Who is your favorite radio DJ? Do you even listen to music played by stations with DJ’s? Before my parents married in 1952, dad gave mom a brand new Philco, cabinet-style radio with a built-in record player which was more a piece of furniture than entertainment center. Both AM and FM were on the dial but there were no FM stations on the air at the time. The Philco was only operated by my parents until I was around age ten. I still remember the first time I was allowed to turn it on by myself, watching the tubes glow in the back until they warmed up enough for sound to come from the speaker in front under the doors.
Growing up in Poteau, OK in the late 1950s and early 60s, radio was still a treat even though television was the dominant telecom appliance in our house. TV brought glimpses of rock and roll during the years before the British invasion. KLCO, the local AM radio station played mostly country and western music. The owner, R.B. Bell, allowed his teenage children to play an hour or two of rock and roll after school on weekdays beginning in the mid-60s. We were able to pick up stations from Fort Smith which played a more up to date selection of music, but rock and roll was still hard to come by, at least during the daytime. The setting sun opened up a new world of AM radio stations. I don’t claim to understand all the science of how AM radio signals bounce or reflect from the ionosphere and travel hundreds of miles after dark. KLCO was granted a special permit by the FCC to begin broadcasting two hours before sunrise and two hours after sundown. Most low power AM stations, 1,000 watts, were required to sign off at sunset because more powerful 50,000 watt stations sharing the same or nearby frequency were allowed to continue broadcasting 24/7 without overlap interference.
The beauty of clearing the airwaves of low power stations allowed rock and roll starved preteens like me to tune in stations like WNOE from New Orleans, WOAI in San Antonio, and 89 WLS out of Chicago. The signal crackled and faded in and out, but hearing the most current rock music was like receiving messages from another planet. During summer church camp in the mountains of southeastern Oklahoma near Talihina, all of us good Baptist kids brought transistor radios to tune in rock and roll at night. WNOE came in better than other stations down there. By the time I was fourteen, in 1968, I listened to coverage of the 1968 Democrat convention in Chicago at night on the twice an hour news broadcasts on WLS. Television networks provided daily video of the riotous event, but the local news from Chicago made it even more real. I call 1968, “the year I didn’t have a birthday,” because Bobby Kennedy died three days before my birthday and rock and roll was bringing the sound of protest, against the war in Vietnam. Poteau was a “my country right or wrong” kind of town, but kids my age and older were well aware of the growing divide between us and the generations of our parents and grandparents as expressed through the music we were listening to, especially at night. When I got a driver’s license in 1970, kids were “cruising main” at night On the Radio by Joe Harwell with the sound of WLS emitting from our car radios. Sitting at a stoplight, making a spin around the Mr. Swiss drive-in restaurant or later the Sonic, most of us were grooving to WLS. When I want to feel like a teenager again, I tune in WLS FM on the internet. They still play much of the same music and believe it or not, a couple of DJ’s from back in the day are still there, including the great Dick Binodi. Through the magic of Facebook, I recently met a woman named Pamela Enzweiler-Pulice who is making a film about Biondi and I can’t wait to see it.
I recently visited with my friend, Steve Clem, Operations Director at KWGS, Public Radio Tulsa. Steve and I share history of having transistor radios as teenagers, but he grew up in Sand Springs listening to Tulsa top 40 station KAKC where he called in requests and entered contests. After receiving his education at Oklahoma State, Steve’s first job in radio was in Ponca City. By 1989, recognizing the need to be in bigger markets he made moves to Sacramento and later Albuquerque where he was hired to turn around a poorly performing station.
Starting by analyzing the music needs of the audience, Steve made changes to the format built around a popular, local female DJ. Listenership and ratings grew. Another company bought the station bringing an infusion of money, further raising the popularity of the station. Steve described this turnaround as making his career which was the springboard into consulting for stations in Seattle, Oklahoma City, and Salt Lake City. During a visit to see his mom during the recession of 2008, Steve learned of an opening at KWGS and made a successful transition to working for the NPR affiliate. He has also written the definitive book of the history of KAKC.
Perkins, OK native Donna Willcox worked at Wal-Mart where she answered the phone and
made announcements over the PA system. Friends and coworkers considered her voice loud and able to project and encouraged her to consider a career as a radio DJ. After six years in retail, Donna moved to Tulsa and entered broadcasting school in 1997. Her first job was at Z104.5, The Edge in Tulsa. Donna said, “It was fun being on air and doing remotes,” and admitted to being a little star struck by the DJ’s she listened to as a consumer of radio and was now working with on a daily basis.
Donna got into radio at a time when it was about to undergo big changes. Many of the skills she learned in broadcasting school were being updated or replaced by automation. Donna said, “Radio stations were deemphasizing the impact of DJ’s, taking the personality out of radio causing it to lose some of its luster which attracted me to the industry.” Technology advances now make it possible for Donna to be the Monday - Friday DJ on an FM station in San Antonio from a studio in Tulsa.
Going back to my southeastern Oklahoma roots, I visited with my longtime friend, Leroy Billy, who owns KPRV FM and AM in Poteau, which was originally established as KLCO. My dad owned a lumber yard in Poteau in the 1950s and 60s and ran commercials on KLCO. One of my earliest memories of interacting with a radio personality was Leroy doing a remote broadcast at the lumber yard one Saturday morning. People heard the broadcast and came to register for drawings. I was allowed to pull names out for the drawings and announce them on the radio. Another southeastern Oklahoma friend literally grew up at KCLO. Misty Dawn Lydick Bates is the granddaughter of R.B. Bell who taught her how to operate the equipment and took her to Dallas when she was thirteen to take the test in order to obtain a broadcasting license. Mysty was kind enough to provide a photo of a classic microphone from the station.
My friend, W.B. (Bill) Ward of Tulsa owns one of the coolest radio technology items from the 1970s and 80s. If you listened Kasey Kasem American Top 40, you probably gave no thought to how it was broadcast on your local station. Bill has the only known copy of Casey’s final episode which was shipped to radio stations every week in the form of a four-disk album. The cardboard cover contained the four discs and the format scripts, hour clocks and promo sheets. This is a real relic compared to the digital technology used today.
Bill, an accomplished musician, worked in radio and TV stations coast to coast including, but not limited to, 97.5 KMOD, 101.5 the Beat, 92.1 KISS FM, KOOL 106.1, KAKC AM 1300, AM 1430 the Buzz, KMUS, KRLQ, KBIX; KGNX-TV, KRRG-FM, KRKCFM, KNIC, and KVOO. His television credits include KGNS-TV, KOKI Fox 23, KLDO-TV, KOTV, KTUL, KJRH, ABC’s That’s Incredible, Westwood One’s PM Magazine.
In addition to his many other talents, Bill currently produces Ward’s Daily Almanac, a syndicated radio program heard on radio stations across the country, as well as in more than 120 countries around the world via the Armed Forces Radio Network. He also published a companion book series and records audio books.
I’m sure everyone reading this article is more up to date on how to access music and information than me. I have local FM and AM stations programmed into the radio in my truck with a variety including classic and contemporary rock, sports, and NPR. My bravest dabble into modern technology is a YouTube playlist on my PC. I haven’t graduated to XM Radio, Spotify or other services my children and grandchildren use on their cell phone, tablet, iPad and other electronic devices. The number of choices to access music boggles my mind. I’m still old school enough to like hearing a DJ and even remember when MTV and VH1 actually played music with video hosts.
I don’t necessarily believe video killed the radio star but technology has come a long way from
the Philco and transistor radios of my youth. Regardless of how we access music, I have to agree with Donna Willcox. There is less personality to radio than there used to be. I suppose that’s the tradeoff for progress and innovation. Let me know how you listen to music now compared to back in the day. I don’t miss AM radio fading in and out but I do miss the personality that came with it.
Joe Harwell is a self-published novelist and editor based in Tulsa. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org