The Specs Howard School of Broadcast Arts has been around so long, it’s easy to forget there is a living, breathing man behind the name. January marks the 40th anniversary of the school that longtime air personality Howard founded in 1970 with two turntables, two tape recorders and 600 square feet of space in a Redford Township storefront.
Four decades later, the Southfield-based Specs Howard has evolved beyond a tight radio/TV broadcast focus and now offers study in video, film and graphic arts. The school has graduated 10,000 students, an influential part of southeastern Michigan’s broadcast community that includes WXYZ Channel 7 reporter/anchor Glenda Lewis and Fox 2 News legal analyst Charlie Langton (see box). Howard, 83, was honored for his 60-year career with a Lifetime Achievement Award in June by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters.
He founded Specs Howard in 1970 as a way to wind down his on-air career and keep his family in one city. At the time, there were several correspondence-style broadcast schools in Metro Detroit, including the Columbia School of Broadcasting, but only one other school offered actual studio training.
"Most of them would sell you a tape recording, and you would mail in your lessons," Howard explains. "I thought maybe a hands-on broadcast school would be the way to go, and that I’d try it for a year."
In the early days, Howard did everything; answered the phone, interviewed students, did the bookkeeping and swept up after hours.
"The students were enthralled, they could cue up a record, talk into the mike and play a record," Howard recalls. "After it caught on, we moved to a better facility, a couple of more studios…and the rest is history."
Even though Howard has turned over the reins as CEO to son Jonathan Liebman (Liebman is Howard’s birth name), he is in the office most days and sets the tone of the school.
"I’ve worked for him for 37 1/2 years, and I’ve never asked for a raise," said Dick Kernen, vice president of industry relations. "Specs creates an environment that people find very nice, for lack of a more creative term. We have 20 people here who’ve been here longer than 10 years, and a significant number of our employees are former students."
The veteran broadcaster was born Jerry Leibman and adopted the name "Specs Howard" during his stint on Cleveland radio in the ’50s. He was hired in Cleveland by Sir Graves Ghastly.
"Sir Graves Ghastly was the program director at the NBC-owned and operated station in Cleveland," Howard says.
Or rather, Lawson Deming was — that was Sir Graves Ghastly’s real name. Years later, in the early ’60s, Deming became the horror host Detroiters knew and loved.
Howard reported to Deming on April Fool’s Day, 1954 for an audition as staff announcer.
"The audition was for a live broadcast of the opera which ran on NBC every Saturday, so there were a lot of classical performers and numbers (to say)," Howard says. He got through that, but then Lawson put him in a TV studio and made him talk on camera.
Despite Deming’s stern demeanor — he liked Howard’s radio audition, but wasn’t impressed with the TV part — he offered Howard the job.
The mid-’50s was the golden age of network radio. Local stations maintained a staff of announcers whose job it was to introduce and talk in between a steady national feed of soap operas and music programs.
"You did whatever fell on your shift, station breaks, everything," Howard says. He moonlighted hosting movies on the TV station’s "Late, Late Show" at 1 a.m. When NBC sold the station to Westinghouse and the opera and soaps were dumped for rock ‘n’ roll, the announcers were told they could submit audition tapes for disc jockey jobs.
"The announcers all said, ‘How demeaning, to ask an NBC announcer to put in a tape to become a disc jockey!’" Howard says. "My wife said, ‘What have you got to lose?’ "
Howard, the only one of eight announcers to audition, became a rock ‘n’ roll disc jockey. A few years later, he adapted, yet again, into a morning show air personality with the "Martin & Howard Show." The bright lights of Detroit beckoned in the mid-’60s, and he took the show to WXYZ-AM, where it lasted two years ("We didn’t catch on to the city as well as we should have," Howard notes).
‘Doing something right’
The changes in broadcasting since the Specs Howard school launched in 1970 have been dramatic, and the education of broadcasting students had to mirror those changes.
"In the ’60s, if someone said, ‘Mr. Howard, I’d like to get into broadcasting,’ I’d say, ‘Major in business, minor in speech and dramatics.’ But the situation has changed. It’s not just a disc jockey school, we teach the sales aspect of it, the programming, camera operation."
In good times, the school places at least 80 percent of its students in jobs; sometimes the figure was in the 90s. In this economically troubled year, Specs Howard CEO Jonathan Liebman, Howard’s youngest son, says the placement rate is between 70 and 80 percent.
"But with a 28 percent unemployment rate in the city, if we’re placing between 70 and 80 percent of our grads (in jobs), we must be doing something right," Liebman says.
Liebman isn’t the only Howard offspring to go into the business; of his four children with wife Celia, Marty Liebman is Specs Howard corporate vice president and teaches, and Alisa Zee is a traffic reporter for WWJ-AM (950). Daughter Shelli Dorfman writes for the Detroit Jewish News.
More than just radio
Even before Specs Howard launched full-bore into film studies, students were learning video techniques.
Specs Howard alumnus Kenny Greenbaum, who works on reality shows like "Animal Extractors," filming alligators for Animal Planet and the National Geographic Channel, graduated in the mid-’90s.
"I had dreadlocks and tattoos, and they treated me like that didn’t even matter," Greenbaum says. "Specs’ son had a recording studio in the building, and I always stayed late and left early. Specs came in one time, sat down and said, ‘I see you here every night, what are you doing?’ I told him I was making a video for my band. He told me that taking advantage of the early hours was going to pay off for me. He said, ‘With this attitude, you’re going to be good!’ "
"Specs jump-started everything, he showed me that I could go out into the corporate world and do some damage, not just make fun videos in my basement. Here it is, 15 years later and I still talk to Dick Kernen. Those guys are very instrumental in helping folks after you leave the school."
Howard takes the long view about the many changes in broadcasting and this past year’s economic slump.
"Because of the other sources of entertainment people have, it’s decimated the radio audience," he says. "But radio was being given up for dead as long as I’ve known, and it’s always bounced back. There are people who won’t let 1,200 radio stations just go off the air. It’s still a prime source of information and education. They have to get the sponsors to come and give listeners something worth their while, but radio will find itself."