Category Archives: Radio Tales

Hi Always, Ray Sawyer

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Ray Sawyer, in profile, and Dennis Locorriere of Dr. Hook.)

The thing I found most surprising about the death of Ray Sawyer, the guy who wore the eye-patch in Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, is not so much that he died, but that he was 81 years old. He was no baby-boomer; while “Cover of the Rolling Stone” was riding the charts in 1973, he turned 37 years old. Chronologically, he was more a member of my parents’ generation than of mine.

As it happens, I met Ray Sawyer once.

Dr. Hook formed in the late 60s and for several years specialized in amiable stoner rock. They performed some Shel Silverstein songs in the 1971 Dustin Hoffman movie Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me, and scored a Top-10 hit with Silverstein’s “Sylvia’s Mother” in 1972. The 1973 album Sloppy Seconds consisted entirely of Silverstein songs, not just “Cover of the Rolling Stone” but such PG-rated fare as “Freakin’ at the Freakers’ Ball,” “Get My Rocks Off,” and “Lookin’ for Pussy.” In 1975, however, they dropped the Medicine Show from their name. As Dr. Hook, they became a reliable pop act. Between 1976 and 1979, “Only Sixteen,” “Sharing the Night Together,” and “When You’re in Love With a Beautiful Woman” all hit the Top 10, and “A Little Bit More” reached #11. Released late in 1979, the album Sometimes You Win produced two more Top-10 hits, “Better Love Next Time” and “Sexy Eyes.”

(In terms of chart performance, “Sexy Eyes” ended up their biggest Hot 100 hit, equaling “Sylvia’s Mother” at #5 but charting for 21 weeks compared to 15 for “Sylvia.” Nevertheless, I bet you don’t remember it at all.)

And so it came to pass that in the summer of 1980, Dr. Hook’s itinerary bought them to the Stephenson County Fair in Freeport, Illinois, and I got to interview Sawyer and lead singer Dennis Locorriere.

I was the night jock at WXXQ in Freeport. One afternoon, I went with a guy from our AM sister station to a hotel room in Freeport (which may in fact have been a motel room in Freeport), and there they were: Sawyer with his eye-patch and cowboy hat, and Locorriere looking no different than other thirtyish dudes one might pass on the street. They were, as best I can remember, very gracious, greeting us with big smiles and handshakes, and quite gregarious.

At the age of 20, I hadn’t met anyone remotely famous. I didn’t want anybody to know that, of course, and furthermore, I wanted to come off as the hip rock jock I saw when I looked in the mirror. But these guys were real rock stars, and I was scared shitless.

I remember only two things about the interview. First was a line that Sawyer probably repeated in every interview: “I lost my eye in a car accident. I went back to look for it but I couldn’t find it.” The other thing is asking them how they would describe a typical Dr. Hook song. What they said, I don’t remember—but I do remember that in my flustered-ness, I asked the question twice.

I don’t remember how we used the interview. My station was an album-rocker, although we may have added “Cover of the Rolling Stone” for the duration, and we probably played at least some of the interview to help plug the concert. The AM station played soft rock, mostly, and the interview probably got more prominent play over there.

I didn’t go to the Dr. Hook show at the county fair, because I was on the air that night. But when I hear a Dr. Hook song today, I sometimes think of that interview. Were I to go digging through my boxes of tapes, I could probably find a copy of it—but I’d be afraid to listen to it.

Before we left that day, we asked Sawyer and Locorriere to autograph copies of Sometimes You Win for giveaways. We were embarrassed to have only ballpoint pens for them to sign with, which don’t write well on covers. One of the better-looking copies ended up in my collection; it’s pictured here. Although you can’t see it, Sawyer signed, in a nice throwback to his stoner-rock days, “Hi Always, Ray Sawyer.”

Coming tomorrow: another tribute post.

Lost in Love

Embed from Getty Images

It’s what you get when you fall in love with a girl who turns out to be bad for you.

She will steal your time and batter your emotions. You know she’s going to do it, because it’s how she is with you. But you want her anyway—against every bit of common sense and good judgment, despite of all she’s done to you and all she’s going to do—you want her.

Sometimes you see yourself clearly, and the fix you’re in. You realize that you have the option—and the need—to get away from her, as fast and as far as you can. And maybe you even manage to make the break a time or two. But then she looks at you just so, or she does that thing that makes you crazy, or she’s just there to scratch the itch you have at the moment it really needs scratching. And you’re lost, in love all over again.

Forty years ago today, I did my first real radio show, at the end of my first semester in college at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, a three-hour morning-show fill-in on the campus station during final exam week.

I say “real” because I’d done some less-than-real stuff before that. I’d imagined myself as a DJ from the time I was 11 years old, and I frequently pretended to be one. As a result, long before I sat down in an actual working broadcast studio, I could talk up a song introduction and ad lib the weather. In 1976, I had purchased 15 minutes of airtime on our hometown station in a fundraising auction for some club at our high school. I used my time to play some songs I liked and to crack wise. But it wasn’t until December 14, 1978, that I got to do real radio in real time in a real studio over a real transmitter. The next day, I did a six-hour show that was the single most exhilarating experience of my life. Nothing else, in radio or in life itself, has ever come close. My long-awaited radio career had begun.

I got my first paying radio job less than three months after that, and I worked part-time all through school. My full-time radio career began in 1982 and ended on the first working day of 1994. I got a couple of other full-time jobs after that, one at the end of 1994 and one in 2013, but neither one of them was meant to be, so I gave them back. But for 25 years now, I have been mainly a part-time radio guy. I have been a part-timer more than twice as long as I was a full-timer. And for a eight-year stretch of those 40 years, from 1998 to 2006, I didn’t do a DJ show at all—just a few sports broadcasts and a tiny bit of voiceover work.

So it may be 40 years since my first show, but I don’t think I can call it 40 years in radio. Forty years around radio, maybe.

I never really had a career plan. I wanted to climb the market ladder, but I had no idea how best to do it. Although I learned a lot from lots of people, I never really had a mentor in the traditional sense. I had the attention span of a goldfish and the work ethic of a hobo. (Still do.) So I blundered along.

And after many years of blundering, I come to this anniversary.

I am under no illusions that my career has been anything like a success. I look at certain friends and colleagues in the industry and see the sort of careers I wish I had today, and I regret that I do not.

I am under no illusions that this is anybody’s fault but mine, however. It’s what you get when you fall in love with a girl who turns out to be bad for you.

Forty years on, I still love radio. She’s the only thing in my life that gets me jacked up. Radio work seems meaningful in a way that all the other work in my life does not.

But even now, when I keep her at arm’s length, she is still capable of breaking my heart. And if I keep hanging around her, she’s almost certainly going to do it again.

As the Years Go By

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Badfinger. AM radio was not the only thing smokin’.)

This post is based on the American Top 40 show from November 21, 1970, but it’s also a companion piece to my earlier post about the way music sounded on AM radio. Links go to WABC-processed versions except for one.

40. “Black Magic Woman”/Santana. The first few notes of this creep out of any radio. They are especially effective when creeping out of an AM soundscape, and especially especially effective at night.

36. “No Matter What”/Badfinger. If I were to do a list of the five best-sounding AM Top 40 records, this would be on it, and it might be #1. The opening riff (whomp-whomp-whomp-whompity-whomp-whomp) is awesome at any level of fidelity. On a processed AM Top 40 signal, it’s glorious.

35. “Deeper and Deeper”/Freda Payne. Thanks to the sound quality of the AT40 repeat, this sounded a little mushy at first; really busy, with a lot of sounds all at once. Then came Freda rising from the deep, and it’s fabulous.

32. “After Midnight”/Eric Clapton. “After Midnight” comes vividly back to me from my first radio, the green Westinghouse tube-type, at night, all of the arrangement folded down into a single laser beam of sound and sensation. See also #15, “Engine Number 9” by Wilson Pickett, where the guitar is razor-sharp at full fidelity but would slice you to ribbons on AM. Equally bracing: the first five notes of Brian Hyland’s “Gypsy Woman” at #9, which might be the song on this list that’s most strongly evocative of listening to that particular radio at night. See also #28, “One Less Bell to Answer.”

31.  “As the Years Go By”/Mashmakhan. Mashmakhan was a band from Montreal whose roots went back to 1960 and which had become appropriately psychedelic by 1970, after being renamed for a strain of marijuana popular in late 60s Toronto. We’ve all got gaps in our musical knowledge, and “As the Years Go By” is one of mine. Although the title and artist are familiar to me from bumping into them in print over the years, I am pretty sure I never heard it until I listened to this show on its recent repeat.

29. “Stand by Your Man”/Candi Staton. A magnificent soul update of Tammy Wynette’s country standard. I wonder how many times in a row I could listen to this before I would want to hear something else.

26. “Candida”/Dawn. As I’ve mentioned many times before, “Candida” was the first record I ever loved. See also #17, “Cracklin’ Rosie,” the second record I ever loved; #6, “Indiana Wants Me” by R. Dean Taylor, which may have been my favorite song of the moment in late November of 1970; and inevitably, #1.

22. “Stoned Love”/Supremes. “Stoned Love” was a lost record, one I didn’t hear between its falling-out of regular rotations in 1971 and its repackaging on CD in the early 90s. See also #18, “(5-10-15-20) 25-30 Years of Love” by the Presidents.

19. “Share the Land”/Guess Who. Is this the best song on this entire AT40 show? Possibly. The WABC-processed version sounds so great I can hardly stand it.

10.  “Montego Bay”/Bobby Bloom. I think I bought this 45 with Christmas money in 1970. Although it’s frequently heard today in a longer version that ends with a bit of “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” that bit wasn’t on the hit version. (Hot damn the WABC remix is fantastic.)

3.  “I’ll Be There”/Jackson Five. Eternally magical in its 45 mix (of which no good upload exists at YouTube), this hasn’t been processed by the WABC guy yet, which may be a good thing, because if it was, I’d be slain eternally dead.

1.  “I Think I Love You”/Partridge Family. Kurt Blumenau, who was not weaned on this stuff the way I was, listened to some of the WABC remixes and said, “It sounds like they’re playing in a train station, and yet I cannot deny the appeal.” The train-station metaphor fits the WABC remix of “I Think I Love You,” but notice how intimate the record suddenly becomes when the harpsichord kicks in.

In an ideal world, radio sound would be precisely faithful to the way artists and producers imagine their art. In this deeply flawed world of ours, radio sound is intended to serve the needs of stations—in many cases, simply to make them louder than other stations on the dial. In the world we used to know, radio sound enhanced the listening experience without intruding on it.

I have never forgotten what it was like to listen to that world, and sweet mama do I miss it.

(Note to patrons: There’s another new post at One Day in Your Life today. There will be more than usual the rest of this month, so bookmark it or subscribe.)

Better Than Real

Embed from Getty Images

My first radio was a green plastic Westinghouse box (not the radio pictured above) with a big AM tuning dial on the front and tubes inside. It had belonged to my father. At some point in the fall of 1970, I scrounged it out of the basement, and it remained my radio until I got my multi-band Audiovox, which must have been for Christmas in 1972. My younger brother inherited the Westinghouse after that, although he didn’t listen to it as obsessively as I did. On a Sunday morning in the spring of 1974, it shorted out and presumably caught fire. We came home from church to a house full of smoke, and although there was no fire damage, we were displaced from the upstairs of the house for several months.

The life and death of that radio is a critical bit of my personal mythology. That mythology also includes my childhood bedroom, at the end of the hall across from Mother and Dad’s. From the time my brother and I were big enough to sleep in regular beds until I was 12 or 13, we shared the room. Sometimes we had twin beds on either side, separated by a cheap wooden toy chest on which my radio would sit. We also had bunk beds for a time; I claimed the top bunk by right of being the oldest, but it was only feasible after my 11th birthday, after I got my little transistor radio, so I could listen up there. The mythology of this blog also includes that radio. Of all the artifacts of my childhood that I have lost, it’s the one I miss the most—your basic AM transistor model, but with a little Green Bay Packers logo on the front.

I don’t think I’m writer enough to effectively explain the sensation I felt listening to AM Top 40 radio in that room. AM had a distancing aspect. It was like you were consciously listening to a performance, as you’re conscious of watching actors on a stage. You can get lost in such a performance, but there remains an unreality about it that is difficult to ignore. The better fidelity of FM radio or vinyl made it easier to suspend disbelief and imagine the artists right there in the room, but on AM radio, they were larger than life, better than real. AM radio made my sports teams seem larger than life, too. In the winter I listened to the Milwaukee Bucks and Chicago Blackhawks; in the spring and summer, the Chicago Cubs; in the fall, the Wisconsin Badgers. When I finally got to see the Bucks and the Cubs and the Badgers in person, the reality of them, there in front of my eyes, actually seemed to diminish them a little.

Many Top 40 stations processed their audio to take advantage of the sonic limitations of the AM band and the tiny speakers through which the sound would reach the listener. Some stations, including WLS, processed their audio especially for car radios. It wasn’t just loud, the way radio stations process audio today—the best word to describe it is big. There’s a YouTuber who posts audio that he claims is processed like New York City’s WABC back in the day. Although the audio isn’t perfect—there’s a distinct hum on many of the tracks—you’ll understand right away that this stuff is different. Songs sound massive, as on this version of the Raspberries’ “Go All the Way” and this incredible “Be My Baby” by Andy Kim. If I could tweak my computer speakers to approximate the fidelity of the old Westinghouse, I’d never listen to anything but that channel.

AM radio also sounded different at night than it did during the day. A distant signal would fade in and out; if there was a thunderstorm anywhere in the vicinity, you’d hear the crackle of the lightning, and a nearby storm would make listening impossible. But even when the signal was strong and clear, nighttime made me feel the distance from the origin of the signal in a way I didn’t feel it during the day. And certain songs, conceived as they were by the artist, recorded as they were by the producer, and processed as they were by the radio station, sizzled straight into my brain so that almost a half-century later, I’ve never forgotten how they sounded, and how it felt to hear them.

(For a technical explanation of why it sounded that way, read this comment from the Yah Shure, who is, as we have noted several times over the years, The Man.)

Other Duties As Assigned

Embed from Getty Images

I am not actively looking for a full-time radio job, but if I see a job listing that intrigues me, I’ll make the appropriate inquiries. I saw one a few weeks ago for an operations manager gig in a small market. The initial posting made the job sound like the kind of thing a radio veteran such as I might be well-suited for, so I responded to the e-mail address and asked them to send the job description. It follows here, edited to eliminate any potential identifying information. Square brackets are my annotations, parentheses are in the original.

Hosting mornings 6AM-noon Monday thru Saturday [on one station, voice-tracked] plus other fill-ins as needed on [other station in the group] plus remotes and public appearances, including walking in and attending parades

Office hours of 8:30AM-5PM (with some time set aside to voice Monday morning news on Sunday night; no in-studio visit or time required)

News for [other station in the group] at 6AM, 7AM, 8AM, noon, 4PM, and 5PM Monday thru Friday (approximately three stories each with actualities)

Serve as production director for [both stations]

Creative writing and production submission to voice talent

Commercial production and client coaching

Imaging for [one station] and some for [other station in the group] as assigned

Maintaining EAS and public file for [both stations]

Downloading and uploading weekend syndication

[weekly public service program] recording and production

Weekend talent scheduling

Social media postings

Help with [e-mail list maintenance]

Help with website maintenance

Studio and office maintenance (windows/garbage/recycling/vacuum)

Other duties as assigned

Broadcasters wear a wider variety of hats nowadays as ownership groups pare expenses to the bone. It’s not unusual to have multiple duties across multiple stations in a single group. However, as I read this, there’s no way this job gets done in the specified office hours of 8:30 to 5. Even if you assume an operations manager is normally going to work 10-hour days to make it a 50-hour week (which is not unusual, especially in a small market), that’s still not going to be enough time. Between voice-tracking a six-hour show, doing news, and handling production and imaging, this job will require a minimum of three to five hours in a recording studio every single day. Only after that could you start thinking about tackling the rest of your responsibilities—down to emptying the wastebaskets, vacuuming the floors, and washing the fking windows.

And by the way, it’s going to be a seven-day job a lot of the time, because many remotes and public appearances are going to be on Saturdays, and you’re also expected to have “time set aside to voice Monday morning news on Sunday night; no in-studio visit or time required.” It’s nice of them to let you do it from your home studio—if you have one, and you’d damn well better get one. But even if the newscasts are only three stories long, somebody still has to write them and gather the actualities they require, either by making calls to local newsmakers or picking up soundbites from some network news source. Who’s going to be responsible for that every single day?

I think I know who.

In the end, what intrigues me the most is the last bit: “other duties as assigned.” What other duties could there possibly be when you’re already doing the jobs of DJ, operations manager, production director, news director/anchor, and janitor?

Yeah no, I’m not pursuing this gig any further, although I was tempted to play it out just to see what kind of salary they would offer. If they asked my requirements, I’d start at $125,000, since I’d be doing the jobs of three or four people—and $125K would be cheap for what they’d be getting. Hell, asking for an ownership stake wouldn’t be entirely out of line. But one person doing all of it for a single small-market salary—maybe $25K or $30K a year, but maybe less—is something no humane employer should expect, and something nobody with any other employment options should accept.

I’m sure this company will eventually find somebody who doesn’t blanch at this job description—somebody who has no idea how completely insane it is. But at least the poor bastard will get experience doing nearly everything a person on the programming side of a radio station has to do nowadays.

I understand the need for a company to operate as efficiently as possible, but how efficient is it to hire somebody for an impossible gig, burn them out, and have to hire someone else? Because that’s what’s gonna happen here.

The Wrong Decision

Embed from Getty Images

(Before we begin: there’s a new post at One Day in Your Life today, which I hope you will read.)

Nearly every radio jock who’s been around a little bit can tell you stories about working at the badly run station in the nowhere town. Different stations, different towns, same kind of stories: of managers who couldn’t manage and owners who got owned, but also of other victims of circumstance similarly trapped, and ultimately, how the story ended.

Thirty-five years ago this week, The Mrs. and I drove a U-Haul to the nowhere town. And on November 1, 1983, I spent my first day at the badly run station.

I’d been fired from my previous job, and I needed a new one. This station offered me one, and I took it. Whether that was a good idea never really entered our minds. We were 23 and 22 years old, married six months, and had no money in the bank. Beyond the obvious need to keep a roof over our heads, it seemed to me that this was how radio worked: you went where a job was, and your talent would move you up from there.

But I wish it had been clearer to me that I shouldn’t have gone where this job was.

It did become clear, however, and pretty damn quick. From the moment I accepted the job in October 1983, nothing about it seemed quite right. It’s said that pioneers in wagon trains sometimes found the Great Plains oppressive in its vastness and suffered from whatever is the opposite of claustrophobia. We felt the same way about the flat Illinois prairie. The one-bedroom basement apartment we took cost more than we wanted to pay, but it was the only one we saw that was close to acceptable. They told me I’d be doing afternoons, but I didn’t find out until the day before that my shift would be 5 to 8PM. The station’s music format was crazily schizophrenic, twangy country during the day and rock-leaning Top 40 at night. My first day, I discovered that quite literally everyone in the office was a smoker. Smokers were not yet banished outdoors, so I breathed second-hand smoke all day long. I had been told the company offered health insurance, but it didn’t. They told me I’d be doing lots of production, but it wasn’t remotely the volume of work I was used to. I was soon spending half of my 11AM-8PM working day reading every word in the newspaper because they didn’t have enough work to fill my time.

It was no more than a week before I came home and told The Mrs. I’d made a terrible mistake. But when you’re young and green and you think you understand how it’s supposed to be, you persevere. You hope that things will get better.

Except things didn’t get better, not in any significant way. I eventually got moved to a real afternoon drive-time slot, but only because the guy who had been doing it—the amiable doofus of a program director who had hired me—got fired. He was replaced by a martinet who started from the proposition that every jock on the staff was incompetent and had to reinvent themselves, in his image. This proposition was doomed, however, because he wasn’t as talented as he made himself out to be, and all of us could see it.

It wasn’t long before I got fired myself. Officially, all they told me was, “It’s not working out.” Unofficially, they were paranoid about my ties to the prospective owner of the other station in town, who had been the general manager of the station I’d just left. I hadn’t been at the new place for five months yet.

(I would later hear that the news director, another victim of circumstance, stormed into the program director’s office upon hearing the news and shouted, “I can’t believe you fired Jim! You need more people like him!”)

One of the cruelest facts of this life is that there can be grave consequences for not knowing what you aren’t equipped to know at the moment you most need to know it. You have to make the best decision you can with whatever information you have, and it may take years before you realize you decided wrong. At that point, all you can do is “chalk it up to experience,” whatever the hell that means. But a wrong decision is still a wrong decision. And 35 years ago today, I started living with one of mine.

(Your stories about the badly run station and/or the nowhere town are welcome in the comments.)

%d bloggers like this: