Friday, March 6, 2015

The Voices on the Radio: Freed, Franklin, and Dee

I love radio - its immediacy and especially its intimacy... 
it is part of your life, whispering into your ear. - Malcolm Turnbull

Mine is the TV generation, or so I'm told.  The truth is more complicated, as is often the case with truth.

Perhaps it was because I achieved my teenage years around the same time that FM was developed, or because cable TV sports had not reached its current ubiquity and, thus, a more traditional medium for listening to baseball and basketball was still required, but I recall most of my best memories of growing up involved listening to the radio.  Whether it was the stately tube radio on which my grandfather and I listened to Cleveland Indians games, or the clock radio on my nightstand in our house on East 213th St. from which I cheered the Cleveland Cavaliers onto rare victories during their expansion year, or the rather nice Pioneer receiver in my college dorm, purchased with money made from a summer job, on which I heard the alternative rock music of my generation from stations like the late, lamented WNCR and the now-lamentable WMMS, it was voices on the radio rather than images on a TV screen that brought me a world that was vivid and immediate.

There was a great tradition of radio in Cleveland, especially in regards to the music that would first be labeled "rock and roll" by a metro disk jockey named Alan Freed.  In the early 1950's, Freed realized, despite what the commercial interests who underwrote the expenses of his radio station thought, that a new sound was being heard in the small clubs and road houses.  As his friend was Leo Mintz, the owner of Record Rendezvous, the most popular record store in northeastern Ohio [and even where, from 1968 until 1982, I bought every album of popular music I owned], Freed knew that young people, flush with 1950's affluence, were buying rhythm and blues songs marked by a torrid beat and incomprehensible lyrics.  As these songs were mostly performed by black artists, they were relegated to the "ethnic" stations on the low end of the dial and given their own separate listing on the Billboard charts.  Freed felt it was time they were mainstreamed.

This was met with the usual resistance, of course, as smart choices are usually the ones that require some courage, and courage is a rare word in corporations.  However, using the leverage that was enabled by Record Rendezous' support of Freed's radio show, and the guarantee of about 250,000 rabid potential listeners, he branded himself the "King of the Moondoggers" and played, late night after late night, this new form of music on "The Moondog Show".

Any sentient human being knows the rest of the story.  Rock and Roll became the standard of popular music, shoving big band, jazz, choral, and even true rhythm and blues into their own musical sidestream, and becoming the soundtrack for the remainder of The American Century.  Freed would move to New York City in the early sixties and, thus, spread the sound that originated on the shores of Lake Erie.

Although he would die a couple of years before the Summer of Love [which, in Cleveland, was the year after the Summer of Violence], and thus before I began earnestly to listen to the radio, Freed's style and passion would continue to be copied and presented through all of the popular radio markets in the United States.  As testimony to his influence, when it was time to choose a city in which to locate the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, there really were no other serious candidates.

It wasn't just in music, however, that new ideas were being presented through Cleveland radio.  In the early 1970's, a mundane local sportscaster was given his own radio show and ordered to "make it interesting".  If any of the readers are old enough to remember sports radio in the 1960's, that might seem to have been an impossible assignment.  However, Pete Franklin, armed with this commission from his bosses, began to seek on-air phone calls from particularly opinionated and abrasive listeners [no shortage of those in Northeastern Ohio], issue forth with pungent observations on the mediocrity that is, by tradition, Cleveland professional sports, openly and loudly question the intelligence and sanity of team owners, and quickly become the only sports radio show to which anyone would listen.

My favorite moment was when he would introduce the nightly report on the Cleveland Indians by playing a funeral dirge. 

Like Freed and many others who pushed the envelop of "acceptable" behavior [what a quaint notion, especially in regards to radio], Franklin would be hired and fired in a funicular of employment.  Still, his radio persona was so successful that he has been copied again and again, even into the television market through ESPN and similar cable channels so that, if you have never heard of Franklin, you've "heard" him through the heirs of his style.  Also like Freed, Franklin would take his act to New York, for better or worse.

It's difficult to characterize Gary D. Gilbert, whose radio name was Gary Dee.  When I was in high school, my father, whose office was next door, would drive me to school.  It wasn't a very long drive, but I would listen to Gary Dee on the car radio on the way, much to my father's lament, as he found Dee common, unnecessarily hostile, and too loud.  This is what made Dee perfect for older teenagers, though, as the conversation in homeroom would always be about whom Dee had verbally abused on the radio that morning and to what extent.

Contemporary "shock jocks" are ubiquitous these days, but Dee was the originator of that manner of attracting listeners.  Although he was working on what was supposedly a country music station, he would maybe play, during the course of a four hour show in morning drive time, one song by George Jones or...well, Jones is the only one I remember.  The rest of the 240 minutes not claimed by some surprisingly high-end advertisers would be spent encouraging phone calls from the rich crop of eccentrics who lived in the greater metro area.  Dee referred to them as "egg-suckin' dogs".

He was cruel to fools, abrasive to political figures, intolerant of authority, and generally representative of every exaggerated quality of the classic American crank.  Having said that, he would also frequently host the president of Cleveland's city council, a formidable figure widely recognized as the true boss of the city, and engage in such playfully hostile banter with him that both would be de-articulated with laughter.

There's something to be said about being able to attract the largest radio audience in the Midwestern United States to listen to two grown men laugh like children into a couple of microphones.  Well, in radio, it's whatever works.

Dee lived a life similar to the most dissolute of the country artists whose music he was supposed to play on his show.  He battled the demon of addiction, would sometimes be in trouble with the police, would make the daily papers with a scandalous divorce, and would also watch his Arbitron ratings soar with every occasion of negative attention.

One Saturday night, my best friend and I, coming back from a baseball game or concert or something, decided, as we knew we were driving through the "mansion section" of the city, to cruise by Dee's home along the lake shore.  As we approached his house we saw police lights, several cars parked hither and yon, and a lot of people milling about the front yard.  Thinking we were about to approach a crime scene, my friend and I were preparing for a marvelous story to be told in homeroom.

As we got closer to the house, we saw a mad party in progress with Dee standing in his front yard with his left hand around the neck of a whiskey bottle, his right arm around a zaftig, bleached blonde who really didn't look like she was from Cleveland, posing for photographs with about half of the Cleveland Police Department.  Everyone present looked like they were completely, in Dee's words, "wrapped around the axle".

My friend, who was prepping to enter pre-med at Case Western Reserve University [and is now a senior surgeon with the University Hospital system in Cleveland] said, "Maybe I should study broadcasting."

I could speak at length about Dee's influence in this particular corner of the medium, but I will simply note that the fellow who hosted the afternoon drive time show on the same station copied Dee's style.  His name was Don Imus.  Whatever happened to him, I wonder?

All of these memories were brought to mind the other day when one of my students told me that she was working on a study of the influence of radio on culture.  Since broadcast, commercial radio has mostly surrendered to satellite stations and MP3 players, it amazed her that once upon a time there was a free, open forum for the expression of opinion and art that pre-dated the Internet and social media.  "It wasn't as backwards as I thought," she noted.

No, and in many ways, it was even broader and more accepting of new ideas than is the tightly constrained and politically sensitive Internet.  While TV brought us images of the world, radio brought us a far greater range of ideas and expression in a rapid and nimble format.

Or, as a program director for whom I worked in my radio days once said, "It's amazing how much you can see with your ears."