September 7, 2017
I got my first professional job in radio the year after I graduated from college.
I know better than that.
Walter would never have started a story like that. He would have been specific. He would have painted a picture.
He didn't say, "back in college I was hitting on freshman sorority girls."
He said, "Way back when in '67, I was the dandy, gamma chi."
I don't know what gamma chi is but I start to see a picture that he fills out with Aretha Franklin, Cuervo Gold, and fine columbian.
So, it's 1981 and I'm driving a '73 Buick Century that I bought for $100 from Newton, Mass to Westerly, Rhode Island to interview with Steve Feldman for a weekend on air position.
Did I say 1981 because Walter said '67?
But it tells you that it was before email. It was before cell phones. It was even before answering machines were common.
I'd mailed my cassette audition tape to him.
Yeah, I said it. Cassette. Did you think we had mp3's?
Weeks later I'd gotten a letter back - the first letter that wasn't a rejection - 'cause I'd known somebody. A friend of a friend had put in a good word with Steve to give me a chance.
I had a day off from teaching math at Newton North High School and drove the hour and a half to the southern border of Rhode Island to talk to Steve. It turned out that it wasn't so much of an interview as it was a training session. I would start that Friday at midnight and work the weekend overnights.
Instead of driving back up to Boston Saturday morning at 6 and then back that night I would stay in the home of the regular overnight guy, Jim Olson, and take care of his dog. I don't know where he went on weekends but he wouldn't be there when I was. In fact, it would be months before I'd meet him.
Steve then took me into the air studio and introduced me to the mid-day guy who was also the music director, Ulysses Gallman.
Uly was finishing up his shift and he handed me a sheet of the music log. Each page was 28 lines long. We picked our own music. There were rules. On each sheet we needed so many straight ahead rock, so many folk rock, so many classic rock, and so on. We also needed to vary the tempo in a sine wave. Medium followed by fast followed by medium followed by slow. We couldn't play two fast songs back to back or two slow songs back to back. We had to also play so many current songs that were hits in the world of progressive radio and so many from other eras. We also had to hit the clock so that the commercials played at the right time.
I loved their music system and will never work for a station that is that progressive again.
Uly signed off and made room for Steve. They chatted then Uly motioned for me to follow him into the other room. We sat down and he talked to me about their attitude towards what a jock says on mic. Every station has a feel. Part of it is music, part of it is production, and part of it is the jocks themselves.
Maybe that's not true anymore.
Maybe that idea went the way of cassette tapes.
In 1981, Reagan was president but he hadn't deregulated media ownership yet. Companies could only own seven AMs, seven FMs, and seven TV stations. There weren't the Inifinitys and the Clear Channels. Small, locally owned stations were common and unique, local sounds were valued.
Uly wanted to talk about Steely Dan.
Steely Dan's lyrics are specific. It's "Cuervo Gold" and not "Tequilla".
Be vague in a specific way.
Go ahead and "Drink Scotch Whiskey all night long". It would be years before I would realize that the lyric should be "Drink Scotch Whisky all night long". The Scottish spelling doesn't have an "e" in it. In a song - on the radio - no one hears the "e".
Be specific in an insider way. Almost mysterious.
"Up on the hill they think I'm ok."
What hill? Who's they?
We stand up and shake hands. I take my music sheet with me. My head is filled.
I listen to the station until just north of Providence when the signal is too weak to hold its own.
I'm excited. It's Monday and I'm working my first professional gig Friday night at midnight.
Friday night I get back in my '73 Century and head south.
I feel like I need to pull over at every rest stop but I know it's nerves and that I really don't have to go.
I'm playing a game where I narrate billboards I pass just to practice my banter.
Finally, I'm far enough south that the station comes in. Linda Barlow is filling in on the evening shift. She finishes her callback and presells the next set and plays her first commercial.
Sounds great to me. I'll never sound that good.
Apparently, it's the wrong commercial.
I wouldn't have known except Linda has left the mic on and says loudly, "Oh, S#!%."
She then hears herself in her headphones and says, "Oh F@."
Suddenly, I'm not nervous anymore.
She was specific.
I was specific earlier but I may have been wrong. I said "Walter said" but it could have been "Donald". I don't know which lyrics one wrote or the other. I just know they were in Steely Dan songs.
But I also know that Walter is dead. Walter is dead way too young.
I remember Uly using Steely Dan's lyrics to teach me radio which in turn taught me writing.
I remember the song FM with something vague, something specific, and something mysterious wrapped up into a single thought:
"Nothin' but blues and Elvis and somebody elses' favorite song".
Thank you Walter.