New Orleans Road Trip 1988 pt 2 (Into The South)

Sunday, June 15th, 2008

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

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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.

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.

Air America vs. Reality – Part 2

Saturday, May 6th, 2006

Air America reminds me of Hillary Clinton. Why? Because both are so despised by the right-wing media machineFrankenclinton that it makes you feel you’re in bed with the theocrat-warmonger zombies just to utter any criticism of either in public. However, there’s a really big difference between folks who put Bush, the Republican party and the cloud being above all logic or morals and everybody else. Some people actually use reasoning skills and have opinions that don’t follow lock-step dogma and aren’t interested in sycophancy to raw Machiavellian power.  And this is a big dilemma for most folks who aren’t on the far right, is that we DIFFER on issues and ideas and that is often used against us.

I’ve never really had much of an opinion of any previous American “First Ladies,” (except a bit of sympathy for Pat Nixon), but the spew of bile from the right against Hillary Clinton during her husband’s administration did make me come to her defense over the years. And when she talked about a “vast right wing conspiracy” that morning on the Today Show I thought she was brave to say it. (Read David Brock’s “Blinded By The Right” to hear how right she was from one of the actual “conspirators” of that era). But since that time, her election and subsequent cowardice in not standing up to the Iraq War in the Senate has changed my mind completely. Rush Limbaugh is obviously a scumbag, but no matter how much he trashes Clinton I’m no longer a fan. And NOWI read that ultra right-wing ultra media mogul Rupert Murdoch is hosting a goddamn fundraiser for her re-election to the Senate in July. Ouch.

Aa_oreilly If Mrs. Clinton happens to get the Democratic nomination for the Presidency in 2008 I may likely hold my nose and press her lever (and I pray it IS still a lever), but I do hope that’s not the choice we’re given.

And if you’ve followed the news stream on Air America over the last couple years, there’s been a disturbing trend in the criticism of the network, ESPECIALLY online. Instead of just denouncing content, or questioning the opinions offered on Air America, there’s always been a loud choir of voices in the media predicting (and cheering for) the demise of the network. And some wingnuts, like Bill O’Reilly, have even called for the arrest of Air America hosts and/or employees. You know, just the fact that these morons hate Air America so much they want to destroy it tells you Air America MUST be doing something right.

Michaels_cover And Air America has done a number of things right. First off, they’ve offered a “patch” of sorts on the post-Fairness Doctrine talk radio environment. Before the launch or Air America there were hundreds of stations featuring right wing talkers and not one commercial talk outlet offering liberal talk programming through their broadcast day. Now there are dozens, with new “progressive talk” stations coming online all the time. And to the surprise of many, Air America’s biggest partner in the spread of the lefty talk format across the country has been Clear Channel Communications– a corporation that owns plenty of conservative talk stations as well AND some of the biggest right-wing programs in the U.S. (including Limbaugh).

Enter Randy Michaels. The former head of Clear Channel hasn’t missed the rapid growth of the liberal talk format fostered by his old company. If you had to pick one word to describe Mr. Michaels, “opportunist” might best fit the bill. Other adjectives that accurately describe Michaels– tenacious, outrageous, and except for falling from the Clear Channel throne– very successful. Although Air America continues to bleed cash, their strategy of cultivating left-wing talk stations across the country isn’t necessarily a losing proposition. If Randy Michaels has staked his career comeback on the format, there’s probably a lot of money yet to be made in progressive talk radio.

Pig_sticker You can be sure of one thing, snatching WLIB away from Air America was a brilliant and strategic move for Michaels’ new company “Product First.” Certainly purchasing “The Ed Shultz Show” (now the most popular liberal talk show in the U.S.) immediately put his new progressive talk radio enterprise on the map, but taking control of Air America’s flagship station (and their only outlet in the biggest radio market in the country) puts P1 in an incredibly favorable position in a number of ways. And when it comes to the radio business, there’s no one better than Randy Michaels at sizing up the competition and then audaciously destroying or assimilating them. (For a good example of Michaels’ lack of mercy, check out this timeline on how quickly Jacor’s “Power Pig” dispatched Tampa’s Q-105 in a matter of months in late 1980’s.) And when it comes to lefty talk, Air America is the ONLY competition for Michaels to destroy or absorb. And in one swift move he’s put his one competitor, which is already in trouble, into a much weaker position AND provided his company with a New York City radio outpost. Amazing.

Franken_sketch The name of Michaels’ new company is telling. Air America came out of the box as a massive experiment, hitting the airwaves with a half a dozen shows at once, most featuring hosts with no radio experience. It was a big splash in the radio industry back in 2004, and a lot of the buzz was generated by putting TV comedy talent on the air like Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo. However, out of the original Air America lineup only one program was a proven radio product with a radio vet as host– The Randi Rhodes Show. In other words, politics and TV comedy came first for Air America, and the hope was that because they believed themselves to be on the right side politically (and they were going to have lots of witty funny bits) would naturally prove itself viable in the market place. The product itself did not come first. Hope did. And in the scheme of things that hasn’t worked out so well.

Losing WLIB is going to drag Air America into the cold harsh light of reality and it’s going to hurt. The challenge of a radio brute like Randy Michaels is either going to force Air America to realign their vision and adjust their business model toward profitability or it may be the beginning of the end.

If you had been listening to WLIB here in New York over the last year, you wouldn’t have to read all the internet rumors and allegations to figure out Air America was in big financial trouble– Putting the yuppie idiocy of ABC’s Satellite Sisters in place of Air America’s late night angry man, Mike Malloy, and selling their weekend day slots on WLIB to shows about sports, food and money management. These were obviously stopgap measures to slam together enough cash to keep the rest of their programming on WLIB. Although Air America had a long term agreement with Inner City to camp out on WLIB’s frequency for years, it was undoubtedly the fact that they weren’t able to make their payments to the owners of WLIB that gave Michaels his opportunity to step in.

Aa As I said last week, the one option nobody has mentioned is the possiblity that Air America might somehow join forces with Michaels. However, this would mean that the cold calculation of the former head of Jacor and Clear Channel would drastically alter Air America programming. But if they keep bleeding cash, it’s hard to see how they’re going to have much choice if they’re going to survive at all.

I don’t know how this is all going to pan out. And I’m certainly only guessing that Air America might consider handing over control of the network to Michaels in some way. But I’d bet something like that is on the table right now. The only official statement from Air America is a bit cryptic. A rep told the Daily News that the network "will not go silent on the New York City airwaves." Whatever happens, I have a feeling that over the next few weeks the course of talk radio history will take a turn behind closed doors somewhere on the island of Manhattan.

Meanwhile, as long time observer of the talk radio scene, as well as a fan of some the programming Air America has put out over the last couple of years, I offer the network my personal suggestions on what could be done to tighten and tweak their programming, and actually put the “product” ahead of the purpose. And if Randy Michaels actually gets his hands on the helm of Air America, I wouldn’t be surprised if one or two of these suggestions actually come to pass. However, I’d bet he’ll be less charitable.

1. Ease Out Al Franken

Stuartsmalley_1 That’s right. I know it’s blasphemy, but despite Franken’s success as a liberal author the rubber faced comedian doesn’t cut it on the radio. What’s worse is how expensive it is for Air America to keep the TV funnyman as their mascot. It’s been reported that Franken drains between one and two million bucks a year out of the Air America coffers, and with his production staff, writers and researchers the total cost for the Al Franken Show accounts for over half of Air America’s programming payroll. Bringing in a left-wing radio legend like Neil Rogers would have cost only a fraction of that amount, and obviously would have been a much smarter move. And now Air America has invested in a Minnesota studio for Franken as he explores a possible Senate run there in 2008. Why blow all that cash on somebody who’s likely to split in a year or two anyway? It’s absurd.

Outside of his books, nothing Franken’s done on his own has been overtly successful? Ever seen that Stuart Smalley movie? Me neither. However I have heard Al repeat the same lame jokes literally DOZENS of times on his show. While Franken has a great roster of regular guests, it’s still not enough to carry the show. The idea of putting a well-known TV comic turned lefty author on the radio might have looked good on the drawing board, it’s hasn’t created much good radio and to be honest it’s not been all that funny either. And without Katherine Lanpher to keep things rolling and hold Franken’s expansive ego in check, it’s been a painful listen at best.

The last thing I wanna do is throw my lot in with the knuckle-dragging hoards of Franken haters. I hope he keeps writing books and fighting the good fight. He’s still capable of some funny TV moments, and he might even make a good Senator. But really– Air America should invest all that cash into the development of new programming and paying off their debts. If he’ll take it, give Franken a weekend yuk-it-up talk show and a drastically reduced salary, or cut him loose when the contract allows. Have mercy.

2. Put Thom Hartmann Into The Regular Network Lineup

Hartmann The obvious replacement for Franken. Hartmann continues to grow as a talk host. He’s brilliant, knowledgeable, and runs a tight fast-paced show. Hartmann puts current events into historical perspective, and has an amazing memory and a sense of fair play that makes him the perfect foil for the challenges of right wing callers. Air America now owns his program, but offers it in syndication outside of their regular lineup. It’s always a pleasure (and often a relief) to hear Hartmann fill in for other hosts on the network. I’ve always assumed that the syndication deal put him in the bullpen to fill the next gap in their weekday schedule. I hope that’s true.

3. Cut Randi Rhodes Down To Three Hours, Please

From what I’ve heard, Rhodes has been the biggest ratings success so far on the network. That’s great. Before Air America existed, I listened to Rhodes on the internet and was happy to hear her taking on the right wing noise machine loudly and proudly. I’m not convinced that she’s actually changed, and perhaps my ears are burned out, but I don’t have the patience to take in her show every afternoon these days. And FOUR hours! That’s just TOO much Randi.

Rhodes_beer Yes, she’s usually quite up to speed on current events and the issues and impassioned to be sure. But she’s also shrill and repeats her points so many times in one program that your brain can go numb. And no matter what the issue or topic, it becomes tiresome to hear Randi talk all about Randi whenever she gets a chance. She never mentions the 2000 election without noting that she was ACTUALLY in Florida during the vote controversy there. And if she’s ever met a politician, she’ll be sure to tell you about it every time their name comes up. And if some event coincides with some special day in the life of Randi, you’ll hear about it. Whether it’s a penchant for bragging, or just insecurity, it’s tough to hear Rhodes blow her own horn so loudly everyday. At least it is for me. I’ll admit, she is a pro, but I don’t need her to remind me anymore. C’mon, four hours is just plain overkill.

4. Make “The Majority Report” A Weekly Show, Or Just Get Rid Of It

Majority_report_2 When I first heard Sam Seder and Janeane Garofalo host this show, it hurt. I mean, it was basically a spasmodic rendition of a college radio political opinion show. I wanted it to get better. It hasn’t.

Okay, I kinda like the new wave-punk bumper music, and the fact that they feature some high-profile lefty bloggers and occasionally have interesting musical acts. But when the content isn’t formed around a good guest, this show is just a lot of panting and spewing and snarky repartee that never seems to grow up. An hour or two in a weekend slot could be bearable, but for the life of me I can’t understand why this show has lasted over two years like this.

5. Give Marc Maron A Prime Night Slot, Now!

Marc_maron Maron was the ONLY non-radio talent who really grew into the medium in the great experiment of Air America’s opening programming lineup. Morning Sedition, the show he hosted with Mark Riley evolved into a funny and unpredictable talk show that covered important issues, made you laugh, and never took itself too seriously. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, cancelling Morning Sedition was a bonehead move.

However, the HUGE internet wave of anger over this decision didn’t go totally unnoticed by Air America. No doubt that’s the only reason Maron got his own program at the Air America affiliate in L.A. And now The Marc Maron Show is not only the best weekday program in the Air America lineup, and it’s also the only one that’s only on ONE radio station. The network keeps promising to put him on their network roster, but several roll out dates have passed and Maron’s not happy that he’s left languishing on one California station. Read the latest here.

I say it’s simple. Give Maron the Majority Report slot. What are they waiting for? The money would be better spent to pay out Garofalo for the rest of her contract then to let her psychoanalyze right wing losers and discuss the liposuction on her chin or the trying tooth bleaching procedures TV roles require. Please.

While I’ve got more notes in front of me on changes I’d like to hear on Air America, I think I’ll cut it off here and wait to see what happens with WLIB in New York this summer. While I don’t particularly like commercials themselves, even in this era of deregulation and mega-mergers there’s still something exciting and vital about commercial radio which is almost impossible to find in public and community radio. Commercial radio HAS to prove itself viable in the marketplace, one way or another. If the radio product itself isn’t powerful, efficient and appealing in some populist way, it will not last. The Air America brain trust needs some of what makes a guy like Randy Michaels tick. I wonder if they can figure that out before it’s too late?

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