(Pictured: Elvis? Heck no, that’s not Elvis.)
On this April Fool’s Day, I find myself thinking about the best April Fool’s prank ever pulled by one of my radio stations.
Small-town Iowa, early 90s—possibly 25 years ago today. Our morning team—call them Mike and Micki because those are not their names—did everything they would normally do, nothing out of the ordinary, except that every song they played was the same recording of Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas.” They would back- and front-announce the current hits we were normally playing—Richard Marx, Amy Grant, and so forth—but no matter what they said they were playing, it was actually “Viva Las Vegas.”
After a while, people started calling in to ask what the hell was going on, but the jocks refused to take the bait. “No, not Elvis, we just played Elton John.” They played some of the calls back on the air, and as the morning went on, the callers got progressively more agitated. When the show was over, the station went back to its regular format as if nothing unusual had happened. “The hardest thing about it,” Mike told me, “was that ‘Viva Las Vegas’ only runs about 1:45.”
Some of what happened during my three-plus years at that station was lightning in a bottle, and Mike and Micki’s tenure on the morning show was an example. They were already in place when I got there in 1990. Mike was your typical small-market radio guy, with raw talent but with nobody to coach him up. How Micki ended up on the air I can’t remember—I think she started working in the office—but she had a natural gift of gab and terrific chemistry with Mike. Both had been born and raised in the area, so they understood who they were talking to better than most jocks can.
When their show was good, it was very good—better than we had any right to expect for a town that size. But when it was bad, it was terrible. And that caused problems.
Mike and Micki were both fairly insecure about their talents; Mike’s ego was extremely fragile. When I came aboard, it wasn’t as program director—I gradually ascended to the position over a period of months. I am not sure when or how—or even if—it was made clear to them that I was supposed to be their boss. And so the first few times I wanted to critique them, they didn’t take it well. We eventually had to resort to subterfuge to get them to accept aircheck notes. One time we told them they had come from some friend of the owner who had been listening on a trip to town. And even after they got used to hearing them from me, they continued to kick over the traces.
It wasn’t long before Micki left the station—I forget precisely why; something resulting from her chaotic personal life. We tried hiring a sidekick but couldn’t find anybody who wanted to work for the money we could offer, so Mike ended up a solo act. He got better on his own, and he became one of only two radio jocks who would make me laugh out loud every day. (Bob Collins of WGN was the other.) But praise from me didn’t help our relationship. He thought of it as an empty attempt to ingratiate myself with him. As for criticism, he was utterly unable to accept it from me.
The inevitable eventually happened—a shouting argument in which he proclaimed that he would never consider me his boss, would never do anything I asked him to do, and furthermore I should go fuck myself. Afterward, I asked the GM to fire him, which the GM would not do. Within a few months, I was the one who got fired. On my way out of the building, I passed Mike’s office, pausing for a moment to say, “Congratulations, you won.”
In retrospect, it was not exactly my proudest moment.
Mike isn’t in radio anymore, as far as I know. Too bad. He was good at it.
When radio stations change formats nowadays, it’s signaled by what’s known in the biz as “stunting.” I remember a station about to adopt an oldies format and the slogan “cool FM” that played nothing but the Little River Band’s “Cool Change” for an entire weekend. When an adult-contemporary station I worked for briefly changed to classic rock, it played “Another One Bites the Dust” for two hours before making the switch. It’s become common practice for stations planning to change format in the new year to go all-Christmas at the end of December. The intent is to signal to the audience that something new is about to happen.
Forty years ago today, the legendary, decade-long duke-out between WLS and WCFL in Chicago ended when ‘CFL changed from Top 40 to elevator music. They signaled it with a stunt: playing two hours of rolling surf to cushion the transition. But it’s what they did beforehand—what management allowed to happen beforehand—that made the WCFL format change a unique event.
Format changes generally happen with no warning apart from the stunting. WCFL didn’t do it that way. The station announced at the beginning of March that the change would take place on the 15th. It also accepted advertising from competing radio stations seeking to lure the Top 40 audience. Today, station staff often finds out about an impending format change when they’re ushered into a conference room and fired. WCFL didn’t do that, either. Management told the jocks that they would all be fired after the 15th except for afternoon jock Larry Lujack and asked the others not to immediately discuss the change on the air. Most of them obeyed the request, except for morning team Dick Sainte and Doug Dahlgren, who went on the air the day after the announcement and torched the place for 3 1/2 hours before getting yanked.
I can’t find it at YouTube, but I have heard an aircheck of midday jock Bob Dearborn doing his last show on ‘CFL on March 15, 1976. He talked about the change, and in his last break said to his engineer, “Al, hit that button one more time” to jingle into his last record. At 2:00, Lujack took over. The surf was set to come up at 5:00. At 4:40, Lujack played “American Pie” before delivering what he called his “last major address to the nation,” about the format change, in which he mentioned the commercials from other stations and made an endorsement regarding which station people should listen to. And also, “I’m not saying goodbye, because I ain’t going nowhere.” The next day, he was on the air as usual, playing elevator music. He was under contract, and ‘CFL intended to keep him from going elsewhere, although he’d be back on WLS before too long.
I was listening to WCFL 40 years ago today, and I heard Lujack’s address live. I can see myself even now, up in my bedroom at home, listening on my little console stereo, hearing Lujack’s last wisecrack over the surf and then just the surf, before being called downstairs for supper. Young and green as I was, I knew enough (and suspected enough) about how radio worked to feel as though what Lujack did was extraordinary, and I was right. Thanks to old Uncle Lar (and the decisions of WCFL management before the last day finally came), there’s never been another format change quite like the one WCFL made.
(Pictured: Madonna, touring in support of Like a Virgin, circa 1985. What the hell are those extra hands doing?)
In the winter of 1985, I was program director of a Top 40 station. In retrospect, the actual job was less glamorous than the title makes it sound. I wasn’t doing much programming, really. Our station was run by a roomful of automation equipment playing back tapes from a syndicator. I wasn’t doing a regular airshift yet, either. But it was by-god rock ‘n’ roll radio, it was mine, and that was something. I’d sit at my desk in the same room with all that equipment, bathed in machine noise and music, and I felt like I had arrived.
(Digression: with all of the reel-to-reel decks and cartridge machines broadcast automation required, the whir of motors never stopped, even when the station wasn’t broadcasting. In the early 90s, my station replaced its equipment with the first generation of digital automation, and for the longest time after the changeover it was positively disorienting for me to walk into that room. An utter lack of sound had always equated to catastrophic mechanical failure to an old radio hand such as I, and it took a while to get over it.)
(Digression from the digression: room-size automation systems such as ours had a large beeping alarm called a “silence sensor,” which would go off if a period of seconds went by with no audio. It could be heard from anywhere in the building, and when it sounded, it was a drop-everything-and-run-to-fix emergency. At one of my stations, the silence sensor beep was exactly the same as the beep on the french-fry machine at McDonalds. More than once I involuntarily, automatically jumped up and got ready to run in mid-bite at lunchtime.
The American Top 40 show from February 23, 1985, contained some songs that vividly took me back to that first rockin’ winter, as described on the flip, with links to the official music videos for each.
(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.
(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.
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.