CHAPTER FIVEPowerless“There are nights when the wolves are silent and only the moon howls.”---George Carlin
Paralysis nearly set in when I checked the phone lines at about 8:40.
All the lines were dead.
The greatest fear any new talk host has is going on air and boring the audience to the point where no one calls. When I first started in the business I had recurring nightmares I went on air and no one called. What would I do? Would I simply pick up my things, return home, call the boss in the morning to explain “I quit” and never again want to go near a radio station.
Honest to God, I kid you not. I feared that happening.
Here's a little insight on the operation of WSAR when I was there.
My air shift at first was eight to eleven in the evening. I referred to it as prime time radio. That was not quite true. That was prime time alright. Prime time for television, not radio. It was the caboose of the radio train.
Most people had returned from work, read the newspaper, had dinner and watched TV. That’s pretty much the case today as well. Morning drive is where the most listeners were and are today. Afternoon drive came in a strong second and mid-day had a drop off from the morning and afternoon drive times.
Diaries are used for rating radio stations. 99% of them are from Arbitron Rating Service and are broken down into five basic parts for week days. Early morning is six to ten, mid-day is ten to three, and late afternoon three to seven. Night is seven to midnight and then overnight is midnight to six.
The diary is then broken down into weekdays and weekends following the same time breakdown.
Most stations today are interested first in AM Dive. Then PM Drive. Mid-Day follows that. Evening radio is far less expensive and of course has a much smaller potential audience. Overnight is an afterthought depending on the station’s format.
That’s the long winded way (talk hosts don’t ever conserve words) of saying the boss didn’t expect miracles and if you could survive without swearing (just saying the word sex on the air back in the early 80s put you on the spot) and keep things somewhat interesting you were golden. That’s pretty much true today with rare exceptions like David Brudnoy and Avi Nelson in the Boston market. They were the exception as was Gerry Williams in his early days when he did evening radio. His years at WRKO were afternoon drive.
For a rookie at WSAR in Fall River not much was expected. I just got very lucky.
When I first started I opened the show with an opening monologue which is similar to a prologue in a book. I’d lay out my plans for the night, what I hoped would catch the attention and interest of the largest number of listeners and hopefully callers. After all, we’re talking TALK radio, which implies two way talk. Caller and host. Nothing complicated about the objectives.
I had been on air maybe a month or two at the time. I came in and had a few pleasant words with Charley Verde who preceded me with the six to eight sports talk show. We were the Red Sox station in the area that year. That was both a blessing and curse for me. At the time I was still selling machinery and planned my trips around the Sox schedule. I usually had one or two nights on air during the week plus Sunday nights.
Charley left as soon as he got off the air. Our news person was seldom in the building since he/she had to cover school committee, city council, selectmen and other municipal happenings. The newsperson would return and record a minute or two of news and leave it with me. It would follow the CBS News at the top of the hour. The janitor on most nights was finished before eight. Basically I was alone until Mark Williams and his lovely wife Robin would come in for his midnight to 5:30 overnighter.
I was a-l-o-n-e. Eeeeeek.
I went on the air as always at 8:06 and 30 seconds, at the conclusion of the CBS Newscast. This night was no exception.
“Georgette, Carol-Anne, Sarah and Helene, give mom a hug, throw dad a kiss, we’ll see you at breakfast.”
That was the way I opened all my shows on WSAR. (I must admit I failed to say it on the night I buried Sister Marie Celine. Someone wrote to give me heck for failing to do it that night. Failure to send the kids to bed was as bad as I could be.)
I recall, I had an interesting show prepared for that night. This was pre-Internet. Show prep required reading the Fall River Herald News, Providence Journal, Boston Herald and Boston Globe each day without fail. I also read all the magazines I could steal from office waiting rooms everywhere. I also read all the news which came in on our Associated Press and United Press wires in the station. This night was no different.
I don’t recall what the opening monologue consisted of but it was probably informative and at least a little provocative, certainly enough to compel someone to pick up the phone and call. We had Fall River area lines along with a direct line from each Taunton, New Bedford and Providence, Rhode Island.
We took commercial breaks at 20, 35 and 50 minutes past the hour. I took the usual twenty break and didn’t have a caller waiting. (We used to put the calls on hold directly and screen them during the four to five minute commercial breaks and during the news.)
I went back on air and introduced another issue of the day to discuss. I hit it as hard as I could and became deliberately more provocative. The thirty-five break came and went and still no calls. That never happened to me before.
With perspiration flowing freely from my forehead I went back on air. I remember thoughts crossing my mind such as, “Boy am I glad I kept the day job”.
Finally during the fifty break a little whisper in my ear suggested “check the phones for dial tone”.
Boy did I begin to breath deeply. Cotton mouth disease set in. My throat was parched and the butterflies were having their day. I also learned all about hyper ventilation.
I wanted to call the boss. But how. It was me and the silent phones. And my cigarettes (I hadn’t yet quit smoking). One after another.
Finally we reached the top of the hour. I could take a breather and see if I could find out what happened. Tick-tick-tick. The clock seemed to slow down.
Sheer panic nearly set in. Forget the nearly. What a way to start a radio career.
The clock showed the time was 8:59:52 so I did my top of the hour station legal identification (Federal Communications Commission regulations require call letters and city of license to be mentioned at the top of each hour).
“CBS News on Knight Quality Broadcasting, WSAR Fall River, at the tone it’s nine o’clock.”
Throw the CBS switch and get ready to head for the bathroom. What a feeling. Nothing. No sound. Check the clock. Yup! It’s nine straight up. What gives here?
Back on air and apologize for the delay in getting to the news. Still nothing.
I reached for some commercial tapes and loaded the machines with four or five minutes of playing time. When I ran across the building to the bathroom I saw lights flashing through the front door window. Yellow lights.
What’s that? Mother Nature had greater control of me at the moment. When I came out I saw it was the electric light company truck working on a pole. And there was the phone company. Just then I could hear the diesel engine running in the basement. It was providing us with electricity so we could stay on air at reduced power.
At least now I knew I had to go on air, say nothing about the difficulties and continue the show by telling stories of all types. Baptism under fire. Sort of like not possessing the ability to swim until you were finally in water which was over your head. You swam or drowned. I never enjoyed drowning.
In radio, as on the stage, you never let on you were having difficulties. Most often the audience never knows.
I ran to the newsroom to get some news copy but the machines were empty. Doggone it, the wire machines worked off the phone lines, the same lines as CBS News. These were pre-satellite days.
Boy, talk about being on your own.
All this insanity took place in about five minutes.
How does that old line go? You know, the one about a creek, lost paddle and a leaky canoe.
I went back on air and began what would turn out to be a three hour monologue.
Why three you say? Fair question.
At that point I was on the air until eleven each night. We had CBS Mystery Theater, one of the last made for radio drama productions. Great stuff. I’d listen to it with a glass of tawny port (regular port was too heavy) when I got home each evening. But because the phone lines were down I couldn’t record it for replay at eleven so the monologue continued until Mark and Robin Williams arrived.
At about eleven-forty five I saw the lights in the station flicker. I thought the diesel motor operating the emergency generator was failing. Maybe it was out of fuel. More panic.
What happened is the power came back on. The phones worked too. I saw the lights on the phone keys flicker as well.
A few minutes later I got my first phone call, I put it on hold and played my last commercials.
When I went back on air I took my one and only call of the night. I don’t remember the jerks name or where he was from. He called me every dirty name in the book. I had to dump some of his remarks when he swore (we were on a four second delay) and asked him to speak in more civil tones. Among other things he called me an egotistical jerk for not taking calls. He asked who I thought I was.
Finally I was able to get in a word edgewise and explained what happened.
His parting shot was, “Sure and you think we’re going to believe that?”
After all it was April 1st. You know, April Fools Day.
I didn’t even have a good prank planned.
The prank took place the following year, Wednesday, April 1st 1981.
Because of the difficulties I had on Tuesday April 1st 1980, I decided we needed a little fun on April Fools Day, Wednesday, April 1st 1981.
On Tuesday night, March 31, 1981 I told our audience we planned a big event at Kennedy Park in Fall River. We needed a park the size of Kennedy (Fall River’s largest park) to pull off a spectacular stunt.
We ordered 75,000 tons of whipped cream to be delivered in the middle of the large baseball diamond. With me at the controls of one of the planes and Mark Williams in the other we would hoist a 500 ton Maraschino Cherry in a sling attached between the two 747 Boeing aircraft.
We planned to come in at an altitude of 250 feet and drop the cherry squarely in the middle of the whipped cream. Man, that was to be the largest sundae in world history.
The program began at its usual time following CBS News. I opened with the sounds of jet engines straining on a takeoff. We climbed to an altitude of a few thousand feet. With Fall River and Kennedy Park in sight we brought the planes into an approach which would have us at the proper elevation when we got there.
Mark and I conversed on a crackling two way radio (I did both voices) and we released the cherry right smack dab in the middle of the target.
Galoosh. The cherry hit its mark.
All this took about fifteen minutes. I came on air and announced I would be back right after the break and take calls on one of the most amazing fetes ever performed in the long history of Fall River.
Poor Mark Williams had no idea what I was up to.
I came back on air after the usual 8:20 break all out of breath. I explained it was a difficult task to land a 747 in the parking lot of the radio station.
I proceeded to explain the intricacies of flying two 747s in tandem and carrying such a heavy and clumsy cherry between us and then dropping it right on target.
One more break, the 8:35 and it was to the calls.
Yes, you guessed it. The first caller was madder than a wet hen. She took a bus from her home on the other side of the city and went to the park expecting to see the spectacular event but there was no one there.
At first I thought she was kidding and simply trying to upstage me. After a few minutes I realized - she was serious.
Gerry Williams, famed WRKO and other places host had a phrase to describe way out callers, “They’re out there”. Well this one was way, way out there.
The maraschino cherry drop was not the last of the great April’s fools jokes on WSAR, though it was one of the best. We had two others which took place later. You can do anything, and I mean anything on radio. You couldn’t drop that cherry on TV.
The following year was my first adventure in agriculture.
One of my advertisers was a chourico (a Portuguese meat product) producer. So I thought a Chourico Tree would make a great gift. I mentioned the advertiser had some in stock at his salesroom. My friend Steve Cass had initiated the whole idea of Chourico Trees.
April 2 and customers we dropping in at the provision store to get their tree.
That wasn’t too bad. Only two customers actually took the bait on that spoof. The next one, however, got me in trouble with the boss.
I did a show on how many Naugas it took to produce enough naugahide to make just one seat in a General Motors car. Did you know it takes 371 of those little critters, Naugas, for that one seat? That's awful. Just think of all those poor little Naugas.
I established the Save Our Nauga Society of America (SONS Of America) and to send contributions care of WSAR.
Darned if we didn’t get a handful of contributions. Two or three checks came in over the next few days. That was OK because we could return those. We got a couple of cash contributions, one dollar and I think a finn. Those posed a problem since there was no return address on the envelopes or the accompanying notes.
Poor old Bob Nimms got his undies all twisted into a knot on this one. He screamed at me over the phone, “What do I do with this money?”
The Federal Communications Commission takes it very seriously when you raise money on air, especially cash.
As a precaution we notified the FCC but they never responded. We gave the money to a local charity as I recall.
Poor Bob passed away shortly afterward and I was out of WSAR before another April Fools day.