May 15, 2011

The Late Night Knock

Regular readers know I was a radio DJ for part of my career. While no longer a job choice that inspires any reaction at all, being a disc jockey on a rock and roll radio station in the 1960's and 70's was a fairly big deal. Your picture was on the weekly list of top 40 hits. You were asked to introduce Aerosmith or Rod Stewart or Jethro Tull in front of thousands at a concert. Supermarkets wanted you to cut the ribbon that marked the opening of a new store. People wanted your picture or autograph. Everyone wanted to know if you knew Casey Kasem of American Top 40 fame.

At some point you grow up and realize playing records isn't much of a life. Being hounded by 15 year old girls is no longer fun. Aging DJ's are not in high demand. But, for a time..........

The knocking on the heavy, gray, wooden door was insistent even though it was well after hours, long after anyone should expect an answer at this address. Except for one rather forlorn street light a block away and a dim bulb by the outside entrance, this corner of the city was growing dark and deserted. Deserted, with the exception of whoever was knocking.

In a small room, with blaring music and soundproof glass, the resolute pounding would never be heard. The outside world didn’t exit. Here was equipment, small, scratched, vinyl records in organized stacks, a dangling microphone, walls covered with faded photos and posters of musicians, some important, some not. Every few minutes a switch was thrown and a voice spoke a few words heard by hundreds or maybe thousands of invisible ears. Only the non-stop blinking buttons on the battered, black, desk phone and the glow of various lights and switches assured the voice that what he was saying was not going unnoticed.

Eventually, the person in that isolated room was required to leave the private space and wander down a short hall to look at a few meters and dials. The people who owned all the equipment and the government bureaucrats who held the power of continued operation required such a trip. The transmitting equipment was temperamental and needed to be checked every hour. A few scans of the various measurements, a hastily scribbled signature on an official looking form, and it was time to stride quickly back to the private space before silence replaced the blare of the latest pop hit.

But, just at that moment, during those few seconds of the journey back down the corridor when the front entrance was only a few yards away and within hearing, the knocking began anew. The person stopped, judged how much longer the song on the turntable had to play, and headed toward the sound. Not thinking about any potential danger, the fact that he was totally alone in the building, or who might be asking for attention, he unlocked and swung open the door.

Before him stood a twelve year or thirteen year old girl, all alone, wearing shorts, a blouse, and an expectant expression. She glanced quickly at the person who answered the door, and asked ‘Is Bobby Sherman here? Can I see him?” Wanting to laugh, but realizing the young woman was serious, the person gave her the response she probably expected. “I’m sorry but he’s busy on the air. Can I give him a message for you?” Muttering her first name and a song request for a piece of music that was played every 60 minutes anyway, she was assured “Bobby” would be told of her desire. She smiled, walked away satisfied, and the front door again locked out reality.

It was at that moment I began to truly understand the power of radio, the power of the voice behind the microphone and the ability of the medium to communicate and motivate. For you see, the person who answered the door was “The Real Bob Sherman,” my on-air name at a top 40 station in Syracuse New York in 1969. The Bobby Sherman the young listener wanted to meet was not me. He was the man who had released several hit records and was the star of his own television show, “Here Comes The Bride.” The fact that the same person was not likely to be the night DJ at a radio station in upstate New York never entered the youngster’s mind. Through the incredible power of radio to stimulate her imagination, it was completely logical and possible that her fantasy was inside that building.

As I closed the door and went back to the studio just in time to start the latest two minute hit single by the Grassroots, or Tommy Roe, it really hit me: I have the power to create a world for my listeners completely separate from reality. Any thought of ever changing career paths or finding a more stable industry was gone.

This is a glimpse into a world that no longer exists, but was tremendously exciting and fulfilling for a young man just finding his stride in life. Some 40 years later my satisfying retirement is in part based on that night and what it taught me.


  1. Oh that was a different time wasn't it? Radio has changed so much since the advent of cable and MTV. DJ's are no longer the big stars that they were. You were in the "golden" age.

    I hope you have seen the movie "Pirate Radio". It really embraces that era and it's music.

  2. Hi Roberta,

    Interestingly, while I was the DJ at the station I wrote about my roommate actually worked for the pirate radio station that movie was based upon. He lived on a similar ship and experienced much of what the characters in the movie did...except no women, ever, were allowed on board.

    Yes, it was a different time that will never be repeated.

  3. Nice. It's funny for me to think that I never really thought about the realities of life for DJ's even though Listening to them was part of my life. I never really considered that the DJ's were actually real persons with mundane life life experiences no more interesting than mine. They were just background noise that spiced up my mundane existence.

  4. Hi Ralph,

    The vast majority of those who called me on the "request line" and visited the station or asked for an autograph were female. Guys didn't pay much attention to the DJs even during the time when being a radio announcer was considered glamorous. So, being rather unaware made you very normal.

    Just to let readers in on a "secret," the request line was a complete scam. In my case there were stacks of 45 rpm records in various categories. I played then in the exact order they appeared in the stacks. A "request" was almost always for a song that was played every 90 minutes anyway. Or, if it was for something else the standard line was, "I'll see if I can find it for you. If not, can I play (something already scheduled)?" That almost always satisfied the caller who simply wanted to hear her name on the air.

  5. This was really a fun read! Time are different, but there's still power in a voice. Thanks for this special story.

  6. Hi Sandra,

    I'm a little depressed to think that was 40 years ago, but glad I was able to experience that lifestyle for awhile.

    Note: Folks, check out Sandra's new Facebook page and "like" it. She's a friend and a great blogger.

  7. Great trip down memory lane! I had a friend in high school who knew a DJ personally and we got to hang out at the radio station a couple times. I always associate the song "Crimson and Clover" with those visits. Quite exciting.

    Sad to think how innocent those days really were. Now celebrities are hounded and many create celebrity out of nothing but it's all a big entertainment machine that's gotten increasingly meaningless.

  8. Good Morning Joan,

    Good point about the loss of privacy and meaning in today's world of hyper-celebrity. Of course, there was no Internet, no cell phones, no 24 hour news and entertainment channel on TV so things developed much more slowly. A celebrity, even on the very local level, was much more accessible and accountable than is true today.

    There was something magical about a radio studio and the sounds coming out of it. I'm afraid that type of entertainment is gone forever. A few of my 40 year old radio shows are still floating around the Internet. I'll listen to my much-younger self on occasion and have a real rush of great memories. For that, I will be eternally grateful.

  9. I'm a huge fan of Rick Dees. I just looked him up and he was born in 1950, so only seven years older than me. He's back on radio and I love all the disco hits he plays. I love that Double Dutch bus and all those hits and wish I could find a night club to dance to all these hits. Living in Europe, in the late 70's, we heard nothing but disco. I never loved rock as much. I'm a complete Michael Jackson fan too. Do you know Rick Dees?

  10. Hi Sonia,

    Do you mean Mr. Disco Duck? Yes, I met Rick at industry functions a few times, not that he'd remember. He started as a DJ in Memphis where a friend of mine worked.

    I have to think your part of Southern California has clubs that specialize in disco. Be gutsy and find your Night Fever!


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