Pirate Radio Was Disappointing

What I was expecting was the story of the thumb-our-nose station and what it did. What we ended up seeing was a concept in search of a story.

pirate radio poster.jpgHelaine and I headed into New Haven last night to see Pirate Radio. Regardless of reviews I was compelled to see it because of my own radio background. Radio was my calling as much as my occupation.

Disappointment. You don’t have to feel obliged as I was.

Pirate Radio is loosely based on Radio Caroline, one of the seaborne broadcasters in the era before commercial radio (and with it top-40 radio) was established in Britain. Since the movie took place on a ship the photography was mainly ‘tripodless’ and often too shaky for my liking.

What I was expecting was the story of the thumb-our-nose station and what it did. What we ended up seeing was a concept in search of a story. There really was no overarching theme.

I asked my friend Ed Symkus, who reviews movies for a living, to give me his opinion.

I liked the film a lot. I doubt it will be on my Top 10 list — it’s not great. But it has a sensibility that spoke right to me, and I’m sure will to you. More than half the fun is hearing what keeps popping up next on the soundtrack. A freewheeling ensemble film with lots of intertwining stories rather a straightforward one. And it turns into an action-thriller! Really!!! I love radio.

criterion theater new haven.jpgYes to sensibility and soundtrack. Yes to ensemble, though Phillip Seymour Hoffman&#185 was underused in a role where he seemed comfortably toasted and not much more. I would have to disagree with the action-thriller characterization… and I suppose with liking the film a lot. I liked it a little.

Let’s go back to the soundtrack for a second. The movie is loaded with songs you seldom hear played loud anymore. Though it was the era of the Beatles and psychedelia, much of the music was marvelously pedestrian pop. God, I love that stuff.

If there’s any good news here it’s that the story of Radio Caroline and the real pirates of the North Sea has yet to be told. That would be worth seeing.

&#185 – They could have saved big bucks on this movie by using my friend Woody Hoyt instead of PSH. Every time Hoffman was on screen all I saw was Woody–honest.

People Continue To Die

My friend Farrell, currently winning hearts and minds in Warsaw, Poland, just sent me the news – Joey Bishop is dead.

Bishop was a fixture of late night television in the late 60s, often subbing for Johnny Carson, then hosting his own talk show on ABC (where Regis Philbin got his network start… and nearly his end).

Hosting on the very weak ABC, versus the well established Johnny Carson, Bishop was an immediate underdog. His status as a member of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack was a small mitigating factor, but in the end not enough.

Originially a standup comic (Comedy Central says he’s #96 on the all time 100 best), everything I’ve heard in the last decade or so said Joey Bishop was a very bitter, angry and not very nice guy. I’ve got a list of people like that, performers who felt they deserved more success than they got and couldn’t get over it. It seems like an awful way to live out your life.

Bishop was know for the phrase, “Son of a gun.” It was said in an almost question-like way. Typing the letters doesn’t have the same impact as hearing him say them.

Also entering the ‘file footage’ category yesterday was Teresa Brewer. Her top-40 hits, Ricochet and Music!, Music!, Music!, came too early for me to care about.

She’s important in my life, because she was the first ‘act’ I saw in Las Vegas. It was 1975, I was traveling the west with my friend Bob, and we went to Caesar’s Palace to see her open for Rowan and Martin.

The stage was large and full of people. We sat where the maitre’d sat losers and bumpkins – far from the action.

Rowan and Martin were hosting Laugh In at the time. It was one of the hottest shows on TV. They were OK. Teresa Brewer was dynamite.

I’d never seen a show like that before, with a polished performer and big band. This was old school Vegas, still extremely glitzy and moneyed. In the midst of her act, she brought on John Bubbles&#185, someone I knew nothing about. When they tap danced, I was blown away.

She was tiny, but her voice was huge. I remember thinking how close her performance was to the original records I’d heard on the radio.

If, before I went, you would have asked if I wanted to see Teresa Brewer, I would have said, “No.” I left as a fan.

I’m sorry I never got to meet her to tell her that. A performer can never hear enough praise.

&#185 – From Wikipedia: In 1978, John Bubbles spoke at the Variety Arts Theatre in Los Angeles as a participant in a seminar on vaudeville. Someone asked him who the best tap dancer was. Bubbles answered, “You’re looking at him.”

ABQ – We’re here

You can’t sleep well on a plane. You can sleep fitfully. That’s what I did for a good portion of our Baltimore to Albuquerque flight.

Albuquerque’s airport is unusual because there are no rental car counters. A rental shuttle, which serves all the companies, takes you to what looks like the rent-a-car mall.

Everything was quick and easy.

I asked the agent for a car with satellite radio. He said “maybe,” there weren’t many cars around. As it turned out, I was fine. Most of the cars had XM.

I ended up with a white Impala with a gigantic trunk.

With Casey Kasem on the radio with a classic American Top-40, we set out finding the hotel. It wasn’t too much of a problem. Only one u-turn! Even Google can’t get everything right.

We’re on the 7th floor, and the fun begins in the morning.

You have on idea how tired I am right now.

The Man Who Met Norman Chad

Have I mentioned I enjoy playing poker? I continue playing online almost every night and my deposit of three years ago is still there.

For poker players, our ‘world series’ is the World Series of Poker. Conveniently named, isn’t it?

The WSOP is the biggest tournament in the world. Actually, it’s a series of tournaments, culminating in the ‘Main Event.’

Anyone can enter. All you need is a $10,000 ticket. This year, a $10,000 ticket turned into $12,000,000 for Jamie Gold of California.

I’ve never been to the World Series. C’mon – $10,000 is a lot of money and you’re playing against all the best (and some of the luckiest) players around.

My friend Rick played this year. He won his $10,000 entry playing in a satellite tournament. It cost him $1!

Though Rick had a great time, he came home with little more than memories and some tchotchkes for me. One of them is pictured on the left. It’s an autograph from Norman Chad.

OK – it’s on a piece of paper ripped out of a spiral notepad. Can’t it still be a cherished memento?

Chad is a newspaper columnist. He’s also written books and for TV, including a pretty funny episode of Arli$$. Mostly, I know him as the color commentator on the World Series broadcasts.

Rick has had the autograph for months. Tonight was finally time to pick it up.

I don’t have many friends I can visit at midnight besides Rick. He is a professional announcer and sets his own schedule. His business is primarily carried on from a studio in his basement.

If you’re in Connecticut, you’ve heard Rick say “99-1, WPLR” or voice commercials for Bob’s Stores (the clothing, not the furniture stores). If you’re elsewhere, you’ve heard him too, on commercials and promos too numerous count.

He has one of those voices that is just too darned deep. It is accented by gravely side tones which make it mellifluous and friendly.

My voice is so lacking in bass, a program director I worked for in Philadelphia considered using a ‘Harmonizer’ to electronically lower the pitch! I will be eternally envious of Rick’s pipes.

There was actually more waiting for me than the autograph (though that will be my most cherished piece of swag). Rick also gave me a deck of WSOP playing cards, a WSOP chip, PokerStars.net t-shirt, and the ‘souvenir’ room key from his Vegas hotel.

We were down in his studio talking when I noticed the full wall of record albums. These were real 33 1/3 rpm vinyl disks. They’re the kind that scratched, popped and hissed when you played them. Looking at the collection was like going back in time.

I started pulling albums off the wall and, on two vintage Technics turntables, Rick began playing cuts. There was early Hendrix and Janis Joplin. I read the technical notes on the cover of the Beach Boys seminal Holland LP. There were more obscure groups like The Buoys&#185 and The Easybeats.

Some cuts, like Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream, I hadn’t heard in 40 years or so! I remembered conversations with friends in the 60s, trying to figure out why Dylan starting the song acoustically, stopped to laugh, and then began again, this time with electric guitar and electrified accompaniment.

Our musical tastes are very different. Rick has a more eclectic, more discerning ear for artistry. I gravitate to pop and ‘the hits.’ Still, there was a lot to share and, as former disk jockeys, stories to tell.

I got home around 3:00 AM, carrying my loot with me.

Forget my WSOP take. I can’t begin to tell you how much fun I had just schmoozing and listening to those old songs.

&#185 – The Buoys hit “Timothy” is probably the best top-40 song about cannibalism ever!

How I Met My Wife

Helaine and I have known each other for twenty five years. I wish I remembered the exact date. I don’t. I know it was around this time of year, sometime in mid-July.

I was working at WIFI – a horrendous top-40 station in Philadelphia. Though owned by the movie chain, “General Cinema,” it seemed more like a mom and pop operation. The equipment was tired and in a semi-constant state of disrepair.

On the air, we used every gimmick possible to try and magnify what meager ratings we had. We even ‘kited’ time checks to try and inflate the amount of time people said they were listening!

Though a true blue radio fanatic, I was getting burned out by my time at WIFI. The final straw was getting calls from nine and ten year olds asking me to play, “We don’t need no education.”

I felt, single handedly, I was leading American society into some sort of social abyss. I made the decision to leave radio and get into television.

Though thirty, I was very young looking. I had only begun to shave on a regular basis. Here’s my 1980 driver’s license. You make the call.

I took everything I’d ever done in front of a camera (and this included telethon appearances, an Evening Magazine audition in Philadelphia, even “Popeye’s 50th Birthday Party”) and started searching for a TV job. On this particular July day the call came in&#185.

I was incredibly excited. Not only would I be leaving WIFI, I’d also be starting a new life a television… albeit in Buffalo.

My air shift ended at 10:00 AM. I ran out of the studio, toward the parking lot&#178 where I’d meet some friends and tell them the good news.

To exit the WIFI studio, you opened the door, turned right, walked down a hallway and then around the edge of another studio, making a full 180&#176 turn! As I rounded that corner I ran into a woman who had just started working in the promotion department.

When I say “ran into,” I am being literal. I ran into her and knocked her to the ground! That was my first contact with Helaine!

We saw each other a few times, but I was exiting Philadelphia in a few weeks. I was a guy who tried to avoid commitment during normal times… much less now, as I packed my stuff.

OK – I’m a jerk. I’m a fool. For all intents and purposes, I should have lost her to someone smarter and more mature. But, I didn’t.

I left Philly and didn’t see Helaine for another year and a half. I’ll tell how we got together some other time. It’s an interesting story with me, again, playing the part of the jerk!

The story you’ve read has been told a zillion times. It needs no embellishment, because it’s totally true.

As it turns out, it might be the best day of my life. The day my career changed and, more importantly, the day I met the woman I’d love for the rest of my life.

Maybe this is why I love the summer and why July is my favorite month. I bet Helaine knows the exact date.

&#185 – The call came from WGR-TV’s program director, Farrell Meisel. I can never thank Farrell enough for that first opportunity. He took a great chance, considering I had no experience in TV at all. Farrell and I are still really good friends, though I can no longer work for his TV station as I don’t speak Arabic!

&#178 – WIFI’s studio were in a mid-rise office complex in Bala Cynwyd, PA (yes, that’s how it’s spelled). In that pre consolidation era, we were in the same building as four other radio stations.

End of An Era

Lots of “had to’s” today. I had to drop Steffie’s car at the dealer. I had to pick up a disk from my friend Kevin. I had to go to work – not my usual Sunday plan.

That’s why I was in the car as we approached the top of the hour. This has always been my time to hit the network news. OK – I’m a living anachronism, but I still listen to network radio news on the hour anytime I’m in the car.

WCBS had the Yankees game, so I went to WQUN. They had a ballgame too. WAVZ, now mostly Air America talk shows and CNN Radio Network news was also in the middle of a baseball game. As I tuned and tuned, I could find no network news!

I can’t remember this ever happening before. I’ve always been able to find a NOTH and nearly always it was CBS.

It has been getting harder to find over time. I remember driving up I-95 in Ft. Lauderdale this past winter and being pleased to hear Bob Hardt’s network cast from ABC. I was pleased because of how sparse these newscasts have become.

There was a time when radio stations had to commit to presenting news in order to keep their license. As strange as it seems now, top-40 stations would pause every hour for a newscast. With all the outlets available today it probably isn’t as necessary.

Write it down – May 1, 2005. The first day I could no longer depend on network radio news. It’s a shame.

My Friend Bob

Bob Lacey has been my friend for a long time… a really long time. I met him my first day as a paid broadcaster – a part time, minimum wage position at WSAR in Fall River, MA. “Ahoy there matey, it’s 14-80.”

WSAR was a great place to start. It was a small station in a small market. The studio and transmitter were located in a residential neighborhood at the foot of Home Street in Somerset, MA.

We were top-40 back when stations still actually played forty records. We even had PAMS jingles. If you weren’t in radio back then, this might not makes sense, but PAMS of Dallas was the gold standard of radio station jingles.

WSAR promoted itself as serving the Tri Cities: Fall River, New Bedford and Newport. Yes, they were physically close, but Fall River and New Bedford might as well have been on another planet as far as Newport was concerned!

I met Bob (he was Skippy Ross back then) that first day and we’ve been friends ever since. After Fall River, we also worked together in Charlotte, NC, where Bob has been for over 35 years. How is that even possible?

We don’t see each other as often as we should and we had trouble hooking up on the phone because his hours and mine are as opposite as can be. Bob is the guy half of Bob and Sheri, the nationally syndicated morning radio show.

Obviously I’m biased, but this is a phenomenal morning show. In the parlance of radio, it is female friendly. It’s funny… sometimes even sexual humor… but never smutty or sophomoric.

Bob is a technophobe. There are no two ways about it. If it’s electronic or technical, count him out. I always expected his first laptop computer would be steam powered. That’s why it’s so nice to have him finally sending email. OK – he’s a decade late, but he’s here.

I can’t begin to tell you how good it was to get a message from him, and then a reply to my reply, and another email later. It’s been a while since a good friend has come into the modern era. Email can be a wonderful thing.

There are so many people who feel our constantly connected world is driving people away from human contact. I disagree. A few sentences from a friend is the real power of the Internet, not its weakness.

Two Friends in the Times – And They Didn’t Shoot Anyone!

The New York Times did a wonderful profile of a friend of mine, Jon Wolfert. Jon is to radio jingles as Janet Jackson is to wardrobe malfunction. What makes it even cooler is the gratuitous mention of our mutual friend, Peter Mokover.

Jon is responsible for some of my favorite jingles – including a few he did for me. I am responsible for sneaking him into the Kennedy Space Center to watch John Glenn’s launch.

I’ve attached the article to the link below.

Continue reading “Two Friends in the Times – And They Didn’t Shoot Anyone!”

Radio Is In My Blood

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 dad&#185 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.

&#185 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.