(Pictured: the most terrifying thing in the world, to some people.)
Since I wrote the other day about WKRP characters and the extent to which they exist in real radio stations, this next seems appropriate. Partially rebooted from some ancient posts, it contains a few vignettes about radio people I have known.
—A vocal Christian with shoulder-length hair nicknamed “Junior Jesus.” He hosted the Sunday morning religious-music show, and the bluehairs in his audience used to send him money even though he didn’t ask for it, thus fulfilling the dream of low-paid radio guys everywhere. He once lent a CD to another colleague of ours, but insisted that the colleague not tape it because that would be illegal.
—The only person I have ever met whom I would have forgiven for abandoning his family, an incredibly high-maintenance wife and anywhere from two to five incorrigible children. (We were never sure quite how many.) His considerable talents on the air were simply overwhelmed by the chaos in his personal life.
—A sales rep who once asked me if I’d ever written any spots advertising artificial limbs. When I said that I had not, she proceeded to call the Radio Advertising Bureau (an industry group that offers sales and marketing resources to its members) seeking sample copy for artificial limbs, only to be surprised when they laughed out loud at the idea too. I came to admire this woman’s willingness to think outside the box, and also her fearlessness. Once, she was trying to sell our station to a store owner who haughtily told her, “I don’t need to advertise. I already have more business than I can handle.” “Good for you,” she shot back. “Let’s go out front and take your sign down.”
—The very young and very new sales rep who was trying to get a local clothing store on the air. The couple who owned the store could not agree on the image they wanted to project. He wanted a western theme, while she wanted to seem young, hip, and edgy. The rep’s solution was to ask me to produce an ad with a John Wayne voice and Michael Jackson music.
—The college student I hired to tend the automation on Saturday and Sunday nights. I came into the office one night to dead silence—and Elliott, sitting calmly at a desk. “What the hell’s going on?” I asked. Elliott looked blankly at me for a second. “Oh, you mean the monitors? I turned them down. I’m trying to study and the music distracts me.”
—The newscasters afraid of live microphones. The morning crew got to work at 2:30 to completely prerecord the morning news block, then sat in the newsroom drinking coffee while the tapes played starting at 5:30. The hourly newscasts that ran during the day were always recorded a few minutes in advance. After I got there, we scrapped that practice, but it didn’t go down well. One of the news staffers quit rather than speak live on the air. The news director tried to embrace the new way, but she didn’t like it. She was already a nervous person, constantly fumbling for a cigarette, and would nearly jump out of her skin every time somebody walked into the newsroom. One day she came into the studio with a bulletin about a major fire in town. I put her on the air, she read her script, and then I made a mistake: I reflexively asked her whether traffic was being disrupted in the area, the innocuous sort of inquiry any jock would have made in that situation. A look of horror came upon her, and although her mouth fell open, no sound issued therefrom. Then she flipped me off.
(Pictured: Tim Reid, Loni Anderson, Jan Smithers, and Howard Hesseman, 2014.)
Even if Johnny Fever and Venus Flytrap never wear headphones on the air, WKRP in Cincinnati gets radio station dynamics right: the relationships among people and departments, and the types of people who inhabit such an unusual workplace.
Although he loosens up as the series goes on, Andy Travis is a bit of a mystery man at the start. Some PDs’ personalities are utterly submerged in the job; they’re cordial but impenetrable. Try as you might, you’re never going to break though to a truly personal connection. Their self-imposed distance is a function of their “town to town, up and down the dial” careers. A well-traveled PD can have hundreds of acquaintances, but few real friends.
There are lots of Johnny Fevers in real stations: they’ve been in big markets and small, been married and divorced, seen and done things that make for good stories. Now they’re a little older, a little tired, and would just like to find a place to fit in, and be as happy as possible in an industry structured to make happiness elusive. (I suspect Johnny would agree that you can love radio, but you shouldn’t expect it to love you back.)
I knew a guy who had a little Venus Flytrap in him, in that he affected a self-consciously hip look—in his case, dark colors, sharp creases, every hair in place, and an impressive porn-star mustache. (You could say he was as much Jennifer as Venus: not to be caught dead looking anything less than perfect.) He knew he was very attractive to women, but he was also married to a very jealous one. He called me on the hotline one day: “Would you please tell my wife what time you saw me this afternoon?” “Two o’clock?” I stammered. I couldn’t make out what I heard next, only her voice in an accusatory tone. He came back on. “I was there at 4:30, don’t you remember?” Well, yeah, he had been in the studio at 4:30, but I hadn’t paid close enough attention to be anyone’s alibi.
Watching WKRP gives a viewer an interesting window into workplace sexism, not just in radio stations and not just 35 years ago, but in workplaces everywhere right now. Herb hits on Jennifer, and Johnny makes occasional crude come-ons (“I want to father your children”). Even visitors to the office are mesmerized by her. In 1980, it was straight-up funny. What makes it funny now is the way Jennifer continually brushes it off. What makes it uncomfortable now is that such remarks are tame compared to some I have heard directed at women in radio stations and other offices—and not just in the 1980s.
Every good radio sales rep has a little Herb in him/her. Few are as all-out obsequious, although what makes Herb funny to radio people is that we’ve all known reps who tried too hard, promised too much, or whose main talent was a gift for bullshit. An iron unwillingness to take no for an answer is helpful too—more than one client has signed on the dotted line just to get the sales rep out of his office.
Station managers often ascend from the sales department, which can make them allies of sales and adversaries of programming. I have worked for managers who made little secret of their allegiance, but I’ve also worked for the other kind. Mr. Carlson does a fairly good job of balancing the two sides, although honestly compels me to report that for an ex-program director such as I, few moments are as satisfying as when he chooses Andy over Herb.
Les Nessman’s greatest moment in journalism was not when he won all those awards—it was his dispassionate description of the bombing in “Turkeys Away.” He remained unrattled in the midst of chaos, which is a vital reporter’s trait. What Les lacks is a sense of proportion. I worked with a newsman who had a similar problem. He came into my studio one Sunday morning and breathlessly said, “Fire on the west side. I’ll send back a report when I get there.” A half-hour later, I put him on the air. It took a while to figure it out, but the conflagration he was describing live turned out to be a burning doghouse in somebody’s back yard.
Radio has always been a business where people do more than one thing. Jocks are only on the air part of the day, and most have other responsibilities off the air. Sportscasters sometimes double as sales reps, and office staffers may have responsibilities in a number of different areas. The consolidation and streamlining of station operations in the last decade or so has made everybody into a utility player, so people like Bailey Quarters are everywhere. At WKRP, she’s willing to do everything—sales assistant, promotions assistant, newscaster, singer on the funeral home jingle, whatever.
Holy smokes, I just realized that in 2015, at the company I work for, I’m a Bailey.
(Pictured: How we imagined our typical listener. Like every other memory, this one is subject to error.)
Here are a few more random recollections about being the album-rock night guy at WXXQ in Freeport in the summer of 1980.
—One of the interesting characters on the staff was a newsman named Bud. Bud seemed old, although it occurs to me he now may have been 60. He had a somewhat irreverent attitude toward his job that occasionally crept through on the air. He once referred to a particularly heavy rainstorm as a “toad strangler,” which is a term I have used myself ever since.
—When you turned on the microphone in the news studio, it automatically triggered a continuous tape loop that played a teletype sound effect (something like this), intended to provide the ambiance of a busy newsroom underneath the newscast. The real wire machine sat right outside my studio window. I remember ripping and reading the story about Richard Pryor setting himself on fire, 35 years ago yesterday.
—I would occasionally bring the small portable TV from the newsroom into my studio and set it up under the control board to watch the Cubs while I worked. I also had it on when Ronald Reagan very nearly chose former president Gerald Ford to be his running mate at the Republican convention that summer.
—The jock who was on before me was a guy I had listened to when the station was in its previous incarnation as a Top 40 blowtorch. He had a stalker, a young woman who was quite profoundly in love with him, she said. She’d call the studio line at 6:05 and ask if Jeff was there. I’d look right at him and say no he wasn’t. Did I know where Jeff was going ? No I didn’t.
—The station had an AM sister that operated only during daytime hours. At the start of the summer, the evening shift, 6:00 until sign-off, was split between a couple of high-school girls. One of them seemed to have potential; she’d ask questions of me—the grizzled veteran in the next studio, with 18 whole months of on-air experience—and take the answers to heart. But the other had a nice voice with nary a thought in her head. On those nights when the weather went sideways, I collected the warnings off the wire and took the pertinent ones to the AM studio. One night was especially busy, with several warnings in effect at once. I took the latest one into the studio and found the girl just sitting there, dead air, stricken look on her face, overwhelmed by the requirements of her job on that particular night. In memory, I manage to gently coax her into doing her job. In actuality, I probably yelled at her to get something on the air goddammit and then read this warning. It wasn’t long before she quit (or was fired). The other girl was demoted to weekends.
—I wasn’t officially the station’s music director—Jeff was. But it wasn’t long before he was letting me pick new songs for airplay and set up the rotations, figuring that if I wanted to do what he considered tedious clerical work without getting paid extra for it, then godspeed you, boy. I tried making a hit out of Billy Joel’s “Sleeping With the Television On,” but I’m still waiting.
—In August, we did a promotion with the local Dr. Pepper bottler to sponsor self-propelled paddleboat races on the Pecatonica River. We promoted the thing to death, encouraging our listeners to enter and race, only to have maybe a dozen people show up on the day of the event. It was a disaster. I can still see myself in one of the paddleboats, trying to muster up some sort of excitement among the dozen, and in myself. Not long after that, my week of shows at the Winnebago County Fair bombed, too. Perhaps our promotional strategy was not very well thought out.
I wish I could remember more about that job in the summer of 1980. It was exactly the kind of experience every young broadcaster should have, thrown in and and expected to swim, but in a safely shallow pool. I was lucky to have had it.
(Welcome to 1980 week. The link above is an optional soundtrack for this post.)
Thirty-five years ago this summer, I was working my first full-time radio job. I got the gig through a college friend, and from May to August 1980 I was on the air from 6 to midnight, Sunday through Friday, on WXXQ in Freeport, Illinois. Several of my colleagues that summer were people I had heard when I was still just dreaming of radio. Because of my hours, I rarely saw any of them, but it was enough to know they were there. And that I was one of them.
My nightly routine rarely changed. It was my last summer living in Mom and Dad’s house, and I could get to work in about a half-hour. So I’d leave about 5:00, park in the lot of the State Bank building in downtown Freeport, and ride the elevator up to the 12th floor. The station ran an album-rock format, and since the format was very new, we were turning over the strongest songs in our library very, very quickly, so that anybody sampling us stood a good chance of hearing something they’d like. I would sometimes play “Stairway to Heaven” or “Aqualung” twice in a six-hour shift—and I complained about that all summer.
My show did not have a lot of commercials. The first hour, technically a part of afternoon drive-time, usually did, but after 7:00, there wasn’t much, mostly ads for Pepsi products or other ads placed by regional ad agencies that could get the time for next to nothing. But on some nights, especially Sundays, even next-to-nothing was too expensive. More than once I went into the break at 6:50 by saying, “We’ll roll five hours commercial-free right after this.”
After the station signed off at midnight, I would occasionally have a bit of production to do, either recording a script over a music bed or dubbing some produced spots for use on the air. That kind of work happened just infrequently enough to be a treat. More often, however, I’d be in the parking lot by 12:05. On an occasional Friday night, I’d meet up with the two college friends who worked at the station and lived in Freeport. We’d split a pizza, have a beer or two, and talk about the stuff 20-year-old guys talk about. But on most other nights, I’d simply back out of my parking space, get on Highway 26, and drive north.
As I think back on that summer now, the most vivid memories involve the drive home. Having just listened to six hours of music, I wanted to hear voices, so I would listen to WBBM, the all-news station from Chicago. By August, I could have driven home with my eyes closed, navigating by what was on WBBM at any given moment, knowing I was in Cedarville or Orangeville or Oneco based on what I was hearing, up familiar hills and around familiar curves, bugs whacking the windshield. I would roll into the driveway at home between 12:35 and 12:40, let myself into the darkened house and rummage in the refrigerator, where I would sometimes find a plate of whatever the family had for dinner, carefully wrapped up for me to microwave if I chose. Sometimes I’d go immediately to bed, but other times I would stay up for a while, reading and listening to the radio, or watching whatever one might find on broadcast TV in the middle of the night, in the days of the three-channel universe. And in the morning, at 10 or 11 or noon, I’d get up for another day.
I have some letters I wrote that summer, and they reveal that I experienced the same regular workaday frustrations that come with any job—colleagues who seemed dense, rules that seemed arbitrary. I missed my girlfriend and I occasionally chafed at my parents’ expectations. But those are the incidents that will be left out of the story when I tell it years later, the story of a radio man doing radio, blissfully ignorant of what I didn’t know, making $135 a week.
(Pictured: Cincinnati. Let’s pretend that WKRP was located in one of these buildings.)
We have been watching the first season of WKRP in Cincinnati, from the box set that restored most of the music and replaced some of the ridiculous cuts that were made on the Season 1 release a few years ago.
The show was originally scheduled opposite Welcome Back Kotter and Little House on the Prairie in the fall of 1978, and the ratings were awful—so poor, in fact, that the show was pulled in November, after only eight episodes. One of those episodes, “Turkeys Away,” is the WKRP episode everybody remembers—but despite its Thanksgiving theme, it actually aired on October 30, three weeks before the holiday. When the show returned to the air in January, it had the single best time slot on CBS, immediately following M*A*S*H. The first episode after its hiatus was a clip show intended to bring new viewers up to speed on the story.
WKRP was a different show after its first-season hiatus. Most of the first eight stories focused on radio—a punk band comes to town, Bailey gets her own show, Johnny does a remote broadcast that goes wrong, and so on. The switch to the post-M*A*S*H time slot ostensibly freed creator Hugh Wilson and his writing staff to tell more character-based stories, and to focus less on wacky radio hijinx. The remainder of the first season is a little uneven, with storylines that had become stale years before: Johnny tries to adopt a foundling left on the station’s doorstep, Mr. Carlson has trouble relating to his preteen son, Herb breaks up with his wife and his friends try to get them back together. Much better: Johnny leaves the station for a job in Los Angeles, the mysterious Venus Flytrap gets his backstory, and a funeral home makes an enormous ad buy and the WKRP staff sings the jingle.
Next to “Turkeys Away,” the best-remembered episode of the first season is probably “Fish Story.” It’s the one where Johnny and Venus get drunk on the air as part of a public-service promotion, and Herb, dressed as the new station mascot (a carp), gets into a fight with the mascot from crosstown station WPIG. Wilson wrote the episode under pressure from CBS to do more physical comedy, and he hated it so much that he took his name off of it—only to see it become the highest-rated episode of the entire series.
WKRP went on the air during my first semester at college, and I started watching it at the same time I started working at the campus radio station. Honesty compels me to report that the further we get into the series, the less familiar the episodes become, so I don’t think I watched it regularly after the first few episodes. This might be due to the fact that CBS moved the show all over its schedule during its four years on the air and it was hard to find. It’s arguable that the show didn’t gain true popularity until after its network run, when it started airing in after-school, prime-time access, or late-night slots five days a week, where viewers could actually find it.
We’ve just started the second season, by which time Loni Anderson has become the show’s breakout star, so Jennifer and her Jessica Rabbit style are prominently featured in most episodes. The best thing about the second season, however, is that Bailey starts wearing those glasses. The perfect WKRP episode would be 24 minutes of Bailey and her glasses. No doubt about it.
(Pictured: By the 1950s, you had plenty of options for listening to the radio overnight—none of which were really necessary, of course, if you had better nighttime options to indulge in.)
I blogged about KGFJ in Los Angeles last week, which was the first station in America to operate regularly 24 hours a day, starting in 1927. The article by Jim Hilliker I linked at the bottom of the post, which goes into great detail about the history of all-night broadcasting from the 20s to the 60s, is a highly worthwhile read. Cities in major markets were the first to embrace 24-hour broadcasting, as early as the late 20s, although some of the biggest AM blowtorches held out until after World War II.
The first station I ever heard regularly, hometown WEKZ, had a daytime-only AM that changed with the seasons and an FM that signed on at 5AM and off at 9PM. WLS, WCFL, and some of my favorite FM stations operated 24/7. Another station I listened to a lot, D93 from Dubuque, signed on at 6, and I can remember lying abed before school listening to a dead carrier wave and the 6AM legal ID. (It stayed on until 2AM.)
Hilliker notes that stations signed on fairly late in the day during the early years of radio, sometimes not until mid-morning or early afternoon. Some stuck with it long after. When I first discovered Madison’s WIBA-FM in the middle of the 1970s, it didn’t sign on until 10AM (after going off at 3AM), but for a free-form progressive rock station in a college town, that probably made sense. Most of the stations I worked for in my early years signed on at 5AM or 6AM and signed off at midnight.
Hilliker says that in the early 60s, KNBR in San Francisco ceased programming at midnight but left the carrier wave on all night and identified once an hour because they were the primary Conelrad station for northern California, and as such would need to alert other stations in the region if the Russkies dropped the big one—which is one damn fascinating bit of trivia.
One particularly quaint aspect of the early years is that 24-hour broadcasting seems to have been limited at least a little by the complaints of long-distance listeners, known as DXers, who enjoyed pulling in distant AM stations late at night. Increasing numbers of 24-hour stations made DXing harder. DXers benefited from the fact that many 24-hour stations signed off during the wee hours of Monday morning, sometimes for maintenance or transmitter testing, but sometimes just because the audiences were minuscule.
On the subject of transmitter testing: an engineer friend of mine told of signing on his AM station in southern Wisconsin, normally a daytimer at 1590 on the AM dial, for maintenance one summer midnight. He gave the required station ID and then said, “Reception reports of this broadcast are encouraged” with the phone number. It wasn’t long before the studio line started blinking, with a call from a DXer in Texas.
I was never the kind of DXer who kept a log of stations received and wrote to them asking for QSL cards (which survive today among ham radio operators, who exchange them when making long-distance connections). My father occasionally tuned in distant stations on his barn radio, and I picked up the interest from him. Digital tuning, especially in the car, makes AM DXing easy, although with so much syndication on the overnights now, it can take a long time to find out who you’re listening to. Not like days of yore, when the jocks, jingles, and commercials would make it easy to tell what city you were receiving.
Today, it’s a rare station that signs off at all, unless it’s a daytimer that has to. Self-tending transmitters and studios make the economics of overnights more sensible. Jocks close the door on an operating studio at night and step into a stream that’s already flowing in the morning. But some of us remember when it was different.
(Note to patrons: at some point over the weekend we passed 700,000 hits on this blog since January 2007. All hail the Google, and thank you.)