Chapter 7 - On the way to WEEGEE
We have reached the middle of My Story and the Prologue that started it all serves as the beginning of the Twin Cities decade. Carved in the wall of a stall in the men’s room at Brown Institute of Broadcasting in Minneapolis was the epitaph; “Rob Sherwood WDUZ Last show September 22, 1967”. I don’t know how it got there but it was accurate. My fellow DJ’s and listeners filled my last show in Green Bay with tearful good-byes. Don’t be surprised at that because I cry in movies, I cry at television commercials. I hated firing people because I always felt like crying. It doesn’t take much to get me blubbering like Junior Samples on This Is Your Life. (That is an incredibly “inside” comment but for the 1 % of the people who understand it, they will be rolling on the floor with mirth).
I was leaving Green Bay and going to WEEGEE. They didn’t call it WEEGEE on the air anymore, but in the “industry”, it was WEEGEE. WDGY was a 50,000 Watt, directional Top-40 station at 1130, of course on the AM dial. The FM revolution had already started, but we were too stupid to recognize that AM Top-40 radio was as good as dead. We didn’t even know it was sick.
WDGY had a history. The “DGY” were the initials of the radio station’s founder, Doctor George Young. My memory is that the station wasn’t much until it became part of the Todd Storz story in the mid-fifties. Todd Storz was the son of the Storz Beer family of Omaha, Nebraska. Legend has Todd Storz being in at the birth of Top-40 radio. The story goes like this: Todd and another pioneer (maybe someone will remind me of his name) were sitting in a bar. They noticed the waitress kept putting nickels in the jukebox playing the same song over and over. Until then, a DJ would play a hot song one time per show. A light bulb went off over their heads. “Play the most popular songs over and over”. Top-40 radio was born at that moment. I don’t know if it is a true story, but I like it and hope it is true.( www.reelradio.com/storz/ ) Fifteen years later Todd had suffered an early death, his radio stations were worth more than the brewery and his father ruled a six station broadcasting “empire” called Storz Broadcasting. After an ill-conceived attempt at an early form of automation in the early 60’s, the station developed into the hot format station of the late 60’s…Boss Radio. The Boss Radio format started in Los Angeles and radio stations across the country were copying the sound with incredible success.
Radio was into one of its chitchat phases. It always happens unless there is someone with a whip to keep it from happening. A really big whip. No matter what they tell you, DJ’s don’t wear earphones to hear the music. They wear earphones to hear themselves. With KDWB as talky as the old lady it had become, WDGY was out-hipping them with talk clocks, seven second talk limits, two, three, four songs in a row and jingles. Lots and lots of jingles. Singing ID’s, singing weather, singing everything and the signature phrase: “And The Hits Just Keep on Comin’”
Boss Radio had to have Boss Jocks.
Scott Burton, the Program Director was doing mornings. I don’t remember much about his show or his style. This was years before the morning show, as we know it today. A jock I cannot remember was doing mid-days and Johnny Canton was on Afternoon Drive. Johnny Canton spent years in the Twin Cities market. The 6Pm - 10PM powerhouse was a jock with the name (you know this was his real name) Jim Dandy. The only thing I remember about Jim Dandy is his campaign to stamp out white socks. Thirty years later, you can’t get a kid to wear black socks. On all night was Doctor George Young. Naming a jock after the station founder was only slightly cleverer than years later when a radio station had DJ’s named Bill Lake and Art Snow to celebrate things, Minnesota.
WEEGEE was a button-down kind of radio station. Even the shirts were button-down and a tie at work was mandatory. This was the Old Man Storz influence. Another guy acted as the actual corporate operating officer (another name I cannot remember). Was his name Bud Armstrong?
After all these chapters and words, I should catch up and wriite about my memory. It is pretty good. The problem with my memory is what I will call a “beets memory”. Of all the vegetables in the vegetable kingdom, the only one I do not eat is beets. I don’t hate beets. I don’t mind if other people eat beets. If you like beets, that’s fine. Personally, I don’t care about beets. And, that brings me to my memory. I think most of the people whose names I have forgotten are beets. I don’t dislike them. They just don’t get very much attention on my radar screen. Days can go by without one thought of beets. Therefore, since some people are “beets” my brain has filed their name somewhere I seldom go. I apologize in advance if you are a beet.
Here I was, on my way to Minneapolis to be a Boss Jock. However, it was not to be. There was a problem. I found out about it in my first conversation with Scott Burton when he told me the 10PM to 2AM DJ needed a 1st Class License. For non-radio types, the license was not a DJ License, but a Federal Communication Commission license that allowed you to run the transmitter. Less powerful or non-directional radio stations allowed the operator to function with a 3rd Class License, but over 5,000 Watts and with a directional signal, a 1st Class License was mandatory. I did not have one. With a shake of his head, Scott Burton told me to “get back to him” when I had my first.
Less than two weeks after someone carved my name in the men’s room at my old radio school, I wasn’t a Boss Jock. I wasn’t at WEEGEE. I was nowhere.
Back To The Boonies
As they had for hundreds of years, the bronze-bodied, flaxen haired south islanders rode the slabs of drift-wood just feet ahead of thousands of tons of boiling wave unaware that the name of the god of their sport would soon be on the lips of hundreds, if not thousands, of the radio listeners in Green Bay, Wisconsin; lips usually chapped by the chill of December rather than the salt spray of the Pacific Ocean. Ah, but I am getting ahead of my story.
(I love writing crap like the previous paragraph.)
I was about to face an ugly side of broadcasting which took me years to understand. In October of 1967 I was about to have my lunch served to me. I ate the salad and as luck would have it, skipped the main course. (To keep this going, I don’t know who got the dessert)
I didn’t have my First Class License and so it seemed, I couldn’t work at WDGY. Looking back on the whole situation, I was much too passive. When Scott Burton dismissed my dilemma, I should have put up a fight. I could have gotten my “First” at the same time I worked at WDGY. I could have hired someone with their “First” to baby-sit the transmitter, use their First Class License to take the hourly readings while I got my own First Class License. But, I was a wimp. I tucked my tail between my legs, said I would be in touch and walked out of WDGY so low; to bury me you would have had to dig up.
On the North Central Airlines Convair 580 flight back to Green Bay, I weighed my options. When I got back in Green Bay, I covered my embarrassment by putting everything in the best possible light. It was simple. I would get my First Class License; go to WDGY and everything would just be a little glitch in my move to the big time. I called my old broadcasting school, Brown Institute and found out they had a quickie First Class License course. Instead of taking a year to learn the electronics and mathematics of radio transmitting, you took seven weeks to learn the test. It was October; I’d be at WDGY by Christmas. Oops. The next quickie class started in January. I wouldn’t be ready for WDGY until March. It would be almost six months before I realized the huge mistakes I was making.
My brother, Tim, helped me move by U-Haul trailer, to Minneapolis. My apartment was a sleazy little place on 23rd Avenue South. Brown Institute was only a mile down Lake Street and the apartment was loaded with fellow DJ wanna-be’s. I watched a lot of television, hung out with the other “Brownies” and fretted about my future. To make matters worse, there was a break-in and my TV and “stereophonic record player” went out the door or the window. The ass-holes who stole my stuff tried to steal my piano, but couldn’t figure out how to get it out the door.
The course started just after New Year’s. The redheaded forensic detective on CSI Miami (Dennis Caruso?) reminds me of my teacher. He had a joke everyday and a good supply of flash-cards. A little bit of theory and a whole lot of memorization and in weeks, I was ready for the two tests necessary for my future. I already had my Third Class License. I needed the Second Class license before I could take the First Class License and I needed to pass the First Class License in order to work at WDGY. I took the tests in March, aced the Second, and missed one question on the First. Did I feel guilty that I passed the tests and got these exalted documents without as much as a soupcon of real electronic knowledge? Did I envy the real broadcasting engineers with their slide rules? No.
It was March and I had my First Class License. I called Scott Burton with the “good news: And he didn’t care. He had filled the position by moving the DJ named George Young to the 10Pm - 2PM air shift and hiring a new all-nighter. Jim Dandy continued his anti-white socks campaign 6PM – 10PM and I was fucked. Was I stupid or just naive? I put an ad in Broadcasting Magazine, sent a few audition tapes to ads in Broadcasting Magazine. (At this time the explosion of trade papers was yet to come). I got a rejection letter from a station in Buffalo, New York. The ass-hole, who I met later, wrote that I stuttered, had a speech impediment and should quit radio all together. Just what I needed. I hid in my sleazy Minneapolis apartment, lied to family and friends, haunted by self-doubt.
It was a month later I called Ben Laird, the owner of WDUZ in Green Bay. He and the manager of the station were two of the “nice” people I met in that business. Without a second of hesitation, they invited me to return to WDUZ.
Everyone has an agenda. You have an agenda and I have an agenda. Not to sound like “my class won the Bible”, but my agenda was mostly to do the best job I could for any station where I worked. I honor my father with that basic work ethic. I was about to learn how base my fellow broadcasters could be.
Here was my life was lying around like the pieces of a smashed teacup, and I was out of glue. Green Bay, Wisconsin was where I learned to be a nighttime DJ. I was comfortable in Green Bay and had some roots there. But, I no more wanted to move back there than Alex Haley wanted to move back to Africa. Alex wouldn’t like the famine and I didn’t like eating crow.
I had a First Class License, but I didn’t have a job in Twin Cities radio. When I flew back to Green Bay to meet with the WDUZ owner, Ben Laird and General Manager, Hugh Johnston there was a surprise waiting for me. His name was Jack McCoy.
When I left seven months before, the Program Director and morning man was Tom Hoppe. I worked with Tom for 14 months, but I didn’t really know him. I worked nights: he worked mornings. I approached the competition with a lust for victory and Tom read the Bible during music. We couldn’t have been more different. The new PD, Jack McCoy, was a hard-charging, anal, opinionated, up-and-comer and we were way too alike. I was being shoved down his throat and Jack McCoy was not happy about it. Ben and Hugh were happy as hell to have me back. The cool reception from Jack McCoy would have frozen peas.
But, I was back whether he liked it (and he didn’t) or not and my “return” was going to be used as a summer promotion. The Big Kahuna represented the Hawaiian/California surfing- beach- summer-time culture. I guess this was a cookie cutter promotion that Jack McCoy had done before or lifted from somewhere. Looking back, it seems that in 1968 American youth culture had moved beyond the “beach scene” but let’s never let originality get in the way of an idea. A teaser promotion would announce the Big Kahuna was coming!! Coming to Green Bay!! Day by day! Closer and closer! Rather than bringing “summer” as the promotion usually promised, the Big Kahuna was bringing a real surprise.
As the date approached for the Big Kahuna’s arrival, the promotion reached a feverish pitch. The arrival would take place at the local Macy’s type department store, Prange’s. Saturday morning, in front of a surprisingly large audience, the crate arrived escorted by someone in a sarong (or whatever you call the South Sea Islander outfit) and they opened the eight-foot box.
The Big Kahuna had brought back to Green Bay. . . Rob Sherwood. Lah De Dah!
It was weak. Even in 1968, radio could suffer a creativity famine.
(Speaking of famine, what’s the deal with Africa? Didn’t they put a little away during the last few years? It seems like they were having a famine just a decade or so ago. How about being a little frugal instead of living the high-life for the last ten years and now the chickens have come home to roost…again. Wait a minute. That is an inappropriate simile because one of the problems with their problems is a lack of chickens. On 18th Avenue in San Francisco is an Ethiopian Restaurant. I am not sure I’d ever want to eat there since all the waiters have swollen stomachs and most of the customers just stare empty-eyed as flies buzz around their heads. The only thing on the menu is powdered milk. I am thankful I wasn’t born in Ethiopia because I would have been a fat Ethiopian and they would have either made me King or stoned me to death for eating the chicken.)
I’m sorry. I lost the thread. Where was I? Oh…creativity famine. The Kahuna had brought me back and behind the scene things were getting dirty.
When I left WDUZ in triumph the previous September, I worked 6:30PM to midnight. The first half hour I just rode the board during a news block. I worked Saturday afternoon. My Jack McCoy schedule was 6:30 to 1AM (no news block). I can’t remember my day off. Friday? No, that was in Cedar Rapids. I do remember it wasn’t MY radio station any more. It was Jack McCoy’s radio station. And I had a cold.
Not only was I depressed, humiliated and paranoid, but I had all the symptoms of a roaring summer cold. And my new apartment didn't have grass in the yard. Just mud. And ants. My radio station had a new boss, a new format and a hot line! I don’t remember any specific hot-line call, but I seem to remember there were some. If I wasn’t in Hell, I was in Purgatory.
It lasted three weeks.
My cold improved. The job never did. I went to work without the joyful anticipation I expected when working on-the-air. I wasn’t having any fun. Every day I plodded to work and plodded home. I slept well because I was practically living on Nyquil. And then, at the end of May, the phone rang!
THE PHONE RANG!
It was a call from Johnny Canton. I was strapped in an electric chair and Johnny Canton was the governor calling with my reprieve. As the speeding locomotive approached Johnny Canton untied the ropes. Johnny Canton had climbed the ladder into a burning building to carry me to safety. Johnny Canton had the keys to the Pearly Gate.
Scott Burton, the WDGY Program Director had a motorcycle accident. While trying out promotional bikes Scott got hung up in one when it tipped. The throttle stuck and Scott was horribly injured. Johnny Canton was acting PD. I don’t know what set him off, but Jim Dandy,WDGY 6PM - 10PM, nailed his shoes to the manager’s door with a note which read, “fill these” and walked out the door. Would I be interested? Would I? Would I? Would I? I flew to Minneapolis to meet with Johnny Canton and the GM (can’t remember his name) and got the job. And this time, I HAD MY FIRST CLASS LICENSE.
Ben Laird and Hugh Johnston took my resignation in stride. I believe they were relieved they had avoided the inevitable PD versus DJ-With-Ego confrontation.
Three days it took me to leave Green Bay again. Another U-Haul and another sleazy south Minneapolis apartment but who cared. I was a Boss Jock.
Hearing my named sung by the PAMS singers was like hearing all the angels in Heaven calling me to a huge celestial picnic.
(By the time I really get to that Heavenly picnic, someone will have eaten all the fried chicken and I will have to be satisfied to have some powdered milk with a bunch of Ethiopians. However, since we’ll be in heaven, it’ll be really good powdered milk. In fact, the best powdered milk, ever.)
Coming in Chapter 8 - 50,000 Watts – Sounding Like A Million