Saturday, July 31, 2010

Talk radio days

Here is part of a story the Transcript-Telegram did on WREB in 1984.That's my pudgy face in the left hand corner.

The other day I received the 20th anniversary edition of Talkers magazine, the bible for the talk radio industry. I always look forward to every issue as I spent from May 1982 to April 1987 as the afternoon talk show host on the late but still remembered WREB in Holyoke.

The new issue has a time line of the development of talk radio and my years on the air were in that pre-Rush Limbaugh era in which the majority of the hosts were local and the programming reflected the concerns of a market.

While there are some great nationally syndicated hosts, the institution of the local host has been decimated by the corporations that own so much of radio today and who see an opportunity to boost profits by running syndicated programming they get in trade for running commercials.

The industry is divided over whether radio, which by law is supposed to serve the needs of the public, is actually serving those needs with syndicated programming. I don’t think it is.

I also think that if you take a now wily vet such as myself and produce a local talk show I could beat the syndicated stuff. Until someone actually has a station with local or regional ownership that believes in what radio can do and should be doing, that point is moot.

Anyone out there wishing to stage a local radio revolution? Give me a call.

The Talkers story quickly got me thinking about my time in radio. I was a kid who was fascinated by radio and when I was in high school, I used to see what AM stations I could pick up at night when the signals would bounce around the atmosphere. I think Cleveland was the furthest away.

My mom regularly listened to talk radio over WACE in Chicopee and then WREB and folks like newsman Richard Lavigne and talk host Tracy Cole were people we regularly heard.

Cole was very popular despite the fact he was a hateful son of a bitch. Here’s a true story: Cole basically hated women. There were three kinds of women to him ladies (people who agreed with him), broads (those who did not) and welfare broads (he hated those the most).

Despite all this, and the fact he was a bald, bespectacled little scrawny guy, he had his share of groupies. There was a cot in a storage room in the station’s old studios in Holyoke where I was told Tracy apparently brought some of his conquests.

My mind boggled when I found out.

One day, my boss station owner Joe Alfano told me, Tracy got into an argument with a woman on the air and called “a stupid c**nt.”

The next day the FCC was on the line. They had received multiple complaints and were ready to pull the station’s license and give Alfano a $10,000 fine.

Alfano, who was quite a character in his own right, convinced the FCC that Cole had said, “That’s a stupid stunt.” Apparently there were no recordings to confirm what Cole had said. They bought the explanation and incident worked in the station’s favor as people tuned into Cole’s show to hear what he would say next.

When I was a reporter at the Holyoke Transcript I got to know WREB morning guy George Murphy and did a story on him riding the Mountain Park roller coaster to raise money to help restore a statue in town. I had regularly listened to George who was a born broadcaster and when he found out about my interest in film, he had me on as a guest several times.

When I was bounced from the Transcript – I wouldn’t accept a change in beat to cover Granby where my parents lived – I did a story for the Amherst Record on George’s short-lived replacement, a woman named Helen Oats. When she left, I applied for the job.

I was supposed to do the morning shift, but Ron Chemilis, then the owner and editor of the Chicopee Herald was hired for that time and I wound up with the afternoon shift of 3 p.m. until sign-off at sunset. Because my hours shifted during the year, I eventually had to do the half-hour news at noon.

With little training, no call screener except for the receptionist who simply put the calls on hold and no producer, I was put on the air.

My only helper was my seven-second delay button.

WREB was a pioneering station in the area for having an all talk market. I’m convinced other stations started including talk shows in their programming because of us.

My pay, which remained the same for the entire five years, was $5 an hour. I received money to do live endorsements and my price was .75 for each commercial I did. At the end of my time there I received a raise to $1.25.

My best live spot was for a device called “Cold Stick,” a drug-fee treatment for hemorrhoids. You put this plastic tube filled with anti-freeze in your freezer and tuck it up your rectum for “long lasting cooling relief.” My challenge was to avoid saying “pain in the ass” on the air.

I supplemented my income with freelance writing and with bartending. Despite the poverty levels imposed on me, I had a ball.

I realized after my first year that station management had little idea what I was doing, nor did they care as long as the sponsors were happy. I did get one sponsor upset when I interviewed a Playboy Playmate who was appearing at a local car show. I think they eventually came back.

The station owner once said that he would broadcast Japanese folk music if it made him a profit.

Gov. Michael Dukakis was the first state-wide elected official I can remember actually recognizing the potential of talk radio. He came on my show several times, including appearing at this remote broadcast.

The station was not unlike “WKRP in Cincinnati,” as we had a very odd newsguy Richard Lavigne and a fast-talking salesman who also used to wear the white shoes and belt in the summer.

Richard Lavigne was a legend in local broadcasting circles and amazingly odd. He wore string ties and pants two sizes too big held up with suspenders. He wore his bachelor status on his sleeve pining away for a lost love, but could have had his share of little old ladies who constantly asked about him. He foamed at the mouth when he did his half-hour commentaries due to his using too much denture adhesive.

He knew everyone in Holyoke and everyone knew him.

I was the house liberal, so I got the best hate mail during the time of Reagan. Chemilis, now a big time sports writer for the local daily paper and who keeps his radio days under wraps, was the conservative. The mid-day host, Jonathan Evans, fell somewhat in the middle.

I didn’t have the best radio voice, although a story in the Transcript about the station said my voice was “like an old shoe,” which was clearly a compliment. Ron’s voice was “like Kermit the Frog,” which clearly wasn’t.

It was a real treat to speak with character actors such as Frank Coughlin Jr. seen in perhaps his best known role as Billy Batson in the serial "The Adventures of Captain Marvel."

I realized that it wasn’t how you sounded, but what you said and how you produced your show. I liked a mix of local, regional and national guests. My first celebrity guest was the great broadcaster Doctor Demento and later I convinced the station we should run his show.

Here’s a short list of the people who appeared on my show: politicians such as Gov. Michael Dukakis, Attorney General Eliot Richardson, Sen. George McGovern; actors including Clayton Moore, Lucy Arnez, Mary Crosby, Vincent Price, Lillian Gish, Elvira, Dave Thomas, Rick Moranis, Fritz Feld, Keye Luke, Billy Benedict, Frank Coughlin Jr., Virginia Christine, Mark Metcalf, Antiono Fargas; authors Sidney Sheldon, Cleveland Amory; directors George Romero, Larry Cohen; voice actors Clarence Nash, Andriana Caselotti; movie producers Brian Grazer, Richard Gordon, Alex Gordon; and wrestlers Killer Kowalski and Bob Backlund.

Backlund came on my show days after losing the WWF heavyweight title and he tied up the phone lines for two solid hours with calls from his fans.

Here am I posing with Killer Kowalski after taping an interview with him at Mountain Park. He was lifting me up!

The station manager once thought it was a good idea for me to switch personas one day and be a conservative to mix it up with the audience. I didn’t do it. I wasn’t comfortable playing a role.

I did have a problem with finding the right words to use in a nasty exchange with a caller. I soon discovered calling a conservative “A Nazi,” was like dropping the atomic bomb on them. I once called one of them “brain dead,” and I quickly got a call when a woman who tearfully told me her son was brain dead. So I crossed that off the list.

Next time I called an obnoxious caller a “cretin,” and that was followed with a call from another tearful woman whose child was indeed a cretin by the medical definition. He suffered from neonatal hypothyroidism.

That was another insult I couldn't use.

So I tried “pinhead,” and that worked!

I left WREB simply because of money. The station had a new owner when I left and I was leery of what the future would bring. I accepted a job as the program supervisor at the Wistariahurst Museum and several years later WREB was gone. I was quite sad.

I’m even sadder that I never had the guts to steal Tracy Cole’s microphone collection. In the storeroom, Cole had left several vintage pill-shaped microphones. I wanted them and figured they could easily disappear. But I didn’t take them and I can’t remember what happened to them when Cole died.

For more on WREB, take a look at George Murphy’s blog

© 2010 by Gordon Michael Dobbs


Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks for the memories. You, and the gang at WREB were regular visitors at our house.

Bill Dusty said...

Mike! That was a fantastic post - what a great story. You know, I used to golf with a guy who would fire off the "C" word every time he hit a bad shot. (He said the word often.) I always thought you and I would be a good Left/Right team on a show. But we're older (you more so than me, of course) and I guess the younger crowd probably wouldn't tune in.