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Hello Caller. How Can You Help Me?

11 Aug

August 10, 2018

Radio is intimate and personal. There’s a live voice on the other end of the speaker. You close your eyes and you see him or her, not as they want you to see them, but as your imagination wants you to see them. Radio fosters a sense of community that television is simply unable to.

Art Bell, founder and former host of Coast To Coast AM had a fantastic rapport with his listeners. Five nights a week, from 1am to 5am Eastern Time, he took callers on a journey of the weird. UFO’s Big Foot, time travel, all of it was on the table, and none of it was laughed off and no callers were insulted. Listeners came to know Art Bell. He spoke to them about his life, his family, his daily chores. And he listened to callers when they spoke to him, really listened and cared. To millions of people he was a friend, or even an extended family member.

So when Art’s wife died in 2006 it hit hard.

Art’s wife Ramona was not a presence on the show. She was rarely on the air, even though she was often in the studio. Art broadcast out of a studio he built on his own property in Nevada. One year on New Year’s Eve Art posted a photo of the two of them celebrating in the little homemade broadcast center, both wearing party hats, she sitting on his lap as the ball dropped. Listeners knew her through Art, and when she died, swiftly and unexpectedly at the age of 47, Art took it hard, badly, and the listeners took it hard too.

Art had taken a step back in the previous years, becoming the weekend host of Coast To Coast AM while letting someone else take the bulk of the week’s shows. Anyone would be forgiven for taking some time off the air to grieve, to work out what comes next. Anyone else.

Art had been a broadcaster his whole life. And if he suddenly left the air now, it would be a double loss for him; first his wife, then the thing he loved almost as much. He needed to be on the air, to talk to the audience, to share his grief, and theirs. Those shows in the days and weeks after his wife’s death were therapy for him. But as entertainment they were awful. Painful to listen to at times.

Art would have guests but he was woefully distracted. He talk to them and listeners could hear that Art was not really committed. His mind would wander and he’d ramble off topic. Each show began with a monologue, but during this time Art would not talk about the events of the day. Instead he’d wonder aloud how he could go on. He decided that he no longer needed two cars and tried to sell one over the air. He asked listeners if anyone was interested in an old blender or other things around the house he figured he no longer needed. He asked callers who were in the area to come over and take things off his hands. He debated the best way to dispose of his wife’s clothes. He considered selling his house and asked callers to send him offers. He was talking into the microphone, but he was really talking to himself. He was working things out. He was mourning.

During this time he had a guest who was blind since birth. She began to describe a car accident she was in during college. Art was clearly somewhere else. He truly tried to give his attention to his guests, and when he was on top of his game he was one of the best interviewers on the air. But on this night there would be long pauses when Art didn’t realize the guest had stopped talking. He asked questions he’d already asked. And when the blind guest talked about the car accident, after a long pause, Art asked “were you driving the car?”

There was another pause, an uncomfortable one. The guest finally said “no, I’m blind.” And then another pause, followed by Art murmuring an apology. The whole exchange, the whole show, in fact the whole month or so following his wife’s death were all cringe-worthy listening. The producers of the show never should have let Art on the air. The shows were terrible. But in a larger sense, it was the right thing to do.

It was therapy. Live on the air, real self-help. Over the course of each five-hour show, the listeners would be witnesses, and through their calls and offers of love, support, and advice, be part of, the therapeutic journey of one man coming to grips with the loss of his true love.

It eventually worked out. Art gradually came to terms with his loss, and he even found new love with a new wife. And the listeners haeard every bit of that journey too.

But as radio goes, and as entertainment goes, those shows were both powerful and awful.

 

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Radio Time Warp

27 Jul

July 27, 2018

One of the strangest days of radio I’ve ever heard happened back in 1992.

At that time I was working as the supervisor of the stock and maintenance department of a large department store. That meant that I spent my days off the sales floor, in the warehouse area. Not only did I make my own schedule but I was able to listen to the radio all day. I’d put my radio on WXRK (K-Rock, 92.3 FM) and listen to Howard Stern all morning and classic rock all day. They’ve switched formats a couple of times since then but in those days Stern went on the air around 6 a.m. and went off the air at 10 but in reality his show ended whenever he wanted it to end. I was common for his show to run until around 11, and on one memorable occasion, to close to 1 pm.

I may still have this bumper sticker in a box in the back of a closet.

On this particular day, Stern’s show ended right about 10, which was always a disappointment since the longer he went, the faster my day went. But it wasn’t his choice: station management needed him to end on time since they had a whole day event planned.  It was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Summer of Love and they planned to treat the day as if it was a day out of 1967. The DJ’s were going to pretend that it was really 1967, introduce “new” songs by artists whenever they played a classic rock song that they had played thousands of times over, and talk about upcoming events, like the new album by Country Joe and The Fish they’ve been hearing about. The ads, however, remained current.

The DJ’s generally had a fun time but in the afternoon it got surreal. Dave Herman (though I believe it may have been Pete Fornatele) had special guests in the studio. Of course, this being pretend-1967, both they and the listeners had to work overtime to suspend their disbelief. Because there in the studio were The Doors! Ray Manzarek! John Densmore! Robby Krieger!

You see where this is going? Sure, they had The Doors- the remaining members of The Doors. But without Jim Morrison there was really no point. He was The Doors, no disrespect to the artistic talents of the rest. Problem was, Morrison died back in 1971.

But this was pretend-1967, so Jim Morrison wasn’t dead, he simply missed the interview. No one in the band was quite sure where he was- he was back at the hotel, or hungover, or somewhere, someplace, any place but absolutely not dead. In fact, if he hurried, he might make it to the studio in time for the show.

Dave Herman asked them about upcoming projects, all of which came out 25 years before, and they all danced around the fact that the one member of the band people really were interested in was not there, they couldn’t address his death, had to pretend it was 1967, and just generally, awkwardly, talked about what they want to do in the future as if it not only had not happened, but how it would happen if Jim Morrison remained alive, since they had no clue he was going die in just a few short years after 1967. There was even a touch of black humor when they talked about all the things they expected Morrison to accomplish, wink wink, and speculated what it would be like in the future if anyone would even remember the Summer of Love in 25 years.

I didn’t understand it, then or now. Was there no one else to have on from 1967? No one alive? Flo and Eddie of The Turtles became K-Rock DJ’s a few years later, I’m sure they were available. Why did they have in studio a group, though iconic, which had a glaring void? No matter what they did or said, or how they talked about their music, they couldn’t gloss over the fact that Jim Morrison was long, long dead.

Rather than celebrating 1967, this interview mourned 1967.

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