WELK (no relation to Lawrence the champagne music maker) was another “daytimer” on 1010 AM. Its studios were neat and functional, and not at the transmitter, but in full view with a studio window on Main Street (now an open-air mall.) They hired me to do afternoons. I’d be the second fulltime DJ – the boss/morning man (Program Director) and me. Our shifts would change as the day lengthened or shortened, as mandated by the FCC. In the summer, I worked from 1PM until sign off, which I remember was close to 9PM.
WELK was located beside the George Wallace for President campaign headquarters. It was 1969.
Rednecks were obvious, even in this college town (U of Virginia, where my wife found work.) Some thought I was a hippie, but they were wrong. I was a yuppie.
We lived in an apartment complex full of students. This caused issues when I had the Sunday morning sign-on shift in the summer. In radio you worked 6 days a week, but at WELK I worked for more than a month without a day off, a reason I eventually quit.
My stories from Charlottesville have little thread, so I’ll present these as snapshots.
Our chief engineer/sales manager/part owner (same guy) declared it my responsibility to lock the door at exactly 5:30, and he demanded I do it without fail. His normal entry was a swaggering stiff arm to the door, which would fly open. I could see the door through the windows into and out of the news booth, where the news was broadcast. The teletype was also in the public view and drew gawker/readers from time to time. Well, one day I locked us up at exactly 5:30, and then came Harold, swaggering down the street with his arm fully extended. He walked right into the door, expecting it to fly open. But noooooooooo, his timing was off, and he almost snapped his wrist and arm.
One 4th of July, the newsman prerecorded his news on a “cart”, an endless loop of tape in a plastic shell. It has several tracks of audio, including your recording, and the cue track. As you started the machine to record, it would put a tone pulse on the track that nobody could hear, but would signal the machine to start HERE. It would play, then stop back at the beginning, as marked by the tone. If you had multiple recordings, it would play them one at a time as you restarted the machine. We called that cueing up. That 4th, our newsman’s parents were visiting town so he was with them at his home enjoying the day. He proudly turned up his newscast for them to hear right at 5PM. At 5PM I started the cart. On he came, “Good afternoon, this is Central Virginia News, I’m Steve Sharr.” He started his first story, stumbled, exclaimed “SHIT!”, and then the cart cued. My dilemma: I had nothing ready to play. Do I dare play cut two on that cart? Will he continue cursing? We had some dead air while I decided what to do. A note about dead air: If you are responsible, it seems like forever, no matter how long it really is. While time was standing still, I decided the news was too risky, so I played commercials and then resumed my show. Steve’s parents were no doubt impressed by their son.
One day in the production room, where you put commercials and other recordings together, I was rewinding a tape. The tape recorder had a very, very fast speed. The tape was going crazy, and the thought of one of the reels coming off scared me. Just then, one reel, which I apparently didn’t mount with enough muscle, started to wobble just slightly, then more, and more. Then, it came together with the other reel at speed, flew off the machine, taking machined metal parts off like a blade, and flew around the room like a buzzsaw. Fortunately, it missed me.
People could look into the studio window from the sidewalk. There was a low level cabinet with records in it, but they could see you from the waist up, sitting there. I had a rubber chicken which sometimes I’d wave around the room by the neck, trying to make someone laugh. It was great when a couple would come up, the guy maybe reading the teletype news while the woman looked at me. I’d swing the chicken, and when she’d obviously said “hey, look” to her guy, I’d have thrown it behind the cabinet and was just sitting there innocently. He’d go back to the news and I’d go back to swinging the chicken. And so it went, great fun.
I got some redneck pissed at me somehow and he pantomimed he was gonna beat my hippie ass. He hung around for more than an hour. I was getting worried, but eventually he left. My shift was long.
On Sundays, I was to turn the station on at dawn, and until noon it was either all sold time or religion (worship live or taped). 15 minute blocks were a-plenty. Sometimes a car would pull up to the door with just a minute or two to spare, to deliver the tape from whatever preacher bought his 15. I’d load it up with seconds to go, and find he never rewound it and it was about to play backwards. This was on a very long and thin tape. The question was, would I get it right side out in time? Then I’d find that HIS recorder was four track and ours was two track. That meant our machine would play a wider part of the tape than his, with one track forward and last week’s sermonizing backwards AT THE SAME TIME. You can pray for stupid, but you can’t fix it.
One preacher did his 15 minutes from the news booth, immediately across from me, shielded by a double glass window for sound purposes. He’d drive up in his Cadillac, and come in wearing a nice suit. After I introduced him, he would begin to wind himself up and before long he’d be screaming homilies, really screaming (think James Brown), and doing it with so much force he’d suck air back in with another screech. Something like this, but hard to put into print: “PRAISE THE LORD GOD – HAH!” (the last bit of air was a “hah” – followed by a wailing screech of air intake). My first time with him he got so worked up that when I gave him the “time’s up” signal he started wailing about the radio station cutting his message…all in scream – hah – scream. I thought it was funny, so funny, and he could see this. I literally fell off my chair laughing at him, and insuring my place by the fire in hell, no doubt. And then I had to literally pick myself up off the floor and try to say, “That was Reverend Rufus B. Hayes of the First Bible Baptist Church of Charlottesville. Tune in next week for more,” without laughing.
We had sometimes 52 commercials in 55 minutes (5 minutes for news). Some were 30s or 60s, there was even a 2 minute spot for milk, and many “quickies” – the dollar a holler type: “Brady Bushy Ford has a better deal. 2100 Pantops Mtn.”; “Ladies shoes now reduced for Spring. Shop for Papagallo.” Now generally you’d stop 6 times an hour for commercials. A song, maybe two, then commercials. The quickies were on index cards mounted on a plexiglass copy stand on top of the console. I’d forget where they were because they were not in any sequence, order, or code.
I had a pretend trained duck that I would let tap dance to a song every day. I remember him doing “Light My Fire”, almost jazz like. I admit a lot of what I did on the air was stuff that amused me, and the thought of webbed feet in tap shoes was the joke to me, the sound was just filling it in. I had a duck call, and the rest is history. I must have driven some listeners mad. And anyone at the U who might have been stoned would likely get off on what I did.
Since I was on the air way past supper time in the summer, I’d ask/beg listeners to set an extra plate for me at the table. Then they’d bring it down and I’d have dinner. The last two or three hours of the show were all live commercials, often with no copy, just me trying to sell shoes, cars, or whatever. Add in the quickies and it was a cavalcade of commercials as I’d drone on and on, while looking out the corner of my eye for Quickie Q.
Getting the free food led to getting a cake that I said I’d trade for whatever you have…and thus started me on (between songs) a trade-radio thing. Management made me stop because too much stuff was coming. They wouldn’t let me accept the horse or the car, but it was fun while it lasted.
I remember the ratings: the morning guy/PD got a 26 share of listeners and I got those numbers reversed, 62. To be fair, he had established competition, and I was trying hard to be entertaining.
A black man, who played gospel music in two fifteen minute pieces on Sunday mornings, and I hit it off pretty well; I loved the music he played. Well, we figured with the power of the radio we could stage a concert, unite the races, have a battle of the bands, and make a good haul of cash. The summer of ’69 in Virginia wasn’t ready for racial harmony (A.K.A. our show), it turned out. In a driving lightning storm, few showed up, the bands refused to play, my partner was drunk, introduced me, and split. The frequent hits of lightning should have warned me away.
One day, the nice secretary/women with many roles brought me my resume which got stuck in the copier the night before. I had to climb the ladder to a larger market glory.
With no day off and long summer shifts, I just got mad and quit. I didn’t have another job lined up. It was a dumb move. I was sending out audition tapes and resumes all over though.
I probably had some ego going as I was offered a job as Program Director (boss of everything you hear on a station) in Hilo, Hawaii. The owners and I got together and they had a little slide show (projected pictures) of Hilo. It’s on the big island, on the opposite side of the island from Honolulu.
“Here’s the new shopping center,” I was told. “What happened to the old one?” I asked. “Tidal wave,” they said.
I said that if I take the job and they fire me for cause, it’s my problem, but if not and I leave at the end of my contract or they fire me with no cause, they have to move me back to the mainland. They said no. A friend ended up taking the job and he hated it.
Some people on the air have really big egos…they NEED to be fed by an audience (Rush somebody?). But in my case, since so much of what I did was for my sense of what was effective or funny, it was like playing with another persona. Much later in my career, I interviewed the comedian/actor John Candy, and asked him what it was like for him to see himself on a big screen. He said, “It’s like watching somebody else.” That’s how I felt about my on-air persona. A lot of my stuff just happened to have two meanings, so if you weren’t paying attention it would go one way, and if you were it’d be something hopefully clever. For example: After “This Guy’s In Love With You”, I’d say, “That was Herb Alpert. He wasn’t always that horny.” I meant without the trumpet. Much of my material was that way, not often double entendres, just things you could take each way.
We always signed off WELK at dark with the “Star Spangled Banner”. One summer night after it played, I yelled “PLAY BALL,” and hit the switch.
I had an issue with the people who lived below us: they were grad students and would throw wild parties on weekends. On Saturday nights I’d need sleep, as I had to be up and at the station for sign on at dawn. Well, they wouldn’t accommodate me (and at this distance, I don’t blame them), but when I’d leave for work on Sunday morning, I’d throw a lit pack of firecrackers down the concrete stairwell to their door. I also would roll a bowling ball as slowly as possible down the wooded floor of the hallway. The rumble is quite audible, especially if you live under it. And finally, I had my whole PA system in that apartment, and sometimes I would crank it up, get on the mic, and blast one word: QUIET. I was accosted, thrown against the wall, and threatened as a result. Can’t say I blame him NOW.
They said there are (or were) more millionaires in the surrounding areas of Charlottesville than anywhere else in the country. It’s beautiful there.