Monday, April 25, 2011

My "Sam Kinison" period

Flying today to Detroit to begin a roadtrip with the Mariners, which is an convenient lead-in to another tale of my checkered radio career. Back in 1974 I was a screaming disc jockey (literally) at WDRQ, Detroit. My tenure was short-lived but memorable.

At the time I had been out of work as a disc jockey for about six months. No one wanted a high energy, “youthful”-voiced, wise-ass-bordering-on-insane platter spinner (or, to be more accurate – music cartridge inserter). The program director of KYNO in Fresno kept me dangling for months for an all-night gig and eventually gave it to someone else. Needless to say, I was depressed. I mean, when they don’t think you’re good enough to talk to empty fields at 3 AM you tend to believe you don’t have a rosy future in this profession.

I had even gotten a different job – working in the research department of NBC. But preparing test results for Bob Crane pilots didn’t seem like the best way to fill five or six decades either.

And then, out of the blue, I get a call from the new program director of WDRQ. How would I like to come to Detroit and do 6-10 in the evening? This was unbelievable. I wasn’t qualified for all-nights in market #110 but was good enough to do a primo slot in market #5 or 6? The money was probably less than I’d get in Fresno but that was besides the point. I was heading to a major market!

The program director picked me up at the airport and drove me right to the station. It was snowing. This was mid-April. He wanted me to do a break-in show in the middle of the night – get used to the equipment and format so when I premiered at 6 PM I knew what I was doing.

I said, “Fine” without stopping to think – when am I going to sleep? I didn’t want to be rude and say, “I really should check into a motel instead of drinking beer and smoking more joints with you” so I just sucked it up. And then at midnight he drove me to the station, wished me luck, and drove off.  I went on the air – half-smashed, no preparation, and having already been up for close to 24 hours. It was my best show. 

“Oh, by the way”, I told him after we were both seeing mermaids at the IHOP, “I want to use the name Beaver Cleaver on the air.” He was so wasted he didn’t even ask me why. The answer to that is I wanted a name that stood out, was easy to say, and let’s be honest, was dirty.

I got off the air at 6 AM, met the morning man – a surely bitter fellow with a great voice and nothing else. The fact that I was funny, he hated me instantly. The program director arrived, said he was thrilled with how I sounded, and took me to breakfast at the IHOP, where it turns out, those mermaids were just the cleaning crew.

So after a good late morning sleep, the Beaver Cleaver show premiered on WDRQ at 6 that night. Got a call from the PD that I sounded great.

Things were going well and would remain that way… for another eight hours. The program director called me into his office. Apparently there was a problem. The station’s “consultant” had heard me and felt I needed a slight adjustment in my act. He wanted me to scream more. By more he meant every time I opened my mouth. The evening jock should sound super high energy and the way to achieve that (according to this moron) was to have the disc jockey scream. And I had no choice. Either scream or be fired after one day.

So I did and I sounded like a complete idiot. Imagine Sam Kinison introducing Carpenters records. I generally went through a spritz bottle of Chloraseptic every show. No one will ever hear tapes of me on WDRQ, and if you have one I’m going to have to kill you.

I frantically sent out audition tapes, and a few months later was offered a job at KYA, San Francisco. The WDRQ program director thought I was crazy taking that job. If I stuck it out in Detroit for a year I could get to Boston. A year? I’d sound like Kenny Rodgers by then. Plus, what’s wrong with San Francisco?

About a month later I received a letter from the program director. He had forwarded a petition some high school circulated to try to get me back on WDRQ. I still have it of course. It’s my most cherished keepsake from my radio days.

My first time back in Detroit since those days was when I was broadcasting for the Orioles in 1991. I rented a car and thought I’d tool around the old haunts. The neighborhood where WDRQ was located in my day was an absolute war zone. Not that it was ever Park Ave. to begin with, but now the street was littered with graffiti, squalor, and the folks screaming were not introducing Motown records. I haven’t been back since. Although, I must admit, I’m a little curious. Today it’s probably gentrified and gorgeous and all the apartments have been refurbished – now with hardwood floors and the meth labs removed – and it’s the happening place to live in Detroit. Or it’s been razed to the ground.  Either way, there should be a plaque -- to WDRQ, or, as I used to call it on the air -- W-Dreck.

17 comments:

Please Don't Eat Me said...

You should stop by at WDRQ--now called Doug--2nd and Grand Aves look like they've changed a lot since your last visit.

Great Big Radio Guy said...

While Ken was on his way to San Fran, I was driving into WDRQ to be their new production guy. Ken and I didn't know each other then or he would have warned me about the hellhole I was about to walk into. The studiis were on Eight Mile Road then in what was a drive-thru bank (probably went out of business from hourly robberies). When asked, I say it was at Eight Mile at Sphincter. I was there three months. That deep voiced morning guy became my boss when the guy who hired me was unceremoniously canned and that flaming pile of ego hated my sense of humor. It did give me a job in a major market at the age of 19, but at least it scarred me for life. Great memories.

Chris said...

Here's one for your friday questions: how does the audience know when to laugh when the camera zooms on a certain object that makes the situation funny (like show you the title of a book or newspaper the character is reading). "Applause"-style signs is my only idea and it sounds very cheap. Also, I've seen it done on I love Lucy and I don't think they would gather audiences to see the final edit of the show so they could record them either.

Phillip B said...

I do miss Sam. Perhaps you could make a deal with Cloraseptic and tour as a Kinison tribute act -

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K1GjyrQiSRs

Mork said...

I do believe I had dinner at that IHOP about 15 years ago. They had an armed guard (absolutely true) standing post at the entrance, which would seem to match the neighborhood...

YEKIMI said...

How come all the Big Radio Markets seem to have the worst run stations in the country? Seems like the Peter Principle [and when I saw "Peter" I don't mean bosses who are dicks but most of them are or were]is at work. I've worked at stations that make the employees & bosses at WKRP seem like top of the class Harvard/Princeton/Yale graduates!

YEKIMI said...

Oh, and the studios always seemed to be located one step away from the entrance to Hell. A least most corporate owners have moved their stations all under one roof and often to a way nicer location than they could have ever hoped to afford on their own. A station I worked at in Florida was so badly infested with cockroaches that they finally had to tent the building and fumigate it and we all had to broadcast from the transmitter shack for two days! {I don't know why but cockroaches terrify me, I could never have been a spy. All they would have had to do is threaten to put one on me and I would have hit notes a soprano could only dream about reaching.)

benson said...

Thank you Ken and Mr. GBR Guy,

I was about two years from embarking on a long and mediocre career at that time, and envied guys like you. Those stories, even as horrible as they were at the time, make me smile fondly based on many of my own similar experiences.

In my mind's ear, I'm screaming "NINE!!!!!" in honor of both of you!

James said...
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James said...
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James said...

Ken, was that morning man's last name Bailey? I have a composite aircheck of DRQ from I'm thinking late 73 or early 74. The night guys were VERY up! I see they kept that up. I too have a few airchecks where I'm the screaming teen night jock. No one gets to hear them!

Boomer said...

Yeah, Bxxx Bailey. "6:30 in the morning, time to get your ass out of bed." Funniest thing he ever said. But he said it every morning...all morning long.

Then when I was there in late '75 or early '76, Jerry St. James took over mornings. Vast improvement.

We took Jerry out to the 52nd Street Show Bar once. "Annette the Monkey" was the featured attraction. You'd sit at the circular bar, and Annette would go flying right over your head on a trapeze...while bottomless. Good times!

"Just" Kevin Anderson

Harry said...

I always thought WDRQ was better at top 40 than CKLW.

Anonymous said...

I thought I was the only guy that had a job dangled in front of me for months only to have it evaporate. In my case it was two jobs in the same market left dangling for the same period of time. Both "offers" disappeared on the same day after lasting the entire summer.

l.a.guy said...

According to WDRQ they are now located here I'm guessing that's not 8 Mile territory.

l.a.guy said...

"Annette the Monkey" was the featured attraction.

I hope to god that "monkey" referred the to her trapeze skills and not the fact a bunch of men were ogling a pantless simian.

And what is that... four people posting here who worked at WDRQ? That place had a higher turnover rate than the pancake cook at IHOP.
(Thank you-- I'll be here all week)

Ron said...

I bet you got that NBC Research Dept. job through your NBC Army Reserve connections! By the way is the reality dreck that is on network OTA TV now ever seen as a pilot, or is it just approved by the programming dummies after looking at proposed production budgets?