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.