Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Radio Days and the Worst Thing Red Death Ever Did

The Bear's and Red Death's Adventures at WXYZ AM

After the Army, the Bear (and later, Red Death) got a job at a small market AM daytimer, WXYZ [not its real name]. At sundown, we had to power down so big clear channel stations like KMOX could skip across the country without interference. Then we had to "put the station to bed" after programming was finished, turning the ancient Harris transmitter off.

Since we were a St. Louis Cardinals affiliate, that could be very, very late, especially for a west coast double-header in extra innings. More than once, Red Death would wake up to a little puddle of drool on the ancient console, with nothing but dead air, the game having been finished hours earlier. Dead air is the worst in broadcasting.

But that is not the worst thing Red Death did. Red Death would discover something even worse than dead air.

Dead Cows in Cutler and the Polka Hour

WXYZ was your typical small market farm station. Going price for pigs, high school sports, big band music and the most popular show, the pearl set in the golden heart of afternoon drive time: The Polka Hour. Yes, you could call it a niche market, if undead German farmers are a niche. Everybody did everything, sometimes at the same time, but no one did more than the Bear. And he owned the Polka Hour.

To this day the Bear knows an unhealthy number of polka tunes. ("Too Fat Polka" was a fave.)

We unwisely moved to a nearby little town named Cutler. We were kids. Who knew renting a house by phone could be a bad idea?

Our house was not a very very very nice house. It was across the road from a strip mine where they detonated one small nuclear bomb on the quarter hour to dislodge coal. We didn't sleep much. But then again, we were still practically newlyweds. The radiation had taken its toll on the native Cutlerians. Whoever had the chain saw and leather mask concession no doubt made a fortune, though.

We had acquired a horse - how the Bear does not remember. One time it threw him in front of a semi on a busy road and gave him a concussion. (The Bear does not remember, but apparently he shook it off.) There were always dead cows around our house (probably the radiation) and the horse never got used to that. Whoever was riding her would always get thrown at a dead cow. Can't say whatever happened to that horse.

Fundamentals of Professional Broadcasting

But back to the radio station. The first thing the Bear was taught was how to write good ad copy. "For all your _______ needs, see _______." That didn't take long to master. "For all your funeral needs, see Kuenneke Funeral Home." Copy would be recorded: "production." The Bear did that, too. Of course, time had to be sold to the area businesses, and the Bear did that, too. It was his least favorite part of the job, because he does not take rejection well. The Bear thinks some merchants bought packages out of pity for him.

Jack Spectre [not his real name] was the boss. Jack was one of those people you can't quite believe is real. Surely this is the longest Candid Camera stunt ever. He required the Bear to learn to "bounce" his voice, and demonstrated how that worked. (Not, as far as the Bear recalls.) He was a wealth of old-time radio lore, though. He taught the Bear how to hear himself by holding his hand to his furry round ear, like Gary Owens on Laugh-In. (That did work.)

Jack was always using his radio voice; always performing.

Jack hand-delivered our paychecks from the company that owned the station. It was a fifteen minute drama where he would read the amount, and how much "Uncle Sam" had taken out, then we all had to pretty much grovel for our paychecks. The hours were ridiculous, the petty indignities were many, and for years afterwards, any time were in the vicinity at night, we would uproot his personalized parking sign and throw it on the roof of the station. It's not that we didn't like Jack - because you just had to, he was such a character - but he still had the sign-tossin' coming.

We had a zombie janitor who know two words: "big cah." Jack had some kind of land yacht, and the janitor would warn everyone by saying, "big cah" when he would pull in.

At night the Bear would play standards and big band music from LPs, having learned the art of cuing a record. You move the record back and forth at the beginning so you can hear the starting place. Then you start the turntable while holding the record still with your finger. Just let go to start the music.  With two turntables you can segue the end of one piece into the beginning of another. That is where the art comes in. A lost art, the Bear understands. Now everything is computerized.

From time to time, he would play commercials that had been recorded on "carts-" think 8-track tape and you won't be too wrong. Or read them live. Add rip-n-read newscasts from the clackety old AP teletype machine and you have a typical shift behind the mic.

Madcap Hijinks

Of course, if another professional broadcaster were around, he would aways try to get the person reading the news to crack up. There was a story that contained the phrase "rocks and bottles" Red Death had to read. The Bear said, "kibbles and bits" right before she went on. Of course she could not say "rocks and bottles" without bursting into laughter, although she tried several times, only laughing harder with each attempt. The Bear was only disappointed he had not gotten her to say that the demonstrators threw kibbles and bits at the police.

The thing is, once you know you shouldn't laugh, you're doomed. There exists in everyone a very, very perverse part of the psyche.

Surprisingly, people still listened. Few jobs are more intimate than being a nighttime DJ. You have regulars, and they call in requests. ("Play Misty for me.") Whenever someone saw me, they would always say the same thing: "I didn't imagine you as a Bear." Such was the routine life at WXYZ.

Fortunately, there was usually something completely crazy going on to make it interesting.

The time a snake crawled in and Red Death did her show perched on the counter in front of the console. The snake crawled into some inaccessible place and fried itself, making a memorable odor for weeks afterwards.

The time Mike the engineer brought his home-made silencer to test out back during Red Death's newscast. We never learned anything about this, other than it wasn't very silent. (Perhaps people thought she was broadcasting live from a shootout.)

The "radiothong" as Jack pronounced it (which conjures images that still trouble the Bear) was for some worthy cause. Jack had trouble with words, which is not the best thing for a broadcaster. Once, a tornado ripped through the area (unfortunately sparing our house). Jack got the names of the little towns that had been destroyed, and those that were merely threatened all scrambled. (Oh, well. Nobody's perfect.)

At state basketball finals, Jack wanted to take a turn at calling the game. Unfortunately, he did not know any of the players on the other team. He did know they were African-Americans, though. So he called the game something like: "One African-American passes the ball to another African American..." (It was probably East St. Louis, so that didn't really communicate much.)

The Worst Thing Red Death Ever Did

The most solemn and popular service WXYZ provided was on-air obituaries. Solemn except for one fateful day when Red Death made a horrible mockery of it all. While the obituaries were playing, she could not hear anything through her headphones. Nothing. Now, dead air is anathema in broadcasting. 

Her finely-honed professional broadcaster instincts caused her to grab an LP at random and slap it on turntable 1. It happened to be Stan Kenton. The dead air had to be filled. It was a jazzy, upbeat number. Or, rather, should have been, except she didn't hear that either. Desperate, she threw yet another LP on turntable 2. The maddening dead air persisted.

At some point, she discovered that she had plugged her headphones into the studio jack, not the broadcast jack. The obituaries had been broadcasting all along. Then they were broadcast with a jazzy accompaniment. Finally, they were broadcast with another layer of music at the same time everything else was going on.

Goodbye to WXYZ

From WXYZ, we took our act to a bigger, FM station, WQRL where I was news director and she pulled an on-air shift. As "The Man-Eater" - again inflicted by management, but no worse than the truly juvenile "Tee Jay the Dee Jay" the Bear was stuck with. Small market radio is just odd. 

The Bear cannot say he enjoyed anything more than being a nighttime DJ. Inside your headphones, it's just you and somebody who is listening, imagining what you look like (and always being wrong), as you play with your audience's mood through a satisfying set of just the right songs, filled with perfect segues. No bossy and incompetent program director to decide what you have to play. The Bear is very grateful that he got to experience what now looks like a Golden Age of radio.


  1. Great fun. Thanks for the laughs early in the morning. Sets up a good day.

  2. You Bear and Red Death are of many parts. Entertainment is in your blood. Love hearing about y'all's exploits.

  3. Nice. The golden age of radio ended for me after the Pirates lost to the Braves in the most tragic of ways. It's been nothing but dead air ever since.

  4. I forwarded this to my friend "DJ Janet" at KSJD, Cortez CO. She is a volunteer and they let her co-host with a real radio guy. She will get a kick out of your accounts from the golden age of radio. I want my obituary on the radio with the theme song from Rockford Files in the background.

    1. I hope she enjoys it. Maybe Red Death won't feel so bad, now, if she sees her horrible mistake as a desirable feature.

  5. The Golden Age lingered on at least through the late 90s at certain college stations, where I did almost everything you write about above, except read the obituaries over Stan Kenton. That is now on my bucket list. (At my station, the PDs would probably have approved it.)


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