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

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tom Tyler!

A postcard with a scene from one of his FBO silent films. I think that may be a very young Frankie Darro or Darrow holding the gun. Frankie was billed with both spellings of his last name.

Original still from his silent film "Wyoming Wildcat."

A Spanish novelization of one of Tom's silent films. These little magazines were sold at theaters.

Ah the perils of eBay. I'm afraid that I haven't abandoned some sort of project involving the life and career of Tom Tyler and these are some recent acquisitions concerning the B-Western star who actually wanted to act. The careers of many of the B-cowboys from the 1930s through 50s were defined by the stardom they attained with their series. Outside of those films, these actors really didn't have a career. Once their series was over, that was it.

Tyler was different. He yearned to be an actor who had that life outside the confines of low budget oaters. And he succeeded in becoming a character actor in a wide range of films. His parts were supporting, but often showy. I just watched him in the Errol Flynn western "San Antonio" and he was great as Flynn's initial menace.

He's got a great part in the Cary Grant/Ronald Colman dramady "Talk of the Town," and is in "Gone with the Wind." That's pretty good for an actor whose training was churning out westerns.

These three items are all from his silent career at FBO studios. Tyler was a popular western star whose job was eliminated when FBO became RKO. He even announced he was going to change his name so he could start his career over as a non-western performer. That didn't happen and Tyler took the lead in a series of very low budget silent westerns at the dawn of the talkie era.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Tyler was willing to play the bad guy, which was often a showy role for an actor – Buster Crabbe told me he played a bad guy once in "Swamp Fire" and enjoyed it – and because of that choice he was able to perform in some pretty solid pictures.

I've been think that once I finish the SECRET PROJECT proposal perhaps I should seek someone to do a Tom Tyler scrapbook bio.

© 2010 Gordon Michael Dobbs

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Favorite tunes

My nephew Douglas! asked me the other days what my favorite songs are. I really didn't have an answer for him, except "Sing Sing Sing" came to immediate mind and he seemed a little disappointed that it didn't have any words!

The following are pieces of music that, no matter what mood I'm in, make feel better.

I interviewed Mel Taylor the drummer in The Ventures and saw them in person in the mid-1980. They were great!

Could this be the single best piece of swing music ever written?

The driving beat of this theme song of a Fifties private eye show make it a perfect song to drive to late at night.

I interviewed Don McLean and he was such a jerk that I didn't listen to his music for years afterwards. This is a great song, though.

Scott Joplin remains such a seminal force in American music.

Mary and I saw Juice Newton perform a few years back here in Springfield and she was in wonderful voice.

Elder statesman of the Blues Nation with a national anthem

What are some of your favorites?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

I've not posted some of the recent stories I've done for th newspapers I edit and thought the following would be of interest:

Societal collapse makes for gripping feature
At first glance, some people might wonder if a feature-length interview with a single person about essentially the factors that could lead to the end of American society as we know would make a good movie.

"Good" isn't the right term. "Collapse" is an amazing, compelling and frightening film thanks to its subject, journalist Michael Ruppert.

Let me say at the onset that I believe everyone, regardless of political belief, should see this film. It addresses issues that concern all of us. Buy it, rent it, but watch it.

Perhaps you've never heard about Ruppert before. I hadn't, but once I watched this film, just released on DVD, I started scouring the Web to read more about him.

Chris Smith, the man who directed the highly regarded documentary "American Movie," is able to paint a rich portrait of Ruppert with a limited cinematic palette.

Seated in what looks like a bunker or an interrogation room, Ruppert chain-smokes and talks about subjects seldom covered in the evening television news. Articulate, but clearly tired of the fight he has waged to have his stories noticed by the general public, Ruppert allows his emotions to overcome him at one point.

Occasionally, Smith underlines a point by cutting to public domain or news footage, but for the bulk of the film, the camera is on Ruppert.

A former Los Angeles police officer, Ruppert came to national prominence when he researched and broke a story that showed the CIA had imported illegal drugs into the country. That story and his subsequent reporting earned him death threats and harassment.

Unlike other outsiders who hawk books, videos and podcasts, Ruppert hasn't made a mini-empire from his work He said he is behind in his rent.

He is not without his critics who have questioned his theories and dismiss them as conspiracy.

What "Collapse" shows is, despite his considerable travails, Ruppert hasn't given up his fight and focuses on what he has been covering in his newsletter "From the Wilderness."

Ruppert documents how he has predicted certain political and economic events that have had serious repercussions on both this country and the rest of the world. In this film, though, he focuses on two major interlocking subjects: peak oil and the fragile world economic system.

Shot over several times in 2009, "Collapse" is especially relevant today with the BP oil crisis in the Gulf of Mexico. Ruppert speaks about how many scientists believe that we are on the downside of the bell curve in the amount of oil left in the world to consume. He points out we have built our civilization on relatively cheap fossil fuels, especially petroleum.

Part of that oil-based structure is our financial system, which in 2008 showed its house-of-cards-like status.

What will happen when we can't afford the oil we have left? That's the ultimate question Ruppert poses for the viewers. The answer, as we all know, is almost incomprehensible.

Ruppert's arguments and information are very persuasive and as a viewer I kept waiting for the moment he discussed solutions.

The moment never really comes as he said in the film, "I'm no messiah."

What he does emphasize is living within our environmental means. Population must be curbed, wind and solar energy solutions must be implemented, food production must once again be a local industry and buying gold isn't a bad idea.

The DVD's extras include a recent interview with Ruppert, who seemed to be in a better place in his life thanks to the response to the theatrical release of the film worldwide. The DVD also has much more interview footage that was cut for time.


Reminder Publications spoke to Ruppert last week, who is busy promoting not only the DVD release of the film, but also his new Web site venture, an online subscriber-supported newsletter.

Ruppert is very happy with the film. "Chris Smith got it absolutely right," he said.

Commenting on the oil leak in the Gulf, he said the two main themes of the film are seen in that one event.

"It's all about the way money works," he said. "We looking at extinction in the Gulf," he added.

He said he has learned and confirmed through several sources the problem is not just the deepwater well that is pouring thousands of barrels of oil into the water each day, but also many additional leaks that are coming through fissures in the surrounding sea floor. He asserted both BP and the federal government know of the additional leaks and are not telling the public.

"They have absolutely no idea how to deal with it," he said.

What Ruppert is now saying is by the end of the year, there might be between five and 10 million refugees from the Gulf States. As the crisis deepens the jobs of more and more people will be affected, he said.

Florida may be "doomed," he added.

He believes strongly in "people seeking local solutions" to the problems facing the country.

"It's so clear. It's happening everywhere," he added.

On speaking tours in northern California, Oregon, Washington and Vermont, he has seen evidence of "act locally, think globally" axiom and it has heartened him.

"People get it all over the world," he said.

He noted that on a recent trip to Martha's Vineyard, the "year-rounders" understand and are acting on the concept.

Since he said there is cataloging of these efforts, he sees his new Web site as a clearinghouse for information for these efforts.

Paramount among the new way of living is a greater emphasis on local food production, which Ruppert sees happening in a number of areas. He said Americans couldn't continue to import or transport food in the current manner.

Right now, profit is selected over common sense, he added.

He dismissed the power of the federal government to actually make the necessary changes to prepare for an era with decreasing oil and said he sees mayors and county officials as the government officials most inclined to take steps to change on a local level.

He even questioned whether or not the United States would be the same political entity in a few years, with states breaking up into smaller entities.

Still despite the grim nature of his message, Ruppert expressed hope. In the film he tells the fable of the 100th monkey. The story tells of one monkey that learned to wash his food. He taught another and so on. When the 100th monkey learned how to do this, suddenly all of the monkeys in the population started doing it.

"Maybe we're reaching the 100th monkey," he said of the acceptance and taking action on the changes Ruppert sees as inevitable.

WWI documentary reveals lasting history in Europe

While living in a small Belgium village, retired University of Massachusetts Professor Ed Klekowski and his wife Libby didn't realize the history that surrounded them.

They soon did as the town was near the legendary Western Front, the battle line between the Allies and Germany in Belgium and France during World War I (WWI).

Once, however, the husband and wife realized the artifacts of that conflict -- "the war to end all wars" as it was described at the time -- literally abound in the nearby woods and fields, they became intrigued.

For the Klekowskis that meant producing a documentary. Their new film, "Yanks Fight the Kaiser: A National Guard Division in WWI," will be broadcast by WGBY on June 30 at 8 p.m.

Examining history on film is nothing new to the couple as they produced "Under Quabbin," "The Great Flood of 1936" and "Dynamite, Whiskey & Wood: Connecticut River Log Drives 1870-1915" for the local PBS station.

Their new film is the second part of a trilogy about WWI with their first film being "Model T's to War: American Ambulances on the Western Front."

Ed Klekowski said, "Our interest in WWI began in 2004 while living in Leuven (Louvain), Belgium. We were waiting to go into the university library, when a Belgian student asked if we were Americans. She then gave us a lecture on how the old university library had been burned by the German Army in 1914, and how American students from grammar schools, high schools and colleges had donated money to rebuild the library in the 1920's. And how every July 4th the American flag is flown from the library bell tower as a thank you.

"Well, we were hooked; we had to learn more, the war to end all wars became a passion," he continued. "We soon were visiting Western Front battlefields every weekend.

"And one weekend we visited Apremont and saw the fountain that Holyoke had put up honoring its Yankee Division soldiers; you could say it spoke to us," he added. "We walked around the village and into the woods behind -- and there were the trenches! They seemed haunted, artifacts were everywhere. We had to tell this story."

Traveling to France and visiting the village rebuilt by Belle Skinner of Holyoke, Klekowski recalled thinking, "What's Holyoke doing in the middle of France?"

As the couple's film documents, the Yankee Division, made of National Guard troops initially from Massachusetts and Connecticut, was the first American unit to arrive in France to assist the Allies in the war. Soliders from Western Massachusetts were part of that unit.

The troops managed to skip their combat training in the United States and had to be trained and equipped by the French. By April 1918, though, because of their bravery and success in attacking the German trenches, the French awarded the Croix de Guerre to the division, becoming the first American military unit to be decorated by a foreign government.

The film uses much archival movie footage and still photographs and Klekowski explained a Signal Corps unit documented the division's activities.

Klekowski said finding and assembling that footage represented a year's work in itself. Local historical institutions such as the Wistariahurst Museum also supplied photos and information.

"Everyone was forthcoming with materials," Klekowski said. "We could have made a two-hour show."

The reading of memoirs represented the personal side of the war and Klekowski noted the early 20th century was a time when many people kept diaries and wrote detailed letters.

Step inside the woods of the Western Front of France and Belgium and Klekowski said you'd find the evidence of war where the troops left it. He said the actual front was only two to three miles wide and about 400 miles long. The mark of years of assaults and defensive actions taking place in the same basic strip of land can still be seen today.

In the film, Klekowski tours WWI bunkers that are still in place and shows how shell casings and unexploded shells have lain undisturbed the better part of a century after the conflict.

"The woods look like New England," he said. "Except here they were shaped by glaciers and there by artillery."

In the woods, one can find stumps of trees with shrapnel embedded in them.

He also said the woods are cluttered with a multitude of bottles. The French troops drank wine, while the Germans drank beer and schnapps. He said that one contemporary account described "No Man's Land" -- the area between the lines of opposing troops "looking like a local garbage dump."

© 2010 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Okay, please explain the following objections to me:

and this one as well:

Don't conservatives support the effort to get to the truth of the oil spill in the Gulf? Don't conservatives want to protect those who have served their nation? Please don't tell me it's a matter of fiscal responsibility – the Republican members of Congress during the Bush years went along with raising the deficit. Suddenly, they've got religion?