Scenes From a Radio Show

So I’m doing “Saturday at the 70s” on Magic 98. I start one hour by talking (in full boss-jock mode, over the intro of Billy Preston’s “Space Race”) about how this show is “where the ghosts of WISM 1480 and the Big 89 have come to rest.” WISM, once the dominant Top 40 station in Madison, was the flagship station of Mid-West Family Broadcasting. (The signal is now home to the company’s Spanish-language station, although it no longer uses the call letters, which belong to a station in Altoona, Wisconsin.) The Big 89, of course, was Chicago’s WLS in its Top 40 incarnation.

A few minutes later, my phone rings. “So,” the caller says, “from the sound of it, we can expect a Boogie Check after 7:00, and ‘Animal Stories’ with Uncle Lar and Little Tommy after 8, right?” “Yeah,” I laughed, “and I’m trying to get Jon Little [Madison’s top jock from the 60s through the 80s] in here after 8:30.” The caller shot right back as if I’d scripted it: “And if you could bring J. D. back from the grave, you’d have some kind of Saturday night.” He was referring to the late J. D. Barber, who started at WISM in the late 60s but became famous as morning guy at Madison’s Z104 and Q106 during the 80s and early 90s. (For a time in the 80s, he did mornings at Z and Little did afternoons.) The call was 24 seconds of goodness that anybody with a smattering of local radio knowledge would enjoy, so I put it on the air out of the next break.

An hour or so later, the phone rings again. “This is Mike Somebody at Z104. I heard you were ripping us on the air.” “What?” “Yeah, Mitzi So-and-So says she was flipping around and heard you ripping us on the air.” (These are not the names he gave; an earlier version of this post contained the actual first names, but I decided to change them later on because I don’t need the aggravation if either of them gets bent out of shape.)

For a moment, I have no idea what the hell this guy is talking about. Finally it dawns on me it might have to do with my mentions of WISM, the Big 89, Jon Little, and J. D. Barber. So I explain to the guy, slowly and using no multi-syllable words, what I had been talking about. I hadn’t mentioned his station’s call letters at all.

“Well,” he says, “we’re taking all of your listeners away.” Which, in the context of the conversation, makes about as much sense as if he’d said “Your mother wears combat boots.” Z is still a Top 40 station. Given the vast gulf between the Top 40 today and the music of the 1970s, it’s doubtful that we share much audience with them on a Saturday night anyhow.

“Hey, let’s go,” I said, thinking of the days of yore when radio stations competed head-to-head for the same listeners instead of jostling for different slices of the demographic pie. I thought, Challenge me? Anything you can do, junior, I was doing during the Carter Administration. But my record was running out and I didn’t have time to pursue it any further. “You have a good night,” I said, and dropped the call, but not without thinking you kids get off my lawn.

Another call I got Saturday night was from a woman who said she really liked the station’s Saturday format, “and I especially like the way you do it.” We visited for a while, and it came out that she’s a former jock herself, having worked for several years at Milwaukee’s legendary classic rocker, WKLH. She was quite complimentary of my work, and it ended up one of the more gratifying calls I’ve ever gotten at a radio station. But I had to ring off when my record began to run out, and I did so before I remembered to ask her name.

Answering the telephone at a radio station is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates.

It’s going to be a busy week in my life. I may be able to post some here before Friday and I may not. (You never know what yer gonna git.) Check me out at WNEW.com on Wednesday and Thursday mornings and at Popdose on Wednesday afternoon, and enjoy this tune I mentioned last Friday right now—the big Bob Welch hit from 1980 that never was but should have been.

“Rebel Rouser”/Bob Welch (buy it here)

4 responses

  1. Hey,
    Nothing as much fun as ticking off the competition….even when you weren’t trying.

    Man, I’d love to do a Saturday night 70’s show again!

  2. Jonathan W. Little and J.D. Barber WERE Madison radio. I’d say half the stations in Madison wouldn’t exist today if it weren’t for the creativity and instincts of Jonathan W. Little and J.D. Barber.

  3. Man, that sounds like a fun shift!

  4. I listened to Z104 when I went to college in Platteville during the late 70s/early 80s. Barber in the morning was as good as any jock in Milwaukee, which is near my hometown. Little was simply a genius.

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