A Radio Life

by Brule Eagan

The headline of the story reported by Variety in August was as predictable as it was chilling: “Traditional Radio Faces A Grim Future, New Study Says”.

The study was conducted by NYU’s Steinhart Music Business Program, and it concluded that unless it upgrades, traditional radio will be eaten alive by digital services.

We all knew it was coming. How many times have you seen a friend remark how great Spotify or Pandora sounded, or thought so yourself? When was the last time you actually turned a radio on in your home? When was the last time you saw a radio in a store, let alone bought one?

The upshot of the study was, unless the industry invests in compelling digital services, radio has the same future as a 78 rpm record; fondly remembered, but irrelevant to an audience that has moved on.

Wasn’t always that way. Radio, all of it, used to be so good.

My love affair with radio began when I was eight. I was in an oxygen tent in Frank Cuneo Hospital, fighting off the pneumonia that I was later told nearly killed me. This was in 1961, in the days before television was as ubiquitous as it would become, and there weren’t TV sets in every hospital room. My parents bought me a little radio. It was a tube radio, so it had to warm up first. It had a black bakelite case with a white plastic front, and it only picked up AM stations (these were also the days before FM was as ubiquitous as it would become). They bought it so I’d have something there to entertain me.

The CBS Radio Network

I played with it at first, listening to this or that, until I found something that held my interest. It was “Suspense”, the old CBS Radio Network drama, and I was blown away. The pictures I envisioned, stimulated by the words and sounds I was hearing, were much more vivid that anything I’d seen on TV or in the movies. And “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar”, the “fabulous freelance insurance investigator with the action-packed expense account”. This was the last year of radio’s Golden Age. And Franklyn Mac Cormack late at night on WGN. His voice was the voice of a comforting friend. Maybe a little sappy, what with Browning poems intoned over Mantovani, but it was at once cinematic and intimate. His polar opposite, of course, was Dick Biondi on WLS, screaming his lungs out and playing the hits. And at home, my folks listened to Howard Miller each morning on WIND. For years, I thought every singer and bandleader in the world was named “Dunbye” because of Howard. “That’s ‘Que Sera, Sera’, Dunbye Doris Day.” “That’s ‘Come Fly With Me’, Dunbye Frank Sinatra.” A few years later, Howard flipped out and got political, got fired, gave up the #1 morning spot to Wally Phillips at WGN, and faded away. Again, I digress. Anyway, Howard and the people who surrounded him on the air back then were unseen family members, gathering each morning, entertaining, informing; welcoming. Radio was becoming less a theater of the mind, and more a spot to engage with an invisible friend.

Once in a while when my mom would lug me along to the National Food Store for a grocery run, we’d see a real, live radio broadcast in progress. They were usually from WEEF out of Evanston, as I recall. I just found it fascinating that this man could speak from a truck in a parking lot, and be immediately heard by thousands. And people would respond! There was something official about a radio broadcast that motivated people to respond. It certainly worked on me.

Fast-forward to April 12, 1966. I was halfway between my 12th and 13th birthday when I saw, for the first time, an actual radio station. By now, I was like all the other kids, listening to the Beatles and the Stones all the time on WLS and WCFL. “Suspense” had been long-gone, and Franklyn Mac Cormack was still around, but…well, he was sappy, and I couldn’t hang. WCFL used to invite listeners to see the station on Saturday mornings, and on that cloudy April morning, I went. And I was dazzled by what I saw.

First off, the place was beautiful. It occupied the entire top floor of the 16-story Marina City Commercial Building next to the twin towers. Wall-to-wall carpeting, which was unusual for an office then, and paneled throughout. A series of narrow windows separated visitors from the main studio, where there was a desk, a microphone and its switch, two telephones (one for callers, one for the boss), and an ashtray, which really got a workout. At that desk that morning sat the legendary Joel Sebastian. All the records and commercials and jingles were played by a man hidden away in an adjacent booth. We couldn’t see in because of the large clock with the face that read WESTERN UNION NAVAL OBSERVATORY TIME. All Joel had to do was occasionally put on his headphones, flip on the switch, say what he had to say, and give hand signals to the hidden engineer. WCFL in those days sounded larger-than-life, and everything about it looked larger-than-life. This was Top-40 radio at its best, along with WLS. Both stations were also the social network of their day, chockablock with on-air dedications and shout-outs from those who were true to their school.

I watched this for ten minutes, and said to myself: “That’s for me.”

I went through junior high, high school, and a four-year hitch in the Marines, all the while building toward the career in radio I hoped for. It dominated my thinking all those years. I read everything about the industry I could get my hands on. When I was in the service, I even took a correspondence course in fundamental electronics from CIE, the Cleveland Institute of Electronics, to secure the FCC license I would surely need to get more than just a foot in the door.

Getting that first gig wasn’t easy. I sent out letters and tapes to every station whose address and general manager’s named appeared in the SRDS books at the local library’s reference desk. Some of them were gracious enough to write back, thanking me for my interest and wishing me well in my quest. Most of the letters went unanswered, which provided the answer all along. One GM I interviewed with told me he didn’t like my voice at all, and didn’t much like me much in general, and I ought to find another way to make a living. Of course, that just made me more determined.

Finally, after a series of odd jobs including tending bar and being a teller at a savings and loan, the operations manager of a nearby station I’d visited saw me and said “I’ve got an opening if you’re interested”. “I’ll take it! Thanks!” I replied, while saying “HELL YEAH!!!” inside. I felt validated. The job started out where that job always started in those days — overnights on weekends. Since the station had what we’d now call a primitive automation system, I had lots of time to learn basic production skills, write and rewrite wire copy, keep proper logs of the programming and of the transmitter as federally required, make coffee, empty the trash — all the glamorous aspects of the business. Within a couple of months it became full-time, and it laid the groundwork for a career that would last over 40 years. I must have made the right moves along the way; in a business that was full of transients, I’ve only had a handful of jobs. The shortest length of time I worked at a particular station was two years. The longest was 20. I had the good fortune of meeting and working with a lot of people who shared the fascination I always had for radio; a mix of people that became more diverse as time went on.

It all ended in December. On December 14th, all the on-air people at the three stations in the company’s cluster that used live jocks got an email from the GM saying “Mandatory meeting tomorrow at 10 AM”. That was all it said, and all it needed to. I knew what was coming. The next day, we were perp-walked one by one into the HR office and let go. Each of the three stations kept its afternoon jock and two part-timers. For my morning show co-host and me, it ended a 20-year partnership. I’m sure that later in the day of our firing, the memo wishing us well in our future endeavors was posted. So, we’ll see what’s next.

The intrigue is still there. It’s rekindled every time I tune in to a college radio station, or a small community radio station. They’re populated by sharp, articulate personalities who have more to offer than the same old songs, and more to say than just the time and temperature. That’s how commercial radio could save itself, but the big conglomerates won’t do it. They see local staffs as an expense rather than an investment. That’s a shame.

Oh, one thing more. Some years ago, I was asked to talk about my station and radio in general at a Kiwanis luncheon. In the audience was a man who greeted me afterwards. I didn’t recognize his face, but I remembered his name. When I asked him if he was ever in the radio business, he said he was. I told him I remembered him from his telling me I had no chance at a radio career, and quickly added “and it was just what I needed to motivate me even more. Thank you!”

As he overcame his sudden sheepishness, he said “I should have hired you on the spot.”

So, Pat McBride, if you’re reading this — I’m available!

—————

If you’d like to hear an episode of “Suspense”, I have a great example for you. Agnes Moorehead stars in the classic “Sorry, Wrong Number”. She performed this seven times for “Suspense” over the years, and each is a tour de force. This is from 1948. Enjoy.

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