Saturday, April 11, 2015

My "Sam Kinison" period

Here's 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.
This was a re-post from four years ago.  For some reason my stories of getting bitch slapped in radio are very popular.  

18 comments:

jcs said...

FRIDAY RADIO QUESTION

With US commercial radio stations shutting down even in major markets, do you see (or would you like to see) an expanded role for public radio?

Do you think there might be an opportunity for something like a BBC2-style adult contemporary public radio station in some US markets?

YEKIMI said...

Sorta fun going back to the old stomping grounds of former stations where I [or anybody for that matter] worked at. Turns out one I worked at wasn't too far from my new doctor's office so I tooled on over to see what had become of the place. It had been converted to a dentist's office but when I stopped by they had apparently closed and the building sat empty and was up for sale. Pretty depressing.

Mike Botula said...

Love your old radio stories, Ken. I used to hear "Beaver Cleaver" promoed or actually caught him on the air, and always came away thinking "what moron would pick THAT name." Now, I realize the guy was a genius. The sheer energy that radio guys would expend to find a good "radio name" could light up a city the size of Detroit. Sadly, that all became extinct with "The Invasion of the Alien Bean Counters!" Bottom line, tho. Beaver Cleaver is definitely a name to remember.

Oat Willie said...

Glad I clicked on that promo card. For a second I worried that YOU were the Plaid Stallion in the pic instead of the Lucky Contest Winner.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Come on...come on...we gotta, gotta hear one of your 'drq airchecks.

One of the best times we had at
K-BEST 95 in San Diego was when the staff had an aircheck party...and the price of admission was the worst aircheck each jock ever made. Mine was from KLA (the student-run station at UCLA...) and I still blush when I hear it. Gosh, it is awful.

mmryan314 said...

I think your stories of getting " bitch slapped " in your earlier career are inspirational,especially to young people just starting their own careers.You are telling them not to give up just because one person ( in your case, many people )didn`t appreciate their talents.Keep at it.

AAllen said...

You could visit the old neighborhood on Google Street View. All of the gawking with none of the carjacking.

DBenson said...

I know this is a little late, but wasn't the technology there to pre-record a handful of screams and simply play them as needed?

It worked for Tarzan in the MGM movies and Goofy in the cartoons.

Ray Barrington said...

Unrelated to the post but a question... interesting story here about some "easter eggs" in an episode of Mad Men that refer a lot to MASH and specifically one episode. Just be interested to read your thoughts.

Matt said...

You really should do a sequel to your book of growing up in the 60s. You have so many good stories.

MikeK.Pa. said...

Agree with Matt. Think it's time for a book about your TV experiences.

Dirk Belligerent said...

Want to know how Detroit is doing? Watch AMC's Low Winter Sun which was shot here and captures some of the wretched squalor that comprises most of Detroit outside of the downtown sports/entertainment zones and isolated neighborhoods. You can buy a house for $1000, but it may take $30,000 in renovations to make it liveable and then you'll have a house worth $15,000. In Detroit.

Johnny Walker said...

"This was a re-post from four years ago. For some reason my stories of getting bitch slapped in radio are very popular."

I guess it's nice to see that even getting repeatedly fired, having bosses that don't treat you with respect, and generally having lots of bad times, doesn't mean you should lose faith in your ability to learn, improve and, ultimately, succeed.

A rare trait.

D. McEwan said...

Actually, the idea of my old friend Sam Kinison introducing Carpenters records sounds hilarious, though not on a regular basis.

Artie in Sin City said...

I sold time in the early 70's at KFRE in Fresno...plus I jocked Sunday nights from six to mid...The station was in a two story building at the edge of the Ashlan Park Shopping Center and the offices were upstairs and the studio on the ground floor...Saw it a year ago and the building is covered in graffiti and surrounded by a temporary chain link fence...Beyond a war zone motif...Yep, in radio you CAN'T go back...

VP81955 said...

Glanced at the survey and saw the cute things they did with the song titles to get the "Q" reference in ("Q Make Me Feel Brand New," "The Loc-Q-Motion"). We had something like that a few years before at WOLF in Syracuse.

The morning DJ there was billed as Jerry Morgan, but that wasn't his real last name (and he was an assistant football coach at Christian Brothers Academy, which I attended at the time, so I was aware of this).

In late 1969 and early '70, the group Vanity Fare (best known for "Hitchin' A Ride" in mid-1970) had a smaller hit with "Early in the Morning." Anyway, WOLF -- a pseudo-Bill Drake "more music" station -- listed the song on its Hot 30 survey (which I picked up each week at Walt's Record Shop on South Salina Street) as "Early in the Morgan." I wonder whether KHJ (home of Robert W. Morgan, who I bet inspired Jerry's air name) did likewise with its survey.

B Smith said...

Looking at that Top 20 chart - man, no wonder you wanted to get out of radio.

Oriole said...

I used to listen to WDRQ until they adopted an all-disco format in the late 1970s. I'm wondering if the morning DJ you make reference to was Bill Bailey? He was the morning guy that I remember around that time period. (My cousin worked as a hygienist at the dental office where Bill Bailey regularly had his teeth cleaned/repaired. She reported that he was always shocked that there was a bill for each visit; his thinking was that an autographed head shot to hang on their wall was payment enough.)