Category Archives: Radio Tales

The Man Who Took an Interest

The old lions of broadcasting are passing in the way old lions do, but the inevitability of losing them doesn’t make the losses any easier to take: Larry Lujack, Roy Leonard, George Lipper—and now, another one is gone. Don Davenport died earlier this month at the age of 78.

I first heard Don on WEKZ, my hometown radio station, probably before I had a radio of my own, but he spent most of the 1970s at WIBA in Madison. I can’t say I knew him well apart from the radio. His son was one of my brother’s close friends. As a result, I knew the younger Davenport well and his mother, Don’s first wife, a little—enough to recognize her when she and I found ourselves in the same summer-school class at Platteville years later. But once Don found out I was interested in radio, he took an interest in me.

I still vividly remember a day during Christmas vacation as 1977 turned to 1978. Don was doing a mid-morning shift on WIBA then, and he invited me up to watch him do his show. I found my way to the station, then located in the country south of Madison (in an area now completely urbanized). He explained what he was doing and patiently answered my questions, even putting headphones on me so I could hear what was happening when the microphone was on. I remember being deeply impressed that he played artists like Billy Joel and Fleetwood Mac at a time when WIBA was more likely to play Frank Sinatra and Doris Day.

(Don had one of those deep, resonant, impossible voices you rarely hear on the radio anymore. The story was told that he once got a check cashed with no identification apart from that voice.)

At the time of my visit, I was just as interested in WIBA-FM, which was then a free-form progressive rock station. That morning, I looked with fascination into the adjacent FM studio, lit by strategically placed spotlights even at 10AM. Don told me some scandalous tales involving WIBA-FM, one of which I can repeat: during the early 70s, if he found himself on WIBA against his will on a Saturday afternoon, he’d sometimes put on NBC Radio’s Monitor program service and go next door to get stoned with the FM jocks.

When I say that Don “took an interest” in me, I don’t mean he encouraged me. He did not fill me with illusions about radio, and was very honest about how difficult it could be to make a living at it. It occurs to me now that as 1977 turned to 1978, he was probably getting close to burnout and ready to make a change. Fortunately for him, he did. He became a successful freelance writer and photographer, specializing in travel pieces.

The last time I saw Don was at our wedding, way back in 1983. That he was kind enough to come meant a great deal to me. As he was leaving the reception, the last thing he said to me was, “If you have any sense at all, you’ll get back to the farm.”

He wasn’t wrong. Mentors and inspirations are good like that.

1984: Game Days

(Here’s one last post in our 1984 series.)

The University of Wisconsin has one of the most profitable athletic programs in the country, with the majority of its broadcasts syndicated by Learfield Sports, which originates games for dozens of other big-time schools. At smaller institutions like Western Illinois, the whole thing is less formal. Local stations may bid for the rights, but the broadcasts themselves are usually less elaborate. And in bygone years, the broadcasts were less elaborate still.

Thirty years ago, at my new little Top 40 station in Macomb, Illinois, we carried Western Illinois football and basketball. Our play-by-play man was the station’s sports director, the splendidly named Larry Derry, who had done the games since 1969. The pregame show started 30 minutes before kickoff, and the postgame show ran for maybe 30 minutes afterward. The broadcast was crowded with ads, many of which Larry sold himself. (The man drove a really nice car.)

Although today it’s commonplace for FM music stations to carry sports play-by-play, 30 years ago it was not. As far as I understood branding back then, I thought that sports play-by-play detracted from ours, even as I acknowledged that our largely student audience would have some degree of interest in WIU games. On the very day of the format change, I was forced to run a University of Illinois football game on my station—a night game that would normally have run on our daytime-only sister station—and when I found out I’d have to, a couple of weeks before, I was furious.

Our station also carried high-school football and basketball games. They were (and are) often an emotional buy for businesses that want to support their local school or the team their kids play on. By doing the hometown games and the games of a few nearby towns—football, basketball, volleyball, softball, baseball, hockey—a station can bring in quite a tidy bundle year after year. The downside is that high-school sports don’t generally attract huge listening audiences, apart from state tournament games, but carrying some games people don’t care about is the tradeoff you make for the money. I happily made that tradeoff—until I found about the games we were doing for free.

The Macomb-Western Holiday Basketball Tournament, a high-school event with 16 teams, had been held each year right after Christmas since 1946 (and is still played today). In 1984, to my horror, I discovered that my station had traditionally broadcast all of the tournament games, even the ones featuring two distant schools far beyond the range of our signal, and even if we had no sponsors for them. This struck me as remarkably stupid, and I fumed about it for the three days my air was held hostage to the tournament. (The next year, I successfully persuaded my boss that airing such games was silly—no advertising, no game.)

In 1984 and 1985, we carried WIU football and men’s basketball as the station always had. Come 1986, the university undertook a major marketing push for its football program, with the idea of turning WIU games into major events. And so we started broadcasting from the stadium parking lot a couple of hours before kickoff, talking to fans and various celebrities the university brought in. (I recall interviewing onetime WLS newscaster Catherine Johns, a WIU alum.) After the postgame show was over, we would broadcast for another hour or so from the private, catered postgame party the university threw for boosters. This gave the radio station a chance to schmooze important business and university leaders by making them feel like celebrities. Being the guy responsible for anchoring those broadcasts made me feel like a celebrity, too.

This past Saturday afternoon, I sat in my usual seat at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison watching Wisconsin pound lumps into WIU, which hasn’t been very good in recent years. There were 78,000 people there, and nobody knew I used to work on behalf of the other side.

1984: Father’s Day


Thirty years ago today, I became a real Top 40 radio guy for the first time. Ten years ago, I blogged about it. Here’s a portion of that post, lightly edited.

By 1984, The Mrs. and I had moved on to Macomb, Illinois, where I had joined WKAI-AM and FM. I’d come in with the station’s new owner that spring. Because Macomb is the home of Western Illinois University, it seemed obvious to us that a Top 40 format on our FM would be a sure winner. So throughout the summer of ’84, we planned the switch. I was going to be the station’s program director. . . .

I sometimes think that the changes at the station were terribly hard for the operations manager, who had been with the company over 20 years at the time. We shared an office, which must have been hard too, given that he was organized and fastidious while my idea of filing was piling. But he was a soft-spoken and gentle man, impossible to dislike, and as utterly devoted to his stations and his town as anyone I ever knew in the broadcasting industry. Because he had originally put the FM on the air in 1966, I think he felt like the Top 40 changeover was vandalism—and that I was the kid with the spray paint.

For example: In those days, stations like ours, which were run entirely by computer, often used a recording that would periodically announce the correct time. One day he asked me if I was going to use the time-announce on the new format. I told him I wasn’t, because I thought it cluttered the station’s sound and was unnecessary anyhow. He looked at me for a second and said, “What about blind people?”

We never really understood one another. . . .

Stations like ours purchased a music service from a syndicator. We didn’t shop around—we already had a contract with an outfit called Century 21, so we stuck with them. We opted for a version of their Top 40 format that allowed us to heavily daypart our music—lighter during the day, on the assumption that we’d be more appealing to in-office and in-store listeners, but harder at night when the kids would be our primary audience. (It was standard Top 40-era thinking, although in later years I sometimes wished we had ignored it.) And in the early hours of format-change day—September 1, 1984—after the station signed off at midnight, some of the staffers assembled for a dry run, just to see if the computer sequence we’d mapped out for the format would work, and to hear how the thing sounded. The Mrs. and I were there, along with the general manager, the sales manager, a couple of the sales reps, and the poor old operations manager, who doubled as the station’s computer wiz. We polished off a case of beer watching the reels of tape turn and eagerly anticipating the format change, which would officially happen at noon. . . .

Just before noon, we played the last song on the old format: “Candida” by Tony Orlando and Dawn. I had found a recording of a synthesized voice counting backwards from 10, so we rolled that out of “Candida.” I did a station ID in my best Top 40-voice (terribly high and nasal, it sounds to me now), and then kicked into “The Heart of Rock and Roll” by Huey Lewis and the News. I will never forget the electric thrill of hearing the studio monitors actually rockin’. While “The Heart of Rock and Roll” was playing, I noticed, completely by accident, that “Rock and Roll Fantasy” by Bad Company and “I Love Rock and Roll” by Joan Jett were cued up and ready to play, so I jumped the computer sequence to program them in. Thus, we played three songs in a row on the new format before stopping so I could do the weather forecast. (It was going to be 100 degrees that day.) We followed that with “10-9-8″ by Face to Face—not exactly one of the strong current hits I’d been plugging in promos for the new format—and another Huey Lewis tune, “If This Is It.” Then we stopped for our regular noon-hour newscast, which contained a full commercial load and stopped the music for six momentum-killing minutes. (Today, when stations change format, they sometimes play hundreds or even thousands of songs in a row before the first interruption. This didn’t occur to us then.) After that it was “Sexy Girl” by Glenn Frey, Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” and Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With,” and another commercial break, in which the local Chrysler dealer advertised a clearance on brand-new 1984s, with “low 12.9 percent financing available.” Then it was “When Doves Cry,” and that’s where my tape of the changeover ends.

I am unable to get my brain around the idea that these events are now 30 years in the past. It really does feel like it was just yesterday.

Red and White

(Return with us now to events of precisely 35 years ago this week, rebooted from a post that originally appeared on October 30, 2006.)

I was hanging around the campus radio station one day in late August 1979. I may have been getting ready to go on the air, or I may have just come off, or I may have been there simply because I’d missed it over the summer. I’d worked a lot of radio since my first shift eight months before, and I was already making plans to run for program director in the elections later that fall. I’d also managed to snag a paying part-time gig. In short, I felt like I had radio, and life, pretty much by the tail. At the start of my sophomore year, I was a much different person than I’d been the previous fall.

So, late August 1979. I’m hanging out with a few friends at WSUP. New freshmen interested in radio have been coming in to check the place out. On this particular afternoon, a girl walked in and started looking around. She was wearing a red-and-white striped sweater—which she filled out extreeeemely well—and had long dark hair down to her waist, dark eyes, and a distinctive nose. “Holy crap,” I said to my friends. “Who’s that?” And then: “I have an overwhelming desire to go over and ask her out.” I didn’t, of course, because that is not how I rolled back in those days.

I did find out that Sweater Girl’s name was Ann. And when I found out she was going to be reading news on Tuesday nights, I did what any radio guy shy around women would do—I signed up to host the Tuesday evening show. I also found out she already had a boyfriend, but I asked her out for drinks after the show a couple of times anyhow, and she accepted. She seemed to like me, but she kept dating this other guy, too.

At the end of October, the radio station hosted a Halloween party in the student center bar. It was a rager—legend has it that the party marked the last time $1 pitchers of beer were ever offered on campus because beer consumption broke some sort of record. Ann came with her boyfriend, but she also hung around the table full of radio people, and after about two beers, I wrapped my arm firmly around her waist and didn’t let go of her for the entire night. (Except, it is said, for the brief time I climbed up on the table to do the bump with one of the sports guys.)

I am not sure what became of the boyfriend on that particular night, but even after all that, she still didn’t officially dump him.

Every year in the late fall, the radio station held a banquet. It was ostensibly a time to hand out awards and to honor the outgoing heads of various station departments, but it was mostly an excuse to dress up and drink. I asked Ann if she would like to go with me—not as a date, but as a couple of colleagues going to the same function, since I had a car and she didn’t. (Christ, was I smooth.) But after I dropped her at her dorm room at the end of the night, I asked if I could kiss her goodnight, and she said yes. I arranged to have roses delivered to her a few weeks later on Christmas Eve, and the boyfriend was out of the picture soon after that. I had actually won the girl.

There’s more to the story I could tell, but I’m going to skip ahead. Ann became The Mrs. in 1983, and is still The Mrs. today.

The red-and-white sweater is hanging in the closet in my office.

The General

(Late edit: added a link.)

I worked for KDTH and KFMD in Dubuque, Iowa, from 1979 to 1983, and in those years, Dubuque was insular to the point of weirdness. If you weren’t born there, Dubuquers would consider you an outsider, and therefore not qualified to opine on anything going on in the city. But there were strong personalities at KDTH who cut through all that. Newsman Gordon Kilgore, whom I’ve written about here in the past, was one of them. George Lipper, who was general manager of the stations during my time there, was another. A native of Massachusetts, he never entirely lost his accent (which some of my colleagues liked to imitate), but he was as utterly committed to Dubuque as if his family had founded the place. He frequently delivered editorials on KDTH, and they pushed citizens and city fathers to move forward. He was a great believer in highways as the engine of economic development, and is credited for the building of the Dubuque-Wisconsin bridge that improved transportation access to the city.

After I’d become a fulltime jock at KDTH and was about to get fired—unjustly, I felt—I went to him to argue my case. He listened kindly but was ultimately noncommittal. After I got fired, I felt as though he hadn’t done enough to save me. I got a job in Macomb, Illinois, and life went on.

It was only a few months later that George came to Macomb in his capacity as head of acquisitions for the company that owned KDTH. While the company decided not to buy WKAI—the station that competed with the one I was working for—George did. I have told the story before, so there’s no need to repeat it here. Short version: I ended up doing what I had not intended to do, and I became George’s program director.

George’s guiding philosophy was simple: do good in your community and do good radio—not “good enough for a small town,” but simply “good.” So he took a personal interest in the news department and hired a farm reporter, in an attempt to turn what had been a bad country-music jukebox into a full-service AM station like KDTH had been. It was his idea to put a Top-40 format on the FM side. He also brought in a take-no-prisoners sales manager who transformed the sales staff from order-takers into marketers. And he surprised city fathers and holdover staff at the stations—but not me—by doing editorials that urged the community forward.

He didn’t own the stations for long, however. He sold them in 1986, but he stuck around, and later that year ran for the Illinois legislature as a Democrat in a district that had been Republican since the Depression. I produced his radio ads, including one that used an audio clip of his opponent at a time when that was not commonplace, and the reaction to it was overwhelmingly negative. It didn’t cost him the election—the margin was too great for that—but even though he got trounced, he pulled more votes than any Democrat in years. (Two years later, a Democrat won the seat.)

George returned to Iowa then and took a job with the Department of Economic Development. I saw him only once after that, sometime around 1994. I was at the State Historical Museum in Des Moines, in some dark gallery in the basement of the place, when a man walked by. We made eye contact and walked on, but then each of us turned in recognition at about the same moment. It was a brief conversation, but one I like to remember.

George Lipper died last week at the age of 80. I remember him one of those people who, if they ever had moments of doubt, never let them show—but not in a negative, bravado-filled way. He conveyed an air of self-assurance that made you want to follow him. It’s probably the same sort of thing great generals have. George wasn’t asking anybody to die, but he wanted your best work and expected you to deliver it. He believed so strongly that you could do it, and would do it, that you could not bear to let him down.

Mystery Numbers

The portable radio I owned for most of my growing-up had a couple of shortwave bands on it. I was always more interested in the idea of shortwave than in shortwave itself—I would buy a copy of White’s Radio Log (a now-defunct publication) and try to find international stations, but I don’t recall spending a great deal of time doing it.

I tuned the shortwave bands enough to know that there were a few stations playing electronic tones and periodically pausing to announce . . . something. I couldn’t always identify the languages, but they weren’t usually anything I recognized. A little bit of research revealed that there were several such stations, and that their purpose was mysterious. The stations announced seemingly random strings of numbers, repeating them endlessly, occasionally mixing them with snippets of music or other sounds and an array of tones, buzzes, whooshes, and metallic whines that were hard to tolerate for very long. These were, of course, the fabled “numbers stations.” Their origin dates back to the Cold War, when they were presumably used as beacons or communications media for clandestine operations. The pattern of tones likely meant something to somebody, somewhere; the cryptic strings of numbers might have meant something else; the pauses between the tones and/or the cryptic strings of numbers have meant something entirely different.

The end of the Cold War did not end the numbers stations. And they became better-known in the post-Cold War era than at any time before, thanks to A) the Internet, and B) The Conet Project, a four-CD set of numbers-station recordings released in 1997. People became familiar with such famous numbers stations as Swedish Rhapsody and the Lincolnshire Poacher, named for the snippets of music they broadcast over and over and over again. The Conet Project took a weird hold in popular culture, inspiring connoisseurs of “found sound,” most famously Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, who got the title for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot from The Conet Project (and ended up in a copyright kerfuffle with the project’s creator). Today, it’s presumed that numbers stations are still used by spies, and perhaps by international drug traffickers. But no government or agency anywhere in the world has ever confirmed their involvement with such stations.

Listening to The Conet Project, or any of the gazillion YouTube videos devoted to numbers stations, ain’t for everybody. The disembodied voices (sometimes the voice of a child), the unfamiliar languages, the cacophony of sounds, and the weird and repetitious music, adds up to an odd, unsettling listening experience. Just what in the hell is this for? Who is tuning in for the young girl speaking German on Swedish Rhapsody . . . and what are they doing with whatever they learn from it? A station nicknamed Yosemite Sam, believed to originate in the New Mexico desert, used several frequencies to broadcast a 0.8 second burst of some kind of data, followed by a clip taken from a 1949 Warner Brothers cartoon, repeating in a predictable pattern for a precise length of time. It operated for only a few days in 2004 and 2005. Some people believe it had something to do with the CIA—or maybe it was just a pranking radio engineer.

But if it meant something, what was it?

If you have to ask, you aren’t supposed to know.

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