Thursday, November 03, 2011

This Could Only Happen on Live Radio

More war stories from my checkered radio career.

In the early ‘70s, while still a student at UCLA, I was an engineer at KABC/KLOS radio. Primarily, I worked for KLOS. Due to union contracts, the announcers could only turn on and off their microphones. Engineers (or “board ops”) did everything else – played all the commercials, records, or on KABC’s talk format – put the callers on and off the air.

So for eight hours a day I sat in a control room playing records and commercials (on cartridges) and adjusting levels while the disc jockey and talk show hosts sat across the glass in studios equipped with a microphone.

The format for KLOS was A.O.R. That’s a radio industry term for “Album Oriented Rock”. This was the FM alternative to high-energy Top 40 stations. Instead of screaming DJ’s geared towards teenagers, AOR stations employed laid back hippies designed to attract that young college student who had discerning taste in music and was stoned 99% of the time.

Both KABC and KLOS, owned then by the American Broadcasting Company when it was a real company, shared the same facility on La Cienaga just on the border of the part of town you never wanted your car to break down in. KABC and KLOS were odd bedfellows to be sure.

KABC was the top rated talk station in town. Commentators in shirts and ties would defend Richard Nixon all day. On the other side of the building, it was Woodstock after the rain. Jocks dressed like the Grateful Dead but with worse hygiene would flitter from the studios to the offices leaving a thick trail of illegal smoke behind them.

The staffs of the two stations were separate except for the engineers. It was not uncommon for me to go from playing Jethro Tull records to presiding over a talk show advocating all hippies be fired off into space. Then back for “Layla” by Derek & the Dominos (a song that is approaching a coveted milestone: It has been overplayed to death for forty years come this December).

But it was the best of America – a true melting pot: the counter-culture and narcs working side by side. Paul Harvey and Mott the Hoople coming out of the same building.

I loved my time at KLOS. Worked with some great D.J.’s like Jim Ladd (who was there until just week before being unceremoniously dumped), J.J. Jackson (one of the first V.J.s), Damian, Shauna, and the late Jim Patton. They somehow managed to create a vibe that was ultra-cool even though they were practically broadcasting from an army recruiting center.

The fun of AOR radio is making the segues from one record to another and that was my job. If you ever have a bar mitzvah and need a DJ to segue “From the Beginning” by Emerson, Lake, & Palmer to “the Needle and the Damage Done” by Neil Young give me a call. The KLOS jocks would tell me which three album cuts to play in a row and they would then just chill for ten to fifteen minutes. Some got high and others hustled the phones trying to get laid.

One of the jocks was notorious for the latter. I always had to get on the intercom and tell him the last record was ending. And one time, remind him he had a live commercial to read.

(One of the revival theaters in town was doing a salute to old Popeye cartoons in tribute to the director of those cartoons who had just passed away)

So the song ends, I tell the jock he’s got a live spot, he scrambles for the headphones, turns on the mic, back announces the songs and thumbs through the copy book looking for the right commercial, all the while vamping. This is what he said:

“Rock n’ Stereo 95 and a half, KLOS. That was Cream with “Sunshine of Your Life” followed by “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” by Crosby, Stills, & Nash and finally “Layla” by Derek & the Dominos. It’s ten minutes to 8 on a Tuesday night, got some great album cuts coming up in the next set,  and here’s something you’ll all be happy to know… (he finds the commercial and begins reading)… Max Fleisher, the creator of Popeye died"

Well, that was it. I was on the floor. Seeing this, the jock also broke up and KLOS listeners were then treated to two minutes of truly tasteless laughter.  Finally, he signaled me to just start playing records.

So I did. “Funeral for a Friend” followed by “Sail on Sailor”.

What can I say?  I yam what I yam.


Please Leave Name said...

Too bad you couldn't have cut to a live audio interview with Olive Oyl sharing her greif and lamenting her time was at an end too.

Richard J. Marcej said...

Max Fleisher didn't create Popeye.
The brilliant cartoonist E.C. Segar created Popeye.
Fliesher only directed the animated cartoons.

Anonymous said...

Freakin' Buzzkill!

Michael Zand said...

So true about Layla. I'd rather take an axe to the head before I hear that again.

Mac said...

That's very funny, although I hope the Fleischer family weren't listening. "Well, he had his annoying little habits but I wouldn't say 'happy' is the right word..."

Your stories from that era always remind me of "I Love You Alice B. Toklas" - hippies and straights (man) all unable to comprehend each other, and Jo Van Vleet doing the funniest stoned scene ever - nothing has come close to that - from Cheech and Chong/numerous college movies to umpteen Judd Apatow movies, a 54 year-old woman nails it better than anyone.

Roger Owen Green said...

Your story reminded me:
The local newspaper's website generates a We Recommend heading. Last time I checked, the story was about a public suicide.

Michael said...

One of my dad's favorite movies when he was a kid was Gulliver's Travels, which Fleischer also did as part of an effort to compete with Disney. The early Popeye cartoons are very interestingly animated and voiced, but the later ones ... yuck.

Apropos of that death, Bob Costas tells a story about Marv Albert that he swears is true. Namely, Marv did a Knicks game one night that ran long and was very exciting (unusual in recent years), got back to WNBC to do the 11:00 sports, grabbed the headlines, and started narrating to the highlights. As Costas said, Marv has only one gear. So, he's doing the Knicks-Bulls highlights. "Ewing going glass ... Jordan stuffs him ... NOT what he had in mind," etc. Then he gets to the next story, looks at the paper, looks up at the camera, and says, "On a sadder note, boxing official Duffy Donagarry NOT ABLE to squeeze out another day on this planet." I doubt it happened. But if it had, I wish I'd been there.

And the word verification for posting this is "regar," which is close to "Segar." Spooky.

Dan Tedson said...

"And here’s something you’ll all be happy to know…

A Los Angeles area AMBER Alert is being issued..."

Chris said...

Here's one for friday: what's up with the "developed by" credit and isn't it used anymore?

By the way, do you know anything about the brilliant Al Lewis, the guy who wrote Our Miss Brooks? There doesn't seem to be much information available about him. I liked that show way more than I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners.

YEKIMI said...

At a station I worked at, I was in the studio waiting for my shift to start. It was time for the news and as the newsroom was separated by a glass window, the DJ just potted down the news feed to the studio monitors and finished cleaning up what he had to before he started the final song and I took over. Since I liked the news I had my headset on and was listening in. The newsman finished the story, gave the signal and the DJ started the cart of the station jingle and then started playing "Fire" by The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown. I went down on the floor laughing like hell. What the DJ hadn't known was that the final story by the newsman was of a house fire where nobody was killed but some pets had died. About a minute later the PD came running into the studio, steam bursting from his ears. The DJ gave him a "What did I do?" look. and the PD gave him hell. All the DJ did was hold up the playlist and said "Not my fault". For the next couple of weeks they checked to see what the last news story was and what the first song to be played after the newsbreak.

Jim S said...


A Friday question. When you were running shows, would you have liked to have had a pod producer like Sheldon Leonard ( i.e. someone who could knock it out of the park). Who watched your budgets, worked with crews, prop designers, networks, etc?

Eugene D. Jeep said...

At least Max Fleischer was strong to the finitch.

Clapton Bruce Baker Wonder said...

♪ I've been waiting so long
To be where I'm goin'
In the sunshine of your life
That's why I'll always stay around
You are the apple of my eye
Forever you'll stay in my heart ... ♪

Johnny Walker said...

Friday question, Ken:

When you're creating a sitcom, and you've figured out who your main characters are, and the general settings, when do you start thinking about secondary characters?

The Simpsons had a rich array of wonderful secondary characters that just seemed to grow with the series. Whereas Futurama seemed to try and create a set of secondary characters in episode two (Hermes, Amy, Zoidberg) -- and they were nowhere near as interesting.

It seems to me that it's probably best to only worry about introducing new characters when you need them for the story -- not just because you need to populate a show.

gottacook said...

Whenever I hear the solo piano intro to the extended coda of "Layla" on the radio (on our one remaining "classic rock" station, the other having recently switched to right-wing syndicated talkers), I now think immediately of Goodfellas, which renders it a bit less unwelcome to hear yet again. Moreover, Eric Clapton's acoustic version of "Layla" (from the late '90s?) wore out its welcome several orders of magnitude more quickly than the Derek/Dominos version.

Brian Phillips said...

On a similar note, a blooper show in England related the following:

Fred Astaire had just passed away and the DJ hurried to put on something, anything with Fred Astaire on it as a tribute. So, the passing was announced and the first record the DJ grabbed was played, "Dancing Cheek to Cheek", which starts out, "Heaven, I'm in heaven..."

Pat Reeder said...

Years ago, my partner George and I were cutting some bits in the production studio at the old KZEW (The Zoo) in Dallas when one of the major deadpan Zoo jocks was (we thought) setting up for an interview in the studio next door. There was a big glass window between the two studios, so we decided to see if we could crack him up. We did every idiotic thing we could think of: leaning over and bouncing on one foot in unison, pirouetting like ballerinas, etc. He just stared stone-faced at us. It was then that we happened to glance into the darker far corner of his studio and discovered that his interview had already begun. Staring at us slack-jawed was Gary Busey.

I like to hope that his later motorcycle accident wiped the memory of that out of his mind. On the other hand, maybe now, he constantly see us cavorting like loons in his head, playing on an endless loop. It would explain a lot.

Ken, on a non-radio topic, I have a FRIDAY QUESTION for you:

How much work and thought goes into maintaining the tone of a long-running series, and is it ever tempting to break the tone for a funny enough idea? I thought of this because a local station has begun airing reruns of "Til Death," a show I never watched before, but it's the only thing on now when I'm cleaning out my parrots' room every night, so I've now seen the entire run in about four weeks. I noticed that it started out as a fairly realistic show about marriage, built on the contrast between a young couple still in the honeymoon phase and a long-married couple who are more jaded and cynical. But halfway through, the newlyweds were written out and it turned surreal, with wacky characters like a son-in-law who believed he was living in a sitcom and a crazy boss who wanted to murder Brad Garrett's character.

"Frasier's" characters grew and changed, but the high tone of the show was remarkably consistent throughout. "MASH" was wackier at first, more serious at the end, which was the reverse of most shows ("The Office," anyone?) Is going wackier as time passes just a temptation that's easy to fall into? I don't write sitcoms, but I've written long-running comedy commercial campaigns, and I know I have to watch myself to make sure I "keep it real," dude, and don't start getting cartoonish as time passes.

David K. M. Klaus said...

Brian Phillips:

I rather think that "Dancing Cheek to Cheek" was appropriate for following the announcement of the death of Mr. Astaire. If anyone deserves Heaven, he's one of them.

Hermite said...

Re: Jim Ladd. How awful. Seems KLOS got bought up by Cumulus Media, a megacorp that is more interested in ending jobs than creating them. But don't get me started on that.

I just wanted to share that KFI (640 AM) is giving The Last DJ one more shift, from 4 to 7 p.m. Saturday, 11/5. You might want to listen online or on an HD Radio if you can, to maintain that "FM sound."

Unknown said...

Mr. Levine,

This came to me last night and I just wanted to put it out there for your curiosity.

Movie idea:

Rita Wilson plays the adopted daughter of a Chicago NFL team owner (played by Garry Marshall). who receives word that her biological father (whom she never knew) has passed away in Australia. In his will he has left her ownership of an Australian Rules football team.

She flies down-under to meet with the General Manager played by Tom Hanks and the player-coach played by Russel Crowe.

Both men are smitten by her and vie for her attention, while Hanks devises a way to get her to turn the ownership of the team over to him.

Movie is Executive Produced by both Hanks and Crowe. Directed by Ron Howard. Written by Levine and Isaacs.

If you use it, cut me in for .01% of the box office take.

Dan Tedson said...

"Pat Reeder said...
On the other hand, maybe now, he constantly see us cavorting like loons in his head, playing on an endless loop. It would explain a lot."

I now consider that the Grand Unified Theory of Gary Busey. Suddenly, I'm with Busey seems sadly heroic.

iain said...

Ed Blonski: You'll need to work in a part for Clint Howard, but otherwise, yeah, it could fly. Set up a lunch, we'll talk.

Ken, although my(not in any way) illustrious radio career ended in college, you're absolutely correct that there's no greater feeling than a great segue, especially when you had to do it via slip-cueing actual (gasp!) records!.

Paul Duca said...

Mac...don't forget that 54-year-old woman was an Academy Award winner.

Hiroki Hiedu said...

Louie Louie has to trump Layla and any other title for the grand champion of most annoyingly successful-yet-overplayed tune in the history of the world. Don't they still play that piece in the 7th inning at Safeco? There's been no reason to go to Safeco since 2003, so I'm not familiar with what distractions the mgmt is using these days...but it's not OFFENSE! But, as Paul Revere says, 'we did it first' (they didn't) 'and I'm going to bury that son-of-a-bitch' (we wish)!

cadavra said...

For the record: Max Fleischer produced the Popeye cartoons; his brother Dave directed them.

A favorite weird death-tribute: the day after Bing Crosby died, a DJ at Cincinnati's jazz station (remember jazz stations?) played a certain song, after which he said, "That was Bing Crosby doing, 'Don't Get Around Much Anymore.' [pause] And he doesn't."

WV: "hoecants"...nah, just fill in your own punchline.