From New Castle (PA) to New Orleans (LA) … to quote the California sage Jerry Garcia, “What a long strange trip it’s been!”
Born in New Castle (just north of Pittsburgh) to Charlie & Phyllis, the middle child of five kids, by the time I was five, we’d already relocated all the way to Florida – where we moved two additional times in three years … before moving back north to Youngstown, Ohio.
So, let me see, I’m all of nine years old and I’ve already had five different mailing addresses in three different states in the union. No, pop wasn’t running from the law, just an upwardly mobile and in-demand chemical/mechanical engineer.
My first jobs were newspaper boy, altar boy, and grocery bagging and delivery boy. Boy, that’s a lot of ‘boys’. And great training at a young age in dependability and responsibility for manhood, I might add.
Even as a young dude (boy) through all these very same years, the roots of the recording studio and voiceover career were planted. I took up acting in civic children’s theater, studied ventriloquism (even built my own dummy), taught myself to play the guitar (had my own band in high school) … and fell in love with radio & communications.
Upon graduating high school, with dreams of heading to the military academy at West Point, I spent a year working hard as a land surveyor during the day and attending Penn State by night. When the academy dreams fell apart, I’ve got to admit – it was radio, communications and broadcasting that captured my heart.
So, after carrying a 4.0 in English, Speech, Philosophy and (oh, my) Calculus at Penn State, I decided to drop out, follow my heart and launch a career in radio. Now the fun begins.
When I arrived in New Orleans at Q-93, the station was then owned by Insilco, a Fortune 500 outfit with silver mines all over planet earth!
But I just grew tired and weary of the fragile existence that radio offered and/or threatened, along with the toll on my private and personal life.
You want to know something? Women will only take to that packing and unpacking, up-and-down-the-radio-dial life for just so long … before they say ‘so long’.
Necessity being the mother of invention, I began the Airlift Productions thing – recording and producing ‘voice-overs for export’ – long before it became fashionable. I built my first recording studio in 1984, ‘burned the ships’ (as the expression goes) and never looked back.
Airlift Productions was my opportunity to combine all my loves – acting, music, communications, production and radio – into my own business. Oh sure, I could still run the bus off the road, but at least from now onward … I was the one at the wheel.
1984 was the age of reel-to-reel magnetic recording tape, grease pencils and splicing blocks, cassettes and Fed Ex next-day deliveries. The internet and world wide web, mp3 email attachments, and digital non-destructive edits weren’t even dreams yet in a tech head’s head!
Fast-forward now to 2020… and the kid has stayed in the picture. I still love to paint those mental pictures, color the air with bright pastels and deep earth-toned hues … motivate with sound!
And what a thrill and honor to do it all from the world’s most unique city and America’s most fascinating destination. If you’ve been to New Orleans you know whereof I speak … and if you haven’t, well, you’ll just have to take my word for it.
“It has been my pleasure to collaborate with Mike at Airlift on a variety of projects from sound effects for museum films, to Narration for corporate and commercial work, to high end deeply layered radio spots. He works out of his own custom designed studio, so he has been able to offer a flexibility to accommodate erratic schedules. In every case, he has maintained the highest standards of production that equal anything produced in New York or LA. He is dedicated, tireless, dependable and truly enjoys his work to the point of making the process actually fun. I would not hesitate to recommend his services to my colleagues or anyone seeking a totally professional sound track.” ~ DALE ANTHONY SMITH, Designer/Producer at Multi-Media Corp, New Orleans
It’s long been said that the Devil dances in empty pockets. You’ll also hear that the Devil is in the details. And in the summer of 1979, as John Saint John, I was dancing a very detailed jig with the Pulitzer Family along the banks of the Mississippi in Saint Louis, Missouri.
This whole blog post was triggered by a rather innocent enough email to theAirlift Productions Studios from a Lance Hildebrand (traffic reporter/VO guy), looking for a studio to work from while visiting New Orleans. The subject line was “We’re both KSD Alums”. Really?
Hired by the Pulitzer Family in the summer of 1978, I’d packed up my entire life, hopes & dreams and moved over 800 miles from Harrisburg, PA to take on the afternoon drive shift at 55-KSD radio in St. Louis. Excitement was hardly the word!
That summer the Pulitzers held and owned pop/adult 55-KSD Radio, NBC-affiliate KSD Television, AND the property that first put them on the map – The Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, the most widely read paper in town. Long before there was a radio or a television set, Joseph Pulitzer had made his name in print. The “Prize” was to come years later.
Little did I realize when I first took the job that this stunning combination of power, strength and reach would serve to ultimately lead to my untimely dismissal.
** KTVI-2/St. Louis Don Marsh Feature on John Saint John, 1979 **
Let’s face it, in 1979, before the birth of the internet, the web & a digitally-connected America – one company could, in effect, monopolize what people would read in their newspaper, listen to on their radio, and watch on their television! I mean, what else was there?
Apparently, by 1979, the FCC had come to the same conclusion.
The Ronald Reagan years of deregulation and consolidation were yet to come, and the Federal Communications Commission, the government’s watch dog, had been wagging it’s paw at the Pulitzer clan for quite some time. And the time had come.
Music DJs Ron Morgan, Ed Scarborough, and yours truly were all shown the door as Combined Communications out of San Diego purchased KSD Radio from the Pulitzers, changed the format to News/Talk and decided to duke it out with KMOX.
Ironically, my afternoon news dude, the amazingly & wickedly talented Bob Hamilton, was retained through the transition, and later went on to legendary status at longtime CBS kingpin KMOX. Let’s hear it for the on-air longevity of an outstanding newsman’s career.
Yes, despite my #1 ratings with women 25-49 in afternoon drive at 55-KSD – precisely what Lee Fowler, Ed Newsome and the Pulitzers had hired me to do – newly married and with a child on the way, along with the rest of the on-air music staff, I was summarily let go/fired in the late summer of 1979. A pawn in quite the elaborate and corporate chess game.
But as my pop used to say “Illegitimus non carborundum est” (Latin for ‘don’t let the bastard grind you down’). I picked myself up, dusted myself off … and headed to Nashville. But that’s the story for another blog another time.
Indeed, those late summer nights after Cardinals games, I dreamed of having quite the career in Saint Louis, maybe after radio parlaying my on-air work into writing for the Post-Dispatch one day, but that story was never to happen.
Dancing with the Devil? He’s in the details? You betcha’! And I guess I should have seen it coming. When radio got into bed with big business, you knew it wasn’t going to end pretty.
And when you get into bed with the Devil … you better be prepared to get it on.
“Working on the road can be a pain for voice artists – I was so glad to find Airlift studios on my travels, just outside NOLA CBD! What a beautiful, cozy, and quiet space to work in. Micheal was an absolute pleasure to work with, being 100% professional and 100% nice guy! If I’m ever in the Big Easy again, I’ll be sure to stop in and see Mike at Airlift Productions.” – TOBY RICKETTS, New Zealand-based, award-winning, world-class VoiceOver Artist
Before John Saint John, before Mike McCann and even before New Orleans… decades before Airlift Productions, there was the discus.
The Discus Throw Event in Track & Field marks the first time that I ever proved to myself beyond the shadow of a doubt that I could do ANYTHING I wanted in life – IF I wanted it badly enough, applied myself, and focused ALL my talents and efforts.
I’ve often been asked through all these years and all these homes and all these recording studios – about the ever-present discus thrower, Myron’s classic Greek statue – The Discobolus.
Some homophobes have actually implied – or even come right out and said – that I must be “gay” to have some statue of a naked dude so prominently displayed in my Airlift Productions Studios.
Here’s the REAL story ….
Growing up as the middle child of five, with brothers Tommy & John, who were the true athletes of the family (basketball stars both, brother Steve’s star would rise later), my acting & musical talents often took the “backseat” in the eyes of my father and, at age 15, I was committed toprovingthat I could “measure-up” and “man-up”!
So, it was the discus that caught my eye. And all my attention.
I built a gym in the basement and went after it. Dumbbells and barbells rang and clanged late into the night.
I studied film (yes, 8mm film) of the great ones – Al Oerter, Jay Silvester, Ludvik Danek (look these guys up) – and perfected my throwing form and style.
Heck, I even almost ended up in the hospital, or maybe even dead, when at one track meet in the spring of 1970, some dude actually threw one INTO MY HEAD!
My mother Phyllis would later laughingly joke, “Oh, maybe that’s what’s wrong with Mike!”
But … I just kept at it. With. Dogged. Persistence. Day. After. Day. Week. After. Week.
I even poured the concrete in a vacant lot by the family home and built my own practice circle.
You know, real ‘Home Work’.
Like I said, I wanted it badly. I applied myself. I focused all my talents and efforts.
So, how did it all come out?
Well, the regulation high school discus weighs-in at 3 pounds-9 ounces, and competition models are made of wood and steel.
I placed 3rd-out-of-18 High Schools in the W.P.I.A.L. (Western PA Interscholastic Athletic League). And went on to set the Northwestern High School Discus Record in 1970 with a toss of 149 feet & 11 inches – that’s half a regulation football field!
My record stood unmatched, untouched and unbroken for 10 years.
No, I never got the cheers and accolades that accompanied my brothers’ pulse-pounding, jam-packed Shadyside & Northwestern High School basketball games; andPapa Charlie never did get a chance to make it out to catch me in action.
But I sure got something else.
The self-satisfied smile as week-after-week I won the discus event. And the knowledge that my mind & spirit had showed my flesh who was the boss.
You see, in metaphysical circles today much is made of the fact that the human mind – sort of like a rubber band – once stretched to a new idea … never quite returns to its original shape.
Mine never has.
And after graduation that year, another crazy passion entered my life – RADIO!
As yours truly, Airlift Mike Ziants, went from hurling discs … to spinning them … on turntables.
And New Orleans, Louisiana wasn’t even on the kid’s radar. Yet.
But that “discus dude”, Myron’s Discobolus, remains to this day in the Airlift Studios as an ever-present reminder that I can accomplish anything in the world that I want to – if I just put my mind to it.
“No recording studio I have worked with has given such personal attention toward perfecting the ‘science of sound’ than Airlift Productions in the hands of Micheal Ziants. I thank him for the many voice-overs and sound effects he produced for my syndicated television shows “MORGUS PRESENTS”!
Though we all came from the same mom & dad and were raised under the same roof all those years, we couldn’t have turned out more differently. Or did we?
This Pennsylvania band of brothers – the Ziants Boyz – sure have cut wildly & widely different paths in life. From the coal mines of West Virginia and Ohio to major American radio stations and newspapers, Phyllis & Charlie’s little boys have sure left their mark.
While John & Tommy took it to the mines, Steve & I went the journalism & broadcasting routes. I guess even as kids we didn’t like to get our hands too dirty.
Today, I’m so proud of brother Steve because he is a published author. In addition to his duties as the Page Designer for the sports section at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, you’ll also find his genius & talents for sale on amazon.com.
Born to PA parents, a pitcher on the Kent State baseball team, and a rabid wordsmith and writer, it’s not too bold a statement to say that this was the book Steve was born to write – with his blood, not ink!
According to that wacky amazon crowd, there are “only 10 left in stock” so order soon, grab it for your Kindle, or get a good old-fashioned paperback, right here – Steve Ziants Book on Amazon.com.
Oh yeah, and tell ’em that one proud brother ~ brother Mike at Airlift in NOLA ~ way down yonder in new oileenz sent ‘ya.
Steve Ziants’ 1st literary outing, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
** originally written & published January 13th, 2016 **
I only ever got into one real fight in my life. You know, a real knock-down, drag-out fist fight. It was 1960s Shadyside, Ohio, I was the new kid in town and it was one of those classic ‘Your mama wears combat boots’, defending-your-mother’s-honor kind of fights.
Now, in 2016, this past Monday night, that same mother gave UP the fight.
Yeah, leave it to Mama Z to decide to drop her body and move on from this world at roughly the same time as the planet’s most notorious shape-shifter, rock icon David Bowie was doing the same an ocean away.
Bowie got all the headlines. Except here.
Born in the days before the Great Depression, in 1925 Johnstown, PA, Phyllis Ziants pursued a nursing degree at Pitt … and a certain young man from the neighboring coal town of Windber.
Who knew when Charlie & Phyllis went on that first date at the roller skating rink all those years ago what was to come? Oh, what a tangled web we weave when at first we practice to conceive.
Their union yielded five kids – Linda, John, Mike, Tom, and Steve.
I’m sure we never crossed their minds as they skated around to the refrains of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” that night – it was their song – the one pop carried with him off to war —
“And now the purple dusk of twilight time Steals across the meadows of my heart High up in the sky the little stars climb Always reminding me that we’re apart…”
Wars end, as wars sometimes do, Charlie returned to his Phyllis, they got married in 1947 and began the odyssey.
Together with her husband, she moved the Tribe of Ziants countless times across state lines to new homes, new churches, new schools, new doctors, seemingly every other year.
From Pennsylvania to Florida, then on to Ohio, back to Pennsylvania, then back to Ohio, Phyllis kept a steady hand on the wheel, kept us all fed, and kept us all occupied (in the days before digital) with music lessons, ping-pong, and card games.
She loved “Kings On the Corner”.
Her nursing degree sure came in handy, as she tended to every wound life could inflict – lost jobs, unemployment, hospitalizations, broken hearts, divorces – and was always there with advice, consolation and compassion.
Don’t get me wrong, like all humans, she had her quirks … boy, could she talk (seemingly endlessly at times, even derailing her own train of thought), tended to fall asleep in front of the TV (narcolepsy?), and (no doubt a skill cultivated through years of corralling five rambunctious kids) could be quite the ‘control freak’.
Hey, it was all part of her unmistakable charm.
After pop’s passing in 1996, she sold the family home and downsized to her condo, then to the nursing home, and then this past week to hospice care … and now, there is no more ‘then’.
I once comforted my boy Ben-Jam after his first visit to a funeral home with the thought that the body after death is but a fingerprint that the soul leaves behind.
What a gal. What a fingerprint.
And from the coal mines of West Virginia and Ohio, to the newspaper at Pittsburgh, to the recording studios of N’awlins … this woman’s fingerprints are everywhere.
Now, it’s eternal.
Much love, kisses, prayers & peace, mother dear.
You’re still the first one I think of whenever I fall down and go boom.
So, what does a baby computer call its Father?!? Ri-i-i-ght. He calls it ‘Data’!
You know, a lot of truth is captured in this cutesy, pun-ny Father’s Day joke for the 21st century.
Everything that you – the reader of these very words – and I are … is the end result of that one split second of conception, when that sperm hit that egg, the DNA, the ‘data’ in your ‘Da-Da’!
Your eye color, the cut of your chin, your height, your default weight, your ability to process a thought, your IQ, your eye-to-hand coordination when you hit or throw a ball – is all predestined and pre-configured in a rather remarkable instant of the sharing of the ‘baby batter’.
Oh sure, mom had a hand in it, so to speak, but after all, this is Father’s Day weekend 2015, so let’s go there.
Meet mine. Charlie Ziants was sure a character. ‘Good time Charlie’ to the gang around the golf course or bowling alley, ‘Mr. Ziants’ to many around the power plant, ‘Chuck’ to his wife Phyllis of 40+ years … and ‘Sir’ or ‘Pop’ to my brothers and me.
Courageous (a WW II & Korea Vet); Brilliant (Ohio State Grad & accomplished engineer); Trustworthy (raised five kids); Resilient (never without a job or paycheck); Loving (a pat on the head or kick in the pants when needed); Gregarious & Fun (always there with a joke, laugh & cold drink ); Supportive (a treasure trove of sage advice & counsel); Athletic (a true Bowling & Golf Ace); Musical (you should’ve heard him on piano or accordion)… and with a Voice and a Laugh that could really grab attention!
Rumi, the Persian mystic & poet once wrote, “When you are dead, seek for your final resting place … not in the dirt … but in the hearts of men.” Charlie even pulled this feat off too.
Pop, God Bless you, sir! Thank you for your service, both on foreign shores in the U.S. Army … and on these shores raising the tribe of Ziants.
Yesterday, March 17th, was St. Patrick’s Day 2015, tomorrow will be St. Joseph’s Day 2015, and today (as the old Temptations record out of Motown would extol) … “was the day my daddy died”.
Some of my earliest recollections as a child are of trying to fall asleep in New Castle, PA, while listening to his raucous laughter from down the hallway, as he sat in front of a b/w TV watching Jackie Gleason in ‘The Honeymooners’. I would later join him.
What a character! ‘Good time Charlie’ to the gang around the golf course or bowling alley, ‘Mr. Ziants’ to many around the power plants (coal, then later, nuclear), ‘Chuck’ to Phyllis, his wife of 40+ years … and ‘Sir’ or ‘Pop’ to my brothers and me.
Felled way before his time, at only 70, by Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, pop was otherwise healthy as a horse, as the expression goes. Extremely rare, CJD is often called the human equivalent of mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) … in short, he ate something that didn’t agree with him. CJD, named for the doctors that first discovered it, is incurable and invariably fatal.
Towards the end, he and I would joke about his going out like a Viking – sword in hand, ship ablaze, on his way to Valhalla! What really happened was … they kept his brain for further study before the cremation.
The various faith traditions around the planet have different takes on the afterlife. Buddhist tradition holds that in the bardo (the in-between-world) the spirit gets to choose the parents into whom’s lives it will incarnate. If that’s true, thank God I picked this guy.
Courageous – a veteran of both World War II & Korea … Brilliant – Ohio State Buckeye Grad & accomplished engineer …. Trustworthy – he raised five kids … Loving – a pat on the back or kick in the butt when needed …. Gregarious & Fun – always there with a joke, laugh, and a cold adult beverage … Supportive – a treasure trove of sage advice & counsel … Resilient & Resourceful – never without a job or paycheck … Athletic – a true bowling & golf ace … Musical – you should have heard him on the accordion & piano … and with a Sense of Humor, coupled with a Voice and a Laugh, that could fill a hall and really grab attention.
Rumi, the Persian mystic & poet once wrote, “When you are dead, seek for your final resting place … not in the dirt, but in the hearts of men”. Charlie even pulled this feat off too!
Have you ever been on the interstate and found yourself in between two big semi-trucks as you barreled down the highway, knowing that you were safe from state police radar because you were ‘in the cradle’, safe between these two big guys?
I would later comfort my mother, at both the funeral and today, that Charlie dropping his body on this date – the 18th of March, in between St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s day, on his way to the ‘other side’ – did exactly the same thing.
Pop, as the family today commemorates the 19th year of your passing , may God Bless You, sir. Many thanks for your service, both on foreign shores in the U.S. Army … and on these shores raising the tribe of Ziants.