I have always loved radio. That passion eventually led me to my 15 years at QVC and many more in the DRTV and infomercial industry. I spent some time in radio before QVC, most of it when I was in college. Radio, unlike QVC, had no guests (it was music radio), unless you count the guys in the air duct. Guys in the air duct? Read on.
Here’s how it all started: One Christmas, think I was 11 (1962), I received a “Remco Radio Station.” I loved it. Instead of using the little telescoping antenna that came with it, I strung out about 100 feet of wire through the trees, which was totally illegal. It enabled me to broadcast almost a mile, giving me a potential audience of about 20 people in my rural community. I happily went on the air every evening, playing music and giving my opinions on pretty much everything (some things never change). I did it for years. Every once in a while, a neighbor would say they heard me on the radio. That was enough for my ego to keep me going for quite a while.
Fast forward to my teens. I was heavily into amateur radio. I bought a 160 meter transmitter at a swap meet, knowing it was close to the AM broadcast band. It didn’t take too much technical expertise to tune it down to the commercial band (really, really illegal). I put it on 1605 kilohertz, so I wouldn’t get too much interference from the broadcast band.
Living on a farm had its benefits. I was able to string a several hundred foot wire antenna from the top of the barn, where my “studios” were located, to a tree at the opposite end of the property. I used a piece of equipment called a match box to maximize the 200 watts from the transmitter to the antenna.
A totally illegal setup. I had two turntables and a reel-to-reel tape recorder and started broadcasting on a regular schedule. I had a Revox “Sound-on-Sound” tape recorder, the precursor to true multi-track. I was able to record jingles in 4 part harmony.
Call letters? I was 14 and even more of a rebel than I am now. (I know it’s hard to believe.) The forbidden call letters of “WFUK” slammed out at 1605 kHz every night with 200 watts of power, using several singing jingles that blasted out “Fuck radio, in New Jersey” in glorious 4 part harmony.
The station had quite a range. To keep the FCC at bay, I gave our address as a different Post office every week. I told people to send their letters, requests for QSL Cards (verification that they had heard us), etc, to Radio, care of general delivery. Then, I would go to the Post Office to pick up the mail. Got to see a lot of the “hinterlands” of South Jersey during that time. No computers so the Post Office and the FCC were not able to communicate that easily. I received mail from people in a dozen states who had heard the station.
I played music and comedy that other stations could not because of the use of obscene words. But when you’re “Fuck Radio,” it doesn’t really matter. I played Red Foxx and Rusty Warren (Knockers Up), the Mothers of Invention, the Fuggs and more with impunity.
The FCC had been getting complaints. Hey, it was the mid-60’s and I regularly featured all the words that were forbidden. I know they were looking because I would often see FCC vans, recognized by the antennas on their roof, cruising my area. They were trying to triangulate my signal to find my location. (Today, they’d nail my butt via satellite in a couple of seconds.) When I realized they were looking for my “pirate” station, I curtailed my regular broadcast schedule, going on-air at sporadic times and days.
I avoided the FCC for over two years until one fateful day. I came home from school to find the Regional Director for the FCC sitting in the living room with my mother. Busted! I sat down the Director read me the riot act, explaining the realities of 10 years in prison, 10 years in jail and all kinds of other consequences. When he found out that I was still 16, he softened quite a bit and wrapped things up. Prosecuting a minor for this type of offense would have been difficult.
He confiscated my “transmitter,” or at least what he thought was my transmitter. I had prepared a chassis with several burnt out tubes, capacitors, resistors and the like for just such an occasion. Satisfied that he had kept the free world safe, he left.
It was one of those times when my Mother rose to the occasion. She said she was disappointed that I had broken the law but encouraged me to pursue my dreams of being on-the-air in a more conventional way. WFUK went silent and, a few years later, while I was in college, I got my first job in radio at WLDB (named for owners Louis and Dorothy Bremmer) in Atlantic City.
I lasted about 2 minutes at WLDB in Atlantic City in 1970, technically my first job in commercial radio. I was hired because I had a big library of 60’s rock and folk albums. They wanted to go “progressive” during the afternoon. The owner, Dorothy Bremmer warned me not to play any “druggie music.” The first day, my first song was “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” a Phil Ochs song about apathy. It has a line that goes, “Smoking marijuana is more fun than drinking beer, but a friend of ours got busted and they gave him 30 years…”
Dorothy burst into the studio and fired me for playing a “drug song.” No explaining to her that it was a song about apathy. She let loose with a tirade of “F” bombs that might have embarrassed George Carlin. I left the mic open and her outburst went out to Atlantic City on 1,000 non-directional watts. But I doubt the FCC (or probably anyone) was listening that day. Getting fired in the middle of your first song might be a record, I never checked. The station was in a trailer in Atlantic City. A really crappy trailer. And she tried to get me to leave my records. Yeah, she was a sweetheart.
Luckily, the Atlantic City Press got wind of what happened and wrote an article about the “Shortest Job in Radio.” John Struckel at WFPG read it and contacted me. He put me in touch with Eddie Newman at WRNJ (now WAYV), also in Atlantic City. His Program Director, Michael Schoen, now a respected news anchor and voiceover talent in New York City, heard the demo tape I dropped off and hired me to do a nighttime jazz and Broadway Show shift. John Struckel was a great man who died soon after this trying to put WFPG back on the air after a hurricane.
At the time, WRNJ played mostly soft instrumental jazz music and a complete Broadway Show soundtrack in the evening. It was my first night and I was nervous. I started playing the Broadway LP (Plain and Fancy) and decided to explore. The station was on the roof of the Ritz Carlton Condos, formerly a hotel, and I took a walk out on the roof. It was a great view of the Atlantic City skyline. When I got back, I realized I had locked myself out of the station and they hadn’t given me keys yet.
I went down to the first floor and called the day guy. (No cell phones in 1971.) He wasn’t home so I left a message for him. Then I went back to the rooftop studio and tried to figure a way to break in. I discovered an air vent that looked large enough to accommodate a human body. I later learned that, despite what we all saw on episodes of “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” most air vents are too small to crawl through.
I pried the vent cover off, which really required no effort; it just came off in my hands, like it had been taken off many times. I soon found out it had. While crawling through the vent, I encountered an unexpected drop of about 4 feet which put me in a large metal square, about 8-10 feet square. A friend of mine who worked in HVAC told me it could have been a recirculation tank or something like that. He also said there was probably some kind of main air intake and/or circulation system near the roof and that was why the ducts were large enough to crawl through.
I could see the light of the studio through an air grate that was near the top of the tank and could hear that the Broadway LP was still tracking so there was no dead air…yet. I also noticed in the very dim light that I was not alone. I heard the voices of two men. Air duct trolls! Or the monsters I had seen on “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.” Luckily they were human. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I noticed that they were both naked, obviously caught while having sex in the air ducts. (For crying out loud, get a freakin’ room!) They seemed terrified that they had been discovered. I told them I didn’t care that they were here and asked them for a boost to the vent grate, which one of them did. I popped out the vent cover and plopped into the room. The LP had finished and there had been a few minutes of dead air.
I rushed to the console, cracked the mic and gave a quick ID and proceeded to play the second side of the LP. As I did, the day guy rushed in, looked at me and said, “What the fuck happened to you?” I looked down and realized that I was filthy. Thick black gook from the air duct was all over my arms, face and clothing.
I told him what happened, he took another look at me, laughed and left. Luckily, no one else came to the station so I just had to do my filthy walk of shame when I was off at 1 AM. I was parked several blocks away. The next day, Michael, the PD, did mention the dead air. He just told me to be careful about it in the future.
Oh, and what became of the two guys who were “romancing” in the big metal square in the ventilation system? I saw them many more times and did have to ask them not to smoke after sex, as the smoke came right into the studio through the air vent. Of course, it occurred to me that the air I was breathing was wafting over whatever they were doing in the circulation system. When I confronted them about the smoke, they were very cooperative and never did it again. Sometimes late at night, I could hear the sounds of passion coming through the air vent along with a hint of a very nasty smell. While I have never cared what people did in the privacy of their own bedrooms, I found listening to and smelling “vent sex” to be really creepy. The whole thing made me realize that getting a Motel Six room with my girlfriend was not such a bad deal after all. Plus, the vent was already taken.
I stayed at the station for several months before getting an offer from the rock station, WMGM. While there, I often had to wade through chest deep flood waters to get to their swamp based Pleasantville, NJ studios. The Pleasantville Fire Company would loan us hip waders when that happened. It was a step up from crawling through air ducts.
At WMGM we had an on-air guy who was a real piece of work. He once took a tape of a bit that took me hours to produce and decided to bulk it to record some of his own material. It was clearly labeled with my name and the caveat ‘Do Not Erase!’ He was too lazy to find a blank tape. As Bugs Bunny often said, “Of course you know this means war!”
He would either bring his wife or girlfriend into the studio when he would do his show. A real prince of a guy. One night after the bulking incident, I discreetly took several photos of the guy and his girlfriend. They had no idea I had gotten several great shots of them holding hands, kissing, hugging, etc.
Photo geek that I am, I had my own darkroom then. I made several 8×10 enlargements of the photos. They looked great – so great that I put them in cheap Woolworth frames and replaced the photos of air personalities in the lobby with the candid shots of this guy and his lady. Of course, I did it on a night when he was doing his show with his wife waiting in the lobby.
It was priceless. His wife was sitting in the lobby while he was doing his show. She slowly noticed the photos and the crap hit the fan. You could hear the screaming through the studio doors. I understand that she grabbed two of the photos and used them in the divorce proceedings.
I replaced all the air personality photos and, although the guy was demanding the scalp of the person responsible, they never found out it was me, until now. In fact, I had such a “goody two shoes” reputation back then, I was never even suspected. In the end, they just didn’t believe the guy’s story about the photos, since I had ditched the rest of the evidence that his wife hadn’t taken. I think he left the area after this.
I hope she took the miserable SOB for a ton of dough.
(©2014 Steve Bryant – No portion of this text may be copied and/or pasted or read aloud on any audio or Internet medium without written permission of the author.)
I must commend you on the hilarious way you portrayed the sense of adventure the old school deejays lived through. Keep up the good work, & I look forward to reading more of your posts!