Thursday, September 29, 2005

When AM radio ruled airwaves

Like Wolfman Jack in the movie "American Graffiti," the deejay and AM radio loomed tall on the horizon in the Sixties.

Top 40 ruled the airwaves, especially at night when the country's powerful 50,000 clear channel stations could be heard for great distances.

In Escanaba, the evening's radio choices for Top 40 fans included two Chicago giants: WLS at 890 and WCFL at 1000 and WDBC, broadcast locally at 680 on the dial.

In this earlier era, precious rock 'n' roll transmissions were received on the newly introduced portable transistor radio or on a cheap car radio featuring tinny sounding three-inch speakers.

WDBC's night-time deejay, Billy John (aka William J. Schinzel), played requests live from the station's studio at 606 Ludington St., beginning in 1966. His program featured national hits, regional "breakouts" and even local artists. Unlike today, the deejay decided the playlist. John would spin such varied fare as "Incense and Peppermints" by Strawberry Alarm Clock, "Gimme Gimme Good Lovin'," by Crazy Elephant and "Playgirl," by Milwaukee quartet Thee Prophets. The songlist would be interspersed with plenty of dedications.

Because he had to broadcast CBS news live, John also spun instrumental cuts such as "Hot Smoke and Sasafrass" by Bubble Puppy and "Classical Gas" by Mason Williams as the top of the hour approached.

Local kids cut their rock 'n' roll teeth to John's program as they "bombed the drag" along Ludington St. and maybe even "watched the submarine races" at the park.

WDBC (Delta Broadcasting Co.) pumped out 10,000 watts, dropping to 1,000 at night, while the only other local station-- WLST-- was powered by a mere 1,000 during the day. WLST, which billed itself as the Voice of the Escanaba Daily Press, signed off at dusk and didn't enter the rock 'n' roll arena until later as WBDN.

While John probably had a modest local audience, the towering presence of Chicago radio was felt by everyone around Lake Michigan. You probably had your favorite between WCFL and WLS, as they battled it out.

WLS (World's Largest Store) was founded by Sears and featured DJ's Ron Riley and Art Roberts. The pair gained radio eminence by interviewing the Beatles which pushed their station to No. 1 in the market in 1968.

WCFL (Chicago Federation of Labor) featured jocks Larry Lujack and Dick Biondi. Alert teenagers would switch between the stations if there was any let-up in the rock 'n' roll beat. The news certainly meant you had to punch the channel change button.

For adventurous listeners, the AM radio dial was filled with sounds from far away cities. Because local channels had to sign-off and there was less interference, the best time to listen was overnight.

Any kid with a good transistor radio and earplug could listen to radio long into the night. When WDBC signed-off, the radio frequency would reveal WMAQ, 670 megahertz.

WMAQ was broadcast from penthouse studios atop the Merchandise Mart in Chicago and featured the sophisticated Jack Eigen. Chicago's oldest radio station, the call letters originally had no meaning, but later were assigned the slogan We Must Ask Questions. Eigen, a pioneer of the late night talk show, mainly interviewed show biz types into the wee hours.

Radio has changed through the years. Now, music is mainly found on FM stations. Those outlets have proliferated, but they can broadcast only a short distance compared to the AM powerhouses. And, satellite radio stands to make further changes in the industry.

Despite all that, nocturnal radio is still a delight. Try 1030, WBZ in Boston if you want to check out what's happening in Beantown. Cleveland, Louisville and Detroit have great stations, too.

So, why don't you give that AM dial a twirl some night and see what you've been missing?

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