Thursday, August 18, 2011

King of the Road

Beautiful, boomin', bouncin' Grand Forks N.D.

When it came time to leave Minot for Grand Forks, I felt that I could best deal with the packing and moving by myself so I sent Judy and the girls back home for awhile until I could get established.  I stuffed everything we owned into a rented U-Haul, hooked it up to the car and hit the road.  With the help of Leslie Maupin, the station manager at KLPM, I'd managed to line up a job at KILO in Grand Forks.  When I arrived, I was put to work immediately as a mid-day host on the station, this consisted of playing a few records and running the board for CBS news feeds and local programs that had been pre-recorded.  Not exactly an action packed, top 40 show but it was a job.  Meanwhile I signed up for classes at U.N.D, I'd decided to major in Journalism with a minor in radio and TV.

For living quarters I'd managed to find a month to month rental on what was essentially a store front that someone had equipped with a kitchen, and turned into a makeshift apartment.  It was priced at the same level as a regular apartment but there were none of those available, so I took what I could get.  I figured I could find a regular place later, once classes had begun.  The station paid next to nothing, but I thought I could pick up some gigs in the local bars as well.  Unfortunately, unlike Minot there were no gigs available.

I'd like to say that everything worked out tremendously in my first, full-time radio job, but nothing did.  I didn't get into radio to ride gain on some grain futures feed or some hillbilly playing guitar and belly-aching old country songs for all the “sick and shut-in friends.”  I still hadn't learned the first rule of radio... that you program your show for the local audience.   I recall one day we had a huge storm in Grand Forks, which made some of the roads virtually impassable . I mentioned how much difficulty I'd had getting to work that day, and the phones immediately lit up with calls from people who'd had a similar experience.  If I'd had half a brain I'd have put those calls on the air immediately, but it went completely over my head.  To me radio was rock-n-roll songs back to back, and that was it.  I still had a LOT to learn, but you couldn't tell me that!

I was similarly disappointed with my classes at U.N.D.  On the first day, I attended my radio/tv class and was shocked to find out that the class project for the first semester was to produce a radio play.  A radio play?   Radio drama had disappeared from the face of the earth years ago; there was no more Lone Ranger.  These people were so far out of touch they might as well have been in suspended animation for the past 10 years. In addition, my wife and in-laws were bugging me to hurry up and get a place.  The fact that there were no suitable places available was of no consequence to them whatsoever, all they knew was that it was crowded back at the old homestead.  I was beginning to think I should never have left the Air Force.

When competing station KNOX offered me a job to do a night-time rock show I didn't hesitate 10 seconds, I took the job.  The two or three months I'd spent at KILO weren't completely wasted however, I'd met someone there who would change my worldview completely.   Her name was Debbie Strutz, and she was an enlightened and gregarious young lady.  She possessed an enormous level of self assurance and charisma.  She was a close friend of Rick Kelleher, a U.N.D, student working part time at the station.  He introduced us, and we instantly became inseparable.   It was a platonic relationship at first, but on every other level it was very intimate.  One thing was certain, she was quite unlike any woman I'd ever met.

The KNOX show gave me an opportunity to try out my rock-n-roll chops.  It was supposed to be a no holds barred, full bore rock show with all the bells and whistles.  I got to select the music, decide what contests to run, and provide all the programming elements.  I thought I'd died and gone to Heaven, but a few weeks into the thing I began to get calls from the Program Director.  “Was that record a hit?” “Do you have to talk so fast?” “How about mixing in some stuff from non rock performers?”

Once again I hadn't thought about what the audience wanted to hear, only what I thought was good.  I remembered listening to “John R” on WLAC in Nashville, and tried to emulate him.  He'd pull out some R&B tune from the Jewel or VJ or maybe Duke labels, plop it on the air without even auditioning it first, and when the lyrics would get a little raunchy he'd break in and say something like “welllllll, ah think this here is jus' a leetle bit too much.  Ah think I'll jus' play somethin' from my old pal Rufus Thomas right heah!” 

Here's the problem, I wasn't John R.  John R knew his audience, and they knew him; he'd been a Nashville institution for years.  I was the new kid on the block, and should have limited the playlist to the hits.  The show was off the air in a couple of months.

Judy and the girls arrived only to find that I'd screwed up the radio job and dropped out of college.  The nomadic life of a radio DJ was about to claim yet another victim.

Marriage #1 was about to go down the tubes.

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