Stars Out at Night

(Slightly edited.)

Back in the days when turntables needed to be fed and transmitters had to be tended, there was a class of radio people hard at work on the other side of the clock. Today, broadcast automation and self-tending transmitters make overnight jocks largely unnecessary. But before all that, overnights could be a proving ground, where a young talent showed that he or she was destined for better things, or a dumping ground, a place to file away somebody not good enough for the light of day but adequate enough to keep around.

For a handful of gifted personalities, overnights were where they belonged. I’ve written about a couple of Chicago’s legendary all-nighters, Eddie Schwartz and Franklyn MacCormack, and I’m remembering another today with word that Jay Andres, who did all-night shows in Chicago on WBBM and WGN for nearly 30 years, has died at age 86. (Andres’ passing comes just three days after the death of Ward Quaal, the man who built what the current management of WGN is dismantling.)

I remember hearing Andres on WGN, when his show was called Great Music From Chicago, featuring big-band jazz and/or classical music—and commercials for its sponsor, Talman Home Federal Savings and Loan, delivered in that utterly perfect late-night voice. Some overnight jocks would try self-consciously to be “mellow,” whatever the hell that means. But squarely within the context of the station, the music, and the hour of the night, Andres was simply himself.

It seemed to me, as a young listener, that there was romance in being on the radio late at night. You certainly feel it with Andres on the aircheck linked above. Picture him there in a darkened studio, cigarette smoke wreathing him (if he was a smoker, which I don’t know for certain), city lights through the window outside. The record ends, he keys the microphone, and speaks softly to his audience, one person in a car here, two people in a bedroom there, intimately, despite the fact that millions of people are within the sound of his voice (WGN is audible over much of eastern North America at night) and that thousands may be listening. Never mind that the studio phone probably rang constantly, that there was always an engineer through the glass, and that being on the air is a busy occupation—when the microphone was on, it was just you and him.

(That intimacy—that sense that it’s just you and the listener—is harder for a jock to achieve than you as a listener might think. We are bred to think of ourselves as “announcers,” like PA guys reading lineups at the ballgame, or “personalities,” which aren’t necessarily the same as real selves. Unlearning those tendencies can take a lifetime.)

I didn’t do an overnight until I was well into my 30s, after I’d left full-time radio and was working part-time. Doing it occasionally is harder than doing it regularly. If it’s a regular thing, you can adjust your biological clock to accommodate it—if you’re willing to commit to it as a lifestyle. I once knew an overnight guy who tried to live a normal daytime life on the weekends. When his body was just beginning to adjust to sleeping by day and working by night, he’d change the cycle again, with predictable results—he was always a little foggy. Sometimes, station bosses didn’t help overnight guys adjust, however. They were sometimes scheduled for a daytime shift on the weekends.

You will not hear much real life on the overnight radio dial anymore, should you surf it some night soon—lots of syndicated talk, voice-tracking, automation, program-length commercials, and other flotsam. What you will hear only rarely now is the voice of a real broadcaster living on the air, east of midnight.

8 responses

  1. I spent two years as the overnight jock on Top-40 station WKAU/Appleton-Green Bay, Wisconsin. I never really did get accustomed to sleeping during the day and working overnight, but it did help me hone my skills as a Top-40 jock and eventually as the Music Director of the station. I learned a lot about radio station programming because it allowed me to experience the station in its true core.. However, the last six months I was there, it became apparent that management didn’t forsee me as having a future there. They had me training people who had absolutely no experience (and no business being in radio in the first place) to work better dayparts than me. The excuse I was given was that I didn’t have a “good enough voice” to be on the air anytime than overnight. Now, 25 years later, I find myself still in radio and doing a variety of airshifts on our group of stations ranging from morning drive to mid-days to afternoon drive to night-time sportscasting.
    If we had voice-tracking and automated radio back in the mid 1980’s like we do now, I probably never would’ve been given the opportunity to develop my skills for today’s radio. Therefore, I am thankful for those two years doing overnights at WKAU. On the night of one of my last airshifts there, a trucker pulled up to the station at around 2am and stopped by to thank me for keeping him company during those hours. Actually, it was the other way around…it was people just like him who kept ME company during those hours.

  2. I spent the first six and a half years of my (unpaid) radio career as an overnighter every Wednesday-into-Thursday, 3-5 AM. In fact, my very first show was Thanksgiving morning, 1996. Every Thursday afternoon and evening was spent in that fog you spoke of, the severity depending on how much sleep I could muster after my shift. (There’s a line in R.E.M.’s “Daysleeper” that nails it: “My night is colored headache grey”.)

    After moving to a 1-4 AM spot in 2000, I was tested as an afternoon jock three years later, alternating with another show. In 2005, I was moved to a weekend overnight spot, Sunday mornings from 2 to 4 (where I built a rep with the clubbers on course for home). Another year passed before I was given every Tuesday afternoon, supposedly by popular demand among staffers and our station board as well as the listeners. It’s where I am today. (And where I WAS today at that.)

    Sometimes I miss those wee-hour shifts…it’s easier to evoke a mood after the sun goes down. I doubt I could do it again with any regularity, but it was a great way to develop a style and a regimen. I’ve often wondered how many people were listening for my initial slot. On one hand, it was 3 AM in the middle of the week on a community station, but on the other, it’s the fourth-largest city in the country. Six of one…

  3. I used to listen to Jay Andres when he had his radio program on WGN. I really enjoyed his selections that featured all types of music, including classical, movie soundtracks, and show turnes. He had a marvelous voice and I loved his comments. He will be remembered with fondness.

  4. Interesting you should end with the phrase “East of Midnight,” ’cause the overnight announcer really captured my imagination (and a few fantasies) was Carol Tenley, “The Lady East of Midnight” on WDBQ, Dubuque in the 70’s. Husky, cigarette altered voice with just enough purr left in it to keep a young man’s attention. Never overtly sexual, but certainly sensual. I had the pleasure of working with her…I was the early morning weekend news guy, showing up toward the end of her shift. Really nice lady, and a classic overnight announcer.

    1. I worked with Carol, too, after she moved over to KDTH. She never sounded right to me in the daytime.

  5. Overnights in Tampa…..plenty of beach time during the day; just enough pay to have an apartment and a 3-year-old car; priceless experience. Growing up in the Fox Valley, though, JB, Jay Andres tucked me in many a night.

  6. My wife and I used to listen to Jay when he was the morning drive time guy on WNIB in Chicago.
    His selection of classical music was superb, his delivery charming and the dogs barking in the studio always put a smile on my face.
    It broke my heart when I heard he was leaving that station.
    It broke my heart yesterday to hear of Jay’s passing.
    May you be lifted up on eagles wings, Jay. You were and will be sorely missed.

  7. […] with radio stuff, and this year we did plenty. We paid tribute to a trio of deceased personalities (here and here and here). We noted a couple of remarkably lame moments in the history of American Top 40 […]

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