Tony, Tony, Tony (and more Tony Oren)

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

From the email and comments I’ve received, it’s obvious that my two previous posts of  Tony Oren airchecks have struck a nerve with more than a few of you. One rooted in the brain’s pleasure center perhaps. The soft spot.

When the "middle of the road" and easy listening radio formats were ubiquitous it was easy to enough to ignore or laugh off this style of radio if you were a rock and roll kid. And nobody would have called these stations exciting. They were staid, mannered. And something else often not appealing to the younger set– informative. Even today, almost all the programming on KMOX (besides the omnipresent rightist moron Rush Limbaugh) is still local. It’s kind of a tradition.

The big regional MOR outlets like KMOX were known as "full-service" radio stations because they served an entire community in a very real way. Although the target audience for this format was mostly likely the middle-aged crowd, it was really way of creating radio for everybody. It was commerical broadcasting as a true public service that’s kind of hard to imagine today. A clear channel 50,000 watt radio station, KMOX served more than just the greater St. Louis area during the daylight hours. And then at nightfall when the AM radio waves bounce off the sky, KMOX was a giant regional station, providing news, information and entertainment to perhaps a third of the lower fourty-eight states.

What stands out today is how this radio fomat was mature and professional through and through. Broadcasting you’d be hard pressed to hear in the youth-fixated culture that has taken control of most media these days. And whether the announcers were chatting or playing music, the general vibe was comfort. And familiariity in a broader sense than just playing the hits or repeating cliches. When you turned on the radio you were immediately in the hands of a pro with excellent manners and perfect diction. Like Tony Oren.

KMOX – Music and Musings with Tony Oren – 03-16-86 pt 1
(download)

What I have for you here are three whole hours of Tony Oren’s "Music & Musings" from March of 1986. And these particular tapes were recorded locally in the St. Louis area, so you’ll hear none of the fading and Cuban interludes that were baked into the last Oren aircheck I posted (although I kinda liked those anomalies…) And it’s recorded with remarkable clarity. A big thanks to Cliff Saxton for sharing these airchecks with all of us.

KMOX – Music and Musings with Tony Oren – 03-16-86 pt 2
(download)

To be honest, I haven’t had time to listen to all three hours yet. As these airchecks are “unscoped,” all the news and ads are intact. Which has an appeal as time goes by. Funny to hear about Reagan haranguing congress for more “rebel aid” when we would soon find out that Oliver North was busy selling weaponry to Iran to fund the administration’s pet ragtag army in Nicaragua.

KMOX – Music and Musings with Tony Oren – 03-16-86 pt 3
(download)

As far as Tony himself, it’s fun to hear him talk about old Howard Cosell getting into trouble with the boxing bigwigs. And speaking of long gone colorful characters, after Oren plays some Sinatra he mentions that the crotchety old crooner was coming to sing in St. Louis soon. Nice.

And two other things I found kind of odd. Tony gets a good laugh about Ted Nugent’s offer at the time to buy the elevator music company Muzak so he could destroy it, without seeming to comprehend that the nasty Nuge would probably ask a guy like Tony to “suck on" his machine gun as well. And the other funny thing was Oren’s “summary of weather conditions” that starts out with temperatures and conditions around Missouri, and then he moves onto Atlanta and Boston, then the rest of America and almost all the major cities around the globe. Then, when you’re starting to imagine that this will never end, it does and you’re in the middle of a routine forecast for St. Louis. As much as I love Tony, I was kind of afraid he was going to jump back on the hamster wheel and lay out a slew of weather forecasts for half the planet. Instead, we get the mellow wisdom of Rod McKuen. Perfect. Certainly better than more weather.

KMOX – Music and Musings with Tony Oren – 03-16-86 pt 4
(download)

The fourth aircheck starts with the end of a hokey Joni James number and then Tony offers a brief commentary on the pre-dawn sky of St. Louis and then bows out to get another cup of coffee during the last newscast of his program. And then later he announces that the sun has risen– “a great big hot fiery ball.” Not the kind of thing you’d get with your traffic and weather together on the ones these days.

Again, a big thanks to Cliff Saxon for this contribution. He also says he has at least one tape of John McCormick ("The man who walks and talks at midnight"), a more famous KMOX overnight personality a few of you have expressed an interest in, which I might be able to post here some time in the future.

Meanwhile, I’m off for a week or so. Into the countryside. And as usual, I’ll be recording some radio. Actually I just got my hands on one of C Crane’s CC Witness devices and I’m looking forward to spending some time with that as well. So far, it’s pretty impressive– an MP3 recording radio with AM & FM. And not only can you program radio recordings in a VCR/TiVo fashion, but it also has a line-in/microphone record function. While cassette tape recording has proved to be a reliable way to capture radio over the years, I’m interested in finding out if something like this will save a lot time in turning these recordings digital.

And I do appreciate some of the positive feedback I’ve been getting in my inbox. And not only that, but a few of you actually ponied up to the PayPal box for me after I asked nice for a little spare change a couple weeks ago. I really appreciate that. It wasn’t a lot, but it made me happy. If you can and you’re in the mood, the tip jar is open all night.

I do hope you enjoy this big piece of the wee hours from 1986. I know I will. Perhaps from the MP3 clock radio on the bed table…

If you found this post without seeing my first two articles about Tony, you can find them here and here. Both have airchecks attached as well.

More Music, More Musing

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

Here’s a follow-up to one of my more popular posts here, where I feature my OTHER aircheck recording of Tony Oren’s wonderful overnight program on KMOX in St. Louis. It’s a show I still sorely miss. Oren himself oozed class, and his “Music & Musings” were already a remnant of an era gone by when I captured this reception back in 1990. It’s the sound I used to hear on the AC/Delco in my dad’s 1967 Pontiac Catalina as snow flurries swirled in the headlights.

Great voice, and paced and graceful conversational patter. Radio for grownups. Although Oren left KMOX in 1994 and died four years later, the radio station itself kept the overnight easy listening format it had offered for decades intact until 1999, long after it had disappeared from almost every market in America.

By being on after dark on a clear channel powerhouse like KMOX, Oren was talking to almost half the country each weekend. It was a station I could receive equally well in southern Michigan or on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. It was my weekend beacon of relaxation, with Tony slyly musing into the night, and night and bouncing the stylings of Tony Bennett and Henry Mancini off the old American F layer.

And since I posted that first recording of Oren, a few readers have filled me in more KMOX history. Specifically, I wanna thank reader Cliff in Missouri for leading me to a book called “The Mighty MOX,” which only dedicates a page or two to Oren’s legacy at the station, but there’s a few compelling tidbits that are worth relating (besides his Oreo cookie habit…)

For example, a smooth operator like Tony makes it sound easy and completely natural the way he segues from the lyric of some old standard to story in the news. But the secret of his glib reverie was that it was all built on a regimen of preparation.

“Tony would bring a suitcase in with him,” said Rene Servicer, one of his producers. “He had his stuff in his suitcase. Tony had a miniature paper cutter and would slice up the wire copy and put it in the binder. He’d write in the columns what it was. ‘Man bites dog story,’ or ‘wedding’ or whatever. Say he played a song called ‘Eternal Love,’ he would real quick turn to the section on weddings and read an article about something that pertained to the song."

Still years away from Google searches and subscribing to radio fodder via email, Oren did it the hard way, sorting through the teletype copy off the news wire to collect all the tools he might need for a night of “musings.”

There’s not a lot of biographical details on Oren in the KMOX book, but it does mention that he traveled the world a bit, and had some semblance of an acting career in Australia. And from that deep rich voice I’d bet he was a smoker and enjoyed a whiskey now and then. A bon vivant kind of guy. And of course, a night owl.

There was certainly a flavor of worldliness to Oren’s show that attracted me, but there were more than a few after-dark damsels who found Oren’s assuring baritone banter appealing in a more glandular fashion. According to Servicer, woman would call and offer him breakfast at their house. And there’s no word in the book whether Oren was married, or if he enjoyed some complimentary morning meals with female admirers. I’d like to think he did.

Speaking of that, here another excerpt from “The Might MOX,” as told by Barb Felt, a KMOX account executive during Oren’s tenure at the station.

There was a middle-aged woman living on the east side who became addicted to Tony Oren’s voice on the weekends, but it was a love/hate relationship on her part. She would call him on the off-air line during the breaks and accuse him of reading her mind. She claimed she would be thinking a thought and then Tony would instantly bring that subject matter up in the on-air dialogue.     

Now that just sounds like a recipe for trouble, doesn’t it? There’s no further details of their actual relationship. But even if Tony did score a few stacks of hotcakes (or better) in the deal, it sounds like he came close to getting his brains scrambled one evening.

“One night after his show, Tony went to his car, (which was parked on the street in front of the station) and while he was unlocking the car door, a frenzied woman jumped up from behind the car and sprayed Tony with mace,” Felt said. “She screamed obscenities while threatening him that if he ever ‘read her mind’ again, she would take more drastic actions. She then disappeared into the shadows."

Having a voice that beguiles half a nation of female insomniacs obviously has a down side.

Anyway, here’s the tape. Unfortunately, it’s the only other one I have. Although Cliff says he still has a few recordings of Oren on KMOX around his house.

KMOX – Music and Musings with Tony Oren 02-04-90 pt 1
(download)

But as you hear that jazzy strum of the guitar at the end of the KMOX news, you know you’re in the hands of a radio pro. And the musings here are standard MOR radio fare– celebrities born on that date (Wow, Vice-President Quayle was only 43…), as well as the events of that day in history. And then, Al DeLory tinkles gently on your mind.

And it’s AM STEREO! Wish I could have recorded it that way.

However, shortly into the following Ella Fitzgerald number it becomes obvious that there’s a Spanish language station vying for the attention of my radio. In fact, I’d guess it’s coming in from down Havana way. And like many of the artifacts of AM analog reception and the inherent propagation variables of that type of audio transmission, the effect of these two stations coming in at the same time is almost graceful. Even poetic. And to hear what I mean, just check out the Cuban music floating beneath Tony’s treatise on the retirement of jockey Willie Shoemaker at the beginning of part two of this recording.

KMOX – Music and Musings with Tony Oren 02-04-90 pt 2
(download)
                           
Actually, it’s not that strange that a Cuban signal would drift over like this. I made this recording in Mobile, Alabama– where I was around 560 miles from the St. Louis transmitter on the mainland. And to the southeast, Havana wasn’t much further– like 640 miles or so. And the Cuban signal actually takes over the frequency so completely that you can’t even hear Oren introduce a Johnny Mathis classic. And considering Oren’s episode with that psychotic fan, it’s kinda fitting that he happened to play “Misty" for us that night. And once Johnny comes in clearly, listen to the signal throb warmly atop the distant Cuban station. It’s not just misty. It’s mystical.

And besides the incidental Latin accompaniment on the second half of this aircheck, Tony’s musical selection is even better. Especially, if you’re as fond of Dinah Washington, Nelson Riddle and Jack Jones as I am. And before it’s all over you get some CBS news, 1990 style. Nelson Mandela is about to finally be released, and sweeping reforms are underway in South Africa. And the Soviet Union has come down with a fatal case of glasnost. Meanwhile, writer Salman Rushdie was just one year into his fatwa problem. But no mention of the coming recession the first Bush presidency was cooking up for our country and the world.

It’s funny how everything before the world wide web seems like a simpler time. And the schmaltzy pop instrumentals and jazzy vocals of “Music and Musings” certainly sound dated. But as much as I usually find nostalgia a little silly, when I hear the archival sound of old-fashioned “middle of the road” American radio I do feel a homesickness I can’t deny. Not for any place I used to live, or anything I used to do, but for that calm adult sound that used to come out of any radio if you turned it on and adjusted the knob. The lack of irony is refreshing. The professionalism is inspiring. And the solace makes as much sense now as it did back then.

And in case you missed it, my first post on Tony Oren can be found here.

When Listening Was Still Easy

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

If you get in the habit of digging into the AM band at night, you’re bound to become familiar with some of the big regional 50,000 watt “clear channel” stations in your part of the world. Growing up in Michigan, stations like WCFL in Chicago, WLW in Cincinnati, and WGAR in Cleveland usually came in like locals at night. The east coast from Boston down to the Carolina’s offered all sorts of signals. Often WWL in New Orleans and WSB in Atlanta came in strong as well.

In the late 1980′s I had gotten into the habit of listening to KMOX in St. Louis on Saturday nights, and despite the fact that I happened to move across the country from Michigan to Louisiana, and then on to Alabama within that handful of years, I never lost the ability to tune it in. And what originally hooked my to KMOX on the weekends was an excellent big band program hosted by a old fellah named Charlie (Menese?). Although it was a great show (I’ll post one some time), and probably a long standing feature of KMOX programming I wasn’t able to find any reference to it on the web. However, what I really grew to love was the show that immediately followed– “Music and Musings” with Tony Oren. (I found one online reference to Tony’s show here.)

Oren’s program, which like the big band show is long gone by now, was the last of a breed of programming I sorely miss, grown-up easy listening. By that I don’t mean the seconal super syrup of “beautiful music,” or the yawny yearning of a “quiet storm.” No, I mean the low-key jazz flavored pop of “middle of the road” radio, specifically the sound of that format by night.

Okay, there’s the nostagia factor I won’t totally deny. If you grew up in the 1960′s, this is probably the kind of radio your parents listened to. And as I’ve written previously, there was a wonderful overnight program on WJR in Detroit, “Night Flight 760,” that played an array of smart easy listening that is embedded in my childhood memories as some of the best radio comfort food I’ve ever heard. And Music and Musings with Tony Oren was the last time I’ve heard anything like it. And I happened to record a show or two back in 1990 when I was living in Mobile, one of which I can now offer you here.

KMOX – Music and Musings with Tony Oren 10-27-90 pt 1

(download)

Yes, it’s true you can still find a few radio stations offering this kind of content. Over the last few years, I’ve known a number of like-minded friends who seek out stations who carry on with pre-rock pop music, calling them “old man stations.” It’s the only radio format left for seniors, and it’s certainly endangered. You’ll can still find a few local stations carrying on this kind of programming in senior hotspots in places like Florida and Arizona. And there the “Music of Your Life” syndicated/satellite thing (which I hear quite often on small town stations when I’m on the road), which is listenable but with no surprises. And AM 740 in Toronto’s mix of oldies and pre-oldies probably makes a lot of old fart DXers across North America feel at home, but I think the kind of radio you hear on this aircheck is probably extinct. These days, stations that cater to the oldest demographic groups inevitably mix in Elvis, the Beatles and the Carpenters. It’s not the same. “Music and Musings” offers something different. Something gone. And there’s nothing rock and roll about it.

Musically, in this aircheck you get some appropriate moody performances from typical stars of this format like Peggy Lee, Buddy Greco and Nat King Cole, and some rich high-fructose instrumentals from Andre Kostelanetz, 101 Strings and the Melachrino Strings. Even Pia Zadora doesn’t take away the beauty of it all. But to be fair, it’s not just the music, but the musings.

To me, a guy like Tony Oren is the penultimate announcer. Just warm enough. Even a little dry. And able to conversationally segue together every element of the broadcast with simple panache and confidence. His pacing is remarkable. It’s not easy to sound so relaxed coming across as sleepy, preposterous, or just boring. I wish I heard more announcers like this today. A total professional. I guess you could call it style. To my ears, so many NPR types strive for this kind of presence and fail.

KMOX – Music and Musings with Tony Oren 10-27-90 pt 2

(download)

But it’s not NPR, it’s just musings. A little anecdote about ol’ Dan Rostenkowski and a big lobbyist funded luxury junket in the tropics here, and some this day in history stuff there. But this aircheck is unedited, and in the second half you get the a CBS newscast. It documents the point in history where Pappy Bush broke his moronic “Read my lips!” campaign promise and signed on to a tax increase and forever pissed off some of his Republican buddies (and may have cost him the 1992 election).

However, I’m not posting this for the news or the commercials, but as an artifact of long gone breezy broadcasting. And as a personal remembrance of all those Saturday nights years ago when I tuned KMOX in on the clock radio and shut out the light.

A follow up to this post (including another aircheck of Tony Oren) can be found here.