Chapter 8 - 50,000 Watts, Sounding Like A Million
Now, where was I? I will never forget. I was in Minneapolis sitting in my apartment on Pleasant Avenue South as nervous as hell. I have always envied my fellow broadcasters who could step right in sounding great from the get-go. Never worked for me
I arrived back in the Twin Cities for a second shot at my aborted attempt to be a Boss Jock and moved into my new sleazy apartment on a Thursday. I met with the WDGY General Manager and Johnny Canton on Friday. I remember Johnny Canton was wearing a shirt with a Cadillac collar. Do they still call them that? I didn’t get much direction, just a tour of the station.
The station was way out in South Bloomington, on the edge of a field containing a nine-tower directional array. That is pretty technical for you non-radio types, but let’s just say that the tower field was damn impressive. The building was a shabby brick building with a loading dock toward the back. Off the loading dock was a screen door and inside to the left, the hallway to the offices, a stairway to the basement which contained the production room, on the right and straight ahead were the transmitter and a bunch of other electronic stuff. (That’s NOT too technical) The transmitter was a World War II 100,000-watt transmitter they were operating at half power. Most of the nighttime signal aimed north and legend had it that during the 50’s the Soviet Union would block the signal as it poured across the top of the world on its way from Minneapolis/St. Paul to Siberia. The newsroom was on the left with a door just on the other side of the basement staircase. Around the corner and down the hall to the left were the studio and show prep area. Wow. This WAS the big-time.
During the 24 hours waiting for my first show, I listened to WDGY non-stop and was frightened and fascinated. Paranoia strikes deep. Ask Buffalo Springfield if you don’t believe me. I wasn’t sure I belonged at WDGY but that was my secret and I wasn’t telling anybody. There were so many arcane things awaiting me. I had to get use to lformat clocks, and hundreds of PAMS jingles. Each jingle had a specific purpose. There were weather jingles, music jingles, news jingles, and DJ jingles. I was in a Jingle Paradise. Someone in Hollywood had invented a unit with dozens of permanent tape loops of metallic “tape”for the repetitive use of sound effects. At one time, the automation WDGY experimented with ran that unit. Now, they had connected it to permanent toggle switches on the control board. There were the dozen or so “standard” jingles. To play them, I never had to touch a cart. (For non-radio types, a cart, short for cartridge, was the standard tape device for commercials and jingles from the late 50’s until the advent of digital. In the 70’s we started recording our music on carts. Turntables disappeared in most radio stations, except in production rooms, where DJ created and recorded commercials and promos. (Many of the people who read this stuff never worked in radio. Sorry to be so basic) There were three turntables to play the 45-rpm vinyl records, which were the top-forty mainstay. Even that was a luxury because up to that time, two turntables were the norm. In the BIG TIME, I had three! Everything was magical. Flip a toggle and you heard the PAMS singers sing “W-D-G-Y“. Flip a toggle and you heard the PAMS singers sing “WEEGEE Weather”. Flip a toggle and the voice of God said, “And the Hits Just Keep On Comin’.
The microphone was a big boxy thing. I’d need an engineer like Rey Lark to remind me what kind it was. It was a wonderful microphone and gave the voice a round and mellow sound. Later when I moved to my next station, I stipulated they duplicate that microphone. Unfortunately, that microphone was very sensitive to moisture. The constant shower of spit caused it to deteriorate. (Eventually, Rey persuaded me to try another mike, an Electro-Voice RE-20 and I used it the rest of my career…with a couple of exceptions….and still see it in studios and on TV to this day) And the earphones. Since starting my career, I had used earphones with the same technology as Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone. A magnet and a flat piece of vibrating metal. At WDGY, they were using earphones, that covered both ears. Regular earphones. We we just an AM station and we didn't broadcast in stereo, so the earphones were in mono. Instead of the tinny, piercing ancient technology, the music was right there in our head. It sounded great and even better when it was loud. After doing a four-hour show, my ears would ring for hours. I am lucky I can hear anything today.
The tour complete, they sent me home to wallow in the pool of my insecurities and wait until Saturday night at 6PM when Rob Sherwood would make his Twin Cities debut. I wasn’t cocky or confident. I was terrified.
Sometime on that Saturday afternoon, I headed south on Lyndale Avenue (old Highway 65). At Lake Street, I stopped at a Clark’s Submarine shop but I was so nervous I decided I shouldn’t eat. I loved Clark’s Ham Salad Subs and wish they were still around. My non-eating resolve lasted a few more blocks until just south of Lake Street where a Burger King beckoned. Sheer anxiety was driving my hunger and I got a Whopper and headed to WEEGEE. (When Scott Burton returned to WDGY after his recuperation, our mutual appreciation for Burger King was a bond. He always ate cheeseburgers with mustard and pickles only and after that, I did too. Scott was cool and I wanted to be cool too. Not two weeks ago, I got a cheeseburger with mustard and pickle only at Burger King and thought of Scott Burton. A silly bond I have with him which will last until the day I die)
The day before, Johnny Canton explained to me how to use the show prep form. There was a format for choosing your music and you selected the 45’s from racks in a prep area just outside the studio. I was barely used to having one copy of all the current hits and now I had dozens of copies of every one. I chose my music and stood behind Johnny Canton watching him run the board. When 6PM arrived, Johnny got up, wrapped up his earphones and said, “See you later” and walked out the studio door. I sat in the chair behind the control board toggled a switch and in my earphones, (I borrowed a pair from another DJ) and heard:
WDGY…AND THE HITS JUST KEEP ON COMIN’
I was on the air at WEEGEE.
At every station, in the 50’s and 60’s, there were two designated tape cartridges that were part of the Conelrad System. (I may not be spelling it correctly but I‘m too lazy to do the research). These were the days when there was a threat of bombers coming from Russia with Atomic Bombs. The government set up a system to warn the public of the impending attack using teletype machines and local radio stations. Next to the teletype machine, attached with a little chain was a code envelope with verification codes. Once verified we were supposed to air the cart labeled “Real Alert”.
“This is NOT a test. Etc. Tune to your local Conelrad Station for further info etc“.
The station you were told to tune in was usually the most powerful AM station in your area. All the other stations would leave the air to avoid clutter and conflicting information.
That was why radio stations had a “Real Alert” tape cartridge. During my 29 years in broadcasting, there were no atomic attacks by the Russians and I never played the “Real Alert” announcement. (Once in the 70’s an accidental real alert went onto the teletype and 90% of the radio stations ignored it. Obviously, the system was flawed)
The other tape, the “This is a test” tape you have heard many times. Once a week every radio station played it in rotating day-parts. “This is a test. This is only a test. If this were a real alert you would be asked to tune your radio to etc for further information yadda yadda.” Many jingle companies made a singing version that ended with a musical “This is only a test” and a sexy female voice saying, “Did you pass?” The FCC frowned on it because if failed to take the whole thing seriously.
During the first few years in radio, I had many times wondered what was really on the “Real Alert”. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, my curiosity got to me and I unwrapped the “Real Alert” tape and listened to it. What I heard was:
“This is NOT a test. This is a real alert. The Russians have some big bombs and they are on their way to drop the fuckers on us. This is a real alert. Kiss your ass goodbye. (Sound effects of dropping bombs, explosions and screaming people). Etc.”
I suspected our Coe College student and part-timer (whose name still escapes) me of recording the substitute “Real Alert” tape. I rewrapped it; placed it back on the shelf and worried for years that my fingerprints were on it and the FBI could trace it to me.
So, I’m on the air on WDGY. My first night, feeling my way, nervous as hell and just keeping my head above water when….
A Real Alert! By this time, radio stations were using the system for severe weather alerts as well as bomb warnings. In Minnesota, tornadoes qualify as severe weather and the teletype was clanging and frantically spitting out warnings and sightings. I was barely able to follow the format, say the right call letters and toggle the right switches when the radio station changed from Saturday Night Top 40 to Severe weather Information Station. I was way, way over my head. I silently prayed a tornado would wipe out the tower-field or at least knock off the electricity (I didn’t know they had a generator!) and deliver me. I cursed fate that this was happening on Saturday night, my first night, and a night when the news department closed at 7PM. I would have gladly been slightly maimed if it would have gotten me off the hook.
What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.
I only died 200 or 300 deaths that night. By 9PM, we were back to normal and I coasted through the final hour, a seasoned veteran. When I left the station a little after ten to bask in my newly won WEEGEE glory, I discovered my 1966 Pontiac Catalina convertible parked, just as I had left it five hours earlier. With the top down. The DJ who followed me hadn’t said a thing. Either he didn’t notice my car, top down, in the pouring rain or his embarrassment for me prevented him from commenting. I had slipped on a banana peel and the world was laughing at me.
The rest of the summer is a blur. I remember struggling through production in the basement Production Room. But barely. I remember fans waiting in the parking lot to meet me, some of whom became long-time friends. I remember moving to an apartment on South Nicolet Avenue called Concord Estates. I remember sitting on the rug paying bills. I remember selling the Pontiac and buying an Oldsmobile Toronado. I don’t remember much.
I do remember a completely new class of DJ. I was part of a team made up of Scott Burton, Johnny Canton, Jerry Brooke, George Young, Gene Leader, Perry St. John and several whose names I have forgotten. There was a news department too. Can’t remember the names.
(Why am I even writing this story? I can’t remember shit.)
But, I DO remember a girl we called Suzie Wong. Or Kathy Wong. Or some Wong. She had a voice that would boil water. She gave great phone. I had had phone before, but this was major phone. One of the DJ’s “visited her” and the voice did not match the physical. She weighed 200 or 300 pounds, I heard, but she had a great voice. A really great voice. And there was another voice. I’ll change her name to avoid problems. Her name was. . . Heather. Yeah, Heather. That’s the ticket. It was…uh…Heather. She was just getting started in the “giving good phone” department. Let’s just say she was no Suzie Wong, but she was good. But she was about 14. Nobody was visiting this or at least that is the story and I am sticking to it. In fact, when we found out her age (who found out?) there wasn’t as much interest in her “phone”. That is when we started shuffling her from DJ to DJ. A DJ named Barry (you know who you are…) started it by asking . . .” uh, Heather . . . What is your “Star Rating?” When she didn’t know what Barry was talking about he told her to ask George. When she called, George told her that the more “accommodating” you were the more stars you received. Top Rating - 5 Stars. Then she was shuffled off to another DJ. She . . .uh, Heather’s that is. . .asked him, “What is MY rating?“ He “looked” it up and found out that. . .uh, Heather. . .had only 4 stars. She was one short of a perfect score. Heather was very upset and wanted to know why she was not getting the top rating. Off the DJ shuffled her, to another of my Twin Cities brethren who listed the “accommodations” necessary for each star.
1. Do you give (let’s call it Clinton Sex)?
She said of course and she was very accomplished. One Star.
2. Do you screw DJ’s?
Did Rose Kennedy own a black dress? Of course. Two Stars.
3. Do you take on two at once?
She said she had and named names. (“When asked if they tried it, of course they denied it”) Three Stars
4. Do you do the Lesbian thing?
She did it with her cousin once. Four Stars.
So why didn’t she get that 5th star? What was holding her back from Supreme Slutdom? What was missing from her repertoire? I don‘t know which of the sickos involve with this finally asked the question but it WAS asked.
5. Have you ever done it with a dog?
She was insulted. She was appalled. She was disgusted. She was sickened.
She wanted to know, “What kind of dog?” Would it have to be a big dog?
I know this is sick, but I’m laughing as I type. Whether . . .um, Heather. . .ever achieved her fifth star, I don’t know. I had something else to worry about..
While nosing around the office I found a rough draft of a memo re Rob Sherwood. The writer (I don’t know who) questioned my style, my ability and my potential for success. The results of the Fall Ratings would determine my future at WDGY. I would find out just before Christmas if I would be sticking around.
As I write this chapter, late in October of 2003, Christmas and the entire holiday season looms and I love it. But for many of my years in radio the days just before or just after Christmas were “book” time.
Is there anyone in the radio business who likes the ratings? Yes there are. All the DJ’s, Program Directors, General Managers, Sales Managers and (shudder) Consultants who have spent their careers massaging, manipulating, interpreting, and re-interpreting the ratings to the point where EVERY book is a GOOD book. With the right calculator and heart of a con artist, good becomes bad and bad becomes good. Black is white and white is green. I never was very good at it but I worked for people who were.
For those of you who didn’t wander accidentally or naively into broadcasting at a tender age as I did, ratings are like a report card. Several times a year (fall, winter, spring and summer), you find out how you’re doing. I can’t count the sleepless nights I had waiting for the “book”. When the results arrived, there was euphoria or depression.
(The following paragraph is pretty boring, so you may want to skip it)
My memory on the state of ratings in the fall of 1968 is sketchy and I may be making a few factual errors in this paragraph. I think I’m close enough for non-broadcasters to get the gist of the whole process. One of the ratings services was a company called Hooper; another was Pulse and there was Arbitron. Hooper did phone surveys, Pulse did a combination of research methods and Arbitron had selected audience cross-sections keep diaries of their radio listening. The various ratings companies conducted their surveys a couple times a year (the important ones) and the rating period lasted a couple of weeks.
I don‘t remember my WEEGEE Christmas. I remember the first one at KDWB. I put Christmas lights in my hair. Another KDWB Christmas Party I made a tape for the entertainment and made some life-long enemies in the process. (I asked questions, recorded the answers and then changed the questions) I remember at U100 one of our Christmas parties was at a buffet. There was one at FM104 at the General Managers home. They were too cheap to have it at a restaurant. The KSTP Christmas party was huge.
Why have I forgotten my Boss Radio Christmas? Maybe we didn’t even have one or maybe it was because I was depressed. After finding THE memo suggesting that Rob Sherwood might not be up for the job, I naturally became obsessed with my future. Or obsessed with my lack of future. Seriously, there was no way to make another return trip to Green Bay. It all depended on the ratings. If they weren't acceptable, I could be history.
I spent many nights sitting in the WDGY basement production room in the dark, the only light, the glow from the vu-meters. To make it even more pathetic, I remember listening over and over to Easy to Be Hard by Three Dog Night. I know. I am embarrassed for myself.
The book came out right around Christmas and…
BRAG! BRAG! BRAG! BRAG!
The book came out and my share was 6 times my competitor’s share. KDWB took a bite of the big one. (Just some bragging rights that will mean something to Twin City-ites - I even beat WCCO. Remember it was nighttime and I had zillions of teens)
No one ever said anything to me directly, but I had a sense that all that “we-are-concerned-with -Rob Sherwood-talk” just faded away.
After the foreboding December, January and the rest of my WDGY winter was tremendous fun. The DJ who followed me, George Young, could make me laugh just by looking at me. He worked 10PM to 2AM. I lost touch years ago, but for a few months, he sure was fun. Jerry Brooke worked at WDGY but I didn’t really know him until later at KDWB, and KSTP. I believe Jerry died several years ago; kind of a sad story for later. Gene Leader AKA Gene Okerland of wrestling and hamburger fame did not know in 1968 the wonders that awaited him. Gene was a pretty sensitive guy. I don’t mean sensitive in the kind-to-animals or in-touch-with-his-feminine-side sensitive. Gene took what you said to him seriously. Too seriously. At staff meetings people would kid around and Gene wanted to punch somebody. And there was Perry St. John. He had been at WEEGEE for years, always the bridesmaid and never the bride. Once Scott Burton had the PAMS Jingle singers in Dallas sing Perry’s name jingle as “Perry Street John”. He told Perry it was too expensive to have it redone so he’d just have to change his name to Perry Street John. While everyone else snickered and tried to hide their mirth, Perry Saint John AKA Perry Street John fell for the joke, sputtering and fuming for the rest of the meeting.
Since he e-mailed me from California, I’ll mention a name from an earlier chapter. Earl L. Trout the Third. At the time, Earl was the program director at KDWB and some-time during the winter of 1968-69 Howie Anderson, part-timer and week-ender at KDWB who later would wreck the KDWB Dune Buggy, surprised us both by arranging a late night meal at Denny’s. I worked with ELT3 at my first job in Blythe, California, and later he inspired me in a way that re-directed my career when it needed re-direction. Now, he was the enemy. When you hear what eventually happened, well, who would have thunk it.
Before the winter melted under the Minnesota sun, things began happening in Twin Cities radio. Spring was in the air and so was change. One of the FM stations began playing album cuts. It was Underground Radio. Before long, this format would shake up my world. Over at KDWB ELT3 was gone and my nighttime competition, Super Jock, was in trouble. New owners had taken over KDWB and there was a new program director, Dean Johnson and a new General Manager, Harold Greenberg. A little radio incest was going on. Years later, in Seattle/Tacoma, I’d work again for Harold Greenberg. Years before, Dean Johnson was involved in a radio station that shaped my listening and performance throughout my entire career, KOMA in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
While KDWB was being shaken up, I was at WDGY, just doing my thing. How little I remember of that “thing” but I was doing it just the same. There are a few names I want to note from the WEEGEE days. Paula. I knew her for years. She fell for my El Supremo story (I will tell you about it later) and wrote my phone number in the unisex bathroom at the Plantation Pancake House in downtown Minneapolis. Kurt. He made me watch boxing match films and moved to Florida. And there was the listener from Edina who drove out to the station all excited because I had played a song by Cream, followed by The Doors, followed by Bob Dylan. It was an accident. I could have played The Cowsills followed by Yummy Yummy Yummy I Got Love in My Tummy, followed by Build Me Up Buttercup. I didn’t. The kid from Edina loved what I played and I got an idea that would blossom five years later at U100.
For the time being, the turntables turned, the transmitter transmitted, the jingles jangled and the phone blinked. (This is a broadcasting studio and phones don’t ring.)
The phone blinked! I answered it. The voice I heard said,
“How would you like to go to Russia?”
Coming in Chapter 9 – Please Don't Make Me Go