Radio show helps listeners take a load off

April 18, 2002|By KEVIN COWHERD

IT'S 6:30 on a Sunday morning, an ungodly hour to be stirring about, much less putting on a pot of coffee and dialing anyone - except, apparently, for the dedicated fans of the Radio Flea Market.

Already, the phone lines at WCBM 680 in Pikesville are winking on as the caffeinated voices of eager buyers and sellers crackle into the ether.

Genevieve from Lutherville is selling a vacuum cleaner for $100, a Coleman stove for $20, a Barcalounger for $100. Genevieve sounds like a good woman, a kind woman, not the type to rip anyone off, that much is certain.

Sure enough, in the interest of full disclosure, she reports the Barcalounger "has a weak infrastructure."

A weak infrastructure? Camden, N.J., has a weak infrastructure, not a Barcalounger.

Well, says Genevieve, there may be a problem "if you sit on it too heavy."

Moses from Baltimore is selling an electric organ for $300. Wayne from Carney is moving to Florida and has a complete home office - bookcase, desk, computer chair, typewriter, fax machine and copier, all new - which he's willing to let go for 300 bucks.

"That's a heck of a deal," says Flea Market host Jay Harris.

"A heck of a deal," agrees co-host Bob Jansen.

Perhaps out of a sense of politeness, neither man follows up with the obvious question, which is: Wayne, did a piano drop on your head? Why are you letting this stuff go so cheap?

Now in it's ninth year on the air, the Radio Flea Market remains a quintessential slice of Baltimore, a big-city radio program with a small-town feel.

Once, not so very long ago, it was Alan Prell on WBAL-AM who catered to the pack-rat set on his weekly Honest Al's Yard Sale. Now it's Harris, who promotes everything from flea markets to sports fantasy camps, and Jansen, an ex-Baltimore cop who buys and sells antiques under the name "The Antique Man," carrying on the tradition.

(By the way, among the eclectic items at his headquarters on Fleet Street in Fells Point, Jansen has an amazing collection of Johnny Eck memorabilia - Eck being "The Amazing Half-Man" of Baltimore who starred in freak shows after being born without the lower half of his body. Jansen also has a man's severed foot that was lost in a railroad accident, mummified, then given back to the poor fellow as a "remembrance.")

"We're both having fun" says Harris, who has been host of the show from the beginning. "But at the same time, we're offering a service."

And apparently people are taking advantage of it. According to Harris, the station's last survey indicated 28,000 people listen during any 15-minute segment of the 90-minute program.

"The biggest complaint is people saying: `We can't get in' " on the phone lines, says Jansen, Harris' sidekick for seven years.

Part of the show's charm revolves around the relaxed banter of the two. Early on this Sunday, for instance, Harris tells his listeners that he's getting "locked up" soon as part of a fund-raiser for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

A sheriff's car will take him to "jail" at an Outback Steakhouse, he says. Then listeners can call in with pledges to "bail" him out.

At this, Jansen feels compelled to add that when he got locked up for charity, he was squired off to jail in a limo. This segues into a brief discussion of the merits of hitting the slammer in a limo vs. a cop car before Harris, sounding mournful now, concludes: "Well, I don't get a limo."

A few minutes later, when Jim from Phoenix calls to sell a boat anchor, Harris cracks: "A marriage license is the same thing." (This from a man who has been happily married to his wife, Charna, for 35 years.)

No one, least of all Harris or Jansen, is pretending this is knee-slapping stuff that will put Letterman and Leno out of business.

But it's something that comes with the program, the way crackers come with soup. And the vast majority of the callers seem to eat up the gentle humor.

(The Radio Flea Market audience definitely skews older. This Sunday, 60 percent of the callers are 51 or older, and 90 percent are 41 or older.)

Still, humor or no, the calls keep coming. All over Baltimore, people must be standing in their basements with their cell phones on speed-dial thinking: Maybe I can finally get rid of this junk.

Tom in Hampden is selling record albums from the '50s, '60s and '70s, mentioning Gene Autry, Three Dog Night and Bread - undoubtedly marking the first time in history those three acts were mentioned in the same sentence.

Bob in Crownsville is selling two vintage Chevy pickups. Michelle from Federal Hill wants to unload 20 Catholic school uniforms. Tony in Hampstead is looking for tractor seats. Myra in Mount Washington is looking for back copies of Air Gunner magazine, evidently the bible of BB gun aficionados.

One of the last callers, Sue, even wants to sell her two-bedroom house in Cambridge, on Maryland's Eastern Shore near the Choptank River - although how near becomes a matter of some debate.

"It's not on the Choptank," she says.

"But it has a view of the Choptank?" Jansen asks helpfully.

"Well, you can see the Choptank," says Sue.

Anyway, says Sue, she wants 72 grand for the place.

And when she leaves her phone number and hangs up, there's a lilt in her voice, a new sense of promise and possibility.

It's not even 8 in the morning. Still, you imagine her going outside and pounding a "Sold" sign into the ground next to the little bungalow on the Choptank, or wherever the heck it is.

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