Lately, I’ve been divulging incidents that occurred when I was young and stupid. Like, when I hurled rotten apples at moving vehicles, or harassed the night watchman at boarding school.
Here’s another slice of my biography that a few might find interesting or unusual. If no one finds it interesting or unusual – which is entirely possible – I give permission for this essay to be burned on the bonfire of my vanities.
After college, I worked for a couple years at an AM radio station called WNOP, in Cincinnati, Ohio.
If you’re an older American, you may remember the 1970s situation comedy “WKRP in Cincinnati.” Although I have no proof, I’m convinced WNOP was the model for WKRP.
Like its television counterpart, WNOP was no ordinary radio station. The walls were curved. There was no bathroom. To reach our “office,” we had to tread across a long wooden pier. Also, we never saw the station owner, we only heard about him. He was like the Easter Bunny.
And every time a barge passed by, we bobbed up, down, and sideways.
Take a soup can, peel off the label, then place it in bathtub water so it rests vertically. That was our place of work. It was a gigantic steel cylinder that floated on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, just across from downtown Cincinnati. I’m guessing the location choice was related to airwave reception or something. Let me explain:
WNOP was owned by a wealthy local beer distributor, who loved jazz music. He seemed to run the station more as a hobby than a business. I worked there in 1984-85, when arena rock and new wave music were all over the radio. Therefore, because we played jazz – America’s homegrown music – nobody listened to us. So, we didn’t make enough money to afford a proper radio tower. So, the waters of the Ohio River carried our signal.
I was hired as a broadcasting intern by the station manager, a well-known former rock deejay named Geoff. He was a fat guy with glasses who had an excellent radio presence, and he was really nice. I had no radio experience, but I liked jazz music, and was eager to learn, and I’m guessing that’s why he hired me. Also – because I was an intern – he didn’t have to pay me.
Directly under Geoff was Programming Director Chris. Unlike the owner, Chris treated the station as a business instead of a hobby, and he wanted WNOP to be real successful. And whereas Geoff liked me, I don’t think Chris did. You’ll find out why a little later.
Despite being an AM station at the left end of the dial that played jazz, we had a lot of talent at “The Jazz Ark.” The morning host was Kristi. Kristi was a very attractive and outgoing blonde who (surprise, surprise) did a lot of public relations for the station. The two daytime hosts were Ray and Val. Ray was semi-retired, and a radio veteran. Warm radio voice, knowledgeable, and he personally knew many of the famous jazz musicians that occasionally swung through town.
Val had a great voice, too. He was about 35 and had worked all over the country. Val was black, but he sounded white. Maybe that’s why, at one time in his career, he was a country-and-western disc jockey. This factoid always fascinated me. But I guess if you’re a good enough jock, you can do any type of music. Val was the epitome of cool, and most of us younger guys tried to model ourselves after him.
The younger crew consisted of me, Glenn, Brendan, John, Rod, Chuka, and a few others I can’t recall. Like me, Glenn also appreciated jazz, but unlike me, he was very smooth in front of a microphone. Brendan was a real affable, slightly conservative guy-next-door. John was a short fellow whose dad owned a chain of shoe stores in town. John idolized Val. If you talked with John for any length of time, eventually he’d bring up Val. And Chuka was from Africa and broadcast news only.
I was closest to Rod “Downtown” Lowndes, who previously worked as a riverboat bartender. We were both into dirty rock ‘n’ roll and blues. We also occasionally “indulged” in things.
I remember my trepidation the first time I stepped in front of the microphone. I had a fear of public speaking that dated to a bad incident in childhood, so I had a legitimate concern about hyperventilating while on the air. But the guy who mentored me that first night seemed to think I’d be ok.
“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine. Nobody’s listening anyway.”
That calmed me a little, but I still felt like Barney Fife appearing before the Mayberry Municipal Court. As time went on, it got easier. I discovered that talking with the music at a low volume was very helpful.
My best memories of WNOP were the early days. Many deejays adopt catchy on-air pseudonyms or nicknames, and I thought about doing the same, similar to real-life Symphony Sid Tolan, or fictional “Lester the Nightfly.” I asked Geoff if maybe I should become Pete ‘Midnight’ White, or something equally ridiculous.
“No, I think you have a good name already. It’s very German-sounding, which will appeal to all the German listeners in Cincinnati. What do you think, Chris?”
“Sure, keep your name,” mumbled Chris. So I kept my name.
And speaking of vanity, it was also fun to drop, in conversation, that I was a deejay. I got a lot of “Really?!” responses. Also, this was before I met my wife, so mentioning I was a disc jockey was a great icebreaker with women. Their eyes always got a little bigger. Previously, it was a struggle for me to even get a second look from an attractive female. But once they learned that I worked in front of a microphone, they seemed to push their breasts a little closer.
I was very careful not to spill that I was merely an unpaid, untalented intern working the graveyard shift at a cable station that nobody listened to.
(Please check back soon for the conclusion of “Vanity in a Tin Can”)
(Illustration of WNOP by Robert Freeson and “Cincinnati Magazine”)
14 thoughts on “Vanity in a Tin Can”
Arthur Carlson, Venus Flytrap, Bailey Quarters, Johnny Fever, Herb Tarlek, Less Nessman… “I swear, I honestly thought turkeys could fly…” What a great first job. You didn’t need to get paid. How could anyone design a better internship?
Thanks for commenting, Phil. It was actually my 2nd “real” job. My first was an advertising rep for a small newspaper in Florida. But I spent too much time on the beach and got fired. Oh, to be young and carefree again.
Fun story. Curious as to why exactly women would think being a disk jockey is appealing. Does it elevate someone in their eyes? Or might they think there’s a chance you’d get good tickets? Meet rock stars? Or does it make you more handsome? I fail to see the connection.
These are all pertinent questions, Jim. Do any ladies out there have an opinion? I think the word “elevate” hits it. Disc jockeys are sort of minor celebrities, since their names are familiar to large numbers of people, and celebrities have appealed to women, and men, for eons (the word “celebrity” is a variation of “celebrated”). If being a deejay made me more handsome, I’d still be doing it.
BTW, a good voice communicates well over the radio. There’s a DJ in the greater Boston area named Mistress Carrie. She’s on a hard rock station and she has a rough, gravelly “tough chick” voice. I just enjoy listening to her. She makes me laugh and she programs good stuff. A good DJ makes a difference, especially when they’re local and part of the larger community. But you know that.
Definitely. And different musical genres/audiences require different vocal approaches. Top 40 pop requires speed and energy, while jazz is best suited to a slower, more erudite style. I touch on this in the second part.
I take it you’ve heard George Carlin’s FM radio guy a million times. Pretty funny.
Great story, Pete. Really something.
No bathroom aboard? How did Kristi put up with that?
I think Kristi used a pocket mirror. For more pressing issues, there was a large riverboat docked next door. I’m not sure who manned the mic while she was gone. Maybe she played a long song?? Neil, my brain can’t handle these memory things.
Learned something new about you today, Pete!
I guess Lynn never mentioned this stuff, eh? Then again, she just knows the basics. Some things are best left unsaid!
I’m getting into the story and BAM! like watching Batman i have to wait for the next episode. Cool (half) story. Did you get to choose what discs you spun? I’d like to see an old set list. Any chance? I know jobs like this always seem cooler to people on the outside than was your reality but it’ still an attention getter and very cool man! Since you mentioned Barney Fife, hows this for a program name. “A Little Fife in the Night”
No setlists, CB, but I have a few old cassettes buried in the basement. Maybe one day I’ll drag them out. I talk a little about the music in part 2, so stay tuned!
Cool. I’m interested in what you were spinning back then.