Sunday, May 14, 2006

Radio Days

In the 1960s the closest thing to surfing the Internet was tuning the radio. There was television, of course, but in eastern Iowa before the advent of public broadcasting, the options were pretty limited. But radio, especially in the late-night hours, had so many possibilities. Clear Channel didn't mean a corporation with a near-monopoly on broadcasting, but certain AM radio stations which were allowed to broadcast at the maximum 50,000 watts.

I had a transistor radio which could pick up AM, FM, and short wave. The short wave was fun, but had a limited range. I could pick up the Voice of America and Radio Havana. Radio Havana would tell of every U.S. helicopter the National Liberation Force shot down. If they weren't exaggerating, it made me wonder whether helicopters were just too vulnerable. Voice of America, on the other hand, celebrated every U.S. victory and multiplied the enemy body count to the point that I wondered how there could be any Vietnamese left. It's interesting to hear propaganda for a while, but it gets tiresome.

The really interesting stuff was on the AM band. Talk radio was just beginning, and the king of talk was Joe Pyne. He was an ex-Marine who had lost a leg fighting in the Pacific. People remember him as a conservative, but he was really a Cold War liberal, who supported the Vietnam War but had absolutely no use for racial bigotry. Unlike Rush Limbaugh and his ilk, he didn't cut off people who were getting the better of him in an argument. He could be loud and abusive--the working-class Philadelphia accent made him sound even more abusive--but he didn't hide. A lot of people listened to Pyne, hoping to hear someone get the better of him. And we sided with him when he had a racist for a guest. I had a grudging respect for the guy.

For a liberal, antiwar alternative to Limbaugh, there was Dale Ulmer, who hosted an evening call-in show on WHO Radio in Des Moines. Unlike Pyne, he didn't yell or insult, but used logic and reason in his arguments. People rarely, if ever, got the better of him. Even though WHO was a clear-channel station which could be heard from the East Coast to the Rockies, few remember Dale Ulmer. His tenure as a talk show host was short, and he wasn't outrageous enough to be memorable, except to me, and perhaps a few others.

There were a lot of religious programs, but the strangest one whas hosted by the Reverend Curtis Springer. "This is the Reverend Curtis Springer, coming to you from the shores of Lake Tunedae, in the beautiful Mojave Desert." He spoke in deep but oily voice, in the manner of Senator Edward Dirksen (The Wizard of Ooze), and pronounced Tunedae something like Too-Wenda-Wee. In between recorded gospel tunes, such as "Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb," he'd advertise his miracle remedies and invite people to visit his resort. The resort was called Zzyzyx, which Springer claimed was the last word in the English language. It was clear that Springer was a flim-flam artist, but I wasn't aware of the extent of his rascality. His crimes were certainly not on the scale of many of today's televangelists, but he was surely a scoundrel of the first order. (Check the link on his name for details.)

And late at night on weekends, there was Beaker Street, on the KAAY, "The Mighty 1090," a clear-channel station from Little Rock. I was never a great fan of what people later called "Progressive Rock," but I listened to it more for the atmosphere than the music. "This is Clyde Clifford, from Beaker Street," he'd say in his deep, slow, voice. He always sounded stoned, though I suspect he wan't. "That was 'Astronomy Domine,' by Pink Floyd, from their album, Ummagumma." He often played "Friends of Mine," by the Guess Who, which was not great poetry, but did make you listen. Strangely enough, Beaker Street is back on the air, though not on KAAY, which is now a religious station, but on FM, and downloadable on the Web.

AM Radio, with few exceptions, has become the domain of right-wing ideologues and Christian fundamentalists, while most of FM is niche-marketed and controlled by mega-corporations such as Clear Channel. I haven't follwed the "Net Neutrality" debate closely, but I'm wondering whether there are people in the boardrooms who'd like the Internet to be more like what commercial radio has become.


Peter said...

I got a QSL card from WHO in the 1960s. I don't know if clear channel stations still send these postcards to distant listeners, but I loved collecting them. Like you, I had a transistor radio and loved AM radio at night, when the 50,000 watts could skip off of the ionosphere. I lived on the Virginia coast and got QSL's from New Orleans, Chicago, and St. Louis. It was like surfing the net. My QSL card requests felt a lot like posting comments on blog sites, only slower.

Unlike you, I never listened to talk radio back then. I loved deejays, though, and the 60s were the heydays for deejays. When one of my favorites moved from Norfolk to Chicago, I pulled in his station when the weather allowed just to hear him. The Chicago station had the same top-40 format as his old Norfolk one, but he was much more subdued and no longer called himself "The Mouth of the South."

Then, in the early seventies, I listened to Jack Armstrong, the All-American Freak, on WKBW in Buffalo. He is the only person I've ever heard who was incomprehensible only because of how fast he talked. He was my idol.

steve said...

Thanks for the interesting reply, Peter. I had to look up QSL. Apparently some stations still send them, or send QSL e-mails. There were two big top-40 stations in Chicago: WLS (World' Largest Store--once owned by Sears), and WCFL, which was then owned by the Chicago Federation of Labor. Even though CFL was a 50,000 watt station, I could rarely hear it in Iowa--apparently its signal was beamed to the east. Both stations had good deejays, but the only one I really remember is Larry Lujack, who came from Quasqueton, Iowa.

Peter said...

I had QSL cards from both of these Chicago stations. WLS was the undisputed big station, and WCFL is where my childhood idol Larry O'Brian ended up. Like you, I had a harder time pulling in WCFL, and I was in Tidewater, Virginia.

The biggest top-forty seemed to be WABC with "Cousin Brucie." I remember Jack Armstrong alluding to him from the other end of the state with apparent envy.

Dale Ulmer said...

Steve labels me a liberal. Although I was and remain happy to bear that banner, I suspect the fact that I was doing a radio show in an area populated mostly by bible thumping conservatives made
me seem far more radical than I was.

I'm greatly flattered that Steve recalls the time I spent at WHO. That was forty some years ago. It was especially pleasant to learn that he remembers me as someone who "used logic and reason in his arguments". He accurately refers to my WHO tenure as a brief one. In large measure, that was due to a phone call I received at the station after my show one night from a Westinghouse Broadcasting Company exec offering me a better job. But that's all ancient history. These days, for anyone few who care, I'm happily retired in my home state of Wisconsin.

Dale Ulmer

steve said...

Thank you, Dale, for your kind comments. You're right that the left-right political spectrum depends on context. In the Iowa City of the early 1970s, some people called me conservative, while in Elkhart, Indiana of the 1990s, I was nearly a radical. My politics hadn't changed much--just my location. I'm glad you left WHO for a better job, and not because of ratings or politics. Best wishes for a continued happy retirement.

Peter said...

This is one of two times I can remember when someone described in a blog post responded to it. Delightful!

I may have listened to Dale years ago, since WHO came in loud and strong on the Virginia coast in the sixties.