Sunday, 29 May 2016

It was 45 years ago today...

I did my first radio gig. In the USA. On a Rock station.

Last week marked the start of my paid career in Radio. On 27 May 1971, jetlagged after flying in two days before, I went on the air on WPHD-FM in Buffalo, in upstate New York

I was a Brit import; they named me Robin Thomas. There were a handful of Brits in US radio; work permits and visas made it tricky.  

This was the early 70s, the time of the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Free, SabbathDerek and the Dominos. What we now call Classic Rock. A big big slice of that came from the UK. British rock really mattered in the US then - it certainly doesn't now.

And for US Rock stations, a Brit DJ was an asset.  That's why WPHD took a risk on an unproven kid with only UK college radio experience. Bless.

The glamour. Not.

WPHD wasn't a slick outfit. This was not Frasier, nor even WKRP In Cincinatti - although it sort of came close. The studio was squeezed into a long thin room, facing the newsroom. On the other side
was the real money-earner: Top 40 WYSL-AM. They had an audience; we were only there because WYSL had been legally obliged to split their AM and FM output. A Rock format seemed a workable and cheap option to the owners. Thus WYSL-FM became WPHD-FM - see what they did there, for those students? 

The station hired jocks in on minimum wage from college stations, bumping up a few full-timers to all of 90 bucks a week. I got my gig when someone left for a bigger station, and a pal of mine put in a word on my behalf. I joined a staff of five other full-timers and two weekend cover guys. News, sales and engineering was covered by the existing staff at WYSL. We were a lousy number eight in the market on a cinderella waveband.  

The kit was ancient, hand me down stuff. No faders, just pretty fragile volume knobs, or pots (the technical name for them was potentiometers). There were two vast museum piece transcription turntables, with platters bigger than 12" albums, flanking the desk. They had started their working lives decades earlier playing huge 78rpm disks carrying syndicated material; now, they were put out to grass for a bunch of hippies to play albums on at 33rpm. If you threw the studio door open too quickly, you smacked into the right hand turntable and knocked whatever was playing off air.

Going up that learning curve with a big fat grin

The DJ as an intensely serious young man
Apart from learning how to put a show together, I had a lot of catching up to do. I took a massive and instant dive into US Rock culture. It was great. Of course, I knew about the big US acts, but it took some time to get to the wilder and woolier areas. But with four hours a day to play with, and the entire, vast, library in the studio, that wasn't a chore. 

ProgRock and psychedelia were pretty much done by then. US music was starting to move on. While I was there, Bonnie Raitt and the Eagles put out their first albums, Little Feat their second. Jackson Browne did a live session after playing a local coffee bar. Ry Cooder was just getting known. The Doors were trying to punt themselves as a trio after the death of Jim Morrison. I interviewed them. I also attempted to interview Lou Reed, live, but he wasn't exactly... there... that day.

Tech changes 

This was the 70s. We played vinyl. These days I could care less about vinyl; I'm not into fetishising old tech.

We used reel to reel tape for interviews and production. I had an expensive portable machine that let me record on tape for a maximum of fifteen minutes. Nowadays I use a dirt-cheap digital microphone that records for over three hours - or a day and a half in MP3.

We edited laboriously on reel to reel machines, marking edit points on the tape, and splicing cut lengths back together. Real cut and paste - with a single-edged razor blade. We used machines that would have cost maybe a thousand bucks. Now I edit in multi-track on a cheap laptop using free, serviceable software from Adobe. 
I love digital. I wouldn't go back.


I'm not even going to try to class what still works from 45 years ago and what doesn't. It's generational and highly personal; this was music made by and for baby boomers. Plenty of people half my age adore 70s rock classics; good for them. But if I never hear Paranoid, Stairway To Heaven, or Layla ever again, that's fine by me. 

Sometimes I revisit that old material and marvel at the genius and fire; other times I shudder at how pretentious and cack-handed a lot of it truly was. Some of it was excruciatingly badly recorded. And as for sexism... 'All Right Now'? 'Brown Sugar'? 'Stay With Me'? Hang your heads in shame, Free, Stones and Faces

Mind you, there's an unending stream of thrusting lads with hormones to spare who like to strike a pose. Always has been. That powered rock back then; now, many go for rap and hip-hop.

Did I learn much? 

Not at the time. But perspective is helpful. Here's two things

1: Just when you think you've nailed it, somebody upsets your applecart. 

Tech and demographics will always whip the rug from under your feet. My station of college drop-outs and hippies hit number one in Buffalo while I was there, to our astonishment. We'd switched from a free-form mix to a very loose album hits mix. It was two decades before computer scheduling; three decades before online music libraries.

The new format guaranteed you would hear the big names at least once every DJ shift. That coincided with the then young audience adopting FM for better quality audio. That change left a lot of stations floundering, especially longer established AM stations, who had done the same thing for the previous fifteen years. The world changed around them without any warning; it always does. 

2: It helps to know and respect your audience. 

Screamingly obvious, I know, but in our new era of Internet Radio, not everyone seems to get that. 

It was a lot easier 45 years ago. Baby Boomers were a concentrated group, born within five or six years of the end of World War 2. We reacted as one. We were one of maybe only two or three youth tribes. It was much easier to touch base with an entire US generation united by the threat of having to go fight in Vietnam. We had the songs they wanted to hear. 

So once we staggered onto the right formula, things worked for us, almost by accident. Those old US rock stations were a very different set of beasties, but they shared a common approach, playing a wide adventurous mix, but regularly coming back to stuff that lit up its audience. In our very tribal 21st century market, that's a much harder trick to pull off.  

All good things...  

I spent a little bit over a year at 'Phd, before heading back to the UK. It was ironic: just as the station hit number 1, I ran into work permit snags. 

I'm really not sure it would have worked out for me had I stayed. I met a worrying number of rootless DJs. They were the pop guys on the Top 40 stations, who went from gig to gig every few months. Many of them were divorced, obviously. The married ones brought their defeated, bleached out wives to live with them in trailer parks on lousy money, while they pumped out platitudes on air. Harry Chapin's song WOLD is painfully accurate.

So I left WPHD behind, with mixed feelings, and headed back to the UK. The next year, I joined BRMB in Birmingham - as a Rock jock, of course. 

Props to Jim 

And I still think, with gratitude and respect, of the veteran who taught me the rudiments of DJing, and especially when to just shut the hell up. He was Jim Santella: a brilliant communicator, who spent his life in Buffalo radio after hanging up his jazz drumsticks. I still remember him with affection and huge respect. 
He passed it on. That's something we all need to do.

See more radio and broadcasting posts on Radio To Go


Tue 31st, 4pm: Joe Broughton from UFQ and the Folk Ensemble
Wed 1st, 11pm: Live and Local: 
Chris Cleverley at Ort Cafe (repeated Sat 4th at 11am)
Fri 3rd, 3 pm: Big Wheels: John Fell of the LunarMoseley Folk and Mostly Jazz festivals

After airing, these can be found on Brum Radio's Mixcloud page.

All Radio To Go shows are listed here


I'd love you to sign up to the mailing list 

The Radio To Mailing list is the best way I can keep in touch with you, and you with me. You get a short email, usually on Mondays, with big recent topics, and, once in a while, a special offer or a mailing list exclusive freebie. And I won't pass your address on, promise.

Put your email address in the box below, and you're all set. 


Richard Duncan Rudin said...

Very interesting Blog. Think it's a bit harsh on the sexism then - rather applying values of today to 45 years ago, when nearly all society was sexist! - and yes, what is the excuse of today's misogynistic rappers? Agree, the over-played 'classics' can become tiresome but there's plenty of stuff from that era that received little or no air play here in music-starved UK and still hardly ever gets played and which appeals across the ages. Ditto vinyl: my son has asked for turntable for his b'day this week and he's from the CD generation! I think we need a station that plays stuff from that era and mixes with today. "If you loved the Faces you should like this...and you may never have heard this track from Buffalo Springfield - I think it's excellent..." Kinda thang. Works other way round - " you like this (from today), well, you're going to love BB King. Here's him playing...". You know, DJs who you can trust, who know their stuff but aren't snobby or nerdy about it. Not just rock - but all the genres. And radio which has some energy - why does everything have to be 'Mellow' or 'Chill'?? Radio 2 is closest but has too much current pop crap, IMHO. The immediacy and liveness of radio with unpredictability, not safe and bland, will outscore Spotify and the rest. Everything is too niche - but most people aren't niche in their tastes! So, the regulation and basis for decisions works against public interest. And allows R2 to keep piling on the fig's. Plus you need someone with deep pockets and who can ignore the bean-counters to allow it time to establish on DAB/online. And hire Rex Bob Lowenstein! Anyway, a good read!

Lee Beddow said...

Entertaining and thoughtful as ever - especially in these 'only play what you're told to' days