Monday, April 25, 2011

My "Sam Kinison" period

Flying today to Detroit to begin a roadtrip with the Mariners, which is an convenient lead-in to another tale of my checkered radio career. Back in 1974 I was a screaming disc jockey (literally) at WDRQ, Detroit. My tenure was short-lived but memorable.

At the time I had been out of work as a disc jockey for about six months. No one wanted a high energy, “youthful”-voiced, wise-ass-bordering-on-insane platter spinner (or, to be more accurate – music cartridge inserter). The program director of KYNO in Fresno kept me dangling for months for an all-night gig and eventually gave it to someone else. Needless to say, I was depressed. I mean, when they don’t think you’re good enough to talk to empty fields at 3 AM you tend to believe you don’t have a rosy future in this profession.

I had even gotten a different job – working in the research department of NBC. But preparing test results for Bob Crane pilots didn’t seem like the best way to fill five or six decades either.

And then, out of the blue, I get a call from the new program director of WDRQ. How would I like to come to Detroit and do 6-10 in the evening? This was unbelievable. I wasn’t qualified for all-nights in market #110 but was good enough to do a primo slot in market #5 or 6? The money was probably less than I’d get in Fresno but that was besides the point. I was heading to a major market!

The program director picked me up at the airport and drove me right to the station. It was snowing. This was mid-April. He wanted me to do a break-in show in the middle of the night – get used to the equipment and format so when I premiered at 6 PM I knew what I was doing.

I said, “Fine” without stopping to think – when am I going to sleep? I didn’t want to be rude and say, “I really should check into a motel instead of drinking beer and smoking more joints with you” so I just sucked it up. And then at midnight he drove me to the station, wished me luck, and drove off.  I went on the air – half-smashed, no preparation, and having already been up for close to 24 hours. It was my best show. 

“Oh, by the way”, I told him after we were both seeing mermaids at the IHOP, “I want to use the name Beaver Cleaver on the air.” He was so wasted he didn’t even ask me why. The answer to that is I wanted a name that stood out, was easy to say, and let’s be honest, was dirty.

I got off the air at 6 AM, met the morning man – a surely bitter fellow with a great voice and nothing else. The fact that I was funny, he hated me instantly. The program director arrived, said he was thrilled with how I sounded, and took me to breakfast at the IHOP, where it turns out, those mermaids were just the cleaning crew.

So after a good late morning sleep, the Beaver Cleaver show premiered on WDRQ at 6 that night. Got a call from the PD that I sounded great.

Things were going well and would remain that way… for another eight hours. The program director called me into his office. Apparently there was a problem. The station’s “consultant” had heard me and felt I needed a slight adjustment in my act. He wanted me to scream more. By more he meant every time I opened my mouth. The evening jock should sound super high energy and the way to achieve that (according to this moron) was to have the disc jockey scream. And I had no choice. Either scream or be fired after one day.

So I did and I sounded like a complete idiot. Imagine Sam Kinison introducing Carpenters records. I generally went through a spritz bottle of Chloraseptic every show. No one will ever hear tapes of me on WDRQ, and if you have one I’m going to have to kill you.

I frantically sent out audition tapes, and a few months later was offered a job at KYA, San Francisco. The WDRQ program director thought I was crazy taking that job. If I stuck it out in Detroit for a year I could get to Boston. A year? I’d sound like Kenny Rodgers by then. Plus, what’s wrong with San Francisco?

About a month later I received a letter from the program director. He had forwarded a petition some high school circulated to try to get me back on WDRQ. I still have it of course. It’s my most cherished keepsake from my radio days.

My first time back in Detroit since those days was when I was broadcasting for the Orioles in 1991. I rented a car and thought I’d tool around the old haunts. The neighborhood where WDRQ was located in my day was an absolute war zone. Not that it was ever Park Ave. to begin with, but now the street was littered with graffiti, squalor, and the folks screaming were not introducing Motown records. I haven’t been back since. Although, I must admit, I’m a little curious. Today it’s probably gentrified and gorgeous and all the apartments have been refurbished – now with hardwood floors and the meth labs removed – and it’s the happening place to live in Detroit. Or it’s been razed to the ground.  Either way, there should be a plaque -- to WDRQ, or, as I used to call it on the air -- W-Dreck.

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