Wednesday, June 19, 2024 Jun 19, 2024
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MEDIA Yakety-Yak, They Talk Back

Once DJs were told to plug the platter and shut up. Now constant chatter-some of it pretty blue-fills the airwaves.

once was fired from a job as a morning radio disc jockey because of the way I told the time. Oh. I could read the clock okay, although this was before digital faces. But the boss wanted listeners to believe he had two or three people in the control booth. So when I announced the time, I was supposed to drop my voice about an octave and switch from my natural Georgia accent into NBC dulcet. When I forgot to change voices two days in a row, the station manager unplugged me. “The only reason I hired you was ’cause you can talk like Harry Von Zell,” he said. It hurt.

But that’s the way radio was in the Sixties. We were all broadcast bums, almost interchangeable, drifting from one station to another. Like every other jock around. I had a Dick Clark voice for rock ’n’ roll and an Andy Griffith voice for country. I once developed a fair imitation of Robert Morley during a short stint spinning classical music. I was less successful on a so-called “beautiful music” station in California when I attempted a sort of phlegmatic Fred Mac-Murray. I wound up sounding like a sleepy Merv Griffin.

It didn’t matter much, though. If you projected better than Andy Devine and could read a commercial without tangling your tongue around your nose, you could work in radio. For a morning show, you also had to arrive early and rip your own stories off the Associated Press machine until the news guy came in. DJs were just announcers, not personalities. Even at the big stations, where they told jokes occasionally, everything was written in the script.

The medium was in transition then. Tele-vision dominated the airwaves. Doomsayers predicted that commercial radio was as dead as silent movies. Station owners sought to protect their investments by blending into the background. They figured music was all that could save them. The rule for DJs was: plug the platter and shut up.

How different radio is today. Switch on any of the top-rated music stations in Dallas-KVIL, KKDA-FM, KPLX, KEGL, and others-and you’ll hear as much mouth as melody. In the center of the Eighties, successful disc jockeys are bright, funny, high-energy people with the bizarre ability to joke and laugh and sound like a party while sitting alone in a small room speaking only to a microphone. Some are blue and some are bluesy. Some are friendly, some frenetic. But for all of them, it’s like the old song says: You gotta have charm. . .Personality. . .A warm. . .Personality.

“Think back to the Fifties, to the heyday of the Gordon McLendon rock ’n’ roll stations,” says former KRLD general manager Ken Fairchild. “There was a lot of talk in those days. Disc jockeys would even talk over the records. But then in the Sixties, the theory changed, and stations told disc jockeys not to talk at all. Now the cycle has reversed again. For about the last five years, personality radio has been the trend.”

But personality radio as a concept has gone through its own changes over the years. In an earlier era it was Arthur Godfrey strumming his ukulele and slurping Lipton soup. It was Goodman Ace relating gentle tales and bantering with his wife. It was Don MacNeill and S.J. Perelman and Joe Penner and Jack Paar.

In our acned youth, when McLendon discovered Elvis and pioneered rock ’n’ roll in Dallas on KL1F, it was the patter of Larry Lujack on WLS, the marrow-melting scream of the Big Ape, WAPE, the howl of the Wolfman from a mountaintop somewhere near Tijuana. Broadcast school voices, the kind you now hear urging applause in the topless joints on Greenville Avenue, explained who put the bop in the bop-she-bop-she-bop and why Leslie Gore threw lousy parties.

Today, a radio personality is a stand-up comic sitting down. In Dallas, he is Bo Roberts on Q102 (KTXQ-FM) doing his Reverend Leviticus Falwell voice and pleading with listeners to send pictures of dead presidents, the ones printed by the U.S. Treasury. He is Terry Dorsey on KPLX asking if you are getting enough Hiney-Hiney Wine, that is. He is Hal Jay and Dick Siegel on WBAP, John Walton and Steve Johnson on KTKS (Why do they call it “Kiss”?), and Tom Joyner on KKDA. Most of all, in this city he is KVIL’s Ron Chapman, who, in his own words, has “led this market for at least one hundred years.”

Though each has his individual style, it is no accident that all the top radio personalities work the shift known as morning drive time, roughly 6 until 10 a.m. weekdays. Audiences are largest then, and studies show that most listeners who start with a station in the morning stay with the same one all day. Consequently, stations slot their most entertaining personalities into morning drive time. And a.m. DJs earn a lot of money-salaries start in six figures-to talk their listeners1 ears off.

The pattern holds across the country-New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and all points between. Within the general framework, though, Dallas may be America’s most unusual major radio market. The city’s basic conservatism, its underlying optimism, its strong religious influences may be the reasons. No one seems to know for sure. But what plays in Peoria doesn’t always work here.

“A lot of the rules that we apply to programming in other cities just don’t hold up in Dallas,” says Fred Jacobs, a Detroit-based consultant who helped invent personality radio as we hear it today. “Houston is a much more typical market. When you look at Dallas, you see something totally different.”

What are the differences? If you have teenagers, this may surprise you. but the biggest factor that sets Dallas radio apart from what you’ll hear in other parts of the country is that the humor here is comparatively clean. In some cities, the public airwaves are filled with jokes you wouldn’t tell on the golf course. On WWDC-FM in Washington, for example, Doug “Grease Man” Tracht could make Richard Pryor or Joan Rivers blush. On WXRK-FM in New York, Howard Stern fills four hours a day-he hardly ever plays a record-with scatological language and crude. Hustler magazine-style jokes. You may not hear the “F-word” or worse. But then again you may. Since President Reagan and his cronies gave us deregulation, the old rules of good taste in broadcasting have disappeared faster than small airlines. Comedian George Carlin has lost his best routine because there no longer are “seven words you can’t say on the air.”

In Dallas, though, the jokes the DJs tell are hardly more suggestive than the lyrics to the records they play. (Remember Barbara Mandrell’s “You must think my bed’s a bus stop the way you come and go?”) Terry Dorsey, the number two personality here, contents himself with daily installments of his Hiney Wine commercials, which he also syndicates to about 150 other stations across the country. A combination of humor and soap opera, the Hiney routine seldom gets rawer than this gag from August 15: “.. . Nudists from all over the country will be enjoying a little Hiney for the next few days at the Treehouse Fun Ranch. Seems the feme of Hiney has spread nationwide, and many of these nudists refused to attend unless there was Hiney on the premises.. . .So if you’re one of those peeping Toms who enjoys cutting holes in the wooden fence to peek at the nudists, this year when you peek in, expect to see more Hiney in one place than you’ve ever seen before.. ..”

Chapman leads local radio by letting his listeners do the work. He throws out a premise, often mildly suggestive, and waits for the phone to ring. One recent morning, for example. Chapman took off on a newspaper advice column letter from a woman who complained that her husband liked to hum while they made love. “It isn’t so much the fact that he hums,” Chapman told his audience, mostly women over twenty-four years old. “It is what he hums. If he hums To all the girls I’ve loved before,’ you’ve got a problem.” Then he waited for callers to suggest what a woman might hum-“Minute Waltz,” “Sixteen Tons,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “Beat It,” or whatever.

“The real trick is to be funny without being blue,” says Dorsey. “When I say that President Nixon always had his Hiney in hot water because he liked to drink it warm, you can read something into that. But our research shows that audiences consider Hiney cute, not dirty. That’s really what they want.”

Chapman echoes the sentiment. “It may be because our audience is heavily female, but KVIL listeners don’t want off-color jokes. Our listener is a woman with class. She expects us to treat her with respect. She wants to be entertained. She wants to laugh. But she doesn’t want us to talk to her in any kind of cheap or tawdry way. Our listener is not the kind of woman who makes you rare back and shout, ’Come on. Mamma.’ “

WBAP’s morning men. Hal Jay and Dick Siegel, are sometimes mentioned among the bluer personalities on Dallas radio. But unlike some northern DJs, they merely work up to a punch line and leave it to the imaginations of their listeners to fill in the four-letter words. “What we try to do is lead all the way up to the point without actually getting dirty about it,” says station executive Robert Shiflet. “If a listener wants to mentally take the joke one step farther, then it’s dirty. But if you listen to Siegel, he doesn’t quite step over that line. He might get away with it in some other market, but not in Dallas.”

Fairchild says. ’”Some of the kids enjoy the strong, adult humor.” Then he stops and muses, “Listen to that contradiction. I think teenagers get a kick out of hearing somebody talk dirty on the radio and get away with it.” But even on the teen stations here. DJs traditionally have been only moderately raunchy. On “Kiss.” Walton and Johnson specialize in breast gags and ethnic slurs. But they’ll remind Dallas humor aficionados more of Joe Bob Briggs than of Bowley and Wilson. (Note: Walton and Johnson show up terribly in the ratings, which may explain why they wear bags over their heads in billboard pictures. By the time you read this, they may be gone.)

It cannot be verified, but most Dallas radio insiders believe that KEGL refused to renew the contract of its former morning team, Stevens and Pruett, because they were too risque for listeners here. However. KEGL apparently is ready again to test the local tolerance for smut. The station recently added an afternoon DJ known as “Moby.” In Houston, where he was a controversial morning DJ since 1981. Moby is known as the X-rated Mouth. In Dallas, he works afternoons, when hardly any adults listen to personality radio. If his trash-mouth humor catches on there, though, morning show listeners will soon be in for a rude awakening.

The fact is that any time a radio station collects extra ratings shares by trying something new. an almost comical copycat effect kicks in. Talk-free radio of the Sixties, experts say, resulted from the success of a new medium of that time, FM radio. Because FM stations attracted few advertisers, they played lots of music. A hot-shot consultant, Paul Drake, urged all stations to follow suit. When a few jocks-not the least of whom was Ron Chapman-succeeded by bucking that trend, Fred Jacobs and other pacemakers decreed that talk was the thing. If dirty radio catches on at KEGL, some guru surely will announce that sleaze sells. For that matter, if a DJ gains audience share doing bird calls, you’ll hear animal sounds all over the air.

The question is. why do listeners enjoy long streams of talk? And why in the morning?

Explains Fairchild, “Everybody wants certain information first thing in the morning. He wants to know which way the bathroom is, what the weather is like, and how the traffic is doing. He wants the basic news that will be talked about at the office. In other words, he wants the facts he needs to start the day. No matter how it is presented, every successful morning show includes all of these elements except where the bathroom is. If I could figure out a way to tell audiences that, I could be number one in the market.”

To explain why they present information in a context that often sounds like an office Christmas party, radio gurus look more deeply into the human condition in 1986. What they see is an audience made up of lonely, frustrated, uncertain individuals who, more than anything, need a friend. “The majority of people get up in the morning and cope,” says Chapman. “They just cope. Most females on the job are not in management, and their work is not very rewarding. They are worker ants. My job is to say to them, ’Hey, it’s worth it one more time. Let’s just try to get through today, and then we’ll start all over tomorrow.’”

Says Dorsey. “Most people hate their jobs. They’re up too early. If you can make them forget they’re stuck in traffic, going somewhere they really don’t want to go, you can make them feel better.”

But don’t ever expect your favorite radio format to stay the same (unless you listen to Chapman).

“I wouldn’t be surprised if sometime in the next year or so a few local stations picked up in the ratings with a less talk, more music format,” says Frank Nichols, who buys broadcast time for advertisers and teaches media at Southern Methodist University. “When that happens, you’ll probably see the pendulum swing back, and personality radio will be out for awhile. It’s all cyclical.”

Personally, I hope Nichols is right. I hate listening to all that blather, especially in the morning. If I want news and a weather report, I turn to KRLD. If I tune in a music-station, though, there’s only one thing I want to hear from the disc jockey Tell me what time it is.