May 19, 2017

A Late Night Knock

"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 girl 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  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." 



Regular readers know I was a radio DJ for part of my career.  Staring at age 15 on weekends, I "played the hits" until my late 20's in several different towns. While no longer a job choice that inspires much reaction, being a disc jockey on rock and roll radio stations 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 change and realize playing records isn't a long term career choice. Being hounded by 15 year old girls is no longer fun. Aging DJ's are not in high demand. But, for a time..........

The Late Night Knock 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 45 years later my satisfying retirement is in large part based on that night and what it taught me about the power of imagination and words. The men and women who I met and worked alongside (Hi, Ron Wray!) will be part of me forever.


Tell me a story about something in your life that was a spark to something different or better (or worse!). What happened that opened a door to your future? We all have a story.

18 comments:

  1. I have a fun dj story. I worked for a classic rock radio station for a few years, in Pittsburgh. I was in sales and was frequently asked about our dj's and where they might be appearing. Sometimes it was a let down when they saw them because they looked like ordinary people and that didn't seem quite right to them.
    One weekend my husband and I were having dinner downtown and our buddy, Steve Rohan, was on the air so after dinner we stopped by the station. We had just changed directors and none of us liked the new guy. He took some of our favorite artists off the list and one of them was Little Feet. So we sat in the booth with Steve and played Little Feet and trash talked the new guy for at least an hour. Shortly after that I left the station.
    b

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    1. My job after being a DJ for twelve years was to help radio stations refine their music library to play only the best-testing songs. Little Feet probably would have been on my kill list, too.

      Go ahead and mutter under your breath about those darned consultants....we did bring about the great homogenization of American radio! It made a lot of people a lot of money but turned radio into a utility and has now found its perfect representation in sources like Spotify and Pandora.

      The days of playing 45s was more fun.

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  2. What a wonderful story! Thank you for transporting me back to the days of listening to the radio and wondering how wonderful the DJ behind the mic must be!

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    1. Probably most of us grew up with those voices inside the radio being an important part of our youth.

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  3. Your DJ story reminds me I was at Syracuse University in 1969 working on my MA in Journalism. Several concerts I attended there featured The Who and Joanie Mitchell. My careers included returning to the Bay Area for a long tenure at Levi Strauss and, midlife, attending medical school to become a podiatrist. Having retired almost three years ago, I have focused on my right brain taking art and writing classes. Poetry has been the main focus, allowing me the opportunity to get my work published. I am also on the Arts Commission here in Yountville, CA, responsible for spoken word events and gallery exhibits. My wife, who just returned to the work world after retiring, and I visit San Francisco frequently to see our son, daughter-in-law and two and one-half year old granddaughter. So my retirement is satisfying.

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    1. I graduated from Syracuse in 1971. I worked at the campus radio station, WAER, as well as WNDR and WOLF all will working on my degree from the Maxwell School in International Relations. So, you and I were roaming the campus at the same time in the late 60's. Small world.

      From podiatrist to poet and artist - isn't life grand when we get to explore all sides of ourselves!

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  4. First I have to say that "Jim Sims" looks so much like one of our school principals from my youth that he stopped me cold. ha!

    I worked at two different AM/FM stations in my younger years and the last one definitely sparked something in me. The couple that owned the station were living on the edge of financial ruin in the early '80's, I was on the air and also doing the bookkeeping, and he was borrowing to meet payroll at 22%. So when creditors called, he transferred them to me. Seriously. I had no authority to say when they'd be paid or really anything except to listen to them yell. Meanwhile, he took a ride every afternoon in his rusty Subaru and came back all red-eyed after a smoke that calmed him down a LOT. ha! That was the end of radio for me and it pushed me to go back and finish my degree. I have many hilarious memories from radio work, but the owners were pretty consistently nuts in my experience.
    --Hope

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    1. Jim Sims was my Program Director. He was tremendously talented and an absolute workhorse. Sadly, he passed away several years ago.

      I like your stories. Most of the owners I worked for were pretty regular guys without many odd habits. The DJ's, on the other hand, were often a rather unusual bunch. To earn your living playing records and moving every few years does not make for a very stable lifestyle. Off the air many of the guys were somewhat odd. But, behind a microphone they could create a magical world with their voice and personality.

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  5. As teenager we hung out at the two radio stations in our small town. One of them even had a place where we could dance. So we knew the DJs well. As younger children we could sing on the the Kiddie Show on Saturday mornings. The sponsor was Holsum Bread and the host would say "Don't say bread say..." and we would all shout HOLSUM. Good memories.

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    1. My mom had to stop by the one radio station in town when we lived in Cambridge, Ohio in 1961. I looked at the announcer in the studio and was hooked at age 12. Good memories.

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  6. I never worked in radio, but the lure of the DJs back in the day was very true. I grew up listening to KRLA, which was located then at the Huntington Hotel in Pasadena. Casey Kasem and Bob Eubanks both came up out of KRLA, but other favorite DJs were Dave Hull and Dick Biondi, among others. My friends and I often drove up to the hotel to visit the station (you could see it from my grandmother's house, perched up on its hill), or at least hang out outside their window to catch a glimpse of the great ones. The station held contests which our school often won - we got a free 3 Dog Night concert courtesy of KRLA one year, which was pretty special, and the DJs sometimes showed up at our football games to lead cheers! Those really were the days . . . these days I almost can't stand listening to the radio.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your radio stories. You grew up with some of the greats. I used to listen to Dick Biondi on WLS, Chicago in the early 60's when we lived in Ohio.

      Like you, I haven't listened much to the radio in at least 10 years. The only stations on my car radio anymore are the classical and NPR stations. My music comes from Spotify.

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  7. I now know the history of the metamorphosis of the radio I listened to in my youth and early adulthood, and why I rarely have it on anymore. Ditto for TV.

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    1. The real watershed moment was a change in FCC regulations in 1996 that allowed companies to own more than 7 stations. Suddenly, companies like Clear Channel (now iHeartradio) bought upwards of 1,000 radio stations. For example, this company controls 8 of the stations in Phoenix.

      To make the economics work they had to consolidate programming and staffing. So, one announcer in Dallas became the voice heard in 150 markets. A library of songs approved by one corporate consultant was played on 250 stations. Local radio ended and the bland utility that we still call radio emerged. That change began the process that ended my career five years later, and destroyed local, community-based radio forever.

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  8. We were living in Iowa while Ken attended Chiropractic College.. a 3 and a half year stint. I had always been a literary person, interested in becoming an English teacher or a Creative Writing teacher. EXCEPT! Ken left his anatomy and physiology books laying around.Nutrition notes and orthopedic exercises.. little by little I began to pick up his notes and books, and my interest in science and health care emerged. With only 2 years left in Iowa, I went to the local community college and signed up for Nursing School.I graduated within a month of Ken and we left Iowa to begin our new lives in Arizona. I got a great job at Mesa General Hospital, and Ken went to work in a practice with his brother. I NEVER would have dreamed of becoming a Nurse, till that "knock on the door.." And lucky for us, cause we sure needed that extra income when Ken started his new career! I went on to become a specialist in Women and Children's health care and enjoyed a 30 year career in Nursing, ultimately going back to become a Nurse Practitioner.Life is what happens while you're making other plans!!!!

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    1. That is a great story and perfect example of how a set of circumstances can change our life forever. If Ken hadn't left those textbooks out or you hadn't just happened to pick them up, then a talent and passion of yours might have never been discovered and thousands of people would have not benefited from your care and knowledge.

      My mom's stop at WILE in Cambridge, Ohio one morning opened the door to a 35 year career. I find it fascinating that one seemingly unremarkable event has the power to change who we become.

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  9. When I was a small child growing up in a remote northern Canadian village (I only came to discover that it was remote when I attended university in a big city; prior to that I had thought my little town was the centre of the world), we only had one radio station: CBC. National radio was broadcast even into my town. My Mom played CBC on the radio in the kitchen all day long, so I grew up with the voices and music of CBC in my head. In the early sixties, a local radio station opened as well as the first TV channel.

    To this day, I still have my radio tuned to CBC.

    Jude

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    1. Your situation is a lot like the experiences of folks who grew up in England. Except for a few pirate stations off the coast in the mid 60's, the only radio choice was one of the BBC channels until 1973 when independent stations where allowed. I listen to the BBC and CBC on the Internet to get a different perspective on the news.

      I like your comment about your small town only seeming small when you left! How true.

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