Monday, August 26, 2013

On the Air (Part 2 of "Radio Daze" series)

It was my first full day on the air, and I hadn’t arrived under the best of circumstances. The previous Music Director/Program Director had been at the station for nine years, and was quite popular with the crew and listeners.  He had continually butted heads with the GM, Gerry, who had been at the station for a couple of decades and had checked-out emotionally from his job long before.  He was a chain- smoking sour puss who thought his job was to write the most insipid copy imaginable for all the local spots the staff (mentioned in the last entry) brought in.  Since commercials were available at rates somewhere along the lines of $2.25 perminute, we were always over inventory on everything you could imagine from dog washers to fertilizer equipment to Big and Tall boutiques for the full-sized woman.  He also would compose myriad public service “liners” that he demanded all DJ’s to sprinkle-in throughout each day-part shift.

So, here I am fumbling my way through my inaugural shift (everyone who’s been in radio knows how nerve-racking this can be with all new control board, music beds, logs, transmitter settings, etc. to maintain while trying to sound cohesive and compelling with between song banter, newscasts,and traffic reports).  When it came time to read the typed-up PSA’s, I had to pick one that would fit the right amount of time I had available out of a box of dozens.  I noticed that on many of them various lines had been re-written by hand…but being new, I didn’t question anything and simply read the corrections without really previewing them. 

The first one was something along the lines of, “You can reach out to help a mentally disabled person here in Elkhorn County who really needs your help and encouragement. Take little Gerry for instance. He is eleven but only reads on a first grade level, and could really use a tutor to help him with his studies.  Call today at 249-3300 for more info.” 

After having read three of them in my first forty-five minutes on air, I noticed some of the staff on the other side of the news room window heaving in laughter.  That’s when it dawned on me…and I looked at all the liners in the box and noticed that each PSA somehow mentioned Gerry, or Gerald, or Gerard or Jermaine.  The staff so despised our boss that they reworked every liner to disparagingly mention him, and yet, and he never even noticed.  From that point on I simply edited them as I read to pass over those bits…but it was indeed hilarious that the others kept reading them that way for a year and he never caught on.

There was also the bane of small market radio that came on around 10:30 each morning called “Swap Shop” where local hayseeds would call into trade goods and services with each other.  It wouldn’t be odd to hear someone call with a set of used tires that they’d be willing to exchange for a cross cut saw.  This was a ten minute segment, and we would literally have the phone lines jammed every day with folks wanting to participate. 

Sometimes we would sneak into another room and call in on a different line and fake an offer. For instance, I recall really stumping Ron one day with the voice of a decrepit stuttering old man, wheezing and coughing, wanting "to massage any grandmothers who were listening in exchange for as much creamed corn as they could broil."  Another time I was a sprightly Irish Spring-sounding leprechaun wondering if there was someone out there who had a vacuum cleaner that could suck a golf ball through a hose.  I was willing to let anyone see my lucky charms in return. Another one of the guys would call in with a really thick hair-lip speech impediment and say he was on staff at—you guessed it—St. Jerome’s Cathedral wanting enunciation lessons in exchange for free bingo games and what not. Ron usually caught on within about fifteen seconds, but often would play along trying to see how far we could go.

Live interviews were always a gamble.  My favorite was with Bon Scott and Angus Young from AC/DC.  As you might recall, Bon was the infamous original lead singer who died choking on his own vomit after a particularly heavy night of hard drinking. About a year before his demise, he and the diminutive lead guitarist entered the studio in a buoyant mood with their Atlantic Records promo rep while I was just finishing a tune from their newly-released Highway to Hell album. Things were a bit harried, and we only got to exchange the briefest of pleasantries before I came out of “Shot Down In Flames.” 

As the song was fading I opened all the mics and introduced Bon and Angus.  “Great to have you with us today, guys” I began.

Without missing a beat, and for reasons known only to him, the hyper front man blurted out, “I ain’t been laid in at least a week, mate!”  He was smiling, and I paused at his unique declaration. 

I quickly glanced at his buddy, Angus, and said, “How has opening for Aerosmith been going on this first leg of the tour?”  To which Young mumbled something thoroughly unintelligible. They both began to giggle. I quickly realized that Angus had an extreme overbite which made every word fairly smeared, especially when gutturally siphoned through a hard-wired Australian accent.  It was kind of like Boomhower and Yahoo Serious channeling through Mortimer Snerd. 

The interview went on for about twenty minutes, and I cut away to a couple tunes to break things up.  The two were quite affable—but I had the hardest time understanding much of anything they were saying—it was reminded me of the old SNL skit where Mike Myers would play the part of the Rolling Stones’ Ronnie Wood.  Just lots of garbled gibberish and chortled phraseology. But I just kept nodding my head and trying to piece together questions that I thought flowed—even though I was often clueless as to what their answers had been.

At several points I’d gaze up at the label executive who was standing behind them, and he would just shrug his shoulders, roll his eyes, and purse his lips in a kind of half-smile as if to say, “Welcome to my world, Mark—I’ve been with them all day, and I can’t figure out most of what they’re saying either.”   We finished with some fun photos, and I met the guys again later after the concert and they were quite nice.  They must’ve felt it went swimmingly.  I hadn’t taped the interview—my guess is that it must’ve sounded hilarious.

Another interview gone terribly awry happened when I was working for a record company and taking then-young songwriter Gary Chapman around to many press and radio appearances in the Chicago area.  We had done about a dozen features in two days, and our final appointment was with the Christian station in the market during afternoon drive time—a good slot for exposure.  We fought through horrible traffic to get there, and Darryl, the DJ, was a bit miffed that we were behind schedule.  But what became more apparent was that he hadn’t bothered to read any of the advance promo materialsI had sent him, nor had he even listened to Gary’s album.  He literally tore the shrink wrap off of it while we were sitting there waiting for the interview to begin.  Gary looked at me with a great deal of apprehension. Darryl looked at us and said, “OK, gentleman, let’s just wing it here.”

After back-selling the previous cut, he then opened Gary’s mic and said, “I have with me here in the studio this afternoon Gary Chapman, who is a new artist on Benson Records, and has had some success writing some big hits for Amy Grant.”  And then, to cover for his lack of preparation, he naively uttered one of the worst questions any serious media journalist can muster: “So, tell us….who is Gary Chapman?”

Once again, Gary looked out of the corner of his eye at me.  I don’t know if he was just weary from all the interviews from the previous few days, or if he just genuinely despised the jock’s cavalier attitude, but he stared a hole into the guy’s forehead.  Then, heaving a deep sigh, he leaned into the mic and said, “Darryl, that is the stupidest question I have ever heard.”

Needless to say, the interview was over.  Darryl gathered himself and replied, “Thanks so much for stopping by, Gary,” emphatically swatting Gary’s mic switch to the “off” position, and immediately went into a bank of commercials.  He glared at me and said, “You know where the door is.”  I think it may still be on file as the shortest interview in history. 

As we were leaving, Gary sealed the deal by saying, “You sir, are a jackass,” as we walked out of the studio.  I don’t think I was granted any further interviews for artists I was involved with at that outlet for the next couple of years.  But Gary and I laughed about it all the way back into the Loop in Chi-town. I figured if he didn’t care about such an awkward career move, why should I? 

The next installment of this Radio Daze series coming next week will feature the dreaded “mic that was not meant to be open.” 

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