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.