(By Ray Cole) I have fond memories of my friendship with longtime local radio executive Joe Bilotta. Sadly, he passed away on June 1, 2018 after putting up one helluva fight against pancreatic cancer over the last two years-plus. He was only 69.
I remember first being introduced to Joe many years ago as a direct result of the close relationship enjoyed by our mentors, Rick Buckley and Phil Lombardo. We commiserated often about the similarities of our roles working for these two fiercely independent, entrepreneurial legends in the radio and television business, respectively. Joe would joke that the two of us did all the deep thinking; I’d chime in that we also did most of the heavy lifting. We both agreed, however, on an exception to any “lifting” criticism when it involved Rick, Phil, and a bottle of Tanqueray gin when they were always more than up to the task!
I remember attending countless events with Joe that were centered around raising funds for the Broadcasters Foundation of America. Phil Lombardo was chairman and Rick Buckley was finance chair. We competed in a BFoA deep-sea fishing tournament in Key Biscayne, FL in May of 2007. Barbara Bilotta, Connie Buckley, Kim Lombardo, and Susan Cole joined us that evening for dinner at the infamous Joe’s Stone Crab on South Beach. As a University of Miami alum and member of their Board of Trustees, everyone knew Rick and the dinner was spectacular. And as was always the case with Joe and Rick on such occasions, it was fun.
I remember spending time at the NAB Show in Las Vegas with the Bilottas, Buckleys, and Lombardos in April of 2007. Following dinner at the Bellagio, we were front and center for Celine Dion’s show at the Colosseum in Caesars Palace. We would get together at nearly every NAB Show in the years that followed.
I remember playing in the BFoA Celebrity Golf Tournament in September of 2007 at Wee Burn Country Club in Darien, CT. While Buckley and Citadel each had their own foursomes, side bets were always par for the course. And while Rick Buckley didn’t golf, he was always on hand for the dinner, awards program, and auction that followed. Joe’s giddy affection for the game was now apparent and we would make a point of meeting up at future BFoA golf tournaments.
I remember when Joe accepted his first invite to the Citadel Invitational. Hosted by Phil Lombardo in Longboat Key, FL since 2001, this annual golf/business meeting included associates and good friends of the company like Frank Boyle, Carl Brazell, Ernest Liebre, Joe Bodan, Stu Olds, Jim Beloyianis, Leo MacCourtney, Rich Waller, Brian Cobb, and Citadel general managers like Roger Moody. To have Buckley Broadcasting’s dynamic duo of Joe and Rick start joining us in January of 2009 was the best move Phil ever made! Joe became renowned for his manic approach to playing the game, and Rick for his antics and larger than life presence. In January of 2011, Rick and Carl Brazell were in charge of the beverage cart and a 10-gallon jug of Bloody Marys to help with the early tee times. Not knowing the mix had already been spiked, they added their own gallon(s?) of vodka. By mid-morning, Joe was as “relaxed” as he would ever be on the golf course…and, incredibly, even won some money! The opening dinner traditionally featured the roasting of an unsuspecting victim. Joe was the focus of our jokes in 2016. My roast of Joe included the following: if you understood Joe, no explanation was needed; if you didn’t understand Joe, then no explanation was possible! On a more serious note, I concluded my remarks by making the point that a good friend knows all your best stories while your best friend has lived them with you. Everyone found ways to tell Joe just how much he was appreciated. Joe would discover that he had pancreatic cancer only a few months later. In 2017, he was undergoing chemo treatments and able to join us for the opening dinner and practice round.
I remember the plane trip Joe and I made together in January of 2010. We flew from Tampa, FL to Washington, DC following that year’s Citadel Invitational in order to attend a National Association of Broadcasters board meeting. Joe was serving on the radio board, me on the TV board. We talked during our flight about how the respective boards were divided in a way that did not serve our common interests. NAB’s radio members were concerned about a new fee, or performance tax, that was being proposed for simply airing and promoting artists’ music on their local stations. Joe made the case that NAB’s TV members should support a grassroots campaign that would include TV spots in a show of solidarity, with the understanding that radio members would reciprocate at some point in the future on an issue of concern to the television industry. He was spot on. Joe and I made a point of sitting together at the following morning’s joint board meeting where the performance tax matter came up for discussion. I made a motion that we had drawn up on the plane, Joe gave it a quick second, and it passed unanimously! It was an important and symbolic vote that has had a lasting effect on the NAB’s approach to advocacy. Steve Newberry, joint board chairman at the time, has since given me credit on numerous occasions for the motion; the idea was Joe’s and any credit due was mostly his.
I remember the fishing trips we occasionally made together to Wheaton’s Lodge in Forest City, ME. We would always laugh at the “Fishin’…Not Wishin’” sign at the entrance to this picturesque fishing camp that Carl Brazell turned us onto. Joe would bring his son, Greg. Rick would come by himself or bring his daughter, Jennifer (who was much better at fishing than Rick!). Phil Lombardo would bring along his sons, Dean and Jeff, and his grandkids. I would bring my son, Brandon, and sons-in-law Jeff Latta and Kane Johnson. The shore lunches began with fresh-caught perch appetizers and ended with homemade pies, with beer and Pinot Grigio served as well. The dinners in the main lodge featured fresh Iowa sweet corn that the Cole’s would bring along and the finest Villa Antinori Toscana red wine that Carl could find. We would adjourn each night to the front porch of Phil’s cabin for cigars and nightcaps until he would throw us out. Joe and I — and our boys — would occasionally find ourselves on the dock well after midnight to fully take in the moment. And nobody enjoyed or embraced it more than Joe.
I remember the weekend in October of 2010 when Joe, Greg Bilotta, and Rick Buckley became Iowa football fans. In what was an alcohol-fueled idea over a campfire at Wheaton’s Lodge the previous summer, we agreed to meet up in Iowa City, IA for the Penn State vs. Iowa football game. My son-in-law, Jeff Latta, and I surprised the Buckley gang when we picked them up at the Cedar Rapids, IA airport in a stretch limo whereupon the first beer cans were quickly popped. And with the football game set for a primetime broadcast on ABC, a lengthy and world-class tailgate party got underway shortly thereafter. The 17th-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes overwhelmed the No. 22-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions by a score of 24-3, in what would be Coach Joe Paterno’s last game at Kinnick Stadium. After a long post-game limo ride to Des Moines and short night’s sleep, we had breakfast at The Machine Shed. This restaurant is a favorite gathering place of politicians during the Iowa caucuses, and our out-of-town guests loved it. Joe would recount his recollections of this weekend for years to come.
I remember the sadness we shared following the unexpected passing of our friend, Stu Olds, in December of 2010. Few of us recognized the seriousness of the myelodysplastic syndrome, or MDS, that Stu was somewhat suddenly stricken with. A legendary figure in the radio industry earlier in his professional career, he had been serving as CEO of the Katz Media Group. Only 60 at the time, Stu’s death hit Rick Buckley and Phil Lombardo especially hard given their friendship and close work on behalf of the BFoA. The night before the memorial service, Joe and Rick hosted a dinner at The Capital Grille in Stamford, CT for many friends and Stu’s humor, warmth, and charm were toasted.
I remember experiencing an intense sadness all over again in July of 2011 when Rick Buckley passed away following a brain embolism. While Stu’s passing just eight months earlier was unexpected, Rick’s was absolutely shocking. He had been inducted in to the New York State Broadcasters Association’s Hall of Fame just one month earlier. A vocal advocate for local radio, he and Joe lived up to the company’s “the listeners must come first” mantra each and every day. Rick served as chairman of the Radio Advertising Bureau, and Joe would do likewise many years later. Joe provided a steady hand at the helm of Buckley Broadcasting following Rick’s death, and oversaw the eventual sale of its radio stations from 2012-14. Rick would have been proud of how Joe conducted business and handled himself throughout.
I remember the surprise 80th birthday party for Phil Lombardo at Burning Tree Country Club in Greenwich, CT in June of 2015. Hosted by member Ernest Liebre, Joe played a big part in planning the golf outing and dinner. All the usual characters joined Joe and Ernest in sneaking up on the surprised Lombardo: Boyle, Bodan, Beloyianis, Waller, Gabelli, and Crowley. Joe’s birthday present for Phil was a sign that read, “I’m Kind of a Big Deal.” Joe could always connect with people in very special ways.
I remember how Joe sent me a picture in the midst of his early chemo treatments. Having lost his hair, it contained a “Mr. Potato Head” caption which reflected the positivity and sense of humor he would retain throughout. He also included a picture with one of his grandsons, Sammy. Joe was immensely proud of his family and, most especially, his grandkids.
I remember the Christmas lunch that the foursome of Bilotta, Liebre, Lombardo, and Cole had in December of 2016 at Gabriele’s in Greenwich, CT. Joe had completed several rounds of chemo by that time, and was looking forward to spending time with his family during the holiday season. The treatments, while necessary, were taking their toll and Joe was unsure about whether he could make it to Longboat Key, FL the following month to join us for at least part of the Citadel Invitational. As things turned out, he did.
I remember how excited Joe was to attend the BFoA Golden Mike dinner in February of 2017 at The Plaza Hotel. The event honored Meredith Corp’s Local Media Group president, and our fellow BFoA board member, Paul Karpowicz. While Joe had attended many of these dinners in years past, he confided in me his concern about whether or not this one might be his last. Even so, he worked the room in the same personable way he always did.
And finally, I remember the enormous sense of pride Joe felt while attending his last NAB Show in Las Vegas, NV this past April. It meant so much to him that his two sons, Nick and Greg, were able to accompany him. The truth of the matter was that Joe would have been physically unable to make the trip without them. The boys had a couple surprises in store for their dad. Connie Buckley, Rick’s widow and family friend, showed up in Las Vegas to be with him. Connie was joined by Kathy Baker, the longtime EVP of Buckley Broadcasting’s West Coast radio stations. Phil Lombardo and I escorted Joe to BMI’s annual NAB dinner although he insisted on walking in lieu of using the wheelchair we had arranged. While understandably self-conscious about his gaunt appearance, Joe reconnected with dozens of former radio colleagues. Michael O’Neill, BMI’s CEO, had arranged for us sit at dinner with David Kennedy, Jim Thompson, Dick Foreman, and other old friends, and at a table near the back and off to the side of the ballroom should Joe wish to discreetly excuse himself. Before the main course was served, he signaled just that and I walked him back to meet up with his sons. He told me during our private walk that this trip was his “last hurrah” and it meant a great deal to him. The following morning, Joe was honored at the BFoA’s annual breakfast with a Ward L. Quaal Leadership Award. This award recognizes career contributions to the broadcast industry and community at-large. With his family, former colleagues, and countless friends looking on, Joe was eloquent in delivering his acceptance remarks. He was both funny and serious, and candid about his battle with cancer and the prospects of beating it. But he mostly spoke about his love for — and great pride in — his family, and his passion for the business of local radio.
Only while listening to him that morning did I grasp the full extent of his “last hurrah” comment from the night before. I will always remember him for that above all else, and find solace in knowing how so many of us were blessed to have known him.
Reach out to Ray Cole by e-mail at [email protected]