I’ve been threatening to do this for many years. Now that I’ve got nothing but time on my hands, it seems logical to begin. As the coronavirus keeps us all locked inside our homes, I’ll try to recall and relate some tales from a time when Nashville was a lot simpler. When life wasn’t quite as responsibility laden.
When I arrived in Nashville in the latter decade of the 20th Century, the town was a lot different from the cosmopolitan mecca that exists today, also a lot less crowded and a whole lot less business-centric. But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit.
I consider myself fortunate to have arrived in Davidson County when I did and grateful for the people who I encountered as I set up residency. At the time I didn’t like all of them – nor did they me – but as the years pass my affection for them has grown exponentially. You won’t find a more creative, caring, or talented collection of characters anywhere and I feel blessed to have them as part of my narrative.
Iideally, as this narrative progresses, it’ll fall into the category of non-fiction or memoir, unfortunately, my mind ain’t all that and some of it may end up fiction. My telling is the way I remember it – for better or for worse. If I get it wrong, I apologize, but it’s my story and I’m sticking too it.
One of the things that held up my recounting of tales, was of course, what to leave in and what to leave out. For better or for worse, we were young at the time and engaging in young people’s behaviors. I’m no longer a young man and as such, I’ve got a family and young children, as do many of my contemporaries, and I’m not sure how much I want them knowing. I may have to water down a few tales, or maybe not, we’ll see how things progress. Hell, I may abandon the whole project tomorrow.
I could continue to write disclaimers and explanations for days, but instead, I think we’ll just dive in and start the ball rolling. Hope you enjoy the stories, and if you were there I hope they jog a few memories of your own. Please share if they do. So without any more delay…
The summer of 1989 found me living in State College, Pennsylvania where I’d been a semi-student at Penn State since 1984. I know that’s 5 years, hence the prefix “semi”.
I loved State College and over the last half decade I’d had partaken in all it had to offer. Unfortunately, little of that took place in a classroom. I was, how do you say it, attendance challenged. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy classes, but rather that life kept presenting more interesting options. Whether it was a road trip to West Virginia, or a cute girl that needed help with a book report, or an equally cute one that needed help with a film project, something always seemed to come up that took precedence over going to class.
It didn’t help that I found most of my classes less than challenging. I remember an upper-level psychology class where the professor graded me a 72 – despite my work earning me a 92 – because I missed so many classes. The solution should have been clear, but I guess you could say I was the classic underachiever, and so I continued along my detrimental path.
Things got even worse when I discovered the world of radio. The affliction began with college radio, followed by an internship over the summer and ending up with me employed at WGMR – 50,000 Watts of flame-throwing power fueled by country music. WGMR was one of the best jobs I ever had and I soaked it up like I was enrolled in a university. I wanted to know everything I could about broadcasting.
WGMR wasn’t technical marvel or even a testimony to modern architecture. The whole station consisted of two rooms on the second floor of an old three-story building on College Avenue. One room was the studio and the other the sales office/production room. Oh, I almost forgot, there was a third room, at the other end of the building catercorner to the other two, the GM’s office. Don’t know how I forgot that because ultimately I spent a lot of time in that office.
The studio was a room divided in half with the hulking console, along with two turntables and three cart machines, which filled the space. The console was about 10 feet long and instead of present-day slide faders, you controlled level with knobs the size of your hand that called pots. The other half of the room was filled with vinyl.
The sales office was a room with 3 desks, 2 for full time salespeople and one for a part-timer. In the far corner of the room was a closet that housed the production room. When I say closet, I mean closet. It was literally a closet that been outfitted with a small board, two reel-to-reel machines, a cart machine, and a microphone. In that room, all the commercials sold by those in the outer room got recorded.
Keeping all the equipment running fell into the hands of an elderly man who had spent the last 60 years working in radio and had the scars to prove it. A tape deck would go down, and he’d fix it. A fuse would go out on the board, and he’d change it. The signal from the tower would go offline, and he’d trudge out to the remote location and get it back online. In other words, he was McGyver before McGyver.
There seemed to limit to his knowledge on the mechanical issues of keeping a radio station running and I soaked up all he was willing to share.
The sales manager/GM. Mike, was a tall mustached bodybuilder with an intimidating manner that hid a dry sense of humor. He loved a beer as much as a barbell.
It wasn’t before long that I was spending the majority of my time at the station. Instead of reading textbooks I was reading Radio and Records and Billboard magazine. I was always available for an extra air shift or any production work that needed doing. There was a lot to learn and I felt it imperative that I take as much advantage of the opportunity as possible.
At that time, production work required that you become handy with a razor blade and splicing tape. Every edit had to be done by hand and required a great deal of patience and tenacity. I can remember spending a couple hours to complete one 60 second spot. Yet I never grew tired or bored with radio work the way that I grew tired of classroom work.
The beauty of WGMR was that it had long been neglected. It seemed to run on its own, with apologies to Mike, continually producing an amount of revenue acceptable to its ownership. Radio was the business of the family out of Tyrone, Pennsylvania, and they owned several stations in the area. We seldom saw him and as a result, the station became both my playground and my laboratory, as well as my place of employment.
Starting as a DJ, I soon became the program director after the guy who hired me left to sell cars or something equally lucrative, or maybe he went to jail, I can’t quite remember. The point was, there was a vacancy and I wanted to be the person filling it. After some selling, I convinced Mike, who convinced the owner, that I was the guy for the job.
My promotion was not a matter of being the most talented, merely being in the vicinity and possessing a willingness to work long hours for a pittance, were the prime components in my promotion.
While we were a country music station in name, ownership had been slipping some AC hits – Air Supply, Chicago, Juice Newton, Bruce Hornsby – in an effort to broaden the audience. You see at this point country music was on the wane. There were fewer and fewer stations in the country and virtually none in the metropolitan areas. Ownership didn’t believe people appreciated the music and it’s artists like they once did.
The Country music industry itself had also allowed itself to slip behind other genres of music. While over the last decade other formats had embraced the album as their primary vehicle, country music was still singles-oriented.
Artists would release a single and watch it move up the charts. Once it stalled, they’d release another one, depending on how high the successor charted, they might release a third. At some point, the singles would be collected, along with a few other tracks, and an album would be released. Over the next six months, the process would be repeated. That’s why an artist like Conway Twitty had 70 plus albums to his name. Some years, he’d release as many as 4 in a 12 month period. Most of them selling under 20K units.
About the same time as I became program director at WGMR some things started changing in Nashville. Three young male artists – Steve Earle, Randy Travis, and Dwight Yoakam – along with Reba McEntire were starting to make things interesting. Each in their own unique way. McEntire and Travis hearkened back to the traditionalists of the past, something Nashville had left behind in an effort to appeal to and try to attract pop audiences. Ironically, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings weren’t appealing to hipsters at this time. They’d have to wait another few years to reclaim their past glories.
Dwight Yoakam – with his updated Bakersfield sound – and Steve Earle – with his rock sensibilities – had something the older artists had been lacking – style, energy, and youthful appeal. Neither played homage to the past and both spoke their mind freely. As likely to be found sharing a bill with a punk band as a traditional country act.
Yoakum went as far as to make the observation that reigning country kings Alabama should be relegated to playing Holiday Inns for the rest of their lives, while Earle ignored the establishment, opting instead, to pay homage to songwriters like Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. For the first time in a long time, there was an excitement in the air around country music, and when Randy Travis’s Always and Forever sold 2 million copies, things started to heat up fast.
This sudden burst of energy didn’t go unnoticed by a budding PD at a neglected radio station. I was quickly hooked on the new sounds and they became a focal point of our programming. We embraced the growing wave of new artists, We played artists like Foster and Lloyd, Nancy Griffith, Lyle Lovette, Mary Chapin Carpenter, K.T. Oslin, Restless Heart, Southern Pacific, right next to Loretta, Conway, and the Oak Ridge Boys and listeners loved it. As the decade progressed we began introducing our audience to Mark Chestnut, Ricky VanShelton, Clint Black, and Garth Brooks – more on him later – and they responded by listening even more.
Central to my philosophy was the whole idea of radio as a vital part of the community. A role that couldn’t be served by any other form of media. My DJ’s and I made appearances everywhere we could in an effort to establish ourselves as part of the neighborhood. Whether we were introducing the local country bands on stage at a nightclub or doing a remote from a local car dealer, we tried to be out in the community as much as we were in the studio. My approach wasn’t unique, but it was one that appealed to our audience.
About this time I also discovered the importance of being a reporting station for the industry trades. Being a reporter allowed you to weigh in on what songs would become hits and which ones wouldn’t. It also meant that the record companies would pay more attention to you and even send you free stuff in the form of promotional materials. It was clear to me that WGMR had to become a reporting station and I set about figuring out how to make that happen.
As I did my research, it quickly became apparent that Billboard and Radio and Records were beyond our means, so that left the Gavin Report. A trade that catered more to the small market stations than the others. I set my sights on becoming a reporting station for Gavin. The first challenge to becoming a reporter would be to first become a subscriber, a not inexpensive endeavor.
I had free rein at the station with the caveat that none of my actions cost ownership any money. Seeing as they didn’t share my excitement at being at the forefront of the looming musical revolution, chances were slim and none that they would pony up for the subscription. The only option was for me to dig into my own nearly bare pockets. Seeing no other alternative, I went ahead and invested money that I could ill-afford to.
That wasn’t the end of it though. Securing the coveted reporting status proved to be a little more difficult than I initially envisioned. There were more hoops to jump through and people to convince that we were worthy of the status. Still, with a little exaggeration and a little sugar, I was able to make it happen. WGMR became a reporting station with the Gavin Report. We were in the game.
With the reporting status came increased attention from the record labels. They became much more receptive to my calls for product, going as far as to assign us our own promo guy. My initial promo guys were Rick Hughes at MCA, Ted Wagner at RCA, and Jack Purcell at Warner Brothers. Not a bad roster.
It’s funny, at the time, I envisioned them as cigar-smoking, champaign swilling, limo riding, pillars of the music business. With age I realize, that they were just like me…young, hungry and toiling in a closet. All of them have managed to remain successful in a field that can often be quite brutal. All of them taught me a great deal about radio and the music business.
As part of WGMR’s commitment to the building of the community, we introduced new artists as if they resided right here in town as opposed to Nashville. It was not uncommon to tune in and hear an interview with Garth or members of Restless Heart between songs. We tried to do at least one or two quick phone drops a day. To listeners in must have seemed like we had a direct line to music row. In reality, this was only a testimony to the cooperation of our attentive promo guys.
My strategies paid off and in 1988, WGMR won the coveted rating slot of 26 – 35-year-olds for the State College market. Everybody was ecstatic and I had even more free rein than I had in the past. That would be a development then ended up working to my detriment. I fell prey to the canard that anything worth doing is worth overdoing. I went bigger and as a result, I was sent home.
My first overindulgence was to produce a Valentine’s Day contest that would provide a wedding package to two lucky listeners that would include them getting married on the air. It wasn’t quite the WKRP turkey drop, but it wasn’t the rating winner that I anticipated. More importantly, it didn’t add to the bottom line, in fact we might have lost a little bit. Adding insult to injury, the couple developed an outbreak of Psoriasis right after the wedding which kept them isolated from each other for a month after the wedding. Not a good omen.
The second failure was the staging of the True Value Country Music Showdown. It was a competition for a record deal by amateur artists in the form of a talent show. It started at the local level and those winners moved to the national stage. I wasn’t content to just stage a talent show, I needed to import judges from Nashville. Who better to bring in than a couple of unknowns like the brother/sister Alaskan duo The Sanders, and Garth Brooks sans band, who had just released his first single, Much Too Young To Feel This Damn Old.
Needless to say, I didn’t know nearly enough about producing an event of this size to successfully pull it off. Despite the budding star power of a young Garth Brooks, the event crashed and burned, failing to produce enough revenue to cover costs and just like that my wings were clipped. A budding radio career cut short.
Any consideration of future employment with the station was rendered moot by my accidentally putting my hand through the back window of the studio after a day spent drinking my blues away. It wasn’t the first, nor would it be the last time that alcohol contributed to me making poor choices.
Luckily charges weren’t pressed, but I was now unemployed and unenrolled in school. It felt like I needed a change in scenery, but where to go.
Fortunately it wouldn’t take me long to plot my next destination.