Thursday, March 30, 2023

Radio Days

Whatever happened to Radio?  You remember the critter, he was your introduction to the Lone Ranger and Sky King, your wingman through the early years of real rock ‘n’ roll, your steadfast companion through teenage years of beaches and ballgames and babes.  Where is that guy, where did he go?

The first radio I remember was bigger than a breadbox, a wooden job with a curved top situated in my grandmother’s living room.  It was a gathering place, especially on Saturday night when Jack Benny sparred with Rochester and Phil Harris irked Alice Faye by singing “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke That Cigarette!”

We learned the only classical music we knew from the radio.  The Green Hornet entered to the strains of a lively Flight of the Bumblebee and The Lone Ranger raced through western canyons to the William Tell Overture.  Opera fanciers would easily recognize the overture to Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek’s comic opera “Donna Diana” as the signature theme for Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, a Royal Canadian Mountie who delighted in roaring, “MUSH, YOU HUSKIES!” to his faithful dogsled team.  “Mush, you huskies” soon became a widely-used phrase for us neighborhood kids when athletic effort was required or some of us were trying to beat the B&M railroad train to the crossing gates.

The radio….it was our pal, our guide to the outside world, our hero on snow days when school was cancelled and sunny days when Bump Hadley gave us play-by-play of the Red Sox games.  It made our parents smile and dance around the house when some romantic D.J. played Stardust and it put us in Times Square for New Year’s Eve and in Pasadena the next day for the glorious Rose Bowl game.  Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?  Lamont Cranston did in his secret identity of the invisible Shadow, whose eerie laugh struck terror in the hearts of bad guys everywhere.  Radio--there was nothing like it and never will be--it got the juices flowing, the ears perked, the imagination cranked up.  It was a marvel, a wellspring and truly a theater of the mind.

Take Us Out To The Ballgame

The first any of us kids heard about Florida was when we were three or four years old and our fathers tuned in to WBZ in February to get the Red Sox Spring training news from an edenic place called Sarasota.  The snow was piled a couple of feet high outside in woebegone Lawrence  but the Sox announcers described sunny days with seventies temperatures in the glorious Sunshine State, where you could play ball 24/7 for 365 days a year.  Why, you were so guaranteed of sun that the St. Petersburg Times newspaper was given away free any day old Sol didn’t show his beaming face.  The radio boys painted idyllic pictures of the heavenly white home uniforms, the green, grassy diamonds, the short-sleeved sun-drenched crowds luxuriating in the intimate box seats of tiny ballparks.  It was enough to get us kids outside with our shovels to clear the baselines and whack around an old ball wrapped in electrical tape to survive the snow.  It was magic, this radio, with its promises of spring and baseball and better days ahead.  What would we do without it?

Enter Arnie Ginsburg

“Adventure Car Hop is the place to go for food that’s always right.
Adventure Car Hop is the place to go, you’ll relish every bite.
It’s out on Route One in Saugus, come dressed just as you are,
Adventure, where the service is tops and you never get out of your car.” 

We might not know all the Ten Commandments or the name of the Capital of North Dakota, but every kid in town knew all the words to the Adventure Car Hop commercial played several times nightly on Arnie (Woo Woo) Ginsburg’s call-in radio show.  Arnie was our best pal, the singular adult who understood our trials and tribulations and tried to make our lives better.  When Gwen broke up with Salvatore, Woo Woo was the guy she turned to on the phone: “Arnie, would you play ‘If I Give My Heart To You’ by Doris Day?  I just can't seem to get over Sal and it’s been three days now.”  And Arnie understood, offering kind words and spinning the request.  Sooner or later, of course, Salvatore would check in with his side of the story.  If he asked Arnie to play Love Letters In The Sand, the romance was back on again.

Eventually, we got cars, none without the all-important radios.  Michael Lee Aday, alias Meatloaf, later covered this era brilliantly with songs like Paradise By The Dashboard Light and Objects In The Rearview Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Appear.  There were no CDs in those days, no iPods, just the old dependable car radio.  Driving or at the beach or listening alone in bed at night, we called on it for Truth and company, a shoulder to cry on, a Top Ten to get our priorities straight, a voice at the end of the tunnel.  “And when the night is cloudy, there is still a light that shines on me…shinin’ until tomorrow, let it be.”

Arrival Of The Snake Man

“And it came to pass that manna from Heaven flowed across the land and those who ate of the fortuitous tree became enlightened and donned coats of many colors and sang and danced with glee, and merchants set up tables in the midst of this, spreading forth on blankets strange and colorful objects of adornment and implements of delight and confusion.”---William 29:11

Radio was a big deal in the Hippie Era and legions of bands with strange names flooded the land.  The Subterranean Circus rotated playing radio music with a vast collection of 78s, but advertised consistently on radio, especially on the station ruled by Montana, aka Will Thacker, erstwhile pilot of the Quadship, which hovered over Alachua and adjacent counties spewing forth all the tunes fit to listen to.  Back in the day, remote broadcasts from mercantile sites were a big deal, so for a few extra bucks Thacker and his minions would show up on your doorstep, mikes in hand, to relay the festivities to an anxiously awaiting public.  In case you were wondering, you can sell a helluva lot of waterbeds that way.

In 1970, stuffed to the gills with products of all description, the Circus bought the building next door, hosed it out and created a unique boutique called Silver City.  To properly announce the birth, we called in Thacker and his merry men to do a remote from 9 pm to midnight on a Friday.  Except for confusing the store’s jewelry with something called “joolery,” the radio boys did a primo job.  Customers poured in, salespeople smiled, shekels were exchanged.  As the hours crept closer to midnight, however, the crowds dwindled somewhat and certain parties brought out implements of mind modification, not always legal.  The radio boys took in their share and some of the later announcements might have been confusing to the listening public, but who are we to say?

Next day, we got a lot of phone calls on the order of, “What the hell was going on down there around 11:30?” and “Next time you’re having one of these giant stoner parties, would you please call me?”   Not to mention the champion call—“I’d like to order two angel dresses in size 7, as transparent as possible, a string of love beads, a box of Club papers and a lid.  Put it on Master Card and I’ll be there around closing.”  You’re wondering what happened, right?  Well, we liked to adhere to our motto as much as possible and the motto was “We aims to please.”  Figure it out.

The Pendulum Never Sleeps

As the weeds and crabgrass took over the communes and the hippie hordes morphed into nine-to-fivers, Radio changed.  Music became available for next-to-nothing via the internet, radio stations took up with talk-show hatemongers and some nitwit tanked on animosity and an intense dislike for the English language discovered Rap music while tinkering around in his garage on a rainy night at 3 a.m.  Rap took over the airways, not to mention the streets, where sexed-up cars heavily festooned with bells, whistles and underglow lighting bounced up and down in time to tunes blasted into the stratosphere at 90 decibels.  Where have you gone, Casey Kasem-o, the listeners lift their weary ears to you?

There were holdouts, of course.  Country music, holed up in a small mission in Nashville, Tennessee kept a grip on the rope, endured and eventually prospered.  Today, 20% of the radio stations in the U.S. are country stations, more than any other format, and 50% of Americans listen to Country music.  Internet radio channels like Sirius XM have raced onto the scene providing listeners with endless options like the Fibber McGee Spring Parade and The Great Gildersleeve.  In Gainesville, local radio rookies have started up WMBT (the Wombat) and Electraland Radio, both of which are doing very well, thank you.  And to complete the loop, an ancient fellow looking remarkably like Will Thacker has been seen at various interstate ramps holding a sign saying “Will DJ for hard cash or dates with nubile young women.”  Let’s hear from the old gaffer now:

The Way We Were by Will Thacker

I had been knocking around in Radio since the mid-sixties—not as long as Marconi, but still quite awhile.  Most recently with a guy named Boomer, the perfect radio moniker, at WUWU in Gainesville.  I’d also been spinning discs at the University of Florida Rathskeller and at Trader Tom’s sophisticated saloon, but don’t tell anyone.

Top Forty radio was giving way to LPs and progressive rock.  In the Spring of 1972, I got wind of a station out on SW 24th Street that was formatted as an album-oriented rock outfit, its call letters being WGVL.  I drove down the dusty limestone road and met Irv Uram, his mom and Aunt Gertie.  They agreed to try me out on the coming Saturday night, which meant I had to drive back from snake-hunting in the fabled Okeetee Plantation in South Carolina.  Irv asked me what radio name I would use and I said “Montana.”

Saturday night I showed up, lava light in hand and marveling at the nice fee I was getting paid to listen to my favorite music through some really great speakers.  Doing the news consisted of ripping some copy off the teletype machine and reading it cold over a jazz music bed.  I was on the air when Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane went down.  I played their albums the rest of the night…ironically, ’Street Survivors’ had just come out with its jacket of flames.

One night, I announced that Jimmy Carter was installing speed bumps on I-75 to help mitigate the fuel crisis.  On another “newscast,” I was doing a story on Afghanistan and I put a friend from Iran in another room with a microphone and announced, “Now a live report from Kabul!”  Hey, Saturday Night Live did it, right?

I had Dick Rudolph, Minnie Ripperton’s husband, on one night.  We hung out a lot.  He was reading from his poetry book, then cleared his throat and said, “I went to Venus to rest my penis,” which was scandalous in those days.  I waited for the knock on the door but the FCC never came by.

One day I was outside taking a break when a young lady on a black stallion rode up.  No, really.  I asked her if I could take the horse for a spin and she agreed.  I teed up the longest recording I could find (the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High”), maybe eighteen minutes in length, and mounted up on the English saddle.  The horse took off like he was shot from a cannon, got up to full speed and told me he had no intention of stopping.  I could see my career flash before my eyes.  By the time I got back, the record had long since stopped playing and the only sound in the studio was the ka-tick, ka-tick of the needle on the turntable.  Then the phone rang.  It was Irv Uram, of course.  The horsewoman later told me my mount had once been a racehorse and when he saw the limestone straightaway he thought it was the homestretch.

One month after my arrival, the station celebrated its first anniversary with an epic concert we broadcast live.  I got to be the emcee.  Many of the listeners decided to drive out to the station and the crowd grew into the morning hours.  We had the Lipham’s gig board, the riders’ clearing house, the Corner Drugstore and a long list of commercials.  One of them was a sixty-second spot for the Subterranean Circus followed by a comment about some psychedelic jewelry, which I mispronounced “jool-erie.”  Bill Killeen, the store owner, immediately called and gave me a short course in phonetics.  “Why,” I stuttered, “I’ve never been so insulted in my life!”  We joke about it to this day.

One fine perk of the job was getting all the free albums I could ever hope to listen to.  Another was emceeing a ton of concerts, some of them for Jeff Goldstein.  At a Jimmie Spheeris concert on campus I had a flare gun covered by a wax banana.  For some reason, I said “I’m Montana and this is my banana,” then fired the gun and watched magenta pyrotechnics arc into the night sky.  I spent the rest of the concert dodging campus cops, who were not amused.

Once, I introduced the Eagles, It’s A Beautiful Day and Yes at a concert in Jacksonville.  Thanks to Jeff Meldon and Jim Forsman, I became the house emcee at the Great Southern Music Hall.  Dave Brubeck was there the week his portrait graced the cover of Time.  His friend Duke Ellington had just passed. Ray Charles was always such a gracious man, speaking with us at length in the green room backstage.  I got to introduce my dear friend Minnie Riperton as the fastest rising star in show business.  I once brought on Goose Creek Symphony with a gaggle of live Egyptian geese I had rented, and what a slippery mess that was.

What’s that?  I’ve used up all my time and words already?  Okay, then.  It’s been fun being a slice of the Pie today and remembering the days when I flew the Quadship somewhere in the skies over Alachua County.  See you soon in the garden of earthly delights called Gainesville.  In the meantime, don’t take any wooden jool-erie.

That’s all, folks….