Imagine if Walt Chrysler and Henry Ford were still around, striding through their production facilities, offering words of encouragement, a pat on the back or an empathetic ear, inspiring excellence by their very presence. Think our autoworkers wouldn’t be motivated to be the best in the world? Think Detroit would need a bailout?
Then imagine the emotional zoom experienced by thousands of graduates and 625 current students of the Specs Howard School of Broadcast Arts in Southfield when they see him in the hallways or behind his desk. Despite celebrating his 83rd birthday in April, Howard arrives for work at around 11 every workday, sometimes after physical therapy, usually aided by a walker. His body has been ransacked by time and various ailments. “He endures more pain in a day than most of us would want in a lifetime,” says Dick Kernen, the school’s longtime vice president of industry relations.
Yet he’s there without fail, flashing a ready smile and a twinkle behind the windshield-thick eyeglasses that engendered his professional “Specs” nickname. “He cares so genuinely about people here. I learned long ago if I have anything important to talk to him about, don’t do it when I’m walking with him,” says Jonathan Liebman, Howard’s son, who assumed day-to-day operations in 1999 and now serves as CEO and chairman. “Because he will stop to say hello to everybody.” (Specs chose his last name of Howard randomly out of a phone book.)
Jackie Paige, the engaging Fox 2 Morning traffic reporter and a proud ’90s graduate, remembers what that meant to her. “Despite his disabilities, he was always there, always a smile on his face, asking everybody how it was going,” she says. “Just a super, super happy man, and a gentleman. I was glad to know I was going to a place started by somebody like him.”
Howard, who is in the thick of two remarkable milestones — 60 years in the broadcasting business and, come January, 40 years as head of his school — jests that his longevity can be traced in part to his wife of 56 years, Celia. “I asked her a long time ago, ‘What would you do if I retired?’ ” he says. “She said, ‘I know exactly what I would do. I would still go to Somerset, shop, meet my friends for lunch. The question is, what would you do?’ So I come to work every day.”
Born Julian Liebman in Kittanning, Pa., Howard was a major radio success in his own right, teaming with Harry Martin, who died in January, as Cleveland’s top-rated morning show in the ’60s. After Martin & Howard jumped to Detroit’s WXYZ-AM at twice the salary in 1967, however, “They changed the [music] format 30 days later, then we got hit with the riots,” Howard says. “There was just a pall over the whole station.” The duo returned from vacation to discover they had lost their time slot to some kid named Dick Purtan. Howard and Purtan remain close friends to this day.
Recognizing a need for aspiring radio talents to learn the mechanics of the business, Howard opened his school in 1970 with a closet-sized classroom and two students. Since then, scores of radio and television personalities have gained their beginners’ polish at Specs Howard, including Channel 7’s Glenda Lewis and Howard’s own daughter, WWJ-AM traffic reporter Alisa Zee. (Howard also has a son, Marty, the school’s corporate vice president, and a daughter, Shelli.)
With most radio stations in Detroit and elsewhere owned by conglomerates and on-air veterans including Arthur Penhallow and Jim Johnson searching for jobs, the future for new disc jockeys doesn’t appear promising. “We don’t really go into it as ‘radio and television’ as much as ‘audio and video,’ and that’s a major shift,” Howard says. “Strangely enough, it’s not that difficult to get into entry-level positions, even considering the economy. Everybody has audio. Many of our people go into small production companies, where audio is extremely important. Video isn’t necessarily an anchor position on the air as much as it’s camera operation, lighting, or set design. We still place people in radio, but it’s a wider swath we cut in placement.”
Specs Howard school launched a graphic-design program last year to great response, offers online courses, and has plans to become a degree-granting college with open satellite campuses. Jonathan, 49, believes the school is uniquely positioned to take advantage of Michigan’s moviemaking boom and the need for technical pros behind the camera. For proof, they can point to 1986 graduate Bud Kremp, one of L.A.’s most sought-after Steadicam operators on such hit TV series as Lost and House.
“I was 113th out of 114 kids at Almont [Mich.] High School,” Kremp says. “I didn’t do well in school, didn’t have a lot of focus. What Specs Howard provided me was hope. It was a way out, a future.”