Radio once had music, talk and good company

MICHAEL OLESKER

November 14, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On mornings such as this, it's a comfort to remember the late Paul "Fat Daddy" Johnson, who must be spinning in his grave in lieu of spinning records.

When Fat Daddy sat behind a radio microphone, he created universe inside everybody's heads. When he played music, the song seemed an afterthought, whose end you awaited impatiently so you could hear the fat man's next freestyle inventions, which arrived like something flung out of a madly revolving door, nouns and verbs chasing each other wildly, free-association poetry jumping out of windows, and everybody holding on by their ears.

He heads an Honor Roll of names that evoke a couple of eras around here -- Jack Gayle and Long Lean Larry Dean, Kelson "Chop Chop" Fisher and Hot Rod, The Flying Dutchman and Johnny Walker and Joe ("Your Knight of the Spinning Round Table") Knight and, lest we forget, Louie and The Bear, all of whom accomplished the apparently amazing feat that occurred either many years ago or the day before yesterday, it's tough to remember, which consisted of the following:

They played music, and they also spoke the English language creatively, and they made us delighted to keep their company.

And apparently that's not so highly valued anymore.

There's a brand new business, called Digital Music Express System, being marketed locally through United Cable, which is betting large sums of money that few people today want to listen to such a mix of music and the spoken word.

What's more, it's betting that we'd rather pay actual money for its radio service -- 30 channels of specific music programming for about $10 a month, everything from Sinatra to hard rock to Rachmaninoff, and no disc jockeys within earshot -- than get free-of-charge radio with those jocks they think we automatically hate.

If Fat Daddy were alive today, this would kill him.

If Louie and The Bear still cared about such things, this news would . . . but, last time I dropped in on them, they'd stopped caring.

Some years back, Louie and The Bear (alias Lou Roberts and Alan Berrier) were the morning jocks on a radio station, WCAO, which no longer exists in its original form. In its party years it was an absolute earth force, a station that routinely captured audiences literally four times the size of today's leading stations.

Roberts and Berrier arrived a little late for the party, but they were trying to get our attention before everybody went home to sleep. By the time they were paired as morning drive-time jocks, in the mid-'70s, WCAO was going the way of most AM radio -- to two-way talk, or to heavenly gospel, or to hell.

"I gotta get outa here," Berrier would mutter during commercial breaks. "I gotta get a job for a grown-up."

Roberts would hold his head in his hands and shake it in sad agreement. The two of them felt the walls closing in. It wasn't just the death of music on AM radio, but the reduction of all things to formula: talk shows on AM, music on FM, the minimization of jocks playing music, the music and the patter increasingly homogenized.

And yet, how do you explain something like WQSR-FM (105.7), the highest-rated show among adults 25 to 54? In the morning, the station's Rouse and Company -- Steve Rouse, Linda Sherman, Tom Davis -- plays music from the early rock 'n' roll years and, between songs, makes you feel as if you've been invited to a convivial gathering of friends.

There's a station in Washington, 100.3 FM, playing the same kind of music and booming a signal strong enough to reach Baltimore. But its disc jockeys sound as if they were kicked out of Up With People for being too cheerful. What's worse, they don't sound old enough to remember any of the music they're playing.

That's the thing about radio: When it's done right, an intimacy is created. It's not some disembodied voice playing random songs, it's an ensemble production.

"I understand why people don't want to listen to some jocks," Steve Rouse was saying the other day, at WQSR. "I don't think too many of them are real good. I mean, we went through a period where a lot of stations just had their jocks reading cards.

"We try to sound like a bunch of people having a good time, which is what we are. If we stopped the chatter, I can't imagine the ratings staying up where they are. So I don't know if pay-radio can work."

Of course, that's the sound of a man whose profession is being threatened. But consider this: There are already dozens of radio stations on the dial. Not one of them charges money to listen. If you don't like what you hear, you can always change the station.

If radio can't find another Fat Daddy, or Johnny Walker or Flying Dutchman to reach across the airwaves and hold onto an audience, then shame on the entire medium.

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