history, life, music

Radio daze

newspaper ad for Dave Swan on FM 96It’s amazing what you can find bouncing around your PC. Just open My Pictures, and something you forgot you ever saved is right there with a year’s worth of memories. The memories brought back by this 1980 newspaper ad are fogged by disorientation and lack of sleep, because those were the days when I was the overnight announcer on a “beautiful music” radio station.

How, just a couple of years after spinning the Sex Pistols and Sun Ra on my college station, did I wind up in the graveyard (almost literally), treating the world to The 101 Strings and Ray Conniff? Well, I moved from Michigan to Massachusetts, took a job as a one-man news team at a brand-new station in the town of Webster, and figured I was on the road to great things. Instead, within weeks the station was about out of money and I was definitely out of a job.

Before long, WSRS came calling. The gig? Six nights a week, fifty-one weeks a year. Eleven p.m. to seven a.m. Monday through Friday and midnight to eight on Saturday night-Sunday morning, all alone in the studio, on a hill just outside Worcester.

While the format was similar to what you oldsters remember as Muzak or elevator music, we didn’t use pre-programmed tapes. I played actual vinyl records by Bert Kaempfert, Percy Faith, Bent Fabric (real name), Mantovani, and tons of others in the same ilk: the greatest songs ever written, redone with sappy string arrangements that bleached out every trace of real meaning and feeling. Now imagine hearing this at 12:00, 1:00, 2:00, 3:00, 4:00, and 5:00 a.m. Every night of your life.

Everything I said was tightly scripted. At 15 and 45 minutes past each hour, I was supposed to say, “FM 96, WSRS. It’s (insert time),” nothing more, nothing less. A few times a night, I got to read news off the UPI wire. Every hour of every shift, I fought to stay awake.

My body simply never adjusted. I’d get home around 7:30 a.m., be dead to the world in minutes, wake up in late afternoon, and trudge back in at 11. I guzzled strong instant coffee and did my level best to stave off boredom, stay alert, and keep my job. Despite my best efforts, there were a few times when I dozed off, then woke in a panic at the silence coming from the monitors. Luckily, the station manager, who was known to check in on his announcers at all hours, must not have been listening, because I never heard a word about the “dead air.”

That might make you wonder if anyone at all was listening. They were, and used to request songs often, which I welcomed because their calls were my only contact with the outside world.  The all-night nurses at a local hospital dug Engelbert Humperdinck. A lot of requests came from older folks afflicted with insomnia or loneliness, like the guy who always asked for Tony Bennett’s “I’ll Pick Up the Pieces After You’ve Gone.”

Another sad man called at about 3:00 a.m., sounding depressed and beaten down, wanting to hear “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” by Pete Fountain. Was that part of our format? Definitely not. Did I play it? Of course. I also stretched the format a few more times with some quiet but non-schlocky songs from my own collection.  Ours was probably the only “beautiful music” station in history to feature Bill Evans, Oliver Nelson, or Johnny Hartman with John Coltrane.

As trying as it was, this job made me better at radio. With so few chances to open the mike and actually talk to the listeners, I learned to make the most of every one. Putting together and delivering a coherent newscast under those conditions made it a breeze when I advanced to a daytime news job, which was what I wanted all along. Eventually, I left the place, but not before playing one final song, which was – what else? – Floyd Cramer’s “Last Date.”

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