New Orleans Road Trip 1988 pt 1 (Ohio)

Sadly, I was in love with radio for a long time before I realized that it might be a good idea to keep some of it for myself. It's mind boggling for me to think of all the radio stations, radio shows, air personalities and programming formats that have passed on since I've been listening. While I don't regret all that much of my life, I do wish I could have been a little more prescient and stored more radio on magnetic tape in the last few decades. Memory is good, but it’s not accurate and you can only share impressions.

When I was a kid I actually did record from the radio. But like the file sharing teens today, I was simply doing what came naturally– “capturing” music directly from the radio with my tape recorder to avoid paying for it at the store. It was before they made that kind of thing illegal. But all I wanted was the songs. I couldn’t care less at the time about the DJ banter, the commercials, the news– all the stuff that in retrospect makes an aircheck interesting in historical context.

My perspective changed in late 1983 when I went on 4000 mile road trip circumventing the Midwest. I brought a boombox along, and when we found time to put our mix tapes aside, we listened to the radio and now and then I dropped in a few blank cassettes to record some souvenirs. I’m not exactly sure what made me think to make those recordings during that trip (which I still have and plan to feature a bit of here one day), but I enjoyed them enough after the fact that I began a habit of creating and collecting “airchecks” that continues to this day.

 In the spring of 1988 I happened to go another extended automotive trek, this time driving a rusty Buick station wagon from the Detroit area (where I lived at the time) to New Orleans for the Jazz and Heritage Festival. And I brought cassettes and another boombox. And this post begins a series of posts here on the Radio Kitchen blog, featuring some of the more compelling and entertaining portions of radio I snagged on that excursion– a cross section of American radio in the late 1980's.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I never understood why car cassette decks can't simply record from the radio. Looking online, I guess Pioneer did make such a thing a few decades ago but if you think about it just about every other tape player made always came with recording potential. And car radios are often great for DXing. Anyway, I’ve never seen one. But on this particular trip, I tried to make my desire a reality by recording some radio on the road with the boombox (while my friend was driving). If you’ve ever tried to do this, you know it’s not all that easy. Especially recording AM radio, where you really have to hold the radio up to window level to get a reasonable signal.

After I got the tapes home I did something I’d never done before (or never did again). I combed through hours of raw (and rather random) source tapes and winnowed it down to a one-tape 90 minute compilation (with cassette to cassette-pause button editing). Unfortunately, most of the original tapes are long gone. This is a little different from other posts here, in that this aircheck scrapbook years ago for my own entertainment, with no logs or notes. While I believe that most (if not all) of these edits are in chronological order, the actual recording on the road was intermittent. I tended to turn on the recorder when we neared larger cities. That is, unless I was driving (when I didn't record). While the cities and stations included in this homemade artifact is hit or miss as we crossed the country, the variety of radio I included from New Orleans on this tape is somewhat extensive and full of local flavor. But then again, most things New Orleans are full of local flavor.

I'm including these installments as "bandscans," even though almost none of it is technically a real time scan of the any particular band. They are however, compelling samplings of a time and of places that make for some compelling listening twenty years later. Also, for the first time I'll be including some FM broadcasting in on this site. If you've read much here, you may know that my taste (and curiosity) in contemporary broadcasting is focused on AM and shortwave these days. But that wasn't always the case. It wasn't until the 1990's that I lost my stomach for almost all FM radio.

So, here’s the first installment in this radio journey. We drove straight through, and I believe we left for New Orleans Wednesday April 27, 1988. But it might have been Thursday. I'm not sure, but either way it took around twenty-one hours or so to complete the trip. This first segment begins somewhere in early afternoon (northern) Ohio heading south on 1-75, and there’s quite a bit of material from the Dayton market through to Cincinnati. I’m going to post this in digestible chunks, and then when I get to the end of the whole 90 minute affair, I’ll provide a listen/download link for the entire archive as well. Here’s the first installment:

1988 Trip to New Orleans (part 1) – 1-75 in Ohio  9:34

(download)

A cuddly country pop snippet of unknown origin gives way to a frenetic commercial for household goods on sale. Based in West Virginia, Hecks’ Department Stores had spread to nearby Ohio and Kentucky since 1963. But the “Almost Giving It Away Place" had already filed for bankruptcy by 1987 and within the next couple years they called it a day and sold assets off to another couple retail chains that wouldn’t last much long either. A whole lot of regional discount outlets have disappeared since that time (smell the Wal-Mart?), and I miss hearing this kind of sales exhilaration for items like toilet paper and bleach.

A couple of quirky bits later (including some jesus optimism), you hear a punchy keyboard intro for “The Mike Sento Show” on Dayton’s 1290 WHIO (what great classic call letters!). It’s not just a talk show, it’s a “midday forum” I wish the tape gave us a little sample of Mike himself. Apparently, Mr. Sento doesn’t have regular talk gig right now, but he’s still around. Not so long ago he filled in for the dull-witted Mike Gallagher on his national program. (Not a good sign…)

And then there's the "Van Man.” Bobby Layman. Apparently, Bobby was selling vans with a bit of a personal style. He measures “your needs” and “fits you to a van.” (Something snug with side-mirrors, perhaps?) But however Layman was fitting all those vans back then, he must have been doing something right. He now has his own Chevy dealership at the same address as the Columbus, Ohio "Van Man" headquarters advertised here. Catchy commercial.

Then there’s perhaps the greatest living legend in radio today— Paul Harvey, the one-man “Reader’s Digest” of radio. While not a mind blowing moment, this little capture is in classic Harvey style– clipped and slightly alien, in a warm and corny way. And he’s still at it! But he sounds reassuredly young in 1988 (When he was only 69). This particular program, his daily “News and Commentary” has been a radio staple since 1951. Enjoy it while it lasts. "Mr. Slow-Motion" Fred Thompson has been known to fill-in when Harvey takes time off.

Remember Fawn Hall? The Iran/Contra Hearings… Oliver North’s secretary… Shredding critical documents… and the her infamous testimony: "Sometimes you have to go above the law." She was still shining ripely in the middle of her fifteen minutes of fame in early '88, and Harvey announces she starting to cash in it by co-hosting a syndicated talk show next month (which we can assume didn’t exactly set the world on fire). Since then, Hall actually had to kick a nasty crack cocaine habit in the 1990's. Which is kinda ironic, considering her old boss Mr. North funded the Contras with cocaine cash.

“Race fans! Put this in your mind! The sheer spectacle of wheel standing super-charged funny cars with their front wheels up in the air and then showering sparks of titanium all the way down the quarter mile drag strip at a hundred and sixty miles per hour!”

Now, that sounds like entertainment. It’s the vintage boom and bluster of a classic drag strip radio spot for Kil-Kare Speedway in Xenia, Ohio. Do raceways still advertise like this? I hope so. When I was a kid CKLW and WKNR thundered with ads for the Detroit Dragway– boisterous announcers glorifying the exploits of drivers like Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen and promoting all the earth rumbling rapture to be found at the corner of “Sibley at Dix.” While the old Detroit Dragway is history, Kil-Kare Speedway which will soon celebrate 50 roaring years of fun in Southern Ohio. Bravo.

The racing spot is followed by some juvenile banter on an unidentified high school radio station (A likely suspect might be WKET, which isn't far from 1-75). Too bad you can’t hear both sides of this little squabble, as one of the kids hogs the microphone. “Oh, save the whales Keith. Save the whales…”

Waterbeds. Remember waterbeds? From the seventies on, it seemed like every mile of suburban highway sprawl was decorated by two or three waterbed outlets stocked with all your splashy mattress needs. Local radio and late night TV were littered with waterbed store advertising as well. Things have changed. (When was the last time you’ve seen a waterbed?)

We miss the beginning of this commercial for “Henry’s Waterbeds,” but there seems to be a sports theme at play. The announcer hawks his wares in a loud and gruff testosterone fashion over the sounds of a simulated cheering throng. Which falls right in line with the general appeal of waterbed stores– to specifically lure men in to browse and buy household goods and furniture, thanks to the fact that the main attractions on the sales floor offered the promise of carnal hydraulics in the bedroom.

Rock and roll on the AM dial is almost as hard to come by as a highway waterbed outlet these days (or a drag strip for that matter). However, in the late 80's the oldies format was still a big contender on the AM dial. But not for long. By this time the playlists for these stations had gotten so tight and so predictable that format burnout has assured the passing of many of these stations. Just like this snippet from that afternoon of Cincinnati’s 55 WKRC, a segueway from the Turtles’ “Happy Together” to “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks. How long can anyone continue to listen to those same three-hundred songs?

And like many former oldies stations, WKRC is now a run of the mill talk station carrying syndicated rightist dreck like Limbaugh, Hannity and kindred scum. And the dilemma is not unfamiliar. And just how long can anyone continue to listen to Republican party talking points from the same handful of windbags every day? Kinda of like a never ending chorus of “Hey Jude.” In radio, cynical programming and overt predictability will eventually breed listener contempt.

Next WLW, the Ohio Valley powerhouse. And at first sample, this bit of afternoon WLW sounds like boring and typical talk radio. It’s mid-day host Mike McConnell winding up an interview with "David" on the phone. He's written an “insider’s guide” which contains valuable tips and secrets that can make anybody wealthy. It’s the wrap-up of the segment.

“Rich or old, young or poor, even if you have very little money and you have no credit or bad credit, don’t let that stop you.”

There’s a time check here, it’s almost 1:30 in the afternoon. I switch to another station. An AM signal with a stiff whine. It’s one of those soap opera update features (do stations still do this). It’s a somewhat inspired synopsis of the ongoing saga of the “Young and the Restless.”

Then back to WLW, coming out of the commercial break. Listen to all the promotional crap that happens before McConnell resumes the show. This is back when WLW was a Jacor station, and I'd posit that you hear the “Jacor effect” as soon as McConnell ditches the get-rich-quick author. Lame guests like David are some of the worst talk radio filler out there, but nowadays goofballs like this author would (thankfully) have to buy ad time or get into the infomercial business to sell his schemes to listeners. But before talk radio got wise and came up with other ideas, people selling bad books were common filler on the air. And here McConnell is a harbinger of the more savvy talk radio to come, smelling BS from his guest and turning his suspicion into what probably became a spirited call-in segment (which I wish we could hear…).

“Have you ever gotten a book through a situation such as this, through which you made money? Or that improved you in any way, shape or form? If so, I’d like to hear about it…”

While Jacor has since merged and dissolved into Clear Channel Communications, in their heyday they made a lot of headway in a number of radio markets with their inventive, subversive and occasionally vicious programming and promotion. While I wasn’t much of a fan of some of Jacor's music radio projects, Jacor really did know how to manage and tweak a talk radio station into something profitable and compelling. At heart, Jacor was really a loyal cadre of competitive and provocative radio geeks who were major players in the radio business back in the 1980's and 90's. As far as talk radio, Jacor naturally attracted sharp and witty (and often abrasive) talk radio hosts who understood the nuances of exploiting the format for all of its emotional and entertainment potential.  By the 1980's, Jacor realized that being nice, or being “respectful,” was really only important to their oldest listeners. And people who understood the business of radio (like Jacor) knew that talk radio was more than ready to shed its one time role (and continuing image) as a safe haven for old folks.

And although Jacor is no longer, the flavor of the upstart company is still a part of what makes WLW great, ever since Jacor radio maestro Randy Michaels turned it into a hot talk station in the early 80's. And there’s been remarkably little turnover in air staff in the last two decades. In fact, Mike McConnell still holds down the same mid-day slot he’s had on WLW since the early 80's. Which is very rare in the fast changing and incredibly cutthroat business of radio.

“Z-93 Where the hits always hit first. I’m Cat Summers with one of the hottest ladies around right now, just coming off her Academy Award for Best Actress. The new one from Cher, written and produced by Bon Jovi. It’s called “We All Sleep Alone” on Z-93.”

Well, that was a near perfect mic break from “Cat Summers” (My GOD, the greatest fake name in top 40 radio history?…) on Z-93 (in Eaton, Ohio). It's really a perfect mic break– warm, succinct and pure smooth all the way to the post (where Cher starts to sing). It hits the pop culture buttons and says nothing. And the positioning statement– "Where the hits always hit first," is catchy enough. But by 1988 there was no bravery in corporate music radio, and you can be sure no song would make a playlist in a market like Dayton if it hadn't been officially approved by consultants, sanctioned by some kind of payola, and blessed by some call-out research. Of course, the illusion remained for some that the DJ on the air had some say the music they would play.

Z-93 is the late lamented WGTZ transmitting from Eaton, Ohio a couple dozen miles west of I-75. Z-93 was born when they canned the beautiful music format on WGTZ in 1983, and it served as the major CHR (contemporary hit radio, or top 40) station for a large swath of southeastern Ohio, including Dayton and Springfield for over two decades. While this kind of radio ain't my cup of tea, for years this station was local spot on the dial where kids and young adults went for the hits and the happy camaraderie of shiny jocks like Cat Summers. In November of 2007 the owners (Main Line Broadcasting) went out and fired all the DJ's and flipped the station to the new "variety hits" format, otherwise known as the "Jack." Some people in Ohio are still pissed off

This leaves us at the crossing of the Ohio River that April afternoon in 1988, and as night falls we’ll sample some southern R&B radio along I-40 and then I-55. As I mentioned, the coverage from the road in either direction will be spotty, but once we get to New Orleans there’s plenty of broadcasting to hear from the Crescent City, back when it was all still there.

Click here to read (and hear) the next installment.

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8 Responses to “New Orleans Road Trip 1988 pt 1 (Ohio)”

  1. Drood Says:

    Wow, cool upload. I love listening to old radio. Back in the UK I have a lot on tape. Sadly I’m probably never going to see any of it again. (Long story.)

    I look forward to more uploads. Fascinating stuff!

    On a side note, I enjoy your blog. I’m hoping I can replace my existing shortwave radio soon. Where I live reception is poor, but I think my Grundig YB400 has screwed up in some fashion as it’s far worse than I remember it being in the past.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Scott Fybush Says:

    And do please note that Z-93 had the single greatest legal ID in the history of legal IDs. WGTZ had no desire to play up their city of license, dowdy little Eaton 25 miles away, so here’s how they buried it:

    “Z-93, WGTZ, Eaton Dayton and Springfield Alive!”

    Classic. Just classic.

  3. prof Says:

    Wow. That was brilliant. No wonder that guy had the balls to call himself “Cat Summers.”

  4. Mr. Humble Says:

    WOWZA! Very interesting and well put together site, thank you for sharing your thoughts and downloadable files. Kudo’s!

  5. Mike Brown Says:

    In the early '80s, growing up in the Dayton area, I spent many-a night with an AM clock radio against my ear, slowly scanning the dial, listening to stations drift in and out, and being just as interested in the between-station noise as in the stations themselves. Now as a small-time DJ, I'm desperately trying to re-create the experience and am keeping an eye out for old recordings just of AM and shortwave from the '80s. If you know of places where I could ask for this kind of thing, please let me know. Anyway, I just happened to stumble across your site while looking for something else. This post and the audio clip made my day! It's great to hear this old radio content, even in truncated form. Do you happen to have higher-quality rips available? The 32 kbps MP3 is mono and has a lot of "bleepity" background noise. Also, I note <a href="http://theradiokitchen.net/wp-content/audio/NOLA_TRIP_1988_PT_2.mp3">Part 2</a> is on your site but isn't linked from this post!

  6. prof Says:

    Thanks for the comment Mike. And I appreciate you telling me about that missling link, which I fixed. However, checking the MP3 here, it sounds fine here. Remember, this was mono in the first place. Doubling the size to make it stereo for no reason or inflating the bitrate beyond the fidelity limits of AM radio wouldn't make any differnce in the sound quailty.

    While encoding a CD or vinyl record (or FM stereo for that matter) at 32K would be pretty awful, the sonically limited sounds of AM broadcasting can be seriously compressed with very little degredation in sound quality.

    The only artifacts I hear in this recording are an electrical storm or two and some reception issues. I invite anybody to try some trial encodes of AM broadasting using a variety of bitrates (in mono obviosly) and doing a double blind audio test to two, and see when they can really tell the differnce.

  7. Mike Brown Says:

    Thanks for adding in the link to part 2. Sorry it got kind of jacked up in my comment; I wasn't sure what formatting was supported. Also, right after I posted, I realized that the original content was probably from AM radio, not FM, and thus was mono to begin with, so I felt silly for mentioning it. As for the sound quality, I don't know how to describe the artifacts other than "bleepity"; it's like a random, rapid series of tones in the background, right from the very beginning of the clip. I often hear it in very extremely low-bitrate MP3s. It seems to not happen at slightly higher bitrates, although it's also possible that some MP3 encoders do worse than others and thus it's not strictly a bitrate problem. You used LAME 3.92, which preceded many quality improvements (see the red text in the LAME Changelog), so it's possible a newer version would do better, or maybe even just using VBR would help; I don't know.
    Anyway, I appreciate your response and am glad you believe in double-blind testing. If it will convince you that re-encoding would be a good idea, I will take you up on your invitation and will provide ABX results showing I can hear a difference, and showing at what settings I stop hearing a difference, and will test any combinations you suggest. I may do it anyway, just for fun, but I'd want a lossless original recording of AM radio to start with, and all I have at the moment are MP3s from sites like yours. :)

  8. prof Says:

    Hey, I don't mind a little discussion of bitrates and such. But don't see a need for getting to deep into audio issues here.

    But I do appreciate a head's up on what might be a bad file. However, I'velistened to it a number of times via a flash player from the blog and downloaded the file and played it in Winamp, windows media player, VLC and the quicktime player. Even opened it up in my audio editor. Did not hear or see any audio defects at all, beyond the artifacts already in the recording (hiss, electrical storm noise).

    I can try to dig up the wav file some time and re-encode and re-post it if you really continue to have a problem. Have you played it in different players? Or in other browsers? But this file has been on this post for years and you're the first to mention a problem with it.

    Has anyone else heard anything bleepity in this recording?

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