A lost radio, A record player, and a contest
I’ve said many times it was always my dream to work in radio. I was just fascinated with radio as a kid. I really don’t know where that came from.
We camped a lot as a family when I was a kid (in a pop-up), and we had left a campground and were a good ways away from it when I realized I had left my beloved AM transistor radio in the bathroom before we left. I must have whined and cried a lot as Mom and Dad turned around and went back. It was gone by then.
Even when I was a kid my parents, um, I mean Santa, got me a record player that came with a backboard that was designed to look like something in a radio staton. It even came with a little microphone so you could introduce songs. I wish I still had that thing. The exact one I had is pictured above.
When I was a wee lad we spent our summers at the Statesboro Parks Department Fair Road Pool. The pool is long gone and now a greenspace, and just this week crews tore down the old bathhouse/locker room/lifeguard “office”. Hated to see that go. Anyway….back in those days the lifeguards played music over the loud speakers by placing a microphone in front of a radio speaker. The mic was also used for announcements. Being a young radio nerd I remember standing on the pool deck staring at the set-up like a zombie kid.
Now my first real taste of radio was the summer between 6th and 7th grades when I won a local contest to be a DJ for a Day at a little AM station in town WPTB AM. There was another AM station in town that was popular, too.
My young self was ecstatic that I won the contest. I also won a contest around Easter one year for huge 5 foot pink bunny rabbit. The rabbit is not relevant for this story, though. After getting the details I was bummed it wasn’t for an actual entire day, but for a couple of hours on the night show. I remember Dad took me to the station and came inside with me, It was literally a small cinder block building with an outer office and a DJ booth. The night jock was expecting us and greeted us. Dad left (though I have no idea if he actually went home or sat in the car outside listening).
The basic deal was the DJ (can’t remember his name), would show me the ropes and turn it over to me. I was nervous as hell. You know how it can be when someone is teaching something very quickly and you barely have time to retain information before the teacher moves on to something else. I was trying in 5 minutes to learn about machines I had never seen…other than the two turntables and a microphone (h/t Beck).
I remember being a kid overwhelmed because, although I was indeed a child and this wasn’t a career, I was going to achieve my dream of being on the radio. I was going to be introducing the popular songs of the day, and telling the weather! I don’t remember if there was any news done. Probably not, though, on that air-shift. I remember being surprised that the studio was nothing like I imagined. It was small with cinder block walls and some acoustic foam here and there. But mostly cinderblock walls like an audio prison cell. I knew nothing of acoustics at that age, but looking back I wish I could remember how the station sounded on the air.
After learning about cueing records on turntables, fading the song out and starting the other turntable, how to watch the needles so an over modulated signal doesn’t get sent out into the airwaves. He showed me how to check the teletype for news and weather updates. In addition to introducing the record, he taught me, what’s known in the business when you announce what song you just played, about backselling a song, he taught me about cart machines and commercial schedules and logs. Honestly, this guy completely trained me to be a DJ in the 70’s. Well, except for personality and pronunciation. I had some trouble with those that night.
I made a mistake that night that I am assuming every single DJ in the history of radio has done; I left a mic open during a song so everything in the studio would be heard over the song. I remember the song, it was the theme from the movie of the same name, Grease, by Frankie Valli. An aside, I saw the Olivia Newton-John/John Travolta masterpiece Grease 13 times in the theatre when it came out. Anyway, I was whisper-singing along with the entire song while it played and it was right into the mic. I did not know this until it was over and Mom and Dad told me. Needless to say I was mortified. Thankfully, I am sure there were less than 100 people listening.
I made another mistake, too. I was reading the weather and I had to give the barometric pressure. I had just finished 6th grade and had never heard that word before, had no idea what it meant. So I ended up mispronouncing it horribly. I pronounced it as “bare – a – ME – trick”. I learned later that night how it was pronounced when, again, Mom and Dad let me know. And I had read it on the air that night 4 times during my two hour shift.
The DJ, who had taught me more than I could have imagined at the time, had long vacated the studio once he realized I was doing things right. Maybe he stepped out back to smoke a joint. Who knows? I just knew I was being a DJ! Oh and I also remember answering the phone one time and it was some pervert saying things my young ears didn’t even understand.
My next DJ gig was a middle school dance that was probably some 4-H event, but honestly can’t remember. Anyway…and again, memories are sketchy. I remember I had a little DJ booth which resembled Lucy Van Pelt’s Psychiatric practice. It might have even been made from a refrigerator box. And I have no idea if I made it or someone else did. I remember it as decorated. A little table inside held my turnable and stack of personal records (I had so many 45s at the time), I think I had a microphone? Anyway, I spun the records for the dance and then that was the last time I played DJ until college.
I attended Georgia Southern College (now University) in the mid 80s. I had been introduced to different types of music by that time, mostly alternative (which, to me, is a strange name for a genre of music). Music such as Bronski Beat, Prefab Sprout, and Violent Femmes. Somehow I landed a gig (unpaid) with the college station, WVGS. The format was this new alternative I had really gotten into back then. Through mutual friends I met the station Program Director, a woman named Paula Edmondson (now Emde). I don’t rremember how it all played out but I ended up working at the station. I forget which shift was my first, possibly midday. I get there and the DJ before me had to get to class and very quickly showed me the ropes. Thankfully I retained information from that DJ for a Day contest. I made it through that shift and went on to do many more during pretty much every daypart. I did get busted doing something I wasn’t supposed to do…playing the unedited version of Violent Femmes Add It Up (that is the unedited version linked). I knew we couldn’t play it during the daytime, but this was 3 in the morning and I honestly thought we were good to play it on the overnights. The studio phone rang. It was the faculty advisor, who was up listening at 3am, letting me know not to ever play that song again day or night. Oops. Pretty sure there were no FCC complaints since mostly just the college area could even pick up the signal.
I had long decided I wanted to be in radio but thought it would be impossible. Well, here I was a teenager doing my thing on the radio, like for real. Again I wasn’t getting paid, but I had so much damn fun and everyone I got to know from WVGS were fun people who knew how to party. I liked that, too.
After about a year and a half into college, where I didn’t get the best grades due to my partying, a friend moved to Atlanta. I visited often and then decided to make the move myself. My parents wanted me to go to college in Atlanta. I wanted to continue partying and trying to figure out a way to get into radio. It never occurred to me to get those jobs you usually worked your way from smaller markets and paid your dues. I had not done that. So for a while I worked at Rich’s Department Store, and at a locally owned Midtown Atlanta lunch restaurant called Snax, Both are now long gone.
So while working at Snax I found out about the Columbia School of Broadcasting. I called them and arranged a visit. I wasn’t very impressed with what I saw; but under the high pressure sales techniques my naive self signed up for the course and agreed to their financial aid. I was given a large 3 ring binder with all the course work. I think it was supposed to last 6 weeks. I finished it in 2. When I went to turn in the final assignments, the person who was running the place was very surprised. I mean it was all written assignments and quite simple. Basically FCC rules. I had assumed from there I would move into the practical hands on lessons, but that never happened.
While I was there I noticed a piece of paper thumbtacked to the bulletin board for a possible internship with a company. I asked about it and she told me, “They do all the traffic reports. But don’t call him, he’s an asshole”. I jotted the number down anyway and left. That was the last time I walked through the doors of the Columbia School of Broadcasting.
When I was working at Rich’s and then Snax I listened to the legendary 96Rock in Atlanta (which, btw, has been recently brought back from the dead to be reborn as a digital station). They had this guy who they would toss it to, Flyin’ Ivan in the Rock and Roll Jet Patrol, and he would give the traffic conditions, I was enthralled and thought that has to be the coolest job in radio,
So, here I was in possession of the name and number of the man who runs the company that employed Flyin’ Ivan. I was nervous as hell when I called the guy, a man named Lance Locher, and we talked briefly about what the internship would entail. He told me over the phone it was mine if I wanted it and that with my voice I could have a lifelong career with the company, Metro Traffic Control. It wasn’t long before I was promoted to a part-time employee and then a full-time employee. While still doing on-air work, I was promoted to Assistant Director of Operations, and for a while served as Interim Director of Operations. I was like 22-23 years old. I had a company car and barter cards to eat all over Atlanta for free.
So my career was off to a start. Lance Locher went on to become Fred Zeppelin, replacing Ivan, on 96Rock, when he moved to the sales side of things. Lance went on to work for other traffic companies throughout his career, and, sadly, passed away too early in life, at the age of 56. He had achieved a lot in his career and I’m sure would have achieved much more. I will always be thankful to him for giving me the start of an exciting career with just a simple phone call.
Some woman at a for-profit sham school told me Lance was an asshole. Other people in the business told me not to trust Lance. But I did, and it was the best thing I could have done for career. It was with that company that I first started reporting on WSB-FM, while I was also reporting on Z-93. Oh I reported on other stations before those — like every small wattage AM in the city. I eventually became exclusive to WSB properties, and then a WSB employee. These were the days when I flew traffic M-F and did the NASCAR shows on the weekens. When I moved from radio to TV the job was through Total Traffic & Weather Network, which, after mergers and acquisitions, was the same company with whom I started my career.
I had a ton of fun working in radio and TV for years. Oh it wasn’t the radio of the 70s; but I was fortunate to have worked with some of the legends – Kelly McCoy, Larry “NightTrain” Lane (the DJ Venus Flytrap on WKRP was reportedly based on NightTrain), Gary McKee, Rhubarb Jones, Gary “Red Neckerson” Corry (who was a childhood hero), Bob Bailey, Moby, Jim Vann (that voice!), Captain Herb Emory, Steve McCoy & Vickie Locke, and even the syndicated Ferrell and The Greaseman shows.
The last few years of my broadcasting career weren’t as fun. For one, it wasn’t radio. And also, I was dealing with massive general burnout as well as helicopter burnout.
I doubt I’ll ever get a job in radio again. Things are so different now and the majority of small and medium market stations barely have any live employees. Their programming is from syndication companies. Even a lot of large and major market stations are running syndicated programming these days. Also, broadcasting can be an ageist industry. These days many station managers don’t value the experience of older people, and instead opt for the younger, less expensive employees. It sucks, but I get it.
So even if I never work in radio again I achieved my dream. And I did it by starting in a major market and being on the air for over 30 years in the same market. I worked with some of the most legendary stations and talents in the nation. I won prestigious awards for my work. I am proud of what I accomplished in those 33 years.
And now, podcasting is scratching that broadcast itch. Plus, I’m the boss.