Rust Belt Road Trip 2009 pt 1 (It Hurts So Bad)

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

As I mentioned in my last post, I recently embarked on a solo road trip from my Brooklyn to my ancestral homeland– The American Rust Belt. While I grew up in Michigan, my genetic material harkens back several generations in Ohio. And on my drive to my brother’s house near Flint, I had my new CC Witness with me in the car, which presented me with an opportunity I’ve never had. For the first time in my life I was able to record radio (or at least do so safely) while driving. Why was something so simple so impossible for so long?

So that’s what this post is all about. I’m offering you a montage of what I was able to find on the AM radio dial that Sunday afternoon as I circumvented Lake Erie on the interstates. It’s almost like you’re sitting in the car with me and I’m changing stations and carrying on. And we’re off on another adventure in amplitude modulation. I’m glad you could join me.

Unlike most major interstate highways, interstate 80 goes all the way though Pennsylvania without connecting to any of their major cities. Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and a few significant metro areas are well south of I-80 and are served by other highways. Interstate 80 is just a fat transportation pipe connecting the Great Lake region with the East Coast megalopolis. While it’s a pretty drive with lots of hills and trees and road signs, without any appreciable population centers the long drive through the middle of the state is a rather sterile zone for medium wave reception by day. Of course nightfall would open up the DX possibilities, but that’s not what this post is about. This time around it’s the hometown sound. And it’s partly cloudy. Intermittent rain.

It’s not exactly a bandscan (you can’t change frequencies when the CC Witness is recording), but most of it was local radio captured as I zoomed through coverage patterns. It’s more like the previous collages I’ve posted from a road trip I took back in 1988 from Detroit to New Orleans. (I hope to get back to that again one day soon.)

And as it’s 2009, I’m driving through some desperate territory. Both Ohio and Michigan were not only hit early and hard by the economic downturn. But there’s been a hardscrabble vibe surrounding the American shore of Lake Erie and the Detroit River for decades. So many of the manufacturing jobs that once provided a good middle-class life for millions in this part of the world have been drying up for decades. This recession is just one more kick in the head. And while I can’t say for sure, if things would have turned out differently I might have stayed in this part of the world instead of ending up in New York. Despite so many strange but true horror stories, there is an appeal to Detroit that can’t be denied. It has an edge.

I start recording after I’d already been driving for six hours, when I was approaching Youngstown.

Rustbelt Roadtrip pt 1 (Northern Ohio and S.E. Michigan) August 23, 2009 17:48 
(download)

1390kHz WNIO Youngstown, OH – The Lettermen Hurt So Bad

We start with a small station that’s changed its format and call letters and frequency so many times that it almost doesn’t have a history. These days it’s a minor Ohio concern of Clear Channel Communications playing a canned format of safe old pop music, otherwise known as “America’s Best Music"” (or just “The Music Of Your Life”). While I must admit that I appreciate that these stations are still around (and are probably the most common music format left on AM here), these descendants of old-line MOR radio have all but disappeared in bigger radio markets. Yet, the appeal of this format within the 45 to death demographic still has some limited financial potential in markets that might not have ethnic communities that are large or robust enough to support more profitable brokered operations. And you almost never hear local DJs on these stations today. Sadly, this is a format an owner is likely to put onto a transmitter when they don’t have any better ideas (and aren’t willing to invest in any real programming).

1440kHz WHKZ – Cleveland, OH – A Christian Commercial Break

WHZK is one of three Cleveland stations owned by the right-wing media group, Salem Communications. And they all have nicely matched call letters– WHK, WHKW & WHKZ. Most of Salem’s radio properties offer either religious or political propaganda, or both. In Cleveland, WHK at 1420kHz carries Salem’s stable of “Townhall” talk shows, while fifty-thousand watt giant WHKW at 1220kHz (formally WGAR…) is a right-wing Christian talk outfit. And reflecting a lack of programming imagination and a poor local economy, WHKZ merely simulcasts the evangelical and super-conservative content of WHKW (with the exception of a few weekly hours sold separately). So in effect, WHKZ and WHKW are the same station.

And when those stations aren’t simulcasting scary shows like “Focus On The Family” or “Jay Seculow Live,” they fill the gaps with brokered programming from local churches and evangelical hucksters. When I come across this station, one paid program is ending and another is about to begin. We hear the tail end of “The Bible Stands,” presented by the Liberty Bible Church. And if you listen for the number, you might be able to call in for your own free “scripture portion.”

And speaking of tough times, aren’t you sick of people talking aboutstaycations” already? I’m not saying you can have fun around the house, but don’t call it a vacation. Yet, the chirpy announcer in this first commercial intones– “when you’re worn out and tired, what’s more appealing than going home?” So, instead of planning a weekend getaway, this Ohio mattress maker has a suggestions–. "create a luxurious retreat right in your own bedroom." In other words, buy a new bed and lay down. Give up. Watch TV. Have some wine. (I suppose if this wasn’t a Christian station they might hint at some other bed-friendly activities…) But more to the point, instead of spending some time on the beach or at a ski lodge, why not resign yourself to the same horizontal padded purgatory enjoyed by shut-ins, invalids and the brain-dead– “where you can relax and just be yourself.” Creepy.

And then you get something more modern– Internet dating care of eHarmony.com. I’ve come across their ads on secular radio stations quite a bit, but I don’t recall hearing anything like– “Do you ever feel that God has someone special in mind for you?” Hmmm. I personally don’t ponder god’s thought process in any great detail, but I guess some do. And a little web research reveals that the founder and brainchild behind eHarmony.com is a born-again buddy of the evil Dr. Dobson himself (Who knew?). Perhaps longing for an American theocracy is just one of the twenty-nine meaningful dimensions of Neil Clark Warren‘s personality.

1350kHz WARF – Akron, OH – A Minor League Weather Report

It’s the middle of a rain delay during an AA minor league baseball game. It’s the Akron Aeros hosting the Binghamton Mets. I guess it goes without saying that minor league sportscasters are probably aren’t the most seasoned announcers on the dial. And hearing them attempt to describe some slightly complicated weather patterns around Lake Erie (and how it relates to tarpaulin dimensions) provides for a little unintended entertainment. And if you’re interested in such things, the game was eventually called because of the bad weather. However, the Akron Aeros actually went on to win the Eastern League championship this year. Rah rah.

1420kHz – WHK Cleveland, OH – Kelly & Company Hate Barrack Obama

This is the Salem/Townhall rightist talk station I mentioned earlier. And as you can hear, a strong adjacent station is bleeding across the frequency on the CC Witness. I think it’s actually their WHKW transmitter at 1440kHz.

I was lucky enough to come through their broadcast zone and catch this snippet of their only locally produced talk show, “Kelly and Company.” And what you hear is more of the fear and smear campaign against any health care initiatives Obama may support, as well as childish paranoia regarding Obama administration “czars” driven by up and coming kooks like Glenn Beck.

Twenty-two percent of people under 65 in Cleveland have no health insurance. None. And who knows how many thousands more are under-insured. The Point? These two clowns can’t stop poisoning the airwaves with half-truths and nonsense cooked up to dissuade listeners from supporting reforms that could one day save their lives.

Of course, Kelly and Company is just one of hundreds of local and national programs participating in these scare tactics lately. Although a majority of Americans favor a "public option" in any health care reform package, on any AM radio in any town in America you’ll hear far more of these wild-eyed claims about "death panels" and "evil czars" than you will any common sense discussion of the issue, or anyone speaking in support of a health care safety net for all.

1040kHz – WJTB Cleveland, OH – 7 Sons of Soul song

I’m including this song in its entirety, because that’s the way I heard it in the car that afternoon. And after those clowns on Kelly and Company, it lifted my spirits a bit.

It’s the “7 Sons of Soul,” and from what I can tell this is one of their biggest hits– “Praying 4 You.” While I’m not a follower of any supreme being in particular, I suppose I’m as likely to pray as some believers (I just don’t picture a winged being or classic painting of Jesus). But all kneeling and beseeching aside, what first attracted me to this song was that it sounded a bit like Bobby Womack. And that’s a sure way to get my attention.

1380kHz – WDLW Lorain, OH – Mother’s Music Box

Here’s a sentimental little clip. Through most of the week, 500 watt WDLW now goes under the moniker “Kool Kat Oldies.” (Cute, right?) Yet, despite a number of format changes over the years "The Polka Express" has been a mainstay on 1380 AM transmitter since 1969. I’m not sure, but I think this the program’s host, Tom Borowicz, reciting a loving ode to "mother."

I’m sorry there’s not more of this show to offer, and it never comes in all that clearly. But when you’re moving along at 70 MPH you go in and out of the broadcast range of a class D transmitter pretty quickly.

1370kHz WSPD Toledo, OH – Cleveland Indian Baseball Game

While I’m not a sports fan, the sound of baseball on the radio gets the old nostalgia hormones seeping into my brain case, and I’ll bet some of you might feel the same way. In this instance, the Indians are up 2 to 1. And apparently, they haven’t played Baltimore all year. In the end, the Indians knocked in four more runs to beat the Mariners 6 to 1.

And now part two.

Rustbelt Roadtrip pt 2 (Northern Ohio and S.E. Michigan) August 23, 2009 18:27
(download)

1560kHz WTOD Toledo, HO – Dwight Schultz Goes Bananas

Oh man. It’s the “Monica Crowley Show.” Instead of the proclamations of Monica the manic-monotone you get to hear a character actor trying his hand at talk radio. It’s Dwight Scultz, who played the hapless Lieutenant Barclay on Star Trek. From what I read, he’s apparently even more famous for another eccentric role as part of the “A-Team,” but I can’t tell you much about that. I believe Mr. T was played by another actor.

Mr. Schultz has had his own internet radio show in the past (but it appears to be on hiatus right now). And I believe this fill-in gig is one of his first forays into real broadcast radio. While I haven’t taken the time to listen to his "Howling Mad Radio" podcast, the spastic performance here worries me. Will the rise of Glenn Beck encourage other up and coming rightist talkers to incorporate more hysteria and mental illness into their presentation?

Perhaps Schultz didn’t have much notice for this fill-in gig, or maybe he’s just buzzing through some “greatest hits” from his podcast to get some traction and attention in the real talk radio world, but this material is past its shelf date– mostly low-grade smear material left over from the campaign. And somebody should tell Dwight that the new TV sets don’t have all those blue, red and green dots when you snuggle up close to them these days. You’re dating yourself Dwight. And that whole bit sounds like something he might have adapted from some old comedy monologue.

While the earlier “Kelly & Company” clip dealt in exaggerations and ugly rumors, there’s nothing remotely informative about Dwight’s bluster. Just sensational jingoism and cheap emotional appeals packaged for simple minds. A lot of this going around these days.

1520kHz WNWT Rossford, OH – K-Love

Another waste of an AM transmitter, simulcasting a syndicated Christian pop format from at FM station, which also runs the same fare on four more FM repeaters around Ohio. The announcer is female and perky and plastic. But perhaps you’ll be inspired by her anecdote about how a particular singer was tapped by the master muse while in the middle of some household chores. 

1230kHz WCWA – Toledo, OH – The Festival           

Here’s some small town radio you can sink your teeth into. And I love the reverb. Perhaps it’s recorded at the actual community center. I’d like to think so. And the accents have that Midwestern flat twang I grew up with. After all, Toledo is practically in Michigan (But trading it away for the Upper Peninsula was really a helluva deal). But I digress…

It sounds like quite a celebration. Cold beer, rock and roll, and cheap carnival rides for the kids. And then there’s all those chicken dinners and lotsa pasta. And if that’s not enough, they’re gonna have that polka band again this year. All in all, it sounds like a church-sponsored party where a guy like me might even have a good time. I’ve been to similar types of events, and I hope you have too.

560kHz WRDT – Joey Was Eleven Feet Tall

Although this station isn’t owned by Salem Communications, it’s programmed with a very similar “Christian talk” format as their two simulcasting stations in Cleveland. And it also goes under the same radio brand name– “The Word.” There is just a short clip of some religious dramatization for kids. I think it might be “Paws and Tales,” a Christian cartoon that’s also a radio show.

As usual with these types of programs, there’s some wisdom lesson for children and the "moral" at the end illuminate how the Bible has all the answers to life’s difficulties. In this particular tale a group of “youngins” are constantly gossiping about a distant friend named “Joey.” And “since they had so little information, they just started adding to what they had… and before long they had convinced themselves that he was eleven feet tall and had a patch over one eye.”

I didn’t listen long enough to discover if the punch line was regarding “bearing false witness,” or something about how “gossip separates close friends.” Which seems like a suitable parable for so many teabaggers all clucking about on the web convincing each other that Barack Obama is a foreign-born Nazi Muslim Communist who’s preparing to put all the dumb white people in concentration camps. And have you seen that patch over his eye?       

690kHz – WNZK Dearborn Heights, MI – Serbian Dance Party

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this is a Serbian show. WNZK is an ethnic brokered station that I always enjoy a bit of when I come back to Michigan. And something strange about this station, at night their transmitter changes gears and move one notch down frequency to 680kHz. It’s the only radio station in America that does such a thing. At least the only one that does so legally.

I hear lots of Eastern European and Arabic music on WNZK that I don’t seem to come across on the brokered stations back in New York. Just a quick break is all you get in this clip. Some fast music and a female announcer in between. Something about a “Labor Day peek-neek.”

760kHz – WJR Detroit, MI – Come To The Table (featuring the Real Gerber Baby)

The last grab from my first highway recording adventure, and the only radio station in Detroit proper. And much to my surprise, not only is the iconic baby food model still on the planet, but she’s live on the radio with WJR’s Steve Stewart! Of course, when you hear her ragged old larynx it’s difficult to picture that little cherubic face in your mother’s cupboard. But hell, even I was cute once.

And speaking of cute, this Steve Stewart character is just too much. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard him before, but enduring his saccharin glow-schmooze in between the seasoned croak of Grandma Gerber makes him just sound even more annoying. I say take it down a few notches Steve. Try to sound a little bit more like a human being instead of a non-stop ad campaign.

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times before, WJR used to be a fantastic radio station. One of the greatest full-service radio stations in America, bar none. And unlike a few similar great radio stations from that era like WBZ, KMOX or WLW, the “Great Voice of the Great Lakes” trashed their heritage and commitment to the region for pure profit and partisan propaganda. And not only is Steve Stewart the most fake and friendly fool I’ve heard on the radio for years, but he also makes the programming decisions over there. Or at least he’s stuck with defending them. 

I happened across this particular column in the Detroit News the other day and came across some disparaging words about WJR’s programming from Dan Mulhern, the husband of Democratic Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, where he bemoaned how WJR "used to be a pretty balanced station that really gave people a sense of what is going on. But now, with their national and local programming, there is such a Republican tilt to everything." And why was Mulhern venting? WJR delayed a live speech from the elected governor to broadcast a talk by a bizarre county-level Republican hack. There’s your public service Michigan.

WJR was once a place where there was an ongoing regional conversation, where news and issues of Michigan and the Great Lakes were aired and discussed and reflected upon responsibly. And there was lots of great music and a regimen of informative and unprofitable features. More than any station I’ve known, WJR offered radio that provided companionship. But that was many years ago. Now your companions at 760kHz are Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Mark Levin– meanspirited and partisan talk monsters syndicated from afar. And Stewart’s response to his challenge is cynical at best– “It’s the sort of programming that makes money” he insists. And isn’t that all a radio station is about in the first place? Cash, right? What else is there?

Located in a Wayne County where almost seventy-percent of the voters are registered Democrats. And the registered voters in Oakland and Macomb County (the densely populated and wealthier adjacent counties) also lean slightly more heavily toward the Democratic party. And if you think I’m insinuating that WJR should shift to a progressive talk format, I’m not. I think a less political stance would make more sense for such a strong and historic radio station. And as it stands, the WJR transmitter is a fifty-thousand watt erect middle finger offering it’s profane message to all of downtrodden southeastern Michigan. 

While I may despair at so much scary ultra-conservative radio stations usurping the American AM dial, I’ve really resigned myself to the fact. The Fairness Doctrine (and the wisdom that once made it the law of the land) is history. But when an important regional radio operation that was once a font of information, wisdom and good music becomes just another conservative propaganda repeater it’s just a tragedy. Then again, maybe I’m just another strong personality with a strong opinion. It just seems like the more you love radio these days, the more it breaks your heart. Yes, it hurts. And it’s so bad.

And I’m glad you could join me for this afternoon of medium wave sightseeing. You probably won’t be surprised that I made some more recordings out there, including the trip home. As I recall there was a lot more religion, some sports, and more of the increasingly more vicious (and common) attacks on the authority and humanity of Barack Obama. I haven’t decided if I’m going to post any more of that. (You want more?) There’s already a number of interesting shortwave recordings I made last summer I’d like to go through too. And then there’s that New Orleans trip (and some New Orleans radio…) It’s just hard to find enough time.

And speaking of my summer radio recordings, I’ve recently encoded all the bandscans and airchecks I’ve captured over the last few months and dumped them all into the programming folders for my internet audio stream– "Radio Kitchen Radio." "What stream?," you might ask. There’s a link there on the sidebar on the right. The adventures in amplitude modulation there are yours to enjoy. And if recent statistics mean anything, there’s probably no waiting as you read this. Have at it. If you enjoy this blog you’ll probably hear something you like on the stream as well. There’s almost 500 hours of fun there.

I made a plea for more comments in my last post, and although a few did land on the blog afterwards I’m still going to come back for an encore. When I DJ I almost always take requests, and the same goes for the blog. What do you like to see (or hear) more of here? What do you like? What’s boring? I’m never quite sure what types of posts readers enjoy here. I so see which ones get the most hits, but that’s mostly driven by search terms. But as a blogger I’d like to know what regular visitors think. Should I post more  AM radio music? More bandscans? Shortwave? Historic or exotic recordings? Medium-wave DX? Or more of those kooky radio conspirators? I haven’t decided where I’m going with the next post, so I’m throwing it open for suggestions.

As you may have noticed, I really like being able to make most posts multimedia affairs, including radio recordings with almost every entry and occasionally a video or two. But I always wonder if people actually listen to these audio files, and I you might stream or download them. I don’t have a way of knowing these things yet.

And when I look at my stats I see so many of you in distant lands are coming to the Radio Kitchen, and I wonder if distant readers are looking for shortwave radio posts or for articles on American broadcasting. I am curious about such things. Just looking at my most recent logs I see people just today from Brasil, Germany, Poland, Russia and the U.K. have visited the Radio Kitchen. And a while ago I remember some of the people who visited my blog the most were located in faraway lands like South Korea and Israel. Yet I get very little feedback from outside North America. Do you come to the Radio Kitchen to hear American radio? Or were you just looking for hot pics of shortwave supervixen Melissa Scott? (If so, I don’t have any…)

The bottom line, most comments are helpful. And it’s always nice when they add more information or insight to the entry. And charity is nice too. I really do love working on this blog, and if there was real money in it I suppose I’d pound away every day here. But as it is I do what I can, and do I appreciate hearing from visitors now and then.

I’ll be back soon. Thanks for listening.

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

(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.