Forgetfulness of things past
I never intended to go into radio. Nevertheless, I racked up some 2,000 broadcasts when I was the Entertainment Critic for CBS’s Boston station, WEEI-FM, from 1977 to 1981, and another couple of hundred for WITS-AM, also in Boston. I fell into it when Clark Smidt, who’d just been made Program Director of WEEI-FM, bumped into me in Harvard Square and asked me if I wanted to be his film critic. It was as simple as that. (Clark also invented the highly successful Softrock music format for which he has never been given credit or residuals; thank you, CBS). I’ve written about my adventures in radio in Screen Saver Too: Hollywood Strikes Back ()www.bearmanormedia.com/index.php?route=product/search&search=screen%20saver%20too
But here is the first time I’ve written about what radio meant to me. It wasn’t about the music. I didn’t care about rock ‘n’ roll (I was whelped on Patti Page). It was about the talk.
As a toddler living in Washington, DC -- I was blessed that we didn’t have TV until I was six -- I would listen to whatever my stay-at-home mother had on the radio. In the mornings, doing her chores, it was the venerable Eddie Gallaher on WTOP-AM (no FM in those days). Everybody listened to Eddie Gallaher, so much so that when my Aunt Helen got him to dedicate a song to me on my fourth birthday, my mother got phone calls all day from friends who’d heard it. His show was followed by “Arthur Godfrey Time” and “Art Linkletter’s House Party” on “many of these same CBS radio network stations.”
By the time I was in high school in the early 60s we had moved to nearby Silver Spring, Maryland, which was then the nation’s largest unincorporated city (100,000 people and nobody talking out the garbage). I had plenty of school friends, but they were daytime friends. At night I had the radio. Correction: I had a crystal radio, a little plastic Remco number the size of a pack of cigarettes with a pull-out antenna that would break the first time you used it, and you listened on a single earphone the size of a hockey puck because transistors hadn’t yet made it to the toy market and transistor radios were bulky and expensive. Cristal sets worked on their own power. You could make one in Cub Scouts by winding .22 gauge copper wire around a toilet paper tube and finding a 1N34A crystal diode (if memory and research serve) that would rub against it to make a tuner.
Am I going too fast for you?
My crystal set was freedom. Sure, it only picked up one or two stations, but I could slip the earphone under my pillow and my parents would never know I was listening all night in bed. These were the early days of talk shows and the one I listened to with perverse fascination was Steve Allison, “The man who owns midnight” on WWDC-AM. Allison operated out of a restaurant -- one source says it was the Black Saddle Steak House but I recall it was Blackie’s House of Beef -- and interviewed politicians, celebrities, and others of interest who came through the Nation’s Capitol. He also took phone calls, except you only heard his side, so half the time he would summarize what the caller had just said, such as, “You say your neighbor burns leaves” or “Why don’t you think Kennedy is doing his job?” The other half of the time he was fielding insults with, “You’re an idiot” or “same to you.” Allison had come to WWDC after stints in Boston and Philadelphia where it was said that he was chased out of town on a morals charge involving an under-age girl.
Allison was a political reactionary but vastly entertaining. He blazed a trail for Joe Pyne, Wally George, Morton Downey, Jr., Jerry Springer and all the other pre-Rush Limbaugh radio and TV talkmasters who killed polite discourse on the airwaves.
Once I got my fill of Allison, my crystal radio and I sought other bedtime companions. In this, the ionosphere became my friend. We remember, from geometry, that the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection. Because radio waves bounce off the electronically charged upper layer of the atmosphere called the ionosphere (“ions” being charged particles), I discovered that I could pick up Boston radio station WBZ-AM, some 450 miles from my Silver Spring, Maryland bedroom. This fascinated me. Starting around 10 at night, depending on the weather, I could hear ‘BZ as clearly as any station in the Washington market.
My high school friend and radio mentor Chris Telladira (air name: Chris Michaels), who worked on suburban Maryland station WINX (with Larry Cooley as head DJ), told me about a talented Boston announcer named Dick Summer who, fortunately, was on WBZ, 103-AM, a 50,000-watt clear channel station. This meant that his signal was powerful enough to bounce off the ionosphere and not interfere with any lesser stations of nearby frequency.
Summer had a soft, seductive voice and a manner that was so easy he sounded like you were at a friend’s house and he was putting on records. In that regard, he was a forerunner of FM radio programming. He read letters from listeners (from girls especially) and wrote poetry (for girls especially). He supposedly had a pet Venus fly trap named Audrey. But mostly he worked the radio medium as a one-to-one communication system.
There were other people who used radio as Summer did, and some of them became nationally known: Jean Shepard (a forerunner to Garrison Keiller on WOR in New York), Chicago’s Ken Nordine (the Word Jazz innovator) and, more recently in Los Angeles, Joe Frank “In the Dark.” But for me, it was Dick Summer who led the way, talking into my ear, making me wait for the announces rather than the songs he played.
When I became a movie publicist in Boston in the early 1970s, I briefly connected with Dick. He didn’t do interviews so we never brought him celebrities or hung out, but I had the pleasure of meeting one of my heroes. Then time passed. When I became a journalist instead of a press agent, I even worked for WBZ, but by then Dick had moved on.
Now I live in LA, and the past is well and truly in the past. But not always. A couple of months ago a colleague back in Massachusetts, Hartley Pleshaw, who has a show on WCAP-980 AM in Lowell, mentioned that they ran Dick Summer’s podcast, and we got to talking about him. Hartley re-connected me with Dick who was gracious enough to pretend to remember me. I told him how much he and his work had meant when I was a kid -- I tried not to jam the obvious age difference down his throat -- and we struck up an e-mail correspondence. He is still doing commercials and recordings and sounds as great as ever. I told him that was about to skewer our mutual ex-employer, WBZ, in my forthcoming book (here it is on Amazon in case you missed the Bear Manner link above: https://www.amazon.com/Screen-Saver-Too-Hollywood-Strikes/dp/1629331996/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1516728947&sr=1-1&keywords=screen+saver+too%3A+hollywood+strikes+back) and I sent him a copy.
He returned the favor with a CD he’d made called “Bedtime Stories.” Here’s a sample and it bears listening to for the same reason you’ve just read this far in my blog: https://www.dicksummer.com/mp3/Bedtime%20Stories%20-%20Nothing%20Happened.mp3
Dick is both a visionary (make that “audiary”) and a traditionalist. He is an unabashed romantic about the woman in his life, and if he sounds out of step with political correctness -- he calls her “my Lady Wonder Wench” -- I will stay that he is always respectful and attentive.
I remain fond of hearing people who use radio as intimately as Dick Summer. No, I don’t like Ira Glass (over-produced) or David Sedaris (too precious). I prefer the fantasy of almost accidentally picking up the signal of a lone guy who’s stuck in a radio station doing the all-night shift with nobody calling in, so he free-forms with records and talks about whatever is on his mind.
That kind of radio is long gone. It’s been replaced by blogs. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not allowed to miss it.
By the way: https://www.dicksummer.com/
I don't write on spec, but every now and then something gets me fired up and I can't stop my fingers from hitting the keyboard.
Copyright © 2020 Nat Segaloff