The Other Side of the Clock

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I’ve done a lot of stuff in radio, with one peculiar omission: in all my years, I’ve done one overnight. Not one overnight gig, but  a single overnight shift. I was simply never asked to do one. I did lots of 6- and 7-to midnights and on-air and automation-tending shifts that ran until 2AM, but the opportunity to do a full overnight show just never came up, except the one time. It was an 11P-to-5A shift if I’m recalling correctly, sometime in 1994 or 1995, when I was working part-time before trying to get out of the biz altogether.

Overnight radio today ain’t what it used to be, thanks to syndication and voice-tracking and auto-pilot. In big cities, you still hear a few live-and-local overnight shows, but even they are growing increasingly rare. Years ago, practically every voice you heard on stations large and small was live, local, and in real time.

The overnight shift could be a proving ground, where young talents earned their stripes, or a dumping ground, a place to put somebody good enough to hire but not good enough to promote. There were, however, certain people who became stars on overnights and never left. In the Midwest, Yvonne Daniels, Eddie Schwartz, Jay Andres, Franklyn MacCormack, and Mike Rapchak all became known far beyond Chicago thanks to long tenures on AM stations that blanketed much of North America. But other cities had overnight stars whose regional reach was enormous—Franklin Hobbs on WCCO in Minneapolis and John R on WLAC in Nashville are two from the middle of the country who have been mentioned here in the past. But overnight stars weren’t heard only in big cities. In smaller markets, too, there was almost always somebody with a sizeable following “east of midnight,” a phrase that seems to have originated at WLS in Chicago sometime around 1960, but was widely borrowed.

Midday jocks can often work a normal 7:30-to-3:30 or 8-to-5 day. Everybody else has to adjust. Morning people go in while it’s dark and are often home by noon; afternoon jocks get used to eating dinner at 8 or 9PM. But doing overnights is not merely an adjustment, it’s a lifestyle. Some overnighters sleep in shifts—a few hours after getting home in the morning and a few more before going back at night, which leaves time in the middle of the day for normal day-side life and/or a few hours of office work back at the radio station. Others take up full-time residence on the other side of the clock. If the working day runs from, say, 10PM to 6AM, they find it easier on their bodies to keep to something like those hours on their days off. Back in the day, stations themselves didn’t always make this easy—you wouldn’t give your afternoon jock a regular weekend shift from 2 until 6 on Sunday morning, but overnighters were frequently asked to do a regular Saturday or Sunday afternoon. But not everyone can live entirely on the night side. One big example: when you’re married to a day-sider. One overnight guy of my acquaintance reset his body clock every weekend because his wife insisted, so on Monday and Tuesday, he’d be half in a fog.

(Most of those who are married to radio people understand the life and accept its peculiarities. This woman did not, really. I suspected that she found her husband’s east-of-midnight job embarrassing, and radio itself vaguely disreputable.)

Overnight jocks frequently heard from truckers, nurses, shift workers, and other people who were grateful to have a friendly voice keeping them company during the long dark hours. What those listeners didn’t always realize is that the overnight jocks appreciated them too. It was (and is) a solitary occupation, being on the air after hours, especially in the overnight hours. It’s good for a jock’s morale to know that yes, there is somebody else up at this hour, and that what you do matters to them.

Overnight jocks tend to have the best radio stories, because weird stuff happens in the middle of the night. Unusual interactions with listeners on the phone were almost routine, but sometimes listeners would actually come knocking on the station door, like Richard Dreyfuss in American Graffiti. Since some amongst the readership have been overnight jocks (for more than one night), let’s hear some stories.

12 thoughts on “The Other Side of the Clock

  1. My first job was weekend overnights at WJTW-FM in Joliet, a fairly soft AC. It didn’t take long for me to be welcomed to the station by a woman I’ll call Robin, since that’s what she called herself. I was a 19-year-old college kid and somehow thought the notion of regular callers was limited to student radio. She never revealed herself to me, but checked in every night.

    The station’s music was all on cart. No automation here. The bathroom was down the hall and outside our office suite. I had to keep “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” nearby in case of emergency. Similar emergencies included having a friend from college swing by with a bag of White Castles to provide sustenance for when my Jolt Cola ran out. (“We asked for a large fry, but they gave us a small one in a large box,” they’d say, dabbing the grease from their faces.)

    I lasted about five months in that role before getting the call to fill-in during daylight. A few months after that I left to join Mr. Bartlett in the QCs, so the training must have been valuable.

  2. porky

    Let’s face it, the best radio memories from the classic age of Top 40 are from the night-time. Living in Downstate Illinois, listening under the covers to WLS was like tuning in to another (amazing) planet. The reverb/echo, the fast-talking jocks, commercials for places I’d never heard of…

    I love it when I read a musician’s auto-bio and they talk about all the weird stations they picked up at night and how it shaped their musical lives.

  3. mikehagerty

    I wish I had some good overnight stories. I’ve done the shift twice, 30 years apart. The first time for six weeks at KSLY, San Luis Obispo. Then the morning drive jock left and I got his job.

    The second time was part-time as a traffic anchor for six Southwestern cities from Phoenix and later from Sacramento—8:30 p.m.-4:30 a.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. That one lasted eight months before the promotion—again to morning drive

    In both cases, no really good stories to tell–and in neither case could I ever figure out whether to get up 90 minutes before my shift and go to bed in the afternoon or to get up in the afternoon, make work the last thing in my day and go to bed around dawn. Tried both. Neither was good.

    1. Did lots of overnight shifts over the years. I did it regularly for 2 years from 1983 to 1985 at WKAU/Appleton-Oshkosh. It was a Top 40 station and there was something special about having the place all to myself on a warm summer night in the middle of nowhere (the station Sat on a country road between Kaukauna and Kimberly), with the windows open and the dim track lighting in the control room. Or, maybe I was delusional from breathing the aroma of the paper mill in nearby Kaukauna. I never really got used to the weird hours, but I did enjoy working there. Two years of it, though, was enough for me.

      1. Tim Morrissey

        Thilmany Pulp and Paper Mill. I can smell it now, in my memory of being born and raised in the Fox Valley. When the wind was right, we could smell it west of Appleton (Hortonville) where I lived until 1966.

  4. Tim Morrissey

    My first PD job I got a call from the overnight jock’s girlfriend. She was taking him to the emergency room the minute she hung up (long before cell phones) with severe abdominal pain that turned out to be an emergency appendectomy. I was doing the morning show so I’d had a few hours of sleep before the call. Decided to just go in and pull the overnight shift and just segue into the morning show. Got a call around 1:30 AM on the station’s hotline. The young lady who did the afternoon drive show. “What the heck are you doing on the air?” I explained. What was she doing up at half past one? Just back from the bars with her girlfriends. “Want company?” she asked. “Sure.” (Not the first and certainly not the last questionable decision I made in my career.) A few minutes later she showed up, still tipsy. More questionable decisions followed. Wound up tracking the entire A side of Carole King’s “Tapestry” while she and I spent quality time on the couch in the bullpen. First and only overnight shift I ever pulled.

  5. John Gallagher

    I ended up working overnight at 4 of the 12 stations I was at. It was never my favorite shift yet sometimes all that was available on the station.

    Classic overnight personalities would also have to include the late Dale Sommers on WLW in Cincinnati, known on-air as the Truckin’ Bozo.

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