This is the second installment of an edited collection of radio recorded on a 1988 roadtrip from Detroit to New Orleans and back. It was initially made (and edited) for my own entertainment and there was no log, and many stations are unidentified. However, twenty years later I think there’s enough radio history to make it worth sharing with you. The first post (and further explanation) can be found here.
In the 1980’s, I became infatuated with black radio. Not only was the music better than the commercial pop and rock stations at the time, but the overall approach was more sincere and spontaneous. And in Detroit we had the genius of Electrifying Mojo on WGPR, mixing Prince and the Gap Band with the B-52’s and all the George Clinton you could handle. But by the mid-80’s I was rediscovering AM radio, and when the funk and groove on the FM “urban” stations was overrun by sequencers, beatbox rhythms and banal production the AM dial was still a refuge for many of the heritage R&B where an oldies heavy contemporary soul/blues format had emerged. Through the 80’s around Detroit there were two retro-black choices on the AM dial– WCHB and WQBH, and they were the most popular presets in my car for a few years. (I have recordings I plan to post.)
My infatuation at the time with the last vestiges of soul broadcasting on the AM dial actually influenced the routing of the initial trip south, adding just a few more miles to trip by strategically driving through a few large southern cities. And this section of this aircheck montage contains the fruits of that plan, as my Buick wagon rolls by Nashville, Memphis and Jackson.
While the old Mason-Dixon line never stretched this far west, the defacto border of where the American south begins in the Midwest would have to be the Ohio River. That’s where this segment of the trip begins, either right before or right after crossing the river at Cincinnati. It’s hard to say exactly where we were. The signals don’t stop at the river. And once you get within an hour of the river (which is also the Kentucky border) the locals may have a drawl and you’re more likely to find grits or hush puppies on a diner menu. As rust-belt kid, the gradual changes in culture and inclinations once you rolled deeper into the old confederacy was always kind of invigorating. Even exotic.
With no written records of the trip or the stations I recorded, I’m left to depend on memory and the re-edited recorded record. What I do know is that we entered Kentucky sometime in the mid to late afternoon and that by the time we got to Tennessee it was dark outside. The sun didn’t rise until sometime in Southern Mississippi or Louisiana. As I mentioned in the last post, my radio recording along the way was impulsive and intermittent. What you hear in this post is what I edited together from the rest of the nonstop drive to Louisiana.
1988 Trip to New Orleans (part 1) – Into the South 14:29
If was going to pick a logo or a mascot for a radio station, I wouldn’t be thinkin’ of semi-aquatic rodents. But then again I’m not from Kentucky. This clip kicks off with a full promotional dispatch from “The Beaver” (WBVE) a country FM not far downriver from Cincinnati in Hamilton, KY. If you didn’t have anything to do that weekend you could have gone out to Campbell County Equipment to hang out with one of their DJ’s for day and taken home some Beaver bumper stickers or keychains. Perhaps a coffee mug! And if you got really lucky, you might have loaded up a new lawn mower in your trunk before the end of the afternoon.
I always find it kind of sad when a radio station never really captures the imagination of a community and keeps changing its call letters (and usually the format) to reboot its fate in the marketplace. This north Kentucky outlet at 96.5 MHz had already been through several sets of call letters and format changes by 1986 when it scabbed over into the incarnation you hear on this recording– “The Beaver” (“The Real Country Giant”) in September of 1986. A couple years later the station would switch to format again, and then call letters, and then format, and then call letters once more. Then, I think it may have even changed call letters one more time. But right now the station is back to a country format as “The Wolf,” which seems to offer a little more animal charisma than a rodent. However, the beaver concept itself lives on. Another FM station in Kentucky grabbed up the catchy WBVE call letters, and is proudly “The Beaver.” And there’s a sister Beaver– WVVE, also in Kentucky. And you can hear country music on either one.
Then the next signal comes from Dayton– WING. And as you might guess, there’s a legacy that goes along with memorable call letters like that. From the mid-50’s until the 1970’s WING was the hottest radio station in that expanse of Ohio– a community media hub with hit music, regional and national news and DJ’s who were local stars. By 1988, the radio group had spun off the top-40 format to wacky Z-93 on the FM band (which I came across in the first post in this series) and WING was a hybrid oldies/talk station at the time. And in this brief clip you hear a promo that sounds kind of strange today:“news doesn’t happen in newsrooms, it happens out there"… (ya think?)
By the late 1980’s, the AM band had become desperate territory. Many stations left out in the cold by the massive listener migration to the FM band were desperately seeking a profitable programming niche that would keep luring listeners to their AM frequencies. And the point of this promo is to point out that WING still had a news department (with real reporters and everything). Which certainly counts for some bragging rights, compared to getting by with a canned oldies music format. This was the era when music radio stations were jettisoning their news divisions, leaving all news and news/talk stations in the market to continue to offer the headlines and the local stories. In fact, a few years later WING switched to a CNN-based news format, which sadly didn’t work out either.
Today WING and its 5000 watts at 1410kHz has met the pitiful fate of many forgotten frequencies– it’s another ESPN sports drone (with another two or three sports stations already on the dial). For many years, people loved this station and depended on it, now it’s an anonymous portal for gossip about spectator sports. I’ll never understand the appeal of that. This is the last verifiable station from Ohio in this trip south. The next few stations may also be from the Dayton/Cincinnati area, or they may have been recorded near Nashville, where I seem to have started recording again.
Want something good in your hair? This wacky ad for B.B. hair products was probably grabbed from a black AM radio station between Dayton and Nashville. I love the relaxed reverb baritone and cheap audience response bits straight out of a sound effects package. I believe B.B. stands for “Bronner Bros. Enterprise,” one of the large African American hair and skin care corporation based in Georgia. (However, the company’s website has recently disappeared.) This is followed by some canned feature about women in the workplace. Are you more likely to get that promotion if you’re hot and flashy? Or kinda fat? Apparently, both have their drawbacks.
Then you get some rural voices of the Caucasian persuasion. Like the Beaver people coming to the Equipment depot, this seems to be a radio remote already underway. These traditional pseudo-events are promotional orgies where a business sponsors a live radio broadcast at a retail site, and the radio station and the business both seduce listeners in for free crap and alleged bargains, while they sell their brand-name into the broadcast zone. It’s a radio tradition. Hard to say what service or goods these good old boys were selling, but it was a family operation. They helped each other. They had their problems, but they work good. That’s the way it should be.
The next ad confirms it, we were in Tennessee. John Watson, the owner of Jay’s Wilderness Outfitters wanted us to “come on in and browse around.” Makes sense. From the address (465 Bell Road) it appears that we were somewhere near Nashville. John is no longer luring browsers. There’s a cleaners there now. This is followed by an ID for Nashville’s WNAH and a short discussion regarding Smitty’s Restaurant, “now with two Nashville locations!” Today an ad like this would be pushin’ a grilled chicken salad or some other vaguely healthy foodstuff. But back in 1988, offering a big cheese burger, batter-dipped fries and jumbo soft drink for a buck fifty was a point of pride. The intro jingle and music under the announcer is a canned and corny “donut” production where the announcer reads the Smitty’s commercial over the the instrumental break with finger snaps (the “hole” of the donut) of a generic pre-produced restaurant-style advertisement, that will end with more jingle or an announcer. It’s like "just add voice talent" instant spot production. And Smitty’s? I believe there are no longer any Nashville locations.
Then something more substantial, a "classic soul sweep" on WVOL. The song intro under the sultry female announcer sounds like typical 80’s style soul-blues from a label like Malaco. Then a barrage of wacky electro radio sounders, that are still part of radio production today. Then cut to a drop-in. The big baritone R&B voice of god intones– “W-V-O-L – Here yesterday, today and tomorrow.” Damn straight. This black music outlet is indeed still alive and well at 1470 AM. Not every heritage frequency has surrendered to sports, or right wing talk, or the Jesus problem. And you can hear their "Urban Oldies" format by going here. As I was writing this I tuned into "The Mighty 147" online and I heard the Dramatics, which still warms the heart of a middle-aged kid who grew up in the shadow of the Motor City.
This clip is followed by a low-pitched pitch man doing some serious promotional push for the Y-107 Visa Card from the radio station on "the cutting edge of innovation." This bit of bragging set off my internal radio sniffer, and thought I might have gotten a whiff of… Jacor! And a little research bears me out. This station was one of Jacor’s big success stories in the 1980’s, turning a bumbling-along ordinary adult contemporary station into an aggressive CHR (top 40) monster. And by 1987 it had become the number one station in Nashville. A pretty big deal. And the radio station Visa card? Long gone, just like Y-107. And I don’t know that radio station credit cards ever meant much in the scheme of things, but what it does tell me when I hear this brief promotional bit from the past is that it probably came from a sales and promotional staff on overdrive. And Jacor was always on overdrive.
And here’s where digging around in the past led me to the future, or at least today. The programmer that made Y-107 a smash in Nashville, Marc Chase, moved on to Tampa to create "The Power Pig," an even more aggressive and raunchy CHR powerhouse that also took the number one spot in Tampa and killed Q105, the previous CHR champion there. It was quite a time. I don’t know if Jacor had a bigger success story with a station make-over before they merged with Clear Channel, but it’s the one I know. And two of the men (Randy Michaels and Marc Chase) who made the Pig so big have both defected from Clear Channel (and so have others) to rejoin their old Jacor boss brash billionaire Sam Zell over at his Tribune Corporation (the 2nd biggest newspaper publisher in the U.S. and a major media operation which Zell recently purchased). Chase just came over recently (and brought a couple associates along), and Clear Channel is pissed off enough to file a suit against Tribune for stealing company secrets. And if you know anything about how Jacor used to operate, and then take a look at a recent flippant press release announcing bringing Chase on board and you get a feeling that Zell might be looking for a way to get in as a major radio player once again. So far, he only has one station.
Meanwhile, back to the radio. After the "outrageous FM" we have Marcia Griffiths chugging along with the "Electric Boogie.’ As a northern record collector, to me this song was just some side project from that odd funky disco album Bunny Wailer did in the early 80’s, "Hook, Line and Sinker," which I happened to like but went nowhere on the charts. However, the night I heard this on my way to New Orleans I discovered that this Marcia Griffiths dance number (produced by Bunny) had become a huge hit down south. And specifically the dance it created– "The Electric Slide," which was the hit. But no identification on this one. Certainly a black station, probably in Nashville. The DJ is buried pretty deep into the boogie as he signs off. And what an impressive bleepy electronic waterfall flowing around that WXXS, Memphis station ID. I’m not sure if WXSS was still R&B at the time, or had switched to gospel. But these days at 1030kHz in Memphis you’ll hear Español on WGSF.
After that, a happy bland mic break from a young lady on what I believe was the Satellite Music Network‘s "Heart & Soul" service back then. It was a syndicated oldies-based black hits format that had some success in the 1980’s. "Well you all tightened up now? Got some George Benson for ya right now…"
And now, Bill Mack, "The Midnight Cowboy" doing his long-running trucker show from 50 thousand watt WBAP in Dallas. One of the legendary big trucking radio DJ’s since the 70’s, Mack now has his own spot on the XM trucker’s channel, "The Open Road." But here’s he’s lusting after his producer’s feet. It’s well past midnight at this point, and we were probably tooling down 1-55 in northern Mississippi. Unfortunately, Memphis radio (still an interesting and vital scene) is barely sampled in this collage. I guess I was at the wheel by that time. Something I haven’t mentioned about this trip– by the midpoint of this nonstop drive from Michigan to New Orleans I had tired of repeatedly asking my friend to stop gradually veering the Buick toward the shoulder of the highway. I don’t know if it was white line fever or what, but it was driving me insane. The lesson I learned was to never go a roadtrip with someone until you’re familiar with their driving skills. I ended up doing most of the driving for the rest of the trip, and didn’t record nearly as much radio on the road as I had intended.
After the Midnight Cowboy you hear a WBAP Metrocel Cellular Phone promo (Those were big clunky "car phones" back then. Nothing like that shiny sliver of wonders you carry around these days…) and a couple bites of cracklin’ holy roller oratory, which is ubiquitous on the AM dial in the deep south. Then there’s a little harbinger of good things to come, a static-ridden station ID for 13-Kixie, WKXI– "Your power music station." Then there’s something about Martha Reeves and Ben E. King singin’ in Little Rock for a tour of historic houses. Then it’s "67 beautiful degrees with the Chi-Lites on Little Rock’s Favorite, K-Lite" (which I’m sure was on the FM band where there was a lot of "lite" radio back then). And ever so briefly, you hear a station ID for the great WDIA in Memphis.
This is followed by a little talk radio interlude. My best guess is that this is Ray Briem, an overnight talk host based in L.A. (KABC) who was doing a syndicated show around this time for the ABC Talk Network. (I’m not familiar with Briem and could find no clips online. Leave a comment if you can verify if this is him, or some other talk host.) And I believe the conversation is regarding the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which was getting its finishing touches in the legislature around this time, and in a few months would pass with broad bipartisan support and the signature of President Reagan. The bill served as a giant apology to the thousands of Japanese Families living in America (a majority who were U.S. citizens) who were forcibly relocated into internment camps during World War Two, as well as providing them with over a billion dollars in reparations.
However, Betty doesn’t like the idea. Full of rum and rancor and barely able to complete a sentence, Betty’s angry half-thoughts have stumbled onto Ray’s late night radio show, and it’s not pretty. Instead of taking Betty to task or having fun with her ignorance, Ray just milks the call for all the outrage he can squeeze out of it– "We didn’t start that war Ray." And while Betty didn’t advocate dropping a few more A-bombs on Japan, and never referred to them as "nips" or "japs," but you know she probably has. And Ray (who’s apparently rather conservative and not in favor of allotting much cash to the cause) seems taken aback that Betty wouldn’t even sanction an apology to the victims. And if old Betty’s still up and around (which seems in doubt) she probably feels right at home in today’s era of terror-racism, border xenophobia, and the new growing fear of "they." After all, they attacked us.
Then, late late into the night, the whole kooky idea of recording radio in transit with a boombox really paid off. Even if I wasn’t making these recordings I think the moment I turned in loud clear and clear Lightnin’ Hopkins while crossing the country in the middle of the night might have been etched in my memory anyway. But it’s nice to have the memory archived. Either way, it’s home cooked amplitude modulation of southern music and culture. It was the "Mid-South Power Connection, 13-Kixie." This was the station I’d hoped to find. At the coolest darkest time of the night and after sixteen hours on the road, the Blues was all right.
The DJ, Paul Anthony Hickey, has a great night vibe and voice– clipped and warm, with a little urgency to keep you awake. Perfect. I find no reference to him on the web, but i like to think he’s still doing radio somewhere, possibly under another name. Following the talking blues of Lightning Hopkins, the funky Bar-Keys fueled blues of Detroit harp man Little Sonny kicks in hot and thick and the drums hit like a round of gun fire. And if you want to hear an example of why I still love the sound of music mutated through AM broadcasting, just listen to the intro to Sonny‘s "A Woman Named Trouble." And then if you compare it to the CD or vinyl and the keyboards, harp and drums will certainly sound more correct or real, but the compression and limiting of AM brings the funky sound up front and center– meaty, the way I like it. So clear, that we must have been pretty close to that 1K transmitter when this was recorded. And then there’s the beginning of a Jimmy Reed track. Jimmy Reed was made to be heard on an AM radio.
Anyway the recording is scoped, so you don’t get the full song. If I had made this collage today (instead of twenty years ago) I probably would have let Little Sonny play on. However, I did keep a lot of the flavor. I kept a couple commercials from the stop set that followed the music, and they’re both representative of a radio station that’s more connected to its community and culture than most are today. And speaking of meaty? If you like delicious home-cooked food (and who doesn’t) you might enjoy the ad for "Jobe’s Family Restaurant." Unless you’re a vegetarian, you may have a little Pavlovian response as you listen to this savory list of soul food fare. And yes, you could get your chitlins fried or boiled.
However twenty years after the fact, Jobe’s Family Restaurant is ancient history. Not only is there no references to it on the web, but the photo snapping vans of Google Maps’ "Street View" division archived the visual information from that strip of Jackson, Mississippi not long ago, and as you can see from the image at right, the lot at 1940 J R Lynch Street in Jackson has been stripped of its building. Looking at this blank sad piece of land reminded me of so many similar empty lots where the good times used to roll in Michigan cities like Detroit, Pontiac and Flint. That said, I’m sure you can still find plenty of home grown diners where you can order a hot greasy plate of ribs or fried chicken in Jackson, Mississippi. Just not at that piece of land on J R Lynch Street.
What can I say about the ad promoting the "Big Kickapoo Blues Festival." I lived in the deep south for a spell and was fortunate enough to attend a few of these big blues festivals in the summertime. The line-up at this one was typical– Little Milton, Artie "Blues Boy" White and Gary B.B. Coleman. Other regulars on a bill like this would be legendary artists like Denise LaSalle, Bobby Bland, Tyrone Davis, Johnnie Taylor, Betty Wright or Marvin Sease. It’s hard for me to tell you how much fun I had at these events, and the memories of total strangers sharing fried chicken, ribs, hard liquor and good times lives on somewhere at a cherished picnic table in my memory. Yes, there really is something about the south…
And WKXI is still broadcasting blues and soul in Jackson, although a few years ago a frequency swap with sister station WOAD moved them a hundred kilohertz down the dial to 1400 AM (which I guess would make them 14-Kixie these days). They used to have a website, and you can’t listen to them online either. But if you’re driving down I-55 that way you might consider turning on your AM radio.
As my friend and I approached New Orleans in the predawn hours, I had no idea that I’d actually be moving there in a few months and would end up spending the next ten years bouncing around the Gulf Coast. How that all happened is a rather convoluted tale that probably doesn’t really belong in a blog post. But beyond the personal journey, all my time in the south was also a radio journey for me. And thankfully, it came at a time when I was mindful of capturing some of that radio from the yawning jaws of time. And all those cassettes have provided a hell of a lot more pleasure than those old baseball cards I used to covet. And they’ve provided me the with options, like sharing them here with you. And it all began with this brief vacation.
The next few installments in this series will be recordings made within the city limits of New Orleans. And then eventually, some aircheck bits from the trip back north. So, if you’re in the neighborhood come back again to 1988 again and we’ll browse around the dial.