Don’t Push Your Humor, Let it Come
“If you are not criticized, you may not be doing much.”
“Never work at being funny, Moe.” That was a rule with Mel Miller. “Let things happen, don’t force humor. You’re not a comic. There are people who are great comics and they don’t always make it either. You’re not funny yet.”
In retrospect I can say those were good words of advice. But it didn’t mean there were not some light, even hilarious moments. There were plenty. The most memorable occurred at WRKO. Of those many occurred when I sat in with either Ted O’Brien or Janet Jaghelian.
WRKO became a talk station in 1982, beginning with Jerry Williams and Guy Manella, then David Brudnoy. A lifestyles show and psychologist program were added to the mid-day. Dick Syatt and Dr. Harry Sobel handled those chores and a Morning Magazine rounded out the day.
The magazine was in the capable hands of Norm Nathan, a talented man who did just about everything in radio from over night jazz shows to regular daily programs. He was probably best known from his years at WBZ overnights and his peepers in the Spring. The magazine format did not work well for WRKO because there were too many similarities with the vaunted WBZ morning news and Carl Dezeus (later Dave Maynard, another legendary morning man). The humor portion was also overshadowed by Jess Cain who was at the former WHDH seemingly forever.
What to do with the morning?
Please allow me to give you a little “inside radio”. Programming in radio is as important as the talent. The wrong show in the wrong time slot is doomed to failure. I doesn’t matter how talented the host or deejay is, the program is doomed to failure no matter what.
Poor on air people can sometimes succeed despite a lack of ability talent if the show is slotted right and follows something very popular.
Let me give you an example. Stations who carry Boston Red Sox baseball in Boston have a built in morning audience. If the program is of a good quality success is virtually assured.
Throughout the ‘60s and 70’s WRKO was what is referred to as a kickass rocker. They had the best talent, biggest names and always played the right music.
The station had been slipping in the ratings because of the emergence of FM radio. 50,000 Watt AMs were becoming dinosaurs. They needed to offer something the FM stations did not. The FM signal provided stereo, AM did not. Music simply sounded better on FM than on AM.
WEEI AM 590 became the all news station with a sprinkling of talk. WBZ continued to play music during the day but talked at night. They ventured into sports talk with The Sports Huddle on weekends and later, Guy Manella in the evening. The third rock powerhouse, WMEX, with its limited signal, switched to talk with Gerry Williams, Avi Nelson, and Pat Whitley, WHDH talked at night with David Brudnoy and WRKO remained a rocker.
When they converted to the new talk format every effort was made to get the listeners to forget WRKO had been a rocker. They jumped in with both feet. In the ratings game confusion on the part of the listener always leads to disaster for the station. It is our job to give you a reason to remember what you listened to and when. One way is to be memorable by choosing the right issues to discuss.
The ratings services rely on listeners keeping a diary for a particular week. It is hoped the listener writes down the call letters or frequency (AM or FM and the number on the dial) as they listen. That doesn’t happen. At least, not very often.
Most listeners fill out the diary the day before it is mailed in. If the issues discussed is not remembered it is likely the listener will not recall listening.
An example of this is my receiving mail forwarded to me addressed to WBZ, WEEI, and WHDH (now only a TV station and no longer radio call letters) though I’ve never appeared anywhere but WRKO in Boston. I even received mail at WODS-FM, an oldies rocker. So you see, product (station) identification is a perpetual problem.
How do we get you to remember listening to WRKO, when and for how long. It’s not easy.
Most programmers want the on air people to repeat the call letters as often as possible. I know most of us are convinced we are nearly as popular as God so such repetition is not necessary. After all our friends know where we are.
To this day there are people who ask me if I’d ever want to return to WALE in Fall River. Well, they didn’t know I had worked there for a short time twenty-five years before I started at WSAR. They simply got a little mixed up. The same is true of my Providence experience. My voice has never been heard on WPRO, only WHJJ, yet some of my closest friends are still confused.
Why all this confusion? Simple, it’s not your business to know. You don’t care except to be able to find your favorite station and/or personality. If it’s in the car, I’m on a certain button. If only you could enter that on the diary…..yes, Moe is on the third button from the left. No such luck.
For that reason we keep repeating the call letters or station slogan over and over and over and over and over…… Now you know why all the repetition. It’s to make certain you remember where you heard us. WRKO time is…WRKO News….WRKO Weather….You’re on WRKO….. It’s never ending.
If you don’t believe me, try to name all the soup company names in the soup section of your favorite supermarket. You can’t come close to the number.
You don’t believe me?
Take a guess at the number and try to name them. Next time you’re in the supermarket count them. You’ll laugh at how far off you are.
Ask a person in the soup business and he’ll give you not only the company names but what soups they each sell, even the location on the shelf in the different companies.
What’s all this got to do with funny things happening on the air?
It’s only one of the many means we use to bring you back to our station over and over and to remember the times you listened.
When someone tells you a genuinely funny joke you do everything you can to recall it. You even rehearse it so you can spring it on some of your friends. Same with radio “bits”, those are the little things we do to make you remember listening to our station. Consider the good advertising you do for us when you mention to someone else what you heard on the show.
If done right advertising works, and works well. We want you telling friends where you heard something memorable.
Let’s focus on talk radio for the moment, after all that’s what I do reasonably well.
No ratings, no advertisers, no job. It’s not complicated.
We all must produce to succeed and make a living. From the shoe shine boy to the nuclear physicist, the job must be done right. The shoe shine boy must get a shine on someone’s shoes and not soil their clothes. The nuclear physicist can’t afford many mistakes or else….booom.
Do you recall the stories in an earlier in this book that I wrote about the great marischino cherry drop into the tons of whipped cream? There was also the bit about liberals blowing out the candles conservatives lit for me and praying for my success in quitting smoking. Of course you do. You see, good stuff is remembered.
Now here’s some genuinely funny things which happened completely by accident. They’re in no particular order. Simply anecdotes I’ll never forget.
First, however, you must know things like this only happen when someone does something and someone else misinterprets what they heard.
Remember Mel Miller’s admonition, don’t try to be funny, let it happen. Well many genuinely funny things have happened. Here’s a few of them.
Among those which will remain with me so long as I have a full bag of marbles is something that happened my first day on the Gardening Show with my radio brother Jim Zoppo. The date was January 12, 2001, the day after President George W. Bush was inaugurated the first time.
First a few words about Jim.
James F. Zoppo is a horticulturalist and arborist who operates a very successful nursery (plants and trees, not kids) and a construction company in Sharon, Massachusetts. He works very hard and built the business from scratch. For decades he and his sweetie, Sandy, have sweated and strained as many small business persons do.
Sometimes when we are that immersed in a narrow field we miss some of that which is transpiring around us. Our focus is on the immediate situation and we can forget others don’t have the knowledge or understanding of things that we have. Sort of like those of us in radio who take for granted you know who and where we are.
One of the very first callers to the WRKO Gardening Show with Jim and Moe sought help from Jim. He wanted to rid his lawn of Japanese Beatle Grubs. They are certainly the ugliest little creatures on earth (even their mothers hate them) on top of which they can destroy a lawn in no time. Controlling them can be maddening.
Also, we must consider the fact Jim is a “green” guy and I’m a chop it down type. Might I say Yin to his Yang.
The poor fellow seeking help described how he had, at great cost, obtained new sod a few years before. It had been destroyed by these tenacious little critters. Again, yet another new lawn suffered the same fate. Another new lawn two years ago and again the critters were back. He had treated his lawn with everything short of a nuclear bomb. The bugs were killed off and they always came back.
“What can I do?” the man asked.
I jumped in and suggested concrete would make life miserable for the grubs.
Jim just cracked a broad smile. He had the answer to the man’s dilemma. Jim’s solution would keep his lawn Japanese Beetle Grub free for “at least ten to fifteen years, maybe more.”
“What you need to do is inoculate your lawn with milky spore.”
“Huh! What the heck is that, Jim?”
Jim repeated, “He needs to do is inoculate his lawn with milky spore.”
I had never inoculated a lawn in my life. What’s more I didn’t know anyone who did that sort of thing, at least not in my neighborhood. We’re family oriented.
Jim laughed uproariously. “No, no, no, it’s not what you think.”
“Better not be.”
Jim then had to explain what milky spore was and got us to understand it would function in the lawn in the same way a vaccine works in us.
A few applications of milky spore and grubs are sent packing.
Jim never again recommended “inoculating” a lawn. Treating was a better choice of words.
There have been a number of occasions where either I didn’t understand or I played Danny the Dunce on the Gardening Show.
Within just a few weeks our roles became clearly defined. Jim was the expert and I had the role of the bim. It worked and worked well.
I made a concerted effort to learn more about gardening and plants. The lawn I can do without. I’m big on clover which you have no need to water or mow. It just returns each spring and stays green forever.
Why did we work so well together? Simple, we’ve offered a great deal for everyone and at any given time something could happen where we could all have a laugh. None of it was planned and it all occurred when we least expected it.
Like Mel Miller said, “Don’t force it.”
In 1983 the WRKO morning show took on a different look. The Morning Magazine with Norm Nathan did not fit in with the other day parts of programming. Imitating WBZ was not very smart. People would listen to the real thing, not some imitation. Shortly thereafter the mid-day shows changed as well. Gene Burns, a genuine heavy in talk radio, took over from Syatt and Dr. Sobel.
The morning change was interesting because there was an effort to maintain a high information content show along with a talk show.
Frankly this is similar to what Fox News Network now does, only without Fox does it without callers. They bring in short term specialized guests.
Tony Pepper had been a very successful news anchor on WBZ TV 4 news. Something happened at Channel 4 and WRKO snatched him up and paired him with Janet Jaghelian.
Janet had been on WBZ radio for some time on weekend nights. Only three other women have the voice quality of Janet. Pat Carroll of WCBS radio in New York (who had worked at the old 590 WEEI and WRKO), Mary Blake, the long time newsperson on WRKO weekends and the old 98.5-FM WROR, and Deb Robi, with whom I worked for many years in the 80s.. Not only was Janet easy to listen to because of the quality of her voice but she was a genuinely decent person who made an excellent dance partner. Even when you stepped on her toes she somehow made you believe she didn’t mind and you’re really a Fred Astair.
Tony on the other hand was very bright and articulate. Well read and urbane, he came across as somewhat elitist. I didn’t know Tony other than as a very competent newsman and never had the pleasure of his company. But as Jerry Williams reminded me, you listen because there is something in the personality of the person you’re listening to which you find is either likeable or someone you’re comfortable with.
Early in 1984 Tony was replaced by Ted O’Brien. Like David Brudnoy, Ted hailed from the mid-west.
Ted had been the anchor at Channel 7 for some time and made no apologies for being a liberal in the Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale tradition of his native Minnesota.
The O’Brien assertiveness caused Janet to reveal her own opinions much more often. A bit to the right of Ted (almost everyone was), Janet forced him to define his opinions more clearly and the show had appeal.
What made it go initially was they were both easily likeable regardless of your political leanings. Another reason for their success was WRKO obtaining the rights to the Boston Red Sox.
That combination propelled the WRKO morning show into the top three in the Boston ratings war for years to come.
Some of my funniest moments in radio occurred with them, separately and at different times.
The first was with Ted. It was a hot summer morning in the summer of 1988 before the Democratic Convention in Atlanta which nominated Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis for president.
The summer doldrums. Nothing much happens from a talk show perspective in the dog days of August. There’s little to talk about, especially Monday mornings.
We did the usual generic issues on which we disagree. Gun control, death penalty, even the abortion issue didn’t create much of a stir.
Finally we started the nine o’clock hour discussing our back yard vegetable gardens. My tomatoes were so big. His tomatoes were bigger. His cukes were this big. My cukes were bigger. And so it went until we got to zucchinis.
I mentioned I had a zucchini which was still growing and was about fifteen inches, he had a sixteen. Suddenly the phone lines lit up. A caller said he had a seventeen incher. We got the bright idea to ask the program director if we could give a prize of sixty eight 68-WRKO dollars. He consented.
After that, caller after caller had a zucchini just a bit larger. Finally toward the end of the show a man said he had a thirty-eight inch zucchini. “Wow, that’s a big zucchini,” we said.
About two or three minutes before we needed to sign off we took one more call. It was a sweet and sexy sounding woman from Plaistow, New Hampshire. She announced, “I don’t know much about gardening but could you give me the phone number of the man with the thirty-eight inch zucchini.”
Have you ever begun to laugh so hard you couldn’t stop? It happened to both of us. We never recovered. Finally after two minutes of our agony the producer switched over to the news. Gene Burns who followed us got caught up in it as well. He started his program laughing about the man with the thirty-eight inch zucchini and the woman who wanted to meet him.
Like Mel Miller said, just let it happen. There is no way we could have staged something so uproariously funny.
The incidents concerning Janet Jaghelian were more Janet’s sense of embarrassment than the events themselves.
The first occurred the following week. There was an article in one of the newspapers which gave some funny incidents that occurred on wedding nights.
By the time the wedding and reception are over there is a feeling of relief and, to some degree, dread.
Many times months of preparation precede the wedding. Everything has to be just right. Women sometimes find this hard to believe, but men feel the pressure as well. By the time the preacher says “you may kiss the bride” the nerves of the new Mr. & Mrs. have warn thin. Finally they reach their hotel room where they are alone for the first time in many pressure filled hours. The big night is fast becoming anti-climatic for both.
I’ll spare you the details but I suggested on air our listeners call with their funniest honeymoon story. Yup, we had another sixty-eight 68-WRKO dollars to give away for the funniest story.
We got the predictable humor. One couple forgot to pack pajamas [did they really forget?]. Another forgot to lock the door connecting to the next room and someone walked in at the worst possible time. Then there was the one who fell in the bath and broke an arm.
Then the successor to the zucchini story. This one ranks way up there, at least for men.
It was a man on the line who had been married for years but could not forget his wedding night. His Bride was in the bathroom preparing for the big night. He had already showered so he decided to undress while before she came out. He shut off the lights and slipped out of his pajamas. He made his way over to the dresser where he opened the draw and put his pajamas in the draw. He wanted to do this before his wife of only a few hours came out of the bathroom.
He heard the doorknob on the bathroom jiggle as if she were about to make her appearance. Our friend hurried to close the drawer and jump in bed and hide beneath the blanket and sheet before she entered. In his haste he said he tried to close the drawer with his knees. He slammed the drawer closed hard. Only one problem, his private parts were hanging over the side of the drawer.
His wife came on the extension phone line and told us he hollered so loud someone called the police fearing someone was being killed.
Consider the added embarrassment they had when the police arrived.
From my perspective the really funny part was Janet’s reaction. She was ready to leave the studio.
Remember this was before the Clinton era where all morals flew out the window.
I had no idea Janet could turn beet red. She even had difficulty breathing.
Actually that paled in comparison to the day a story broke in the Washington Times about my congressman Barney Frank having a gay pimp sharing Washington apartment as a live in for five years.
It was 1990 and the House of Representatives later voted to reprimand Frank when it was revealed that Steven Gobie, a household employee he had hired, was running a prostitution business from Frank’s apartment. Frank had dismissed Gobie earlier that year after learning of Gobie’s activities. There was also the use of congressional stationary to write to Gobie’s parole officer and parking tickets run up by Gobie which were taken care of by Frank. All in all it was pretty nasty stuff.
I also had my regular mid-day gig at WHJJ in Providence starting at noon so I used to leave WRKO and go directly to Providence at the conclusion of the WRKO Morning Show.
Our producer tracked Frank down in his Newton, Massachusetts residence before he had made any other public appearances. He asked him to appear on the Ted and Janet Show on WRKO (no mention of his favorite constituent, me.)
This occurred in the days before caller ID so he needed to answer his private phone because he was likely awaiting some of his own people calling. It would have been difficult for him to avoid us by not agreeing to a couple of minutes.
Barney had yet to meet with his advisers to work out a strategy on how to spin the revelations in the Washington Times. Rumors about his activities had made the rounds for some time but this was more than anyone thought. And now it was in print.
We learned of the story from the Associated Press wire which quoted the Times. The AP account didn’t contain much information, just the basic facts above.
The reporter who broke the story came on with us at about 6:15 and Barney joined us at about 6:45.
Janet felt very bad for Barney. She is a nurturing lady with great empathy.
Janet actually tried to console the wounded congressman. It was almost like the scene where the child brings a bad report card home from school and the father has steam coming from his ears and Mom tries to diffuse the situation.
I passed a note to Janet suggesting one of us ask Frank how he met Steven Gobie. I could tell from Janet’s pained expression she thought that might be over the top and after all he already sounded like he felt really bad.
“Mr. Congressman, (he knew when I called him that the boom was coming down) when and how did you meet Gobie?”
“Moe, I honestly can’t remember”.
I was incredulous.
“You can’t recall how you met this pimp who wound up living with you for quite some time?”
His voice began to crack a little. That was something I had never seen him do. A great debater, Barney Frank is always on the attack. Here he was sheepish. “I know it sounds hard to believe.”
You bet it was Barney. It smelled like oomgalagala to me.
All the while Janet is trying to signal me we should end the interview because we had a traffic report coming up. I thought to myself “no way” traffic trumps this.
“What type of work did you think Gobie was doing to pay his way? Did you collect rent from him? Who paid for his food and clothing?”
Barney Frank finally recovered and told me sternly all the questions would be answered later in the morning at a press conference. And with that he hung up. Janet let out a huge sigh of relief.
Barney Frank had been a frequent guest of Ted and Janet so she really did felt as though she knew him. He had been a guest of mine many times in the past and had colored the truth on for example on the issue of abortion and what role he would have on the issue as a congressman.
Before the congressional election of 1980 against Margaret Heckler Barney Frank was a guest of mine at WSAR in Fall River. He mentioned back then he was supported by many “Pro-Life” advocates because there was no congressional role for him on the question. He never revealed the “Pro-Life” advocates who told him that. Just more Frank oomgalagala.
The “Golbie” interview was the craziest I had ever conducted. Actually I was concerned about the feelings of my partner. I began to laugh to myself because if the roles had been reversed Barney would have ripped me to shreds. Actually Mrs. Lauzier would have ripped me to shreds.
After all it was Janet’s show and I was only the guest host. But this was too big a story to not vigorously pursue it.
One other thing, during my drive to my work in Providence, I listened to the Barney Frank press conference live on the radio.
A reporter asked Frank, “Where and how did you meet this character?”
The man who couldn’t recall a couple of hours earlier suddenly remembered, especially since we later learned it was in the original Washington Times article. “I answered an add in a gay newspaper.”
I’ll say this about my congressman, nothing could embarrass him.
Talk radio is never dull.