The past week or so I got thinking about all the years I spent in radio, and then in talking with Lloyd Robertson, I realized there were a lot of funny, weird and scary stories that came out of all those years. I was interviewing Lloyd for Canoe Fm, and he agreed with me that the vintage tv show “WKRP in Cincinatti”, while very funny in itself, was really a perfect profile of what it was like to be in radio in the 50’s, 60’s and maybe the 70’s.
Today radio is mainly a collection of big businesses owning multiple radio stations across the country. In the 50’s and 60’s a good many of them were owned by individuals operating in their local communities. With the local ownership came a collection of very diverse personalities … the fast talking, flamboyant jocks, the hard driving sales guys, good lookin’ ladies in the offices, news guys who were very serious on the air and crazy men off the air, and management (they were the suits.) It was a pulsating environment that consumed all those who chose to enter.
I’ll start by sharing with you the story of Wacky Willy. He was the midnight to 6am guy. Willy is not his real name, but for my own safety I choose that name because it rhymes with Wacky. And he was wacko. Willy was of average height, a little on the gaunt side, with a shock of reddish hair and, what I’ll call, the all-night pallor. The boy could have used a little sun. Wacky did mostly the weekend nights and sitting in now and again for the regular guy who, by the way, came to us from Ford, working at the assembly plant before he stumbled into all-night radio.
Wacky didn’t see many people in the station due to the fact that he usually didn’t slither in until about 11.45 p.m. At the time I was doing 6 to midnight … yeh, I was the Jumpin’ Jay, flinging out the hits for rock n’ roll fans all evening long. I got to see Wacky a couple of nights a week and, believe me, his rather macabre presence made me glad it wasn’t more often.
This particular summer evening I was in the newsroom checking the teletype machines. It must have been pretty warm because the fire escape door was open to let a little air into the second floor. Wacky sauntered in and muttered his greeting. “How’er you doin?”
He wandered over to the news director’s desk and began looking through one of the drawers. Hey, I knew that was a no no. The news director was a very serious guy and he was one who cracked a mean whip. He would take a dim view of Wacky nosing into his desk. Wacky was looking for a candy bar or some other sustenance to launch him into his night shift.
“Hey Wacky, I wouldn’t do that. Jim will have your neck.”
That’s all I said. Nothing else. Nothing threatening. Nothing to take offense at.
In nothing more than a nanosecond, Wacky whipped around to face me. And there, in Wacky’s hand, was the shiniest, most fearsome looking silver handgun and it was pointed in my direction. It was the first time I’d ever seen a Smith and Wesson snub nose 35. I know it was a 35 because I looked it up later. I figured that if I was going to have nightmares I should know what caused them.
I held my hands in front of me, palms up, in some sort of supplication. “Hey man, put that thing away, it’s no big deal.”
Wacky put the gun back under his Hawaiian print summer shirt and then, like a ferret on the run, he disappeared into the main studio. I stood there, in some sort of shock, replaying what had just gone on. Once the blood returned to my feet and my bladder relaxed I got the hell outta there.
The next day I got a couple of my station buddies together. John was a hyper active news reporter and Dave was one of the young announcers. We all started at the station about the same time and we kinda buddy-ed up in a loose type of friendship. John always wore a white shirt and a suit that looked like his dad handed it down. It was about one size too big. But it gave him that Jimmy Olsen look mixed in with a beach boys shock of hair. Dave was a cool guy. He was easy going and gave the appearance that someone operating his marionette strings had cut one string. What an odd collection we made. In case you’re wondering, I usually wore a T-shirt with pale blue jeans and white buck shoes. The Pat Boone look.
After I recounted my tale of horror to the guys, we talked about what I should do. Should I tell management, call the cops, or get a gun of my own. If I told management Wacky might come looking for me. If I called the cops they’d probably not find the gun and Wacky would definitely come looking for me. I couldn’t get my own gun ’cause it didn’t fit my image and, more importantly, I had no idea about how to go about securing a “piece”.
It was was easy-going Dave who came up with the big idea. It was wonderfully audacious.
The plan was pretty simple. I did an air check of Wacky on one of his shifts. I did it at home with a tape recorder. There was no way was I going anywhere near that nut job if I could help it. I spent some time duplicating the air check. I think we ended up with about a dozen tapes. We had spent time making a list of radio stations that were the same profile as ours but, most importantly, that were thousands of kilometers away from Hamilton. We put together a mailing for each station containing an air check tape and Wacky’s contact information. Perfect. It was worth the cost of postage to think that we might be able to get rid of the whacko gun-totin’ D.J.
A few weeks went by and nothing. Wacky was still there. We began to suspect that perhaps other people knew that Wacky was whacko.
One day, Wacky walked in to the newsroom area and proclaimed to all the he was leaving. He got a job at a radio station in Bermuda. He admitted that he had no idea how they came to peg him for the job, but perhaps one of their execs had picked him late at night, ’cause after all we know how radio signals can “bounce” on warm summer night. He was off, he was leaving, he and his gun would be no more.
Our biggest delight came from the fact that in Bermuda, at that time, you had to sign a two year contract and put up the money for your airfare back home. It was known that a lot of guys went stir crazy in less than a year and the station didn’t want people going through like a turnstile, so you had to commit to two years. Not a bad incarceration when you think about it. We didn’t care. We were just glad to be rid of Wacky and his snub nose 35.
Once Wacky left I felt much more secure late at night knowing that his evil presence and his precious 35 weren’t lurking behind a door or office partition.
Hope he got a nice tan.