I recently had a chance to take a trip down memory lane. While it was an amazing thrill and honor, it was also a bit like cruising down the streets of your childhood, past the houses and look of the 50s and 60s, but like cruising in a hover-craft!
My new hometown of choice is Modesto, California! Besides the romance of a stroll along the banks of the local canal, or the perfumed reminder that we live in a diary-rich farming region, it’s a beautiful farming community that suddenly grew up, like a bean-pole teenager with shirt sleeves and pants that are miles too short!. Modesto has some high stakes on the all-time list of Cool Towns to Call Home! An onslaught of foot-sore and travel-weary migrant fruit pickers walked out of sun-drenched fields and into the history books by way of the recording studio and DJ booths of local radio stations like KTRB, KLOC, and KFIV. Young fresh faces of a Chester Smith and the Maddox Brothers with little sister Rose in tow, soon changed the face of music and the ears of millions with their unique sounds. They started right in town in the heart of the valley. Their original takes on the music they crafted changed the landscape, and local radio was right there to share the change in how music was shaped.
Another special tradition that played out on the neon-lit streets of late-night Modesto was a weekend tradition as wide as America, and as local as your home-town and corner drug store/soda fountain. Young red-blooded Americans jumped out of their work clothes, danced through the shower, and donned their best for a night of cruising through town in the ride they prized. There was that special lady or handsome guy to find, and perhaps tonight was the night to catch their eye! Local radio wove the fabric and painted the backdrop for the heartbeat of a young nation, in love with their cars, their music and their cool girls and slick-backed guys.
A young man gathered the notes and heartbeats of a generation and molded them into a silver screen legend called “American Graffiti” that was every town's story and made Modesto a place of legend! Local Son-Done-Well, George Lucas called this place home through high school and some of college, and used the cruising experience to launch a career that has changed the movie experience forever.
While the blare of horns on summer weekends has faded with time, Modesto honors its birth right each June with a chance to relive the glory days gone by. Graffiti weekend celebrates with a chance to dust off the classic cars, see if the classic threads still fit over the bulge of a chicken dinner and apple pie, and a chance to cruise the streets of Modesto one more time to the rhythms of the music we fell in love to all those years ago.
For the second year, local station KFIV invited back to the airwaves the voices that wove our radio mosaic into a tapestry. They didn't just play music, they put nails in that wall of sound to hang our memories on. They played favorites, dedications, took pages our of our ordinary day and through microphone magic, made them dazzle and electric. We each had our favorite. Whether it was John Chappell, Derek Waring, “Mr. Entertainment” Ron Posey or “The Midnight Honker” John Huey, they were our companions through the best times, the worst times, and our wing-man on late night laps around town. And we got to relive our wonderful memories one more time on a magic Graffiti Weekend!
I grew up far from the hot streets of Modesto, but share the radio history of the voices that made Modesto hum, snap their fingers and tap their feet, and dance in the parking lot with the top down and radio pumping. Pointed boots tapping, and poodle skirts flaring as we Rocked Around the Clock and said “Good Night Sweetheart.” I got to share some magic time in my new hometown.
Now back in the day, there was something special about a radio studio. It wasn't the elaborate decorations, the spacious setting or glimmering counter tops! Hours were spent hunched over a board with hastily scratched notes reminding us that channel B was out on Pot 1(old name for faders or volume control) and the Cart Machine 2 (just like the old 8-track tapes, but better!) was now patched to Pot 3. Oh, and you had to toggle between Cart 2 and Tape Machine 3. The equipment was specialized, built just for one purpose and built to outlast the fallout from whatever the Rooskies threw at us. That bank of massive machines played reel-to-reel tapes. Those iron clad platters played the amazing music from vinyl discs, and those blocks of metal with slots over there were where you stuck the Carts...if they were in working form and not full of chicken bones (yup, actually happened. The station name as well as identity of the engineer responsible will remain forever in the shadows...Dave!) Preparing for being “on air” meant lining up all the music, from pulling the Carts, cuing up the reel-to-reel and finding the music list, organizing the records in correct order and pulling all the Carts with the commercials that would be played. Oh, and they BETTER be played as listed, or the lady in charge of billing would come track you down, with her cigarette in one hand and her gravelly voice, she'd stab her stumpy nicotine-stained fingers at a sheet of paper with the missed commercial circled in red and say “YOU DIDN”T PLAY THIS SPOT! YOU HAVE TO PLAY THE SPOTS! I DON'T CARE IF YOU CUT OUT MUSIC, PLAY THE DAMN SPOTS!” And off she went in a cloud of blue smoke.
Yup, a radio show was a genuine production! Not to mention joining the Network News at exactly the right time! No gaps! No silence (known as dead air, or to the Sale's Manager, “Money out of YOUR paycheck!). I was all about perfect timing. Knowing just what to say, how much to say and the cleaver way to twist a phrase to leave it dancing in your ears while the new song was warming up. On air Djs were artists! Wizards! If you don't believe it, just ask one of them!
And the best part was that relationship with the fans, those who tuned in faithfully to hear their favorite jock. We all had our “regulars” who would call when the shift started, to say hi, wish us luck, ask for a favorite song and listen for us to tell them they were our favorite. Late nights had the lonely hearts club who adored the love songs and called to tells us they were dreaming of us. Mornings had the news junkies, correcting story details, giving traffic tips, calling in about lost and wandering pets, and wondering about the weather, even while we were giving it on the air. And every shift had the retired English teacher, ready to call or pen a note to tell us each and every one of our miscues, mispronunciations and to remind us we'd just set back the English-Speaking world by 3 decades!
So this venture back on the air was going to be a trip down memory lane! A visit to the old neighborhood! I was stoked! After getting buzzed into the complex, I wandered around and found a studio that had signs of life and walked into...an alien world run by computers! It was like Rip Van Winkle waking up on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise! Gone were the turntables, the Cart machines, the Tape-decks and stacks of vinyl and everything familiar! A control board with a row of sliders, a keypad, a mouse and 3 computer screens stared back at me, asking for my login information. None of this is DJ friendly!
For those of us who learned our way around a good turn-and-a-half backspin, a login is a totally different world! After some prompting and help from some who have kept their fingers on the pulse of this growing giant, we see a listing of all songs and all commercials to be played within the hour we choose. Pick a date, a time and it will show what is scheduled. There is no need to spin a disc between palms, dropping the vinyl on the turntable and pulling out the duster. No need to find the first pulse of the song and backspin...it's all computer regulated. The cues were tight, the lead-ins perfect. It sounded amazing with no hint of the starts, stops and “oops's” in the studio. The sound was awesome! Every DJ’s perfect shift! But there is a trade off. We weren't going to be “live at 5 on a hot Friday Night!” Our best was a Memorex moment. No direct fan interaction, no calls and requests, no feedback from the people at the corner pay phone.
This is now truly a theater of the mind. As the engineer gave me my cue, I tried to picture who was listening. What was it going to be like on the hot streets of Modesto, as classic cars purred and rumbled past cheering onlookers. As hair got greased and pony tails tied. Blue jeans zipped as guts were sucked up and poodle skirts bounced over knees freshly warmed by grandbabies diapered bottoms. As you reach in and tune that old faithful radio one more time to 1360, it's not just listeners who are reliving memories. Back in the studio, your local DJ is closing his eyes as the old songs play, and in memory's haze, he's searching a long-gone stack of vinyl for that called-in request from a phone that won't ring, and he dreams of things of yester-year. It's truly a weekend dreams are made of!