More than 40 years ago, Joe Rich left a successful broadcasting career to start Disabled Persons Action Organization. Today, the agency helps hundreds of children and adults with disabilities. To help fund the services, the agency hosts a concert series that a study has found pumps millions of dollars into the local economy. We spoke with Mr. Rich about the concerts and his career.
NNYB: How did you come to start DPAO?
RICH: There was a boy by the name of Ronnie Donato who was accidently shot in a hunting accident and had spinal injuries and as a result of that he was destined to stay in hospitals the rest of his life. He couldn’t even breathe on his own. I was working at WWNY radio and television and I asked my boss, who was Bob Tompkins at the time, I said, “Would it be possible if we had a fundraiser and raised some money?” And he ran it up the flagpole and said, ”Sure,” and we raised enough money to put an addition on his home on Lillian Street and buy life-support equipment. We had contractors and everyone donated enough so that we could do that. He was able to come home and live at home. But after we did that, the phones wouldn’t stop ringing. “Joe, what about my son? What about my daughter? Can you help them?” And at the time, one of the biggest needs I found were people who fell in the cracks and couldn’t be helped by existing agencies, so we started a DBA agency known as Foundation for the Handicapped and we became incorporated and a 501(C)3 and all that. We changed it to Disabled Persons Action Organization.
NNYB: Leaving a position as a broadcaster was a bold career move. Was it a difficult decision?
RICH: Very difficult. I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing (with DPAO) and keep working there. So I kind of ended my own career at Channel 7. I gave up (broadcasting), but I also wanted to do something positive for people. For the first I don’t know how many years, more than five years, I didn’t get paid. There always seemed to be someone there to help and the one primarily there to help was my wife. She put up with an awful lot, I’m not kidding you, over the years.
NNYB: Did you ever envision that DPAO would grow into an organization with 150 employees and one that now serves more than 500 children, adults and their families?
RICH: You know what the interesting part is, if you figure out with respite how many people we actually impact, it’s well over 1,000. You count the 500; what about mom and dad crying on my shoulder saying, “What can you do for me?” So, no. The answer is no. But I knew this: That once we stopped growing, we were fading away. Did I ever expect that we would have six locations, too? We’ve got four in Jefferson and two in Lewis (counties.) But, you know, because we do the concerts, we get calls from New York (City), we get calls from all over. We’re credited with actually being one of the very first agencies to start family support services.
NNYB: You’ve retired as DPAO’s executive director, but are still actively involved in the organization. What is your current role?
RICH: Right now, I’m president of the DPAO Foundation. The foundation’s made up of a board of directors and I’ll tell you why we set one up. The state comes in and says, “These funds are our funds.” And we were saying, “No they’re not, they’re donations that were made to DPAO or money we raised in concerts.” So we figured out what that amount was, and we transferred that amount over to the foundation. So when Cindy (Fitzpatrick), as (DPAO) director, needs funds for whatever—payroll, whatever it might be—she asks us for the funds.
NNYB: A recent survey conducted by the Center for Community Studies at Jefferson Community College found that DPAO’s Concert Series has had a $10.2 million impact on the area’s economy over the past five years. Did that number surprise you?
RICH: No. The year they used in the paper, last year, was our worst year ever. Lady Antebellum, it was a nightmare. To continue our niche—which we figure is our bigger show—it was costing us $400,000 per show. Alan Jackson is one, Reba McIntire was another, Journey was another. All those, 400 grand. And it became a situation where we really, honestly, had to take a look at it and say, “Are we really going to keep doing this?” The Lakeview Amphitheater (in Syracuse) has got something going on constantly. They have something going on all the time. But also Turning Stone. Our dilemma is how many people go from here to there, where’s the cutoff point we both draw from—the Syracuse Amphitheater, Turning Stone, and there’s now one in Waterloo. They draw from Syracuse north, we draw from probably as far as Lowville and Pulaski. We also draw, for Alan Jackson—the comment made on Alan Jackson—was you couldn’t find a hotel room from Alexandria Bay to Binghamton. That’s how big this show was.
NNYB: What was the purpose of conducting the JCC survey? What were you hoping to find out?
RICH: The reason we wanted it was because we wanted people to know what we were doing for the community. Here’s the main thing, and it’s a three-prong thing: We are able to help our kids. No one pays for repairs to our six buildings for the sake of the people who use those buildings. No one replaces the furniture that is ruined, no one replaces that. We need that money desperately. So, I knew we had done a study many years ago and it was over $1 million then, so I knew it had to be around $2 million a year now. What we wanted is for our sponsors, and people like that we rely on, to know what we were doing for the community. We couldn’t do the shows without sponsors.
NNYB: Although the concerts clearly benefit the area, both economically and culturally, is it a growing challenge for DPAO to make money for its programs through the concerts?
RICH: Right now, it’s being discussed as to whether or not we might want to do special events, as well as concerts. Like, for example, an air show, something the general public would find very good. The Syracuse Amphitheater, they had one show, Brantley Gilbert. We had the same show a couple months later, and we sold out. So I don’t know the dynamics. It’s something that I’d like to figure out, but it is a concern. But the board is also quite savvy about what’s going on, and what do we do, and how do we survive. For example, one thought I had—and I don’t even know if it’s possible to do this— if they put a covering over the ice (at the Watertown arena), that would extend my season, be able to do more shows. There’s somebody coming up from Syracuse that wants to talk to me about an outlet mall in the town of LeRay and he wants to put in an amphitheater. He asks me, “What do think about an amphitheater, how’s it going to do?” Well, I don’t know how it’s going to do, I really don’t.
NNYB: Are the concerts in jeopardy?
RICH: You know why it’s still a question, is because there are pockets of entertainment that are not being done in Syracuse. Shows like Shinedown, some of those shows that (Jefferson Community College) can’t afford to do. Maybe there is a way we could cooperate with the college in doing some of those shows. Someone suggested maybe smaller concerts, and trying that out and having a number of those. There are so many genres of music that we could do. What about Big Band? We used to do Big Bands, and they don’t do that there (in Syracuse.) But now the competition is not only Syracuse and Turning Stone, it’s these small events that are held, like Savory (Café) has rock shows all the time, the Franklin County Fair does something, the Lewis County Fair’s doing Charlie Daniels. I don’t give up. That’s why I had to have aortic valve replacement in my heart. Honestly, that’s why. It doesn’t run in the family.
NNYB: What is the money raised through concerts used for?
RICH: It’s, number one, if a child or an adult needs to go to another city for surgery, we help. We had one severe case and the boy had to go to Boston Children’s Hospital. I contacted a person at Ramada Inn, they called the Ramada (in Boston) because the parents couldn’t afford to stay. They got a room for them free. But we had to pay something in addition to that, and the mileage and all that stuff; we gave them money for food so they could be with their child for the surgery. The child, some insurance covered it, some didn’t, but I don’t think we’ve turned away anybody. There’s no state money. There’s no money from the state to fix up our buildings and things like that. We had our building here sided; it was falling apart. This building was built in 1880-something; it was the first Sacred Heart Church, it was hauled over by a team of horses. I contacted friends and those friends gave me enough money to put siding on this. So I’m good for that, too.
NNYB: What is the cost of a typical concert?
RICH: If it’s indoors, it’s usually no more than $125,000 to $150,000. For an outdoor show, I would say it could be as much as $400,000. But we could also consider doing a show in the park. The problem is getting people from (Interstate) 81 to Thompson Park, because they come up from 81 from all over the place or down 81, so it might be a tricky thing to put in the park and figure out a way to get people to the park. Also, there’s no parking in the park.
NNYB: How much planning is required for each show?
RICH: Tremendous. Tremendous amount of planning. The riders that go along with these concerts are so thick. The problem we’re facing is this: Nobody wants to come to Watertown, New York. I don’t mean to put it that way, but they want to go to Rochester, Buffalo, where they can not only make their money, but get their percentages on top of that. So, what we’ve got to do is figure out immediately how much is that show going to cost, and you’d better be able to pull the trigger. OK? You’ve got to pull the trigger. We’re not in the business where we just have to wait; you’ve got to pull the trigger on those shows or you’re not going to get them.
NNYB: Which shows are the most popular?
RICH: Well, classic rock is very popular, but even their prices have gone up. Shows that we haven’t had before would be good ones to bring in. When we brought in Heart, that year we did very well. It’s almost like we made a lot of money that year and lost it the next. Anyway, country; young country is really hot right now. The older country is still costing a lot; we just checked on a couple of shows and they’re at least $200,000 even for the Alabamas. Alabama and those like that are still up there in price. So, I would say about $125,000 to $150,000, maximum. We try to keep it $100,000 or under.
NNYB: How do you make a successful concert series in Watertown?
RICH: You do your best to try to figure out what people want. It’s just like a business. And then you figure out where they’re coming from, how many people can I expect. Does it have appeal across the board? What do the radio stations say? I call them constantly, all over, just to find out. And they give us a good idea of what’s popular and what isn’t popular. And I also do my own surveying. We are looking at special events, though. We’re thinking of doing two big shows and having special events for the others, but I don’t know how the sponsors would take that. That’s the problem you have, but we couldn’t do anything without them. Not only the sponsors, but we have people who have been coming to our shows for 40 years, 40, 50, years. They keep coming to help. You could bring anybody in and they’d still come.
NNYB: There has been talk over the years about the need in the area for a multipurpose facility to host events like concerts. Is there a need for such a facility, or do venues like the Watertown Municipal Arena fit the bill?
RICH: The answer is, by not having a multipurpose facility that will hold 6,000 people, it makes it almost impossible for us to have a concert series with big names, because the names all cost over $200,000. All the big names are over $200,000. So without having a facility like that and having competition in Syracuse—it makes it very, very difficult. But not only in Syracuse and Turning Stone in Verona—not only there—but also in Kingston. You’ve got the K-Rock Centre, that draws a lot of people as well. Plus, you’ve got your Jefferson County Fair, Lewis County Fair. Lewis and Franklin County Fairs have already announced big shows. Then you’ve got Fort Drum, and you’ve got other people. The competition’s never been more difficult. I don’t want to do something that’s going to be bad for the taxpayer, who is struggling in some cases, because that’s not what I want to do. So if we can figure out a way to do it that benefits everyone, that’s not a burden on the taxpayer, then I’m in favor of it. And I‘m not trying to be political here. I would feel terrible thinking that somebody down the street can’t afford an extra tax on top of what they’re already paying. I wouldn’t be who I am if I thought that way.
NNYB: You have a special plan for the April 21 concert featuring the Lettermen. Can you share some details?
RICH: This is what I always wanted to do. Many people say, “We’re in the high-rises, we’re in the nursing homes, different apartment complexes, we can’t afford to go to your shows and we have no transportation to get there.” So I said, “Why don’t we do a show for them?” And I said, “How much can they afford?” Maybe 20 bucks. I said let’s have a show at the State Office Building, every seat is 20 bucks, we’ll bring the Lettermen in; people kind know who that is, older people kind of know who the Lettermen are. Anyway, I got Freeman Bus to pick them up and bring them back home to the high-rises. I don’t know what time to start that process, but that’s what we’ve got planned.
NNYB: Has there been any concert that has been especially memorable for you?
RICH: Oh, geez, so many of them, so many. Loretta Lynn, back in the day, did a free show for DPAO. The reason she did it was because I had referred her son to a doctor in New York City for an ailment he had and she was just taken by that, that I would do that. She did a free show at Bonnie Castle and she said, “Please don’t tell my agent; he’ll want a cut.” We were in a boat, we’re heading over to Boldt Castle. I’m sitting next to her and she says, “Oh, what a pretty castle. How much does that little castle cost, anyway?” She wanted to buy the castle. That isn’t the end of the story. So, we’re walking around Boldt Castle, she likes to talk about her Native American heritage. She‘s picking up fossils along the way and giving them to me—bugs, I don’t know—she gives me a handful. I threw them back down—I don’t want to bring off anything you’re not supposed to bring off—so I threw them back down. We’re on the boat, heading back, and she says, “Joe, where are those rocks I gave you?” And I said, “Oh, I didn’t know you wanted me to keep them. I just threw them back.”
NNYB: You are also a co-founder of the 1 World Foundation, a global initiative to support the disabled. How did that come about?
RICH: I went down to the Turks and Caicos Islands in 1972 for the altruistic purpose of buying land. And I had a grand total of $500 on me because I had read in Life magazine you could buy land for $500 in the Turks and Caicos Islands. I was there for a while and I noticed that kids were running around with some pretty serious health issues. We had a small base down there to help track submarines going into Cuba—and other traffic—and it just appalled me to think that we had a base there and we couldn’t spend a few dollars trying to help some of the kids in the islands. I just promised myself if I was ever in a position to be of help there I would. Anyway, I contacted an organization called Ongwanada and the executive director thought it was a great idea for us to get together those agencies that were interested in helping, and sharing information on best practices in serving people with special needs. That developed into Canadian-American exchanges where we would maybe have a two- or three-day session with a whole schedule of meetings, speakers and so on, and then I said, “I wonder if there’s something we can do in the Turks and Caicos Islands to help some of the kids?” The Turks and Caicos government said, “We’d love to have you help us until we can sustain those services ourselves.” The biggest thing they needed was a small clinic—not even a full hospital—a small clinic. Anyway, we started doing that and we had one concert a year out at Bonnie Castle trying to raise enough money to try to send people down. Now in more recent years they pay for the full shot themselves. 1 World is still based right here in Watertown, at our (DPAO) building.
NNYB: You’ve been at this more than 40 years. What gives you the motivation to continue?
RICH: I guess when you start something—you’re the mother or the father of the agency—it’s hard to give it up. That’s why I’m doing it for nothing. And I’m not only doing that, I‘m doing things for other agencies, as well. Right now, I’m trying to figure out a way to help the Flower Memorial Library. I want to do something for them. But, I guess it’s a thing where I want things to go right. And if I can impart any information that helps them, and not take away from their ingenuity and not take away from what they’re trying to do, that means a lot to me. So, I don’t plan to get in their way, but I’m chairman of the board, so I do have an oversight responsibility to make sure we’re doing the right things to raise money to keep our programs going. I’ll be getting off that, and hopefully off 1 World. Don’t forget, I’m also on the board of SUNY Canton and I’m an emeriti at Watertown Savings Bank. But I’m very much involved in what I do.
NNYB: You are already a member of Watertown High School’s Wall of Achievement. What do you hope your legacy will be?
RICH: Honestly, that I did my best to try and help with the human condition, and that I gave back to the community in doing so. If anyone deserves recognition, apart from me, it’s my wife. Honest to God, it’s not me. I would have not been able to do half the things I’m doing now without her and I feel very strongly about that. All along my career it seems as though there’s always been someone to guide me. All along the way, there was always someone to help me.
NNYB: You haven’t been very good at this whole retirement thing. Any chance you will be slowing down any time soon?
RICH: No. No. We really want to slow down, because I think I’m being a pain in the ass to a lot of people by staying on. I mean that sincerely. Every once in a while, you hear feedback: “When are you going to retire, when are you going to get away from everything?” And sometimes I’m scared stiff of what’s going on. It’s something I started. It’s something I want to keep going strong. I’m making a concerted effort not to be involved so much anymore and to try to help other agencies in the county, one of them being the library. I’d love to be able to something for the Flower Library and I’m trying to work on that now. They can handle it here. They do a great job for us. I think the world of them.
~Interview conducted by Brian Kelly. Edited for clarity and length to fit this space.