It's never easy to write about the passing of a good radio soldier. However, for me, the passing of Bill Burton is especially difficult because of the depth of our friendship, his mentorship, and the now-empty spot in my heart that he always filled.
I can't really recall when I first met Bill. My 45 years in radio tend to blur together. But I can tell you exactly when I spoke to him last: It was just this past Tuesday. He called, as he always did, to touch base, tell me he was in my camp and believed in what I was doing, and to let me know much he appreciated me. He made me feel like the most special guy on earth.
Knowing Bill, he made thousands of us feel exactly the same way.
No, it wasn't phony. It was the real Bill Burton, who stuck with those he believed in. He took the time to make sure we knew he believed -- not just once in a while, but all the time. And he never once asked for anything in return (but guaranteed, if he'd ever wanted anything, he would've had it in an instant).
Each year for the past decade or more, Bill and I would meet at a table at 21 in New York. It wasn't just any table -- it was his table, the same one he'd had since the 1970s. They knew him. He was legendary because he had an impact on everyone he touched. No one ever forgets Bill Burton. That annual dinner was a special time I always looked forward to. Me, Bill, Deborah Parenti, Robert Liggett, sometimes Carl Butrum or a couple of others. We did it every year after the Forecast conference, and, though I always had invitations from VIPs who wanted to take me to dinner after the event, I stuck to dinner with Bill Burton. It was that special to me.
This year when I saw Bill at DASH in Detroit, he had just been released from the hospital the day before, after back surgery. Yet, against the wishes of his wife and his doctors, he drove himself to the hotel and came to the conference to see and encourage me. That speaks volumes about his character.
I have no idea how many surgeries Bill had for his severe back problems, but I'm guessing it was 20 or more. Not once did he gripe or complain. Even when I suggested he must be in pain, he brushed it off, saying there were a lot of people worse off than he was.
Bill was working every day and was thrilled that DRAG, the Detroit Radio Advertising Group, had renewed his contract for yet another year. And it was a good decision: Bill could open doors at the highest levels in the automotive world, all the way up to the chairman of every automaker and agency in Detroit. One agency CEO told me at dinner, "Burton was the most connected man in Detroit, and he could not be ignored." There is probably no other man in history who brought more of Detroit's business to national radio than Bill Burton.
I'm not sure I can recall every lesson I ever learned from Bill, but his trademark "Be Fabulous" is written on a little clock that sits on my desk. It was part of everything he did -- in his signature, and on the famous annual certificates with positive quotes that he sent to advertisers. It was how he lived. He was all about having fun, standing out, and being different.
Years ago, when he was speaking at the RAB conference, the room suddenly came alive with a 200-piece marching band he'd hired to blast into the room. It's a trick he also employed at client pitches and meetings. I've stolen that trick and used it in my own business. "Never be boring," Bill used to say. "Most salespeople are boring. People don't buy when they're bored."
At 85, Bill wasn't working because he needed the money; he'd made his money when he sold out of Eastman Radio decades ago. But he needed to make a difference. He said every car was "a radio on four wheels," and he wanted to make sure radio was top-of-mind for every advertiser in Detroit.
I used to marvel at how Bill had the courage and ability to get in to see the highest-level people at the biggest companies in the world. "It's easy," he would say. "If you start at the top, they push you to the person who does the advertising and tell them to buy whatever you have to sell." Bill's most famous saying was, "Never take no from someone who can't say yes."
Thinking about Bill Burton always brings me joy. He mentored me for decades, and the last time we spoke, I shared some frustrations. He told me, "Don't let those idiots get you down. You've done more for radio than all of them combined. This industry would not be where it is today without you." Whether that's accurate or not doesn't matter: He was rooting for me. He made me feel special, as he made so many of us feel special.
Bill is with the angels now, and, though this sounds very cliched, he was an angel on earth. He was always looking out for people, always encouraging us, and always finding the bright spot in every dark corner. He stayed in touch with me religiously and always was sincerely interested about my kids, and he knew their names even though he never met them.
We all have special people in our lives, who register like an earthquake on the Richter scale. Bill was one of them for me personally, and I think, as time goes on without him in Detroit, we will realise even more deeply just how important he was to radio. He was living proof that one man can make a difference.
Click below to hear Bill's remarks backstage at the DASH conference, as he spoke with Art Vuolo.