I am not really in television – it’s more radio with pictures. Radio was always my first love. As a kid, I knew I’d go into radio (and I did). TV was an afterthought. Other than the actual skill of forecasting the weather, there’s nothing I do on TV that I didn’t do on radio first.
This is going to make me sound old.
I went to high school in the same building that housed the New York City Board of Education’s radio station. We were FM back when no one listened to FM. That was mainly because no one owned an FM radio!
WNYE-FM had an eclectic mix of educational programs. It’s tough to visualize today, but teachers in NYC would bring clunky Granco FM radios into their classrooms so the students could listen to, “Let’s Look at the News” or “Young Heroes.” There’s little in the way of TV today that’s equivalent.
Looking for a way to get out of conventional English classes, I became a radio actor for English class credit. I was cast in dozens and dozens of morality plays and historical recreations. I was young Orville Wright, Thomas Jefferson, Jackie Robinson (in that less politically correct time) and lots of kids named Billy.
In the morality plays, I often had lines like, “If I ride my bike over the hill, mom will never know.” By the second act, my arm was in a cast and I was sorry. In these shows, no transgression went unpunished.
All through high school, I listened to radio – listening to the disk jockeys more than the music. The disk jockeys were cool and hip and in control. They talked back to the boss with impunity, or so it seemed to me. They were quick and witty and sarcastic. I wanted to be a disk jockey.
Though I grew up in New York City, my favorite radio station was WKBW in Buffalo. You could only hear “KB” from dusk ’til dawn, but it boomed in like a local at our apartment in Queens.
The nighttime jocks on “KB” were unbelievable. Over time, there were Joey Reynolds, Bud Ballou, Jack Armstrong and others. KB Pulse Beat news with Irv Weinstein, who I’d later know personally, was a tabloid newscast, back when rock stations had to have newscasts.
This is not to say I didn’t listen to WABC in NYC, because I did. There’s little doubt that Dan Ingram is the best disk jockey to ever point a finger at a board operator. He was all the things that the “KB” guys were, but he operated within the more heavily produced WABC universe. At WABC there was a jingle for everything except going to the bathroom… and maybe there was a jingle for that too.
Back on track… must get back on track… where is this going?
In college, I knew I wanted to be like them. I wasn’t as cool as they were. I certainly didn’t have ‘pipes’ (the euphemism for a deep, throaty voice). Still, I wanted to be on the air.
At home, or in the car, I’d practice ‘talking up records.’ That means talking over the instrumental bridge that opens songs before the singing begins, and stopping on a dime, effortlessly, as the singing began. That’s called “hitting vocal,” and I was very good at that.
I started in radio at WSAR in Fall River, MA. I was part time, making $2.50 an hour. Before long, the company I was working for, Knight Quality Stations (some of which weren’t on at night, and none of which had quality), sent me to Florida to be program director at WMUM, aka – “Mother.” I was still making $2.50 an hour or $130 for a 6 day, 48 hour week.
WMUM was an “underground station.” Again, it’s a concept tough to understand today. We played everything without resorting to a playlist. It was some sort of misguided Utopian programming concept that never really took hold anywhere for long. But in 1969, at age 19, “Mother” was an unreal place to be.
We were hip and cool and broadcast from a building located adjacent to the parking lot for Lake Worth, Florida’s beach. From our studio, through the soundproof glass, you could watch the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean. The beach was always filled with girls in bathing suits.
“Mother” didn’t hold its allure for long. Within 18 months, I had moved on to our sister AM station and then two other stations in the West Palm Beach market.
At age 21, I went to Charlotte, NC. There I did nights on a station that truly was heard from Canada to Florida. During my tenure, we even got mail from Cuba and Scandinavia. WBT was a classic radio station with good facilities, excellent promotion and nurturing management. I didn’t know how good I had it until I left.
I became a radio gypsy, moving to Cleveland and Phoenix and finally Philadelphia. I moved enough to qualify for the U-Haul Gold Card. I worked nights at WPEN in Philadelphia for a few years before moving to mornings.
We were a good AM station, playing oldies, at about the time music on AM was dying… rapidly.
I think I was pretty good at WPEN. If you’ll remember that this aircheck is over 25 years old, and I was more than 25 years younger than I am now, you can listen to it by clicking here. I really enjoyed what I was doing.
After a while we could see things weren’t going well in the ratings. A new program director was brought in to change things. Brandon Brooks, my friend and newsman on the show, came to me. Things were going to change but, “Don’t worry Geoff. They can’t fire you.”
I was gone within two hours.
My radio career never got back to that place. I continued to work, but it wasn’t the same. I finally ended up at WIFI, a top-40 FM station where I constantly worried that I, personally, was leading to the degradation of youth and society.
The scene played over and over again as I answered the hitline. I’d say, “Hello, WIFI.” On the other end, a young voice would respond, “Play, ‘We Don’t Need No Education.'” To me, it was like screeching chalk on a blackboard.
WIFI was my last stop before getting into TV. Still I miss radio nearly each and every day.
This is not to say I want to leave TV. I don’t. But, I do have this fantasy where I do radio in the morning and TV in the evening. That’s why, whenever someone from radio calls and asks me to fill-in or come on the air, I jump at the chance. It’s really an involuntary response.
It’s still in my blood.
The reason I’m writing all of this is because of someone I saw today at a charity event. I was helping present a check and toys to support shelters for abused women at the Verizon Wireless store in North Haven. A man walked up to me and said hello. It was Pete Salant.
I know Pete, though not that well. My sense is, Pete could go one-on-one with me with any bit of radio minutiae. It runs through his blood as well. In fact, with him broadcasting is an inbred thing, as his dad¹ was a giant when CBS was the “Tiffany Network.”
Pete was known mostly as a radio programmer – and a damned good one. It’s probable, though I really don’t remember anymore, that within Pete’s career, he turned me down for a job… maybe more than once. I know he ran places where I wanted to work. Today, he creates commercials for radio station that run on TV.
It was good to see him. It’s always good to think about radio.
¹ Pete tells me it was actually his cousin… and not a very close one… who was with CBS: “Dick Salant was my cousin twice-removed (grandfather’s first cousin), not my dad.” I’m going to leave the original posting as is, because I want to try and keep this blog as a contemporaneous record, but add the correction here.