New Orleans Road Trip 1988 pt 1 (Ohio)

Thursday, March 20th, 2008

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

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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.

Trucking Radio, As It Used To Was

Friday, November 16th, 2007

Once you get the bug to DX the AM band, out of your expanded choice of stations you typically find yourself a regular listener to some far-flung station after the sun sets. When I was a kid in southeastern Michigan, I got hooked on WCFL in Chicago, specifically listening to Bob Dearborn night after night. He had this late-night feature “Long Gold" where he’d play the full album version of a song that would normally abbreviated on top 40 radio (or perhaps not played at all). Seems silly now, but hearing the full version of the Animal’s “House of the Rising Sun,” or “Sky Pilot” seemed pretty heavy back then. (Remember when “heavy” was a good thing?)

Anyway, my longest DX love affair with a far-off radio station came a few years later. While still in Michigan, I came across the “Road Gang” on WWL in New Orleans one night in the mid 70′s. And for the next twenty years or so, WWL was always a signal I’d seek out when I could get my nocturnal fingers on a tuning knob.

Booming up the Mississippi basin, WWL comes in like a local many nights in the Great Lakes region, around a thousand miles to the north of the transmitter. In my listening experience, WWL at 870kHz has been the most dependable long-distance DX on the AM band. Although the reception isn’t nearly as reliable or clear here in the northeast.

Certainly, the original appeal of picking up the Road Gang back then was just how exotic it was to a Midwestern kid in the suburbs. The host back then was a guy named Charlie Douglas, and the music was old shit-kickin’ country music. Better yet, I discovered a whole country sub-genretrucker music. Songs like “Girl on the Billboard” and “A Kiss and the Keys,” are still favorites here at the house.

Then there were national weather reports, given by state and interstate highway. And commercials for every aspect of the trucker lifestyle. There was a time travel appeal as well. The whole approach to radio was from an era before I was born. Each time check was tagged as “King Edward Cigar Time.”

Actually, The Road Gang kind of started a radio format– the all-night trucking show. Today there’s a number of them, and none nearly as good. Douglas hosted the program for 13 years, until moving into some big national gig in Nashville. And weekend host of the Road Gang, Dave Nemo, moved into Charlie’s weeknight spot. And despite the rambling chatter that got me this far into the post, I’ve finally gotten around to the subject at hand– The man who moved into Nemo’s weekend slot on the Road Gang: John Parker.

Now considered radio legends, Charlie Douglas and Mr. Nemo were fun to listen to at the helm of the Road Gang– homespun showmen for the working class. But for a bundle of reasons John Parker was absolutely my favorite host on the show. With a big rugged baritone and a grab-bag of cornball slang and 18-wheel idioms, Parker was a humble charismatic voice in the night. A true radio companion for truckers, night owls and country music lovers.

So, let’s get to the meat of the matter. Here’s a full ninety minutes or so of Parker on WWL (in two parts) from January of 1988. As I said, WWL in New Orleans has a heck of a signal into the Great Lakes Region. Hear for yourself. Radio waves traveling roughly 920 miles arrive amazingly intact upon arrival. One thing you get used to when spend much time listening to distant AM stations, is "fading." You find that even loud and clear signals sometimes slip away into near nothingness (or reveal other faint stations on the same frequency). But the gaps are usually brief, and like so many things with AM & SW listening, often unpredictable. But the fading in this reception is pretty forgiving, and and doesn’t happen all that often. I think I made this recording because the signal was just so damn strong that night.

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This aircheck is unscoped, meaning nothing was edited out, including the news and commercials. As you can hear from the “Interscan” weather reports, it was a cold snow flurry kind of night across America. And John himself was nursing a cold, but it hardly dampened his spirits. It’s Dave Nemo’s voice you hear on the truck stop commercials. I remember when I first set foot in the Slidell Union 76 trucks stop after hearing those ads from afar for so many years, I felt like I was on hollowed ground or something.

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Yes, all the the trucker trappings of the show were a lot of fun, both for the real working class authenticity, as well as the corny mythos of American Trucker. But it was all the the great music that kept me coming back to the Road Gang over the years. This one program is responsible for making me a lifelong country music fan. The music format of the Road Gang was deep into the history of C&W– pin-balling all night from honky-tonk to old-timey to western swing, bluegrass, Nashville, Outlaw… The whole 40 acres. Each night a unique rich patch of tunes.

Then late each Saturday night, Parker held court for two hours on the AM dial with one of the finest music programs I’ve ever heard on the AM dial– "Country Music The Way It Used To Was." No slouch in music history, Parker was assisted by a musicologist or two in putting the show together. And each week he conducted a freewheeling country and western seminar, featuring hits and rarities from the first 40 years of country recordings. What a great program this was. So often, a deep musicology driven radio show like is presented by some excitable geek host, or a dispassionate or unprofessional one. And they’re like shiny museum exhibits on FM. With Parker you get history, music and great radio, and his program is on the historic AM band, where the music was first heard.

So let me offer you a couple of 47 minute chunks of "Country Music The Way It Used To Was." This first aircheck comes over a year after the first two in this post. And in that time I had actually moved from Michigan to New Orleans. So instead of having to put a special radio in a special place at a special time to pick up WWL, it was now a loud and clear local. So these two episodes of "Country Music The Way It Used To Was" are crystal clear AM broadcasts. However these airchecks are slightly edited. When I made these recordings I edited out most of the commercials, as well as the weather and news.

The first selection comes from February 26, 1989. (You may note that Parker makes note of their new satellite connection/syndication with KRVN in Lexington, Nebraska. It was a way of opening up the west to the Road Gang (foreshadowing the show’s eventual national syndication).  Nice eclectic mix in this hour– some tasty Texas Playboys, wacky Lew Chlldre and a bit of very early Johnny Cash (Little Woolly Booger?).

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The next offering is from "Country Music The Way It Used To Was" broadcast August 13, 1989. Some solid from Hawkshaw Hawkins and Cowboy Copas, who were also passengers on the fatal plane crash that snuffed out Patsy Cline’s life as well. But what always gets my attention when I hear this archive are the songs by Hank William’s wife, Audrey. Wow. I never knew she was talented that way.

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In ended up in Florida for the first half of the 1990′s, and despite the fact that WWL’s transmitter is a few hundred miles closer to Tampa, the signal doesn’t have nearly the oomph it does beaming toward the north of New Orleans. I rarely picked it up while I was there. When I moved to New York City in ’97 I totally lost track of the Road Gang until I got home internet a year or two later. Then when looking online I discovered the program itself had relocated to Nashville. And although it was still syndicated on WWL, Parker had fallen off the schedule

In the summer of 1999, I sent a few emails to some folks at WWL trying to find out what happened to Parker and whether he was still on the air somehow. When I finally did get a response, it wasn’t good news. “John Parker still works for us,” the woman wrote. “He’s the overnight board operator… on from 11pm to 5am.” Board operator? One of my favorite radio voices was reduced to pushing buttons and adjusting levels? Don’t get me wrong, I think radio engineering is a noble profession. But it was distressing to hear that a great radio talent was reduced to technical duties.

The email from WWL gave me the number to reach Parker at the controls and assured that if I called in the middle of the night “John might be inclined to pick up.” As much as John Parker was an inspiration, I wasn’t inclined to reach out as a fan on the phone. I mean, what would I say?: “I thought you were really great on the radio. What happened?”

One thing I did learn from my time in New Orleans is how hard it is to leave the Crescent City. Especially if it’s always been your home. If you’ve never been there you might not understand, but suffice to say New Orleans has a sustaining quailty for those who love its humid maternal grace. (Which made the Katrina fiasco all the more tragic.) So it’s only a guess, but tend to think Parker didn’t follow the show to Nashville because he wasn’t willing to run away from home.

Then again, the music-heavy trucking radio format on continent-covering AM stations (as created by Charlie Douglas and others in the 1970′s) is long gone anyway.  Beside’s the Road Gang on WWL, there were also semi-national overnight shows out of 50,000 watt AM giants WLW in Cincinatti and WBAP in Fort Worth. Now trucking radio on AM is like most of what you hear on the dial– syndicated talk radio, only instead of discussing politics or sports, its trucker talk. Which can be kinda fun, but it’s not like hearing rare Bill Monroe tracks at three in the morning.

But the funny thing about that triumvirate of trucking radio shows that used to rule the night, is that like some rock supergroup the big named hosts from each program joined forces a few years ago to invest their decades of radio into an truckin’ all the time national satelittle station. The "Truckin’ Bozo" from WLW and the "Midnight Cowboy" from WBAP have teamed up with Dave Nemo to host their own programs on the "Open Road" channel on XM Radio. Since I’ve never been near an XM radio, I’ve never heard "Open Road." And while I realize that time marches on, I still have an aversion to paying a fee to listen to radio.

A year or two ago I ran across a fellow traveler in the radio business, and in the course of our introductory conversation we discovered we had both worked in New Orleans, which somehow led to the topic of John Parker. I found out this man I just met had been a fellow board-op with John. Apparently, Parker never let on that he used to be one of the hosts of the Road Gang for many years. As I write this I don’t recall all the details of our conversation, what stuck with me is that although this guy really liked John Parker, in real life he wasn’t exactly the easy-going gentleman I heard on the radio. He noted that Parker could be moody and odd. Even an introvert. Or maybe he was just pissed off that since he couldn’t or wouldn’t move to Nashville with the Road Gang that he was reduced to babysitting knobs instead of talking to half of America? And the most significant fact gleaned from that conversation was that John Parker had actually stopped living not that long ago.

So, my little anecdote of radio glory ends on a sad note. Both John Parker and thoughtful overnight music programs like his on U.S. clear channel AM stations are really part of history now (OK, there’s still WSM…) DXing medium wave just isn’t as much fun. And personally, I guess I blew my chance to pick up the phone and thank him for all those nights of great music and radio fellowship.

So, if you never heard Parker on the Road Gang years ago, I humbly implore you to have a listen. And get a taste of what it was like to have Honest John Parker bumpin’ around in the dark, makin’ all that noise.

Air America vs. Reality – Part 1

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2006

Neil_2 A little over two years ago, talk radio legend Neil Rogers offered his appraisal of the impending launch of Air America, a new liberal talk radio network.  "I wish them luck,” he said, “But I don’t see it succeeding… Hard-core conservatives gather around the radio to listen to Rush. Liberals are too busy having a life for that."

Was Neil right?

Maybe. Maybe not. While it seems that liberal or “progressive” talk radio has a discernable future in AM talk radio, whether the network that brought the idea into the mainstream can survive is whole ‘nother question.

Air America was founded in a flurry of idealism born out of frustration. In fact, it’s safe to say that without the mass proliferation of right wing radio that burgeoned during the 1990′s there never would have been an Air America at all. Air America was a reaction. A thoughtful one. However, much of the idealism has given way to damage control, inaction and a general spirit of compromise. Especially here in New York.

Wlib_1 Air America is losing their grasp on WLIB here in New York City. This story was reported as gossip in early April, and then denied by the involved parties until the other day. Now it’s true, and this is a HUGE disaster for the Network. They had a long-term lease with WLIB’s owners (Inner City Broadcasting Corporation), but apparently Air America screwed up somehow and Inner City took advantage of some clause in their contract and opted out of the whole deal. Oops. Wonder how that happened?

Dvd Money. It’s gotta be money. As documented in HBO’s “Left of the Dial” (Available on DVD and worth watching, by the way), Air America jumped out of the box with a rat CEO who quickly disappeared and left the network in woeful financial straits. It’s a good guess that despite minor victories and plenty of accolades over the last couple of years, Air America has yet to prove itself as a profitable venture. The radio grapevine here in New York has been ripe with tales of financial hardship at the network for a long time.

When Air America launched, it was far from perfect as a product. But for talk radio listeners who were angered and sickened by profusion of right wing blabbermouths the event was exhilarating. And with the infusion of TV comedy types (especially Comedy Central vets) into the mix, Air America was immediately different and even entertaining at times. But that was 2004.

The creative team who lined up the initial talent roster (Shelley Lewis and Lizz Winstead) are long gone now. The first six hours of the initial Air America line-up were experimental in that they each featured three hosts who had never worked together, and only one of each trio had actually done radio before. The first few months were rough as both tri-ego programs attempted to find a balance and chemistry between the hosts themselves, and for each show to establish a rhythm and sense of itself.

Bottom line, one show gelled the other never did. “Unfiltered,” wasn’t a horrible program, but it was never a great one. Hosted by Winstead herself with Chuck D. of Public Enemy and Rachel Maddow, the only one left on the air at the network is Maddow who now hosts her own show from 7 to 9 in the morning. The dissolution of Unfiltered occurred at the beginning of former music exec Danny Goldberg’s tenure as CEO of Air America, and as his first major programming decision plugged the hole in the lineup with something truly awful– “Springer On The Radio.”

Goldberg However, as I discussed in the pages of this blog months ago, the other half of the grand morning experiment at Air America did gel. After a few months, the radio/TV comedy alchemy produced a totally unique and often hilarious left-wing talk show– Morning Sedition. Comic Marc Maron teamed with local NYC radio voice Mark Riley was a rollicking idiosyncratic chunk of fun every morning. Riley provided the grounding for irreverent and manic Maron, who grew into a powerful radio talent in the daily grind of putting out the show. Apparently, Mr. Goldberg wasn’t amused. His next big programming decision at the network was to dump Morning Sedition as well.

In it’s place, you get an extended Rachel Maddow show (which was doubled from it’s previous one hour configuration) and a trimmed down version of Morning Sedition WITHOUT Marc Maron. And just like Al Franken without his former co-host Katherine Lanpher, Riley is left to banter with his production staff. And that’s how Air America sounds in general– less inspired and a feeling that decisions are being made with financial desperation trumping the willingness to take risks or invoke any real creative changes in the programming or in the business model of the network itself.

Randy_michaels And while Air America seems to be constantly robbing Peter to pay Paul to keep its fledgling left of center radio network together financially, former Clear Channel CEO Randy Michaels has been working behind the scenes slowly laying the groundwork (and gathering capital) for his own “progressive” talk empire– “Product First.” And in one bold stealth move, Michaels has suddenly gotten the upper hand and dealt a crippling blow to his competition by snatching away Air America’s flagship station, WLIB. Come September, WLIB will be under his control. What does this mean for Air America programming in New York? Good question.

Almost all the scenarios for Air America having a respectable presence in New York (the biggest radio market in the U.S.) after August are lousy. Even grim. There don’t seem to be any AM stations in New York with signals as good or better than WLIB that Air America are likely to be able to afford or convince to carry their programming. Not that WLIB is blowtorch, but they do cover the city and immediate area pretty well. And FM seems out of the question.

Then again, there is one obvious choice. They could STAY at WLIB, under the thumb of Randy Michaels.

Jacor The sneaky deal with Inner City is classic Randy Michaels. While he may have fallen from the highest position in all of radio, Michaels is still a force to be reckoned with. He’s high rolling wheeler-dealer motherfucker, and takes no prisoners. Before he was the head of Clear Channel, he ran a much smaller radio entity, Jacor Communications. At their peak, Jacor ruthlessly dominated four medium radio markets in the U.S. and were buying up more stations at a rapid pace. They also owned The Rush Limbaugh Show and Dr. Laura as well. And then when the company was absorbed by Clear Channel, Michaels and his Jacor gang actually TOOK OVER operation of Clear Channel.

Product First, or “P1" is the creation of Michaels and Stu Krane, who (get this) was involved in the national launch of the Rush Limbaugh program in the late 80′s. And last year they put their progressive talk radio network on the map by purchasing the most popular left-wing show NOT on Air America– The Ed Schultz Show. A bulky and boomy fellow who broadcasts out of North Dakota, Schultz is now on over 100 stations. A former right-winger who somehow went through some mystifying born again political experience, Schultz fashions himself as a manly progressive. He makes a point of bragging about his affection for guns and meat.

Wlib2 What’s Randy Michaels up to? The best guess is he’s up to his same old tricks– media domination. In the interim after he lost his gig as the king of Clear Channel and before he started a new company, Michaels was asked what he was going to next. “I was the architect of the largest radio group in the world, and I’m ready to move on to the next,” he boasted. And he borrowed a quote from the new CEO of Proctor and Gamble– “Change is inevitable…lead it.”

This is the irony of Air America. Left-wing talk, and maybe more importantly, talk radio that doesn’t follow the Republican talking points, is obviously a ripe for development and investment these days, but Air America’s leadership in the field hasn’t yielded a viable business model for the network itself. And Randy Michaels isn’t an idealist. He’s a businessman. And now Air America is getting the business, from Michaels.

Now over a barrel, Air America has to be in the middle of all sorts of discussions and/or negotiations right now to maintain some radio presence in New York City. The left-wing talk network is at a crossroads. Outside of some trimming and cutbacks, there’s been no rethinking of Air America’s programming or vision. Now, at least here in New York, there’s some hard choices to make and it will be interesting to see what Air America does next.

While I have no facts (or even unsubstantiated rumors) to back this up, I have a theory. Randy Michaels is a brilliant business strategist, and maybe this savvy chess move has given him the perfect opportunity to become the emperor of progressive talk radio in a hurry. What if Air America somehow merged with “Product First” and Michaels was put in charge? That would put the network in the hands of a proven predatory radio legend and would spell huge changes in Air America. And it might work.

Aar_2 Don’t get me wrong. I’m not really in favor of this idea (or fantasy), but Air America is certainly at a weak point and there doesn’t seem to be any good news on the horizon. They need leadership, and Michaels is a proven leader. Is he actually liberal? A very good question indeed. One thing’s for sure– he doesn’t fool around.

Whatever happens, I do predict some big changes at Air America in the next year. And in that time there will be some drastic changes in their programming, or they won’t be on the air at all. That’s a guess I stand by, for now.

(This post originally appeared in Beware of the Blog.)

CNN Hires Right-Wing Radio Bozo Glenn Beck

Saturday, January 21st, 2006

Nice_sweater_glenn The other day in one of my DX posts I included a clip of “The Glenn Beck Program” and briefly discussed my general dislike of his radio persona and my aversion to his show in general. Apparently, some of the bigwigs over at CNN found Beck’s glib schtick a little more charming than I did.  He just signed a contract with the cable news network and will soon have a show of his own on their “Headline News” channel.

While I don’t really watch television, it saddens me that Beck’s sleazy radio work has advanced his presence in the media. Under fire from the Fox News ratings juggernaut, CNN (from what I’ve read) has made a number of compromises to their programming to make their content more glossy and Republican friendly. But this might be a new low.

Along with right-wing talk stars Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Beck’s program is syndicated by Clear Channel’s “Premier Radio Network.” Now based in Philadelphia, Beck is widely heard (on about 200 stations) in the U.S. Nationally, he made his biggest splash as the ringleader and keynote speaker for Clear Channel’s pro-warRally For America” gatherings around the country in 2003.

While Beck political spiel falls in line with the armies of right-wing talk hosts who infest the American AM dial, he’s best known in talk radio circles for routinely making outrageous and psychopathic offhand remarks and discussing world issues in a rather cheeky jingoistic manner. A reformed alcoholic, Beck is reminiscent of a barstool loudmouth with a mean streak. However, instead of just being a tavern nuisance, Glenn Beck is broadcasting to a national audience. And now the once respected cable news giant CNN has seen fit to add Beck’s sophomoric hyperbole to their prime time line-up.

Like the mannish and reckless Ann Coulter, Beck becomes another outrageous and flaky TV pundit who will say anything to pollute a debate and get a cheap laugh on behalf of the Republican party. The coarsening and dumbing-down of TV and radio political coverage has created a glut of news and information programming in moral free fall. It seems the checks and balances of U.S. media (like accountability and public outrage) are irrevocably broken. I suppose Rush Limbaugh made irresponsible and vicious right wing commentary acceptable and marketable in the name of “entertainment.” Nowadays, making offensive remarks about the unempowered, and calling for the torture and death of people you disagree with passes as hilarious satire. And I guess CNN just wants to join in on the fun.

Beck_with_flagsWhile it might not be fair to judge Beck’s upcoming CNN program before its launch, there’s no reason to believe he’ll be any more reflective or thoughtful on TV than he’s ever been on the radio. Over the last couple years on his program Beck has called Cindy Sheehan a “tragedy pimp,” and said the victims of Hurricane Katrina are "scumbags." And apparently it only took him a year to start really hating some of the families of 9-11 victims. Chances are the same kind of chuckle-nuggets will flow from his television show too.

Talk host Lionel has a somewhat similar history to Glenn Beck, having also launched to fame from WFLA-AM in Tampa, and spending some time on cable TV as well as being one of Premiere/Clear Channel’s crew of talk hosts for a while. But while he can be as flip and silly as Beck, Lionel ultimately respects the power of "the word" and the responsibility of being a national radio voice. Instead of using easy insults or crafting an emotional attack, Lionel sticks to the facts and makes his argument with logic and compassion for all concerned when the topics are serious. On Tuesday night Lionel weighed in on the announcement of Beck’s new TV show, and I thought you might like to hear it. Just for fun, here’s a couple of clips of Lionel discussing CNN’s decision, and the wonders of Glenn Beck in general.

Lionel on Glenn Beck – 01-17-06 pt 1

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Lionel on Glenn Beck – 01-17-06 pt 2

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A personality like Glenn Beck is representative of the pornification of media. Rather than edify or really entertain, Beck stimulates. He stirs up the bloodlust and mook-hormones of his fans, and angers the hell out of some people who think or care or stand against violence. But unlike Limbaugh, O’Reilly or Hannity, Beck doesn’t come off a chiding chirping Republican talkbot. He has a disarming "ordinary joe" grin on his face as he advocates death, despair and torture. The rise of Glenn Beck is just another victory in the neo-conservative media campaign to get common folks to vote against their own interests and morals. Perhaps his detached goofiness is even more dangerous than the growing media pantry of more strident neo-con voices.

(This post originally appeared in Beware of the Blog.)

Air America’s Next Big Mistake?

Tuesday, November 1st, 2005

Maron_emotes_1It looks like Air America is about to lose one of their best on-air personalities, Marc Maron. There’s been no official announcement, but on his show, Morning Sedition, Maron has repeatedly said he’s probably on his way out. And yesterday he said it’s unlikely he’ll be part of the Morning Sedition air team (with radio veteran Mark Riley) after this month. And they’re promoting their live remote at O’Neal’s in the Upper West Side this Thursday as their "last live appearance."

Why would Maron leave? Or why would Air America let go of the funniest guy on their talent roster? Best guess– deadlocked contract negotiations.

Maron_rileyWhen Air America went on the air over a year and a half ago, a lot of us in radio were dismayed that a new talk network would go on the air with so many air personalities and writers who made their mark in television instead of radio. Not that media cross-pollination in general is such a bad idea, but just that when a start-up radio network was trying to do something SO new (a national liberal talk network) AND they were also attempting to reinvent the medium at the same time by leaning so heavily on TV talent instead of loading up the schedule with radio veterans.

The big exceptions were South Florida’s leftist talk bulldog Randi Rhodes who’s held down the late afternoon slot since the beginning, and then a few months later acerbic career talker Mike Malloy who was tacked onto the late night end of the schedule. Those programs were the only ones done in the traditional talk radio manner–  one host on the air brings up issues, vents, and takes calls. All the other shows were more experimental– with multiple hosts, many guests, and only a few (if any) calls. And all these programs featured one or more hosts best known for their work in TV or film.

Aa_logoAir America’s biggest experiments were their two morning shows, both featuring teams of three hosts– "Morning Sedition" and "Unfiltered." Morning Sedition came into its own after one host left the show (more on that in a minute). But Unfiltered only survived the first year. Two of the hosts, Rachel Maddow and Public Enemy’s Chuck D now have their own programs (Maddow’s early early morning show which now runs from 5 to 6 a.m. is a tight and timely review of the news well worth a listen). But the third other co-host Lizz Winstead (who was also one of the key programming-creative figures at the dawn of the network) is gone. Best known as one of the creator’s of TV’s "The Daily Show," Winstead was the biggest architect of the "television-vision" for Air America. And now she’s in the middle of a lawsuit to claim unpaid wages from the network. While I don’t know the details as far as which side seems to be in the right, the filing of the suit revealed that they were paying Winstead a quarter million a year for her services. And you wonder why they’re having money troubles…

Springer_1 Oh and speaking of television, Unfiltered was replaced by TV crapmaster Jerry Springer. It’s easy to forget that Springer was a politician before he became the host of one of the most inane hours in television. His Air America talk show is a serious one featuring his heartfelt leftist views on political issues. However, it is BORING. It’s traditional talk radio run by a host who has no understanding of the medium. It’s so boring that I don’t have anything more to say about it, except to hope it’s not long for this world. It’s a waste of valuable radio frequencies across the country. And let’s hope they’re not spending a lot of money to keep Springer’s big name on the schedule.

If you’re talking to someone unfamiliar with talk radio or leftist media and mention "Air America," they likely won’t know what you’re talking about. Then tell them it’s that new talk network with Al Franken, and then they’ll probably recall hearing something about it. Best known as a TV writer and comedian, Franken has become a political media superstar. He’s just finished another lefty book sure to rise up the best-seller list, and seems to be headed toward a U.S. Senate run in 2008 in Minnesota.

His mid-day show has been the flagship show for the fledgling network since its inception. Teamed with public radio’s Katherine Lanpher, Franken’s program settled into a groove pretty quickly as a breezy political talk show with plenty of writers, researchers and politicians discussing the issues of the day. And of course, there’s always heaping helpings of Franken style humor to be found in between the serious bits. However, despite his big name and notable accomplishments in the comedy realm, Franken’s constant retelling of bad jokes and his just plain hokey sense of humor doesn’t often make for cutting edge radio.

Lettermanfranken_3 And what’s worse, Lanpher has left the show and Franken seems to be floundering a bit without her there to keep the show on track and keep Franken’s expansive ego in check. Franken now is using the technical and production staffers around him as comedy foils and it’s a little painful to hear. That said, his appearance on Letterman the other night was quite funny and almost electric. It all made it painfully obvious that Franken’s charisma doesn’t translate well to radio or the long form medium of a three hour talk show. And how will he fare on the campaign trail? Or on the Senate floor? You gotta wonder.

Which all gets me back to the subject at hand, Marc Maron. If you happened to see the excellent and insightful HBO documentary on the beginning of Air America, "Left of the Dial," you saw the good and bad of Mr. Maron at the dawn of his radio career. Previously Maron had been a stand-up comic (and author) best known for his appearances on cable and late night talk TV. Painfully neurotic and unsure of himself, Maron is seen in early scenes in the film as someone out of his element, having no idea how to navigate three hours of radio five days a week, as well as having to adjust to working pre-dawn hours every day. And in the beginning Morning Sedition show was a mess, with three separate personalities trying to find some kind of chemistry. Just to hear all three of them conduct an interview or take a call kinda hurt.

Maroncigg And it was plain to hear (and see in the documentary) that there wasn’t a lot of love between Maron and one of this co-hosts, Sue Ellicott. A former BBC TV commentator (and frequent panelist on the NPR comedy show abortion known as "Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me"), Ellicott didn’t have much of a stomach for Maron’s fast-paced acid humor. My favorite line in the whole movie occurs when the show is live and Ellicott tries to smooth out and "balance" something Maron had said in an interview– and Maron fires back: "Who’s side are you on British Lady?" Perhaps more than Randi Rhodes’ first-day slap fight with Ralph Nader, that moment was a telling blow that Air America was going to be nothing like the limp-wristed and neutered political coverage of NPR. Thank god.

Since Ellicott has left the show, the partnership of Marc and Mark has gained fame and followers across the country. Each local remote appearance is packed with fans. They’re a good team. Co-host Mark Riley’s decades of  newsroom experience grounds Maron’s scattershot rants, and his "everyman" quality makes him the perfect straight man for Maron’s rabid wit. And then you have some solid wacky writers (including comedian-writer Kent Jones who adds his stable of characters and impersonations into the mix), and the end result is a dependable helping of news and chuckles in every show. It’s a radio program that offers up-to-the minute information, historical context, and wild-ass funny bits. And any moment can yield an impromptu dose of Maron’s off-the-cuff self-obsessed rambling about his life. Somehow, it’s about as good as morning radio gets in this era of incompetent and malevolent governance. It would be a shame to lose it.

Unlike anyone else on Air America (including Franken), Maron slams the idiocy and evil of the Bush administration AND makes you laugh at the same time (which isn’t easy). If you can imagine combining the indignant anger of Mike Malloy (without the froth) with the dark comedy of Bill Hicks and the over-the-top irreverence of Andy Breckman, you get an idea of Maron’s talk radio persona. Air America has grown a real radio talent with Maron, and while nobody on the outside seems Maronriley_remoteto know the exact details of why they may soon part, you’d have to hope that Air America wouldn’t let loose one of their best on-air assets at this point in the game.

You don’t have to look far on the internet to find the details of the money troubles Air America has had since the very beginning. And Maron had a fairly successful career before Morning Sedition, and one would think that the radio show has probably given that career a boost. He also has a long-distance marriage (to his wife in California) because he has to be in New York for his Air America duties. If he’s holding out for a healthy sum, it’s easy to understand why. Maron has become a valuable asset to the network, and must he know that. One can only imagine what they pay Franken, and it’s assumed that he’s probably only going to be around for so long anyway. Air America should invest in their future, if they want to have one.

If you’re not familiar with Morning Sedition or Maron’s radio efforts, have a listen to some MP3 bits from yesterday’s show. It ain’t the funniest one I’ve ever heard, but hey it’s fresh.

Maron Discusses Leaving The Show  1:07

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Cat Giveaway  0:47

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O’Neal’s Announcement  1:20

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Email Plea-Belly Dancing Call  1:40

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The INews 5000 WiFi Headline Translator  1:36

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The Monday Job Listing  1:13

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Morning Remembrance  5:05

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Liberal Marching Orders-Halloween Tripping Story  2:09

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Maronriley_official_3And if you’re not up early in the morning, or you can’t hear Air America where you live, you can download Morning Sedition (without ads) every day right here, and even easier, you can podcast it with links from this page.

Maron is now saying that he may occasionally be part of Morning Sedition in some small way, and he occasionally hints that there’s some small chance he’ll remain as co-host. But it’s important to remember, even if you love the host of any show or love the station that carries it, radio is really a cutthroat business. It’s rare that a radio personality remains on the air when contract negotiations are failing. And you can hear in Maron’s on-air discussions of the matter that he’s being very careful about what he says, and what he doesn’t say. If you piss off the boss and you’re on your way out, you’re likely to be off the air in as soon as they can drag you out of the studio. It happens all the time.

Manic_maron_1Ongoing online conversations regarding Marc Maron leaving Air America can be found on the Morning Sedition Blog, or the Morning Sedition Message Board. An online petition to keep Marc Maron on Morning Sedition can be found here, and the official email address to plea for Maron’s survival at the network belongs to the Air America CEO, Danny Goldberg (dannyg@airamericaradio.com).

Air America is not Clear Channel, and they undoubtedly have some hard financial choices to make, at least for a while. However, there’s a couple of weak shows in their lineup that are just ripe to be plucked from the schedule and replaced with something else. But Morning Sedition isn’t one of them. And while Riley is a real radio talent with more experience than almost anyone else on the air at the network, it’s the manic magic of Marc Maron that keeps people listening every morning. Let’s hope Air America figures that out before it’s too late.

(This post originally appeared in Beware of the Blog.)