Category Archives: Radio Tales

Starstruck

me and Kate Mulgrew_CBS This Morning screenshot_smaller

This 1982 picture of me with actress Kate Mulgrew is one I have had in my archives for quite a while. The version you see here, however, appeared on national television last month, when CBS News Sunday Morning profiled her and discussed her new memoir. She grew up in Dubuque, Iowa, where I worked my first radio job, and as CBS sketched her biography, they flashed that picture, which is presumably in her book. It was taken when she appeared on a radio show I co-hosted at KDTH. She had already appeared on Ryan’s Hope and starred in Mrs. Columbo by then. Her role as Captain Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager and her current role on Orange Is the New Black were yet to come. Through all the years, apparently, that photo has been among her souvenirs.

My co-host, Bob (who had been doing the show for several years before I came aboard), frequently landed celebrity interviews. His practice was to take pictures and send them to the guest along with return postage, asking them to autograph the pictures and send them back. He e-mailed recently: “The biggest celebrities—Bob Hope, George Burns, Wolfman Jack, Helen Hayes, Tony Randall, and Loretta Lynn—graciously returned them.” But Kate apparently did not.

In the picture, I am trying very hard not to look starstruck. I listened to the interview not long ago, and I sounded that way, too, trying to come off sophisticated and cool while choking out questions through my nervousness. All I remember of Kate Mulgrew is that she had the extreme self-confidence and laser-like career focus that’s sometimes hard to distinguish from runaway narcissism. She wasn’t particularly warm. Bob remembers her as coming off utterly consumed by her career as well. He also remembers that he landed the interview with the help of Kate’s mother, who told us hilarious stories during the commercial breaks but refused to go on the air.

As I think back on my tenure at KDTH (part-time guy starting in 1979, afternoon guy for about a year-and-a-half starting in 1982), I realize how lucky I was to start my career there. It was incredibly well-equipped and full of broadcasters any kid would be lucky to learn from. Whether I knew any of this at the time is much less certain, because I was very green, quite naive—and pretty much unaware of everything going on around me. For example, I didn’t realize that Bob and I were in what he calls a “forced marriage.” He was simply told one day, “Jim’s going to be on the show.” To his eternal credit, he was remarkably gracious about it, making me feel welcome and tolerating my inexperience. We did the show together for only a few months before he went into copywriting and production full-time. (He’s still got a remarkable collection of tapes, pictures, and other memorabilia from his radio days, and it’s been fun dipping into it with him now and then over the years.)

I never would have known about my brief moment on national TV if a friend in Florida hadn’t seen it and screencapped it. He says he recognized me immediately, even though I was only on-screen a couple of seconds. After I posted the picture on Facebook, I heard from a couple of other people who had seen the segment—one recognized me, but another did not.  I was still in my big bushy beard/long 70s hair phase, and I can’t believe I wore that shirt. The Mrs. points out that I had a lot of shirts like that back then, which may be true, but that doesn’t mean I was right.

Horizontal stripes? Really?

Tornado Geek

If you can tolerate one more damn tornado-related thing, here’s part of a post I wrote back in 2006 about covering severe weather on the radio, lightly edited for 2015.

It wasn’t until I got to college and watched some of the more experienced people at the campus radio station covering a severe weather outbreak that I realized a fundamental truth of broadcasting—on most days, you’re just playing records and cracking wise. You don’t actually live your station’s commitment to operate in the public interest, convenience, and necessity until you’re on a full severe-weather alert.

In those days, many small-to-medium market stations had the goal of owning severe weather coverage—to be the station that everybody tuned to when the skies turned dark. In Dubuque, KDTH was that station. Even though it may have been late at night or their day off, news department staffers would materialize when watches were issued, and they set a standard for the way to do severe weather right. They knew what information people needed, who to call or where to go to get it, and how to ad-lib off the radar screen, as well as how to do it while staying cool, even when the newsroom behind the studio door was chaotic. You knew—although we never faced it while I was there—that if a tornado were bearing down on the station’s very building, they’d stay on the air no matter what. I learned a lot at KDTH, and by the time I got to my next radio job, on tornado alley in western Illinois, I considered myself an expert on how to cover severe weather.

One of my jobs there was public-service director, which meant I was responsible for the box of 3-by-5 cards with “community calendar” information for jocks to read, and for the public-service announcements jocks could play to fill time. That first spring, I planned to do a series of PSAs for Tornado Awareness Week, but management vetoed them. We can’t let you do it, they said, because it might start a panic.

Honest to God, that’s what they told me, and I still can’t fathom their logic. But they fired me a few weeks later (not for the tornado PSAs, but for something equally loony) and I went to the other station in town. As it turned out, that station was about to be purchased by the guy who had been the general manager at KDTH, so I was sure my weather expertise would be appreciated there, and it was.

Within a few years, severe weather coverage, especially on music radio stations and extra-especially in large markets, started going out of fashion. In the late 80s, a jock in Dallas was famously fired for breaking his station’s format rules to read a tornado warning for the area. At about the same time, I was driving home in a horizontal rainstorm driven by 50MPH winds and listening to a station in my town when I heard the jock say, “A tornado warning has been issued for a portion of our listening area. If you want to know the details, call me on the listener line.”

Honest to God, that’s what he said. If he’d been working for me, I’d have fired him on the spot. To this day, it might still be the single worst thing I’ve ever heard on the radio—although he was probably just doing what he’d been told to do.

By the early 90s, I was working for an owner whose commitment to the public interest, convenience, and necessity matched my own. The station was located in a little prefab house on a hill just outside of town. During the first bout of bad weather that spring, I wasn’t entirely up on the local geography. “Hey,” I said to one of the news people, “We’ve got a warning here that says a tornado is on the ground seven miles southeast of Miles, Iowa. Where is that?” She got a strange look on her face and said, “That’s . . . here.” Instead of heading for shelter in the basement, I immediately ran outside to look for the tornado.

I didn’t see it.

Today, I’m pleased that my stations have a commitment to cover severe weather, and they’ll pay us to come in after hours to do it if necessary. It’s part of the reason they have the license in the first place. Without that commitment, they’re just playing records and cracking wise.

You Don’t Have the Voice For It

(A typical studio shot from the 1970s, with those great old ITC cart machines on the right.)

We will call him Todd, because that is not his real name. Todd wanted to be a sportscaster more than anything else in the world. So when he got to college, he got on the sports staff of the campus radio station. His first assignment was to produce and deliver the Friday night sports roundup, which aired at about 10:30. This was not a particularly desirable assignment—most people wanted to be out partying on Friday night, not organizing wire copy or gathering scores. But because Todd wanted to be a sportscaster more than anything else in the world, he eagerly took the assignment.

Elsewhere in town, a bunch of Todd’s fellow broadcasters were at somebody’s apartment engaging in the usual beer-soaked Friday night ruckus and listening to the station with one ear. But when Todd started his sportscast, everyone snapped to full attention, for Todd was the worst-sounding broadcaster they had ever heard. He spoke with a strange inflection, he slurred words, and those he didn’t slur, he read too fast. The 10-minute sportscast seemed to last an eternity. The station’s sports director was embarrassed; the program director was livid. (Livid was his default setting a lot of the time.)

Over the ensuing weeks, people at the station worked with Todd, trying to get him to sound better. His reading improved, but the speech impediment that led to the inflection and the slurring wasn’t fixable. It became necessary to take Todd aside and tell him that he had no future speaking into a microphone. He could still work in radio or TV in some off-air role, but he wasn’t going to be a sportscaster.

Although we realized (as much as callow 20-year-olds can realize such things) that we were stomping on Todd’s dream, we also believed telling him the truth about his limitations was a kindness. There was no sense in the guy wasting his education trying to become an on-air personality or reporter. He didn’t have the voice for it.

Not everybody has the well-rounded, mellifluous tones of the professional announcer anymore. Today, on-air people are encouraged to talk, rather than to “announce,” and that leaves more room for deliveries that sound like regular people—so much room, in fact, that few people are ever told “you don’t have the voice for it” anymore.

But some people don’t.

Sales reps write a great deal of the copy you hear on your local station—and it’s a short leap from writing the copy to deciding you’ll deliver it, too. Some sales reps have good voices and know how to read copy, but others do not. Sometimes clients want to voice their own ads, and like sales reps, some sound good doing it and some do not. But since the sales rep and the client are the ultimate arbiters of whether an ad is acceptable, there’s nobody to tell them if it doesn’t sound good—when the delivery is poor or when the script is lousy (which is a topic for another time).

And it’s not just commercial voiceovers. I once worked at a station that hired a reporter fresh out of college who still sounded like a 14-year-old girl. As far as I know, nobody ever coached her to moderate her chirpy teenage voice, and the station’s credibility suffered every time she was on the air. You’ll sometimes hear DJs who sound too young, or who don’t speak clearly enough, or who don’t read well. Some of these problems can be ameliorated through coaching, but at a lot of stations, coaching runs the gamut from spotty to nonexistent. And without that coaching, lots of radio people are like high-wire walkers on a windy day—they’re going to fall off, but you don’t know when, or how big a splat they’re going to make.

Some people are simply unlucky, like Todd. Even with coaching, they have voices that just aren’t good enough. Not everybody on the radio needs to sound like Gary Owens or Alison Steele. But there are times when it would be better for everybody—stations, clients, prospective DJs, and listeners—if somebody would stand up and say “you don’t have the voice for it.”

From Beautiful Downtown Fandon

Longtime Dallas radio personality Terry Dorsey died this past weekend. I remember him for a quiz called “Canadian or Dead?”, in which listeners had to guess whether a particular person Dorsey named was one or the other. But Dorsey and a partner, T. J. Donnelly, also created a syndicated feature called Hiney Wine—which might end up being the thing for which Dorsey is best remembered, at least outside of Dallas.

Hiney Wine was a series of fake commercials for a winery run by two brothers, Big Red Hiney and Thor Hiney. (They had a sister named Ophelia, and other members of the “family” bore names that resulted in equally painful puns.) Dorsey and Donnelly sent you the scripts and you produced them locally, customizing them to your local area. They suggested that you locate the winery in some small town—so when we started running the feature on my station in Macomb, Illinois, we set it in “beautiful downtown Fandon,” an unincorporated community in rural McDonough County, 10 miles southwest of Macomb.

The genius of Hiney Wine was that it started innocuously and built slowly. The first spots in the series sounded plausibly like small-town radio commercials, but they got increasingly more absurd as time went on, featuring a seemingly bottomless well of wordplay: “Next time you go shopping, ask your grocer where he keeps his Hiney. The motto of the Hiney Winery says it all: “You only go around once in life, so grab for all the Hiney you can get”.

It couldn’t have taken more than a couple of weeks before the phone calls started coming in: “There’s no winery in Fandon.” We instructed the whole staff to play dumb. Sometimes, if I took a call and was feeling particularly salty that day, I’d tell people I was there the previous weekend. Dorsey and Donnelly had made provisions for the likelihood that people would figure out the winery wasn’t real: after a few months, we ran a series of scripts in which we described a great fire at the winery in Fandon and its resulting relocation to “beautiful downtown Vishnu Springs,” a ghost town few miles away. It was amazing how listener consternation redoubled.

This kind of thing was a lot easier to pull off in the days before Google.

The station would make money on the thing by selling adjacencies—spots that ran next to the Hiney Wine feature. But it wasn’t necessary to pay to get your name on one of the Hiney spots. The scripts were written to incorporate local landmarks and businesses, and I can still remember a sales rep coming to me violently angry because one spot mentioned one of her clients, the local hospital, and they were not happy being associated with alcohol in any form.

After you’d run the spots long enough, you could actually buy bottles of Hiney Wine and resell them to your listeners. (Fine print on the label said it was “de-alcoholized” wine.) I had my own souvenir bottle of Hiney. The Mrs. and I carried it along on our various moves for the next decade, finally trashing it (unopened) after we decided we’d kept it long enough.

I don’t remember how long we ran the Hiney campaign on the station in Macomb—maybe a year, maybe less. It was a remarkable bit of radio—funny to listeners who got the joke, and funny to us because so many listeners didn’t. You can read more about Hiney Wine here.

Terry Dorsey had retired just last December after 47 years in radio, and relocated to a farm . . . in Illinois. I haven’t been able to determine where, but I’d like to think it was out by Fandon.

The Homemaker Show

A onetime radio staple that’s gone now is the homemaker show. In a midday time slot, a female host (occasionally with a male sidekick/producer/board operator) would conduct a program aimed at women: about cooking and sewing and crafting and gardening and child-rearing and whatever other subjects might plausibly interest the stay-at-home wives/mothers/grandmothers who made up the audience. Such programs were born in the earliest days of radio and thrived from the 50s through the 70s. They became less important as more women began working outside the home, and by now I’m guessing you’d have a hard time finding one. But in their heyday, such programs were a very big deal. This 1954 radio ad for the Neighbor Lady show on WNAX in Yankton, South Dakota, is a good indication of the power such a show could have, especially on a station with a big signal. (There were similar shows on TV as well.)

When I got to KDTH in Dubuque in 1979, its homemaker show, Cracker Barrel, was hosted by Betty Thomas. Betty, who died in 2013, is a member of the Iowa Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame. She started in radio helping her broadcaster husband, who was going blind, by operating his control board and reading copy into his ear, which he would repeat on the air. In 1966, she took over Cracker Barrel, and would host it for nearly 30 years.

During my time at KDTH, the show was an empire. The phone lines would fill up every morning with listeners who had questions, comments, recipes to share, or advice to give, and the show had a massive mailing list that waited for Betty’s regular newsletter. Cracker Barrel was interactive media before interactive media was cool. When Betty read a recipe, she carefully paused after each ingredient or instruction, and it was easy to visualize dozens or hundreds of pencils scratching down each step. Certain recipes were perennials, and she’d feature them year after year. Sometimes she’d have guests in the studio, but most often it was just Betty, talking about topics she knew her audience would find interesting. The show, crowded with commercials, made a ton of money. Next to Gordon Kilgore, the veteran newscaster I’ve written about before, Betty was the station’s most recognizable personality.

Last year I introduced you to George Lipper, the general manager of KDTH when I worked there, who later hired me to work at stations he bought in Macomb, Illinois. George wanted to turn the AM station into a KDTH-style full-service station, and one of the elements he wanted to replicate was Cracker Barrel. I was skeptical about whether such a thing could be created from scratch in the middle of the 1980s, but George was resolved to try. I wasn’t involved much in the planning of the show or the hiring of the host. Somehow, the station found Debbie, thirtysomething, with a home-economics degree, fairly articulate and not frightened off by the entire concept. And sometime in 1985, we put the show on the air.

Here’s the thing about talk radio: if nobody calls, you, the host, have to keep talking regardless, make it interesting, and entice people to join the conversation. And in the early days of what we also called Cracker Barrel, nobody called. The first shows were brutal, but over a period of weeks, the show got a little better once people discovered it. But we noticed something about Debbie after a while. She was oddly reluctant to offer her opinions on much of anything. She was happy to read recipes and other source materials, but if she had trouble simply conversing with the callers, even on the most innocuous of subjects. She would hem and haw and ultimately say very little. We finally figured out it was because her husband listened to the show every day and critiqued it every night, and the net effect was that no matter what we told her at the office, she became afraid to express herself for fear of getting a bad review at home.

I may have been the sidekick/producer/board operator in those early days, but I don’t think it was a regular gig for me; at 30 years’ distance, I simply can’t remember anymore. And I can’t recall how long the show lasted; I’m fairly sure it was no more than a few months. Our rebooted Cracker Barrel was an anachronism in 1985, as I suspected it might be. Every now and then the green radio man I was back then turned out to be right.

One Day in Your Life: January 23, 1986

(Pictured: the space shuttle Challenger peers through the fog as it awaits launch.)

January 23, 1986, is a Thursday. In men’s college basketball, Minnesota beats Wisconsin 67-65 in Madison. Tomorrow, three Minnesota players will be arrested for sexually assaulting an 18-year-old woman at a hotel after the game. Minnesota will forfeit its scheduled game against Northwestern on Sunday, and coach Jim Dutcher will resign over the incident. Scientists examining photos of Uranus taken by the Voyager II spacecraft discover a new moon orbiting the planet, which will be named Bianca. The launch of the space shuttle Challenger is postponed for a second straight day. It will be postponed three more times before being launched on Monday, Tuesday, when it will explode 73 seconds into its flight, killing the crew. The New York Times reports that claims by Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos that he was a guerrilla resistance leader during the World War II Japanese occupation of the Philippines are false. The federal government reported yesterday that the economy grew in 1985 at the slowest rate since the recession year of 1982. In Gainesville, Florida, police dog Gero is killed in the line of duty while attempting to apprehend an armed robbery suspect. In today’s Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin tries a new plan to get out of going to school.

In Los Angeles, Luther Vandross has been charged with vehicular manslaughter and reckless driving after a crash earlier this month that killed one person and injured four others. In December, he will plead no contest and get probation. The first class is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, Alan Freed, Sam Phillips, Jimmie Rodgers, Jimmy Yancey, Robert Johnson, and John Hammond. The Beatles are ineligible because by rule, inductees must be at least 25 years removed from their first hit record. Three days before the Super Bowl, the opposing quarterbacks, Jim McMahon of the Chicago Bears and Tony Eason of the New England Patriots, appear on the Today Show along with NFL wives and NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. On TV tonight, ABC airs the movie Grease 2 and 20/20; NBC’s lineup includes The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers, Night Court, and Hill Street Blues; CBS airs Magnum P. I., Simon and Simon, and Knots Landing.

AC/DC plays Edinburgh, Scotland, and Hot Tuna plays Boston. Motley Crue plays Essen, Germany, and KISS plays St. Louis. Aerosmith plays Reno, Nevada, and Stevie Ray Vaughan plays Utica, New York. At WKTI in Milwaukee, the station’s new music survey comes out tomorrow. “Burning Heart” by Survivor leaps to #1, displacing “Goodbye” by Night Ranger. The biggest mover in the Top 10 is “How Will I Know” by Whitney Houston, moving from #7 to #2. New in the Top 10 are “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going” by Billy Ocean at #8 and “Kyrie” by Mr. Mister at #9. The biggest mover within the station’s Top 30 is “These Dreams” by Heart (#26 to #19). Also moving up big are “Life in a Northern Town” by Dream Academy (to #12 from #18) and “Nikita” by Elton John (to #23 from #29). The highest debuting new song of the week is “The Sweetest Taboo” by Sade at #26.

Perspective From the Present: In January 1986, I had just begun doing the morning show on WKAI. I pushed the buttons on a 90-minute farm and news block from 5:30 to 7AM, then did what was intended to be a wacky morning show from 7 to 10. As I have noted before, my partner and I weren’t being coached by anybody, and whatever entertaining stuff we came up with was mostly by accident. My working day was usually over between 12:30 and 1:00. The Mrs. was selling advertising for a regional magazine, so I’d get home in the afternoon to a quiet house and usually take a nap. Because I was program director, I was on call 24/7, so my naps were frequently interrupted. In January, I would have still put up with those interruptions. It wasn’t until spring that I started taking my phone off the hook. In later years I’ve realized that my career was never the same after that. I was never again as obsessed with radio as I had been until then.

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