As I listened to a thunderstorm the other morning, I thought about the best newsman I ever knew, a man who was never better than when the weather went sideways.
I first heard Dave when I was still in high school and dreaming of being on the radio. When I got my part-time job at KDTH in Dubuque, he was one of the people I was most excited to meet. I found, however, that Dave was rather difficult. Back then, I was a young idiot whose powers of observation were lacking, so I can’t tell you now, over 35 years later, precisely what made him that way. I can say only that he did not suffer fools, or young idiots, gladly. I merely annoyed him a few times; I was never responsible for one of his legendary blowups, which involved snapping at colleagues or throwing audio carts across the newsroom in frustration. Eventually, when Dave was on during one of my weekend shifts, I would give him a wide berth.
When I went full-time at KDTH in 1982, Dave and I worked together almost every day, and I discovered the charming, wryly funny man behind the frequent scowl. He had a DJ rig for weddings and parties, and he liked weird records. I would occasionally let whoever did the 6PM newscast pick the song that would follow it. One night, Dave brought in some kind of disco bagpipes thing.
He was, above all, a great newsman, able to pack a ton of information into five minutes, and he was absolutely authoritative doing it. Honesty compels me to report that he did not have a reputation in the newsroom as a great writer, but nobody in that newsroom did, at least among the others. By that, I mean that everybody disliked everybody else’s writing. I can still see Dave flicking off his microphone and making a face after reading a story written by a colleague who wrote in the same rococo way he spoke.
I would like to describe Dave’s voice, but I’m not sure I can. It was not particularly deep. It had a certain nasal quality, but it was resonant at the same time. Whatever its specifics, it was a voice that commanded attention—never more than when severe weather struck.
Our practice at KDTH, when a weather warning came in, was to simply cue the newsman and let him read it. Even after all these years, the sound of Dave’s voice comes back to me vividly: “This is Dave Eliason in the KDTH newsroom with this weather bulletin.” He would read the National Weather Service advisory first, then he would elaborate on it out of his own weather experience and his remarkable knowledge of Iowa geography. After we got the first weather radar unit I ever saw—on a 26-inch TV monitor that needed its own desk—Dave would ad lib from the radar. In those minutes when dangerous weather was bearing down on the listening area, he was nothing less than the Voice of God.
After I left KDTH in 1983, I saw Dave only a couple of times. He died in 1998, but I think of him often. Any radio person worth a damn is standing on the shoulders of those who came before, and I often stand on his. Whenever I am on the air during severe weather, I use the lessons I learned watching and listening to Dave: know what you’re talking about, be precise, don’t hype, but don’t downplay the seriousness of the situation, either.
There’s a mildly humorous addendum to this story. The Mrs. worked part-time at KDTH for a while, after we’d gotten together but before we were married. I had warned her about Dave’s temperament, but she got along with him just fine. “It’s easy,” she told me. “I just get out of his way, let him rant, and when he’s finished, we figure out what we’re going to do. Kind of like I do with you.”
(Pictured: Peter Gabriel performs in the 80s.)
I heard Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” the other day, and it reminded me of something. Two things, actually.
Every town has a summer festival of some kind. In Macomb, Illinois, it was (and is) Heritage Days, held toward the end of June and centered around the city’s courthouse square. I don’t recall that my stations made much of it the first two summers I was there, 1984 and 1985, but the 1986 festival was different. We got a motorhome and set up a temporary studio on the square, and I spent most of four days in it.
At a community festival, you work long hours, you live on unhealthy festival food, and you have to be “on” all the time, friendly and personable as you visit with listeners, despite being tired and sunburned and ready to go home long before you’re able to go home. The experience is much easier if you’re one jock among several, but I was the entire airstaff of our FM station, the face and voice of the place, so the vast majority of the responsibility for the station’s presence that weekend fell on me.
“Sledgehammer” was one of the big hits of the moment in June of 1986, and it has forever after reminded me of that long, wearying Heritage Days weekend—and of a particular incident from that same weekend, which led me into another experience.
I am not a joiner. I support my community by contributing to charities that are important to me, but I have never gone out of my way to join a service organization, not since I quit 4-H when I was 15. At Heritage Days 1986, a man came up to our temporary studio and introduced himself to me. I’ve forgotten his name today, but I recognized it then—he was a prominent local businessman. And he started pitching me on joining the local Lions Club.
I listened politely as he told me that the Lions were looking for bright young men with much to offer the community, men such as myself, and that he’d consider it an honor if I’d attend the next meeting as his guest. I smiled as graciously as I could manage, but I was also noncommittal because, as I said, I am not a joiner. I thanked him for the invitation; he went on his way and I went on mine, and I figured that was it. Not long after, however, he called me to say that the Lions were meeting later in the week, and would I like to come and get acquainted with the group? I had no ready-made reason to say no, and I couldn’t improvise one on the spur of the moment, so I said the only thing I could: “Sure, I’d be happy to.” And after a single meeting, I consented to join the Lions Club because I had no good reason to say no, other than I am not a joiner.
I attended meetings the rest of the year, but in December, I got a new job and we moved out of town before I was ever officially inducted into the organization. I may have briefly considered joining the Lions in our new town, but I never did, because I am not a joiner.
The story itself is not particularly interesting. Of more interest (to me, at least) is how the memories associated with “Sledgehammer” have grown ever more hazy with each passing year. Far from seeming like a time I once lived through, the summer of 1986 seems like a country I used to live in, different in every way from where I live now, immeasurably far away in space as well as in time, a place where I was once considered to be a bright young man with something to offer.
(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.