first met.”

The chance meeting would become a lasting connection between the show and its fans.

“Larry called me out on the air. He said, ‘Who was that chick you were talking to?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, that’s her name: Chick.’ And that’s been her nickname for 20 years.”

Morgan would retire from radio in 1999. After 10 years in the booth together, Lou & Larry came to an end.

“We were complete opposites,” Sipolt recalled. “And we just happened to get along marvelously.”

Sipolt stayed on at KGGO after Morgan’s departure and was joined in the booth by Pilchen, a standup comedian who had been a semi-regular contributor to the Lou & Larry show for several years.

“When Larry left the station, they turned to me and asked if I’d be interested in taking over that position and working the morning show,” Pilchen recalled. “So that’s how it started, it was me and Louie, and Heather was around the corner in the sales department. We invited her in to read some weather and stuff, and that led to Lou, The Round Guy and Heather.”

Though the dynamic within the booth changed, the success did not. Lou, Round Guy & Heather continued to be KGGO’s most popular program — and biggest money maker.

“Everyone said the show wouldn’t work,” Sipolt said. “But we just kept going and doing what we did.”

Even in the face of radio’s changing landscape, the trio experienced another decade’s worth of success. Success that would be quickly forgotten in 2011, however, when Cumulus Media acquired Citadel Broadcasting, and with it, KGGO. Despite having soundly beaten their national competitors in the ratings for years, Cumulus decided to replace the long-running local morning show with the nationally-syndicated Bob & Tom Show. The first blow fell on Dec. 1, 2011, when Pilchen was fired immediately following that morning’s broadcast.

By the end of the month, Sipolt and Burnside would be unceremoniously shuffled off KGGO to make way for Bob & Tom. The pair was moved to talk radio affiliate, WOW-FM, where they would continue for another month before deciding to end the show in February 2012.

“We were on top of our game,” Sipolt said of the trio. “We were the No. 1 show in town, and making that station a lot of money. Apparently that didn’t matter. We went over (to WOW) for a month, to prove that we could do it. They couldn’t force us out. And, yeah, we could do it. But we decided we didn’t want to.”

“It’s not even on my dial anymore,” he continued, speaking now of KGGO. “I don’t listen. I can’t. Because I know what the station was, and what it meant in people’s lives, and they destroyed it.”

Great Day

They say that when life closes a door, it opens a window. I’m not sure if that’s always true or not, but there’s no denying that it didn’t take Sipolt long to land on his feet.

“We left (WOW-FM’s) building on a Friday, and we were in (KCWI General Manager) Ted Stephens’ office on Monday. It was that quick.”

Lou Sipolt, Jr., the long time radio man is now taking on morning TV, with co-hosts Jason Parkin and Jackie Schmillen.

Lou Sipolt, Jr., the long time radio man is now taking on morning TV, with co-hosts Jason Parkin and Jackie Schmillen.

Stephens had been trying to find a way to tie the KGGO morning show to television for a while now. His original idea was more along the lines of a direct simulcast, showing the radio show live and cutting to music videos that matched the songs the radio program would play. The logistics never quite worked out, however, and the idea was shelved — until the day Sipolt walked into Stephens office, and “Great Day” was born. Harkening back to Stephens’ original idea for a morning show, Sipolt proposed bringing as many elements of the radio show as he could.

“Everything that was important to the radio show, we were able to keep,” Sipolt said. “Our relationship with the Animal Rescue League continued. Our relationship with the Funny Bone continued. Our relationship with local music continued. That was key. The local music connection is big.”

Still, the switch to TV was a new experience for the 20-year radio man.

“I had some TV experience, but nothing live,” Sipolt admitted. “Jason Parkin, who’s an absolute riot, he had TV experience. I had some doing the Great American Stock Car Series for FOX Sports, but that was pre-recorded.”

When “Great Day” launched in 2012, KCWI brought in meteorologist Parkin to act as a co-host with Sipolt. But everyone agrees that the show really found its stride a year later, when Schmillen was brought into the mix.

“I was amazed how immediately we clicked,” she recalled. “We acted as if we had known each other for years, even though we had just met. It’s fun to meet someone who can kind of meet your energy level and who you can play off of.”

Television has been a learning time for Sipolt. But one that he’s come to with his trademark indomitable attitude. Finally, on Valentine’s Day this year, Sipolt said something clicked.

“Another thing we brought over from radio was that we married someone on the air, live. We used the same preacher, Bobby Dickerson, when he came in this year and we were getting started, it was like a lightbulb going off. It was like ‘this is my transition from radio to TV, so now it’s time to step up and do TV.’ It got done and I was talking to Bobby, and I said, ‘You know, I think this TV thing might work.’ And he said, ‘I think you’re right.’ ”

Getting dirty

For as good as his broadcasting career has been to him, Sipolt has always indulged his passion for motor sports whenever possible. From his days as a little daredevil driving stunt karts, Sipolt was able to indulge in his racing passion before settling down to a life behind the microphone.

“I got involved in motor sports thorough driving the karts, but then I befriended (eventual 1992 Winston Cup Champion) Alan Kulwicki,” he recalled. “He and I were about the same age, and I met him as he was just coming up, so then I was on Alan Kulwicki’s crew for a few years.”

A few years later, Sipolt’s background would again come in handy, as the first year of Lou & Larry coincided with the first year of the short-lived Ruan Greater Des Moines Grand Prix.

“(KGGO) thought it would be a good idea if they stuck me in the Grand Prix,” he recalled. “They stuck me in the car that first year, and I was in heaven. We got third that first time. Second time we won, which was awesome. We got to run it a third time, and we got second. So we had podium finishes all three times we ran, and that was the extent of my racing career.”

For a while.

“A couple years later, the Dirt Truck Racing Association fired up, and they said they wanted to build trucks that race on dirt, which nobody had ever seen before. So they asked me to drive one at Knoxille (Raceway) with (NASCAR Sprint Cup driver) Kenny Schrader, to see what the difference was between someone who was a racer and someone who’d never raced professionally, to see how easy these things would be to run. We both went out there, and I turned just about 300 RPM less than him my first time out. I thought, ‘This is pretty cool.’ ”

The itch was back. Now all it needed was a little push.

“I was asked to run a Series truck that year, which I did. We wound up getting Rookie of the Year, and I got it in my blood for sure then.”

Sipolt purchased a truck of his own the next season. Eventually, he purchased a second truck and built a race shop alongside his Altoona home, where he maintains one of the two trucks. It’s an expensive hobby and one that’s highly reliant upon the support of great sponsors. And while Mediacom is the name emblazoned most prominently on the side of Sipolt’s blue No. 9 Chevy, it’s the picture across the top of the truck’s bed that means the most to him. We climbed up on the truck’s bumper so he could show me the giant Animal Rescue League photo montage.

“These are actual animals that were adopted,” he said. “They’ve been on the truck for a long time, because that’s one of my passions.”

“People ask me if I regret not becoming a vet,” he continues, jumping off the truck. “I tell them that my goal was to help as many animals as possible. And one of the things that I was able to do through the radio was help change the animal abuse law in Iowa.”

Louie The Dog

On Oct. 11, 1999, Marie Connett’s cocker spaniel mix Louie was hacked nearly to death with a machete.

Eventually, Connett’s neighbor, Roberta Ficek, was arrested and charged with solicitation to commit animal abuse for paying then-29-year-old Danny Brown to attack the dog. When Sipolt got word of the attack, he was outraged at Iowa’s relatively weak laws on animal cruelty.

“The Rescue League people came to me because I was just going crazy about this on the air,”
 he said. “We sat down and made a game plan, and we did everything we could do to get that law changed. I buried myself underground in concrete for two days at Prairie Meadows to help draw attention to it. We were supposed to try to get 5,000 signatures. We got more than 20,000. And we got the law changed. My ultimate goal was to help animals, and with that one act, we helped more animals than I ever could have helped individually.”

“We’ve also brought our ‘Doggies on Death Row’ series over from the radio show to TV,” he continued. “And now we’re coming up on 2,000 animals adopted through that show.”

Local love

Sipolt has been in Des Moines and the surrounding area for 29 years now. In that time, he’s been one of the most recognizable voices on radio, and he’s developed a genuine affinity for the city and its local culture.

Over the years, he’s served as an honest and capable pitch man for local brands that he believes in, such as G&L Clothing and The Good Feet Store. His attachment to local music is as strong as it ever was, with “Great Day” regularly featuring local musicians, who Sipolt says don’t receive the recognition they deserve. He also goes to great lengths to equip and repair his racing trucks with locally bought and produced materials whenever possible.

“I like Des Moines,” he said. “When I got here I realized that maybe the vet thing wasn’t going to happen, but radio might. When I looked around Des Moines, it had a lot of the same components that Chicago had, including the Cubs. So I thought, ‘You know, this might be a good place to hang out.’ The only thing Des Moines is missing is a good Chicago hot dog, and a good thin crust pizza.”

There were plenty of chances in KGGO’s heyday for Sipolt to move on. But for him, the job was never a matter of getting the most money. He’s certainly done OK for himself in Des Moines, but his first thought was always about where he felt the best.

“Larry and I came very close to moving to Kansas City once,” he admits. “But we’re comfortable here. It comes down to: do you want to live in a bigger city and make more money and be unhappy, or live where your comfortable and be happy? This is home. Des Moines is now home.” CV