Many Americans are too young to appreciate what radio was in its glory days — before television became the dominate source of news and entertainment. To most my age, talk radio means Imus in the Morning, the Howard Stern Show and Opie and Anthony.
But let me take you back… back before commercials, advertising and plain bad taste corrupted the airwaves. Back to an era without shock jocks or on-air racial and gender slurs. An era when programming met standards of reliability and character.
I have been lucky enough to experience this era through the words and stories of loved ones. I went back to the world of 1960’s radio last weekend when I traveled to St. Louis Missouri, for the city’s “Media Halls of Fame” induction dinner. My grandfather — Ray Otis — a 52 year veteran of broadcasting was given the tremendous honor of being placed with some of the all time radio greats such as Paul Harvey, Harry Caray, and Jack Buck.
The young Ray Otis was only 24 when he started working in the St. Louis radio scene. The year was 1962. He was married with three children. It was Mothers Day weekend and my grandfather was traveling from Cleveland to St. Louis to visit his mom. The management at the current radio station he worked at expected him to be in a meeting on that specific Mothers day. After a small dispute consequently my grandfather left his disk jockeying job there. (For those of us who only know iPods, music came on disks — records — before tapes and then CCs. The guys who hosted radio shows were called “disk jockeys.”) That same weekend in St. Louis was the first time my grandfather heard KXOK radio.
In St. Louis “the God’s were good” he said, and he landed a job KXOK. He was host of the morning show for only a short time before it became the top morning show in the market. He was the first disk jockey ever to have a city mayor on the air regularly. St. Louis Mayor A.J. Cervantes would call in every morning and talk about what was happening in the city and what his day looked like. The governor called once a week.
My grandpa even received an audition tape from a young Rush Limbaugh and was considering the possibilities putting him on the air on weekends, but that was erased when Doc Downey showed up in st. louis and was given the weekend job. Limbaugh later went on to replace Downey on a station Sacramento.
1960’s radio started the climb of the American top 40. KXOK played a wide range of popular music from the Rolling Stones to Aretha Franklin to Roger Miller. They aired bowling tips from local pros and information on how to get your car warmed up faster on cold winter mornings. There was no need for shock jock antics — and the use of profane language was absolutely unheard of.
“We went to great lengths to make sure there was always activity. The KXOK ‘millionaire’ would go out and we would announce his location and pass out money, Lou Cooley was the traffic guy — my favorite story about Lou Colley is he was doing traffic and he saw manhole cover that had been removed for three or four days that was causing traffic problems, so he actually went down into the man hole — walked down through it — and came up to the coffee shop at the Park Plaza Hotel and did his traffic report from there.”
“There was always something going on, we had air races and car shows. There was no need to talk about foul or obscene things, there were colorful things going on and there was no need to resort to that” he told me.
So where is the disconnect? What happened to quality radio? Was it the rise of television that destroyed it? In the past 40 years radio took twists and turns as to what was being permitted on air and how people were using radio as a vehicle.
“In early 70’s late 80’s the ‘seven and seven’ rule was done away with,” my grandfather told me. “That was you couldn’t own more than seven radio stations and seven television stations and they couldn’t be in the same market. The FCC wouldn’t allow you. By the mid 80’s that was destroyed and bigger companies had several stations in the market. What they did was they housed all the radio stations in one building and had one staff to do all five. It was awful. The rule is that radio stations operate for the convenience, necessity and public interest of the listeners. These multi gangs of stations do not operate in these three things. They operate only for their personal interest, convenience and necessity.”
Radio is a medium that reaches everyone at some point in everyone’s day. It used to reach out in a positive way, it has now been reduced to being used from a sales perspective — sadly the art of the radio is lost.
“What took place in St. Louis 40 years ago is remembered, the camaraderie and the things that made that radio station jump were extremely innate and I don’t think cosmically could ever be put together again. I’m proud of the people that we were associated with,” he said.
I’m proud of him, too. Happy (Grand) fathers’ Day.