Category Archives: Radio Tales

Bob and Ray and Gene

(Pictured: Bob and Ray, 1951.)

The death last week of Bob Elliott sent me to the public library for Bob and Ray, Keener Than Most Persons, a 2013 biography of the team by veteran TV writer David Pollock. Among the fascinating facts about Bob and Ray’s career is just how fast they rose to the top of the heap in radio—after starting on local radio in Boston in 1946, they were offered a weekly show on WNBC in New York in 1951, and went national not long after.

Bob and Ray did a daily morning show on WNBC. Their main competitor was the man who ruled morning drive-time in the nation’s biggest market, and who is sometimes credited with developing the modern morning-show format: Gene Rayburn, whose show on WNEW, first with Jack Lescoulie and later with Dee Finch, was #1 in the late 40s and early 50s.

Like Bob and Ray eventually did, Gene Rayburn moved into TV, an easy jump given that New York was the nation’s media capital in the 50s. He was both a game-show guest and host by 1953, and was the announcer on the original Tonight show with Steve Allen. Rayburn hosted the original incarnation of Match Game throughout the 1960s, but he remained on the radio all the while, appearing on NBC’s weekend Monitor service from 1961 through 1973. He left Monitor for the 70s Match Game revival, which was taped in Hollywood, although he never moved to California. He commuted across the country for the tapings from his home in Osterville, Massachusetts.

Rayburn’s original aspiration had been to act, and he never lost it. In 1961, when Dick Van Dyke left the lead role in Bye Bye Birdie for his own TV show, Rayburn took the part. As late as 1991, he appeared in a summer-stock production of La Cage Aux Folles. Rayburn died in 1999 at age 81.

As for Bob and Ray, their NBC gig in New York eventually had them working 12-to-18 hour days doing both local and national radio shows six days a week. They moved into TV in the early 50s and after appearing in a series of wildly successful ads for Piel’s Beer, they opened their own creative firm to develop advertising. Although they maintained a long-term relationship with NBC-TV, they eventually moved to WINS radio in New York. Like Rayburn, they appeared on Monitor during its 19-year run, often hanging around all weekend just in case they were needed to fill a few minutes here or there. Their last major gig was on National Public Radio. Ray Goulding died in 1990 at age 62; Elliott was 92.

(Pioneering DJ Alan Freed began playing R&B late at night on a station in Cleveland, but his big break came when he landed the night shift at WINS. While he prowled the nighttime, banging along with the beat on a copy of the Manhattan phone book, Bob and Ray were improvising their way through the mornings. WINS was also the flagship for New York Yankees baseball at the time, so add legendary broadcaster Mel Allen to the list of indelible personalities on a single radio station.)

Note to Patrons: If you are a subscriber to this blog via e-mail, you have received a couple of e-mails recently that led to dead blog links. This is due to operator error on my part, although WordPress is partly to blame. They have recently changed the interface I use at this end, and they’ve made it far easier to publish a post accidentally when one is merely intending to schedule it. I apologize for the confusion, and I think I’ve got it figured out now, so it shouldn’t happen again.

Members of the Brotherhood

(Pictured: Paul Kantner, circa 1991.)

Allow me to be the ten millionth writer to lead a piece by saying that 2016 has already been terribly hard on rock stars: David Bowie, Glenn Frey, and now Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane, who died yesterday at age 74.

I never saw Bowie except on TV. I saw the Eagles live in 1980. But I had a closer encounter with Kantner.

At some point in the early 90s, Kantner, Jack Casady, and Papa John Creach, with some other musicians, went on the road as Jefferson Starship: the Next Generation. And one year they played a show at Riverboat Days in Clinton, Iowa. My job was to introduce the band onstage before the show, as local DJs have done from the dawn of time.

This task is often less glamorous than it appears. I introduced REO Speedwagon once, and although all the members were walking around backstage, I didn’t meet any of them. When I introduced Steppenwolf, I never set eyes on John Kay, who apparently stayed on the bus until 30 seconds before the show was to start.

But the Jefferson Starship show was different. I was introduced to Kantner, Casady, and Prairie Prince, former drummer from the Tubes, who was in the new band—and we spent a half-hour just hanging out backstage, listening to the opening act. It was so pleasant—and they were so normal—that I had to keep reminding myself that Kantner and Casady were practically present at the creation, San Francisco, Summer of Love, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair, the whole bit, and here they were telling me about their lives on the road for these many years. Although I have seen stories this morning describing Kantner as “prickly,” he certainly wasn’t on that night.

The best part came when the opening act was finished. There’s often a gap between the local DJ introduction and the appearance of the band. For instance, Steppenwolf’s road manager had told me to say, “In a moment, John Kay and Steppenwolf”—but the moment lasted nearly 10 minutes. On this night, somebody from Riverboat Days came backstage and said, “OK, Jim, you’re on,” and I bid good night to Kantner, Casady, and Prince, and made ready to go do my schtick.

But as I was leaving, Kantner grabbed me by the sleeve and said, “Wait . . . go up with us.”

And so we all took the stage together, members of the rock ‘n’ roll brotherhood.

WSUP Update: My old college radio station has yet to decide whether to become a Wisconsin Public Radio affiliate. Wednesday night’s meeting did not reach a conclusion, although one staff member indicates that WPR affiliation is not imminent and may not happen at all.

I have learned a couple of things this week: WSUP approached WPR about affiliation, not the other way around, so it’s not a power grab of the type attempted in the 70s at WSUP and accomplished elsewhere in more recent times. The WPR regional manager who’s been involved in the discussions, Dean Kallenbach, was the WSUP student general manager when I got to Platteville (and he let me sleep on his couch in the summer of 1979 when I was a little baby DJ working weekends in Dubuque). He wrote an extensive post about the situation at the Facebook group discussing the change.

And also: WSUP is currently running on a shoestring. Where we had over 100 staff members, it currently has about 20. Most of us were radio-television majors, but that major doesn’t exist anymore. WSUP staffers are either media-studies majors or students with different majors entirely who do radio as a sideline. So what’s going on down there has little to do with student apathy—a conclusion several of us jumped to initially, and something we should be embarrassed about. It is, as I guessed in my post on Wednesday, mostly a sign of the times.

What WSUP’s management team is doing is the exact opposite of a sellout: they’re looking for a way to keep the place viable. Some college radio stations have had to surrender their licenses entirely, and WSUP, the oldest student-run station in the University of Wisconsin System, doesn’t want to be next.

WSUP’s Decision

Tonight, the management team at my college radio station, WSUP in Platteville, Wisconsin, will vote whether to start airing Wisconsin Public Radio and NPR programming from 5AM til 5PM each day, moving student-produced programming to online only before returning it to the air in evening and overnight hours.

I attended the University of Wisconsin-Platteville from 1978 to 1982. I served three semesters as program director of WSUP in 1980 and 1981, and I won the Paul Gauger Service Award for my contributions. The hours I spent at WSUP are the most valuable of my life. (I met my wife there.) So this news is important to me.

I learned about the impending decision only last night when a friend added me to a Facebook group that’s discussing the change. I have read a few of the posts, but I still don’t know all the details. As best I can tell, WSUP has been struggling to staff the daytime hours and to produce public-affairs programming—but a broader issue seems to be that the station has gotten lost in the many restructurings of the university in recent years. Its advisor is no longer a broadcasting professor, apparently—it’s somebody from the English department.

Struggling to staff daytime hours isn’t a new phenomenon. We had the same problem during my term as program director. (I cannot tell you how many times I skipped a class to be on the air.) We, too, sometimes struggled with public affairs programming. Everybody wants to do a music show; not as many people want to interview the director of the food bank. Compounding the problem today is that there are simply fewer students in the broadcasting program then there used to be.

Something else that isn’t new, and is apparently a factor in the current situation, is that a vocal minority within the university community would prefer WSUP to be a Wisconsin Public Radio/NPR affiliate. Some want it for practical reasons: the current WPR signal isn’t very good in southwestern Wisconsin. Others are put off by student-run programming (specifically, that old devil rock ‘n’ roll), and they would be more comfortable with classical music and news. Such a minority existed at the turn of the 80s, but what also existed was a strong belief within what was then the College of Business, Industry, and Communication that the station should be exclusively student-run. (I suspect that part of the problem now is the lack of a strong advocate for WSUP within the university community.) Although there were rumblings—and there had been a serious effort earlier in the 70s to force classical music onto all campus stations in the University of Wisconsin System at the expense of student-run programming—WPR and/or NPR was never a legitimate threat to us.

Several alumni, from the early oughts and still further back in time, have posted their prescriptions for “saving” WSUP on the Facebook group. All of them boil down to “do it the way we did back in the day”—work harder, work smarter, recruit good people, train them, critique them, encourage them to be creative, maintain a strong focus on the campus community and southwestern Wisconsin, be local, be local, be local.

What I know comes from a cursory reading of a single Facebook group, but it sounds as though that ship sailed a long time ago. WSUP finds itself in this position as a result of factors that were falling into place when the current management team was still in grade school—hell, before they were born—and there’s no way to turn back the clock.

There’s an argument that the online vs. broadcast dichotomy matters less to the current generation of students than it does to elderly alumni, and that to them, WSUP online will still be WSUP. Students who burn for a career in the industry can still learn it even if their work isn’t disturbing the ether on a carrier wave. But turning daytime programming over to Wisconsin Public Radio and NPR homogenizes what has been a local voice for the university community. As such, it’s a blow to diversity on the dial. In addition, it’s a profound change to the station’s mission after nearly 52 years on the air.

I do not envy the members of the management team the meeting they’re having tonight. My suspicion is that it will be long, contentious, and emotional. Friendships will be tested, and some will be broken. It’s what happens when something you love is in trouble, and you disagree about how it should be saved.

Smart Enough to Figure

Here’s a reboot of a post from 2006 about a series of events that took place in November and December of 1994.

On the first working day of 1994, I got fired from my full-time radio gig. I spent that year working part-time in radio, looking for a job in (or, preferably, out) of the broadcasting industry. In November, I answered a blind-box ad in a trade magazine for a jock job that matched my qualifications—and got it. They’d advertised it as being “in the Milwaukee area,” although it turned out to be in Racine, Wisconsin, which is about 30 miles south of Milwaukee, far enough to be its own radio market with nearby Kenosha. But it was close enough for The Mrs. and me, so we made plans to move.

The general manager and I decided that I would start in January, but he asked if I’d consider coming to town on a couple of weekends in December to do some client remotes. Sure, I said. The first weekend, the program director and I did a remote broadcast at a jewelry store. Between segments, the PD—we will call him Chuck because that is not his real name—shared with me a few tales that sounded pretty far out of school, about the incompetence of the owner, the ineptitude of the staff, and the station’s lousy equipment, none of which had been apparent to me when I interviewed. I didn’t say much, but I kept careful mental notes.

The next weekend, the general manager invited me to his house for dinner. “There are a couple of things you need to know,” he told me as he handed me a beer. “First, there was a little problem with your remote last weekend.” It turns out the client had been very dissatisfied with my performance. He apparently didn’t like what I said on the air or how I was dressed, despite the fact I said and wore the same things I’d said at and worn for every remote I’d done in my life—and despite the fact that the store was full of listeners spending money the whole time I was there. The general manager downplayed the objections, although he did let slip that the station’s absentee owner had parachuted into town from his suburban-Chicago home for the sole purpose of assuaging the client.

“The other thing you need to know,” said the GM as he handed me a second beer, “is that Chuck gave his notice this week.” He had been the station’s third PD in the last eight months. During the interview process, I had vehemently insisted that I had no interest in being program director of the station, ever. Now the job was looking me right in the face, on top of the other stuff I’d learned about the station since I took the job.

It made for a long and sleepless night at the Super 8.

The next day, Chuck and I did our remote. We talked more about the station and about his decision to leave. I asked a lot more questions this time. As we were pulling into the station’s parking lot afterward, I said to him: “You don’t have to answer this question if you don’t want to, but if you were me, would you take this job?” Chuck, without pausing for a second (and to his eternal credit), said, “No.”

Monday morning, back home in Iowa, I called the general manager and told him I wouldn’t be coming to work for him after all. I felt bad about it, because he was a decent guy, but I’m sure he was smart enough to figure out the reason why.

Choirs of Christmas

‘Tis the season for high-school choirs on the radio. Or at least it used to be.

At one of my stations, our chief engineer traveled far and wide over our listening area with two microphones and a cassette deck, recording performances at various schools. Meanwhile, the sales department was pitching sponsors for the eventual broadcast of the shows.

I used to say that the easiest way to sell a high-school sports broadcast was to see which players’ fathers own businesses in town and hit them up first. That’s not true anymore (and it wasn’t especially true back in the day), but high-school sports is nevertheless mainly an emotional buy. Local businesses want to support the local team, and if the money they spend on the advertising doesn’t result in a single sale, it doesn’t matter. Christmas choir broadcasts were the same kind of buy.

The package the sponsors bought was usually pretty simple: they’d get a couple of spots in the broadcast, a certain number of mentions in promotional announcements leading up to the broadcast, and possibly a few additional spots during the regular broadcast day the week or two before Christmas. Packages didn’t cost a lot, but they were easy to sell and they sold very well. Businesses that didn’t usually advertise often bought them to extend holiday greetings.

I preferred not to put a commercial break in the middle of the choir performances. This made it easy from a production standpoint—we didn’t have to figure out where and how to break during each performance, and it was more enjoyable for the listeners, too. One year, however, a particular client (the kind who wouldn’t consider buying advertising at any other time of year, of course) asked for a spot in the middle, and the sales rep said, “Sure, no problem.” Then other sales reps began offering their clients spots in the middle. But nobody bothered to consult the program director, who had already completed production of the shows, because it was December 21st already. And so I arrived at work on the morning of the 22nd to learn that I was going to have to reconfigure the choir tapes to put breaks in the middle of the performances.

I did not take this news particularly well.

Starting sometime in mid-December, we’d air a choir or two each evening around dinnertime, and then on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, we’d repeat the whole lot of them, back to back to back. Quality of the groups would vary widely—a choir from a rural high school might have a dozen voices in ragged unison, while a city high school choir might be four times as large and harmonize beautifully. The songs themselves ran the gamut, from secular favorites to serious classical numbers. There would be plenty of hymns and carols, too, partly because this was years before schools became as skittish about religion as they would become, and partly because this was small-town, white-bread America and nobody cared.

Christmas is a holiday that draws people together. Although we think mostly of families drawing near, it can—and probably should—involve communities too. And when the high-school choir from West Overshoe, population 500, is singing on the radio, pride in the accomplishment belongs to all of West Overshoe. As it should. Or as it did, anyhow. I don’t know whether small-town radio stations do this kind of thing anymore. Perhaps not, given the way so many are automated from elsewhere, with little connection to their local community beyond naming the town in the legal ID.

But in days of yore, Christmas choir broadcasts were small-town radio at its finest, and I mean that sincerely.

“I Listen to You Every Morning”

(Pictured: “It’s bad enough I have to get up so early, but I have to listen to that idiot, too?”)

On December 3, 1985—the Tuesday after Thanksgiving and 30 years ago today—I began my brief tenure as a regular morning-show host.

I had been doing a voice-tracked morning show on my Top 40 station in Illinois for a few months beforehand. Every afternoon before I went home, I’d cart up a few bits and song introductions to air the next morning between 7:00 and 9:00 amidst the automated music programming. It sounded a little clunky, but it was the best we could do with the technology of the time. A live show, we all agreed, would be much better.

Our AM station didn’t sign on until 7AM, so the general manager wanted a morning news and farm block as part of my show. I was not wild about it, but I was mollified by the idea that the college students who made up the bulk of our audience were either in bed or going to class early in the morning. So we signed on at 5:30 with a statewide farm show called RFD Illinois, which was delivered over a phone line. At 6, we ran an hour of local news and sports, during which I had only a small presence, introducing various features and reading the weather forecast.

At 7AM, my show actually began. I played a lot of music, and we ran local news twice an hour until 9AM. The news guy and I would banter about whatever came to mind on the spur of the moment; we didn’t plan much of anything, and it probably sounded like it. (I don’t have any tapes from that time, and I’m not sure I could stand listening to them if I did—we needed to be coached, but there was nobody in the building to do it.) Our fooling-around nevertheless developed a following; by summer, when we’d do sponsor remotes or appear at community events, people would say, “I listen to you every morning.”

The modest degree of recognition we got for the show was gratifying, and I soon began to imagine that I could parlay it into a step up the market ladder. I went to a seminar presented by consultant Dan O’Day and bravely let him critique an aircheck in front of everybody. He said I had potential, which was all I wanted to hear—and which contributed to a growing wanderlust as autumn came.

As I have written before, I didn’t see eye-to-eye with the station’s new owner, who had taken over earlier in 1985. His ideas of what constituted good radio were different from mine. That summer, he hired an old friend of his, and he put him above me on the organizational chart without explaining how our relationship was supposed to work. And so I found myself beginning to inch out the door. Almost exactly a year after starting the morning show, I found another job, and at the end of 1986, we moved to Davenport, Iowa.

That morning-show year was memorable. We had just rented a big old house. The Mrs. was selling advertising for a regional tourism magazine, which led to a few good stories but not much else, and by the end of 1986 she would be working at the radio station again. We took our first lengthy vacation together in the summer of 1986, driving from Illinois to Maine for a friend’s wedding. I liked the rhythm of my working days, 5:15AM to 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon, once I got used to rising so early. What I was doing seemed important, and at the age of 26, I felt like I was on my way.

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