Back When Record Album Covers Could Floor You.
A story for M. C. Escher fans.
We all know that things aren't always what they seem; at a 50,000 watt rock 'n' roll radio station in Albany, I learned it from my double cousin Anthony, who had the job of continuity director before me. The station had just moved into the building, and the program director, disc jockeys, my cousin -- everyone but the station's chief engineer was in the general manager's (GM) office.
Spread out on his newly installed rug, each one only a foot or so apart from the next one, were dozens of album covers, all the way from the office door to the impressive executive desk. Back in the late fifties and early sixties, album cover art was wonderful. Graphic artists had a square foot of space to fill, and they did it with imagination, using photographs, paintings, typography and color in marvelous profusion.
The chief engineer, hustling over from the station's transmitter, stood in the doorway. The GM told him to come in. To him, and everyone else in the room, the object of the meeting was obvious. But the chief engineer saw it all differently. Thinking the album covers were there to keep footprints off the new carpet, he carefully stepped on every one of those beautifully designed covers on his way to the GM's desk. Everyone was so stunned, they were gasping, but couldn't speak.
By the time everyone had recovered, it was too late to tell the poor man that the staff was assembled to choose which album covers to put on the walls of the radio station.
Boom Boom Brannigan – The First Shock Jock?
How to almost lose a client with one lousy joke.
When, as a 19-year-old know-nothing, I talked myself into a job at Albany's 50,000 watt Top Forty radio station in March of 1959, I didn't know I would be starting in the same month as a loud-mouthed, brash, wise-cracking deejay named Boom Boom Brannigan.
And as much as you might want to think that that was his real name, it wasn't. The station had created the name to rhyme with Paul Flanagan, who was the top-rated jock in the market, and then started a search for someone to fit the bill.
The Boomer lived up to his pseudonym, yelling out lines like “Grab your transistor, sister,” and reading some of the corniest jokes ever written, from his personal library of books as old as “Captain Billy's Whiz Bang.”
I remember writing a cross-plug for the other jocks to read:
“Listen to Boom Boom Brannigan every weekday from 10 to 3. Boomer knows all and tells all: he knows all the old jokes, and he's still telling them!”
But one of those jokes, involving an old liquid household cleaning product that's pure naptha, and fatal if swallowed, got him and the station in deep trouble with a major advertiser, the local Pepsi-Cola bottler.
One day, after Joanie Sommers sang “It's Pepsi, for those who think young,” Boom Boom switched on his mike and announced the news that “Folks, they've combined Pepsi with Energine – now it not only hits the spot, it removes it.”
Funny, huh? No? Well, the client was listening, of course, and he didn't think it was funny either. He threatened to take all his money away and double up on our competitor's station.
It took a lot of persuasion, a lot of free spots, or “makegoods,” plus a rare on-air apology from the Boomer to convince the client to stay with us.
And the station solemnly promised that whenever a Pepsi spot ran on Boomer's show, it would be followed by a record without comment.
When “Boom Boom” Came to Troy.
How the Northeast's brashest deejay invaded enemy territory
My hometown of Troy, NY, was once famous for its industrial prowess. It's still the home of a few outstanding educational institutions, but many of its fine old retail buildings were still standing proudly in the early 1960's.
That's when Boom Boom Brannigan and the rest of the WPTR “Good Guy” disk jockeys came to Troy and broadcast their shows from a custom-built Golden Studio on the Victorian Mezzanine of Frear’s Bazaar, which had been one of the city’s premiere department stores for nearly a century.
I remember it well, because I was WPTR’s Continuity Director at the time, and was in on the planning and execution. Back then, there were two area radio giants competing for the lion’s share of the local listening audience – Troy’s WTRY, with studios and offices in the Proctor’s building; and Albany’s WPTR, whose Golden Studio was on the second floor of a former trolley substation on Central Avenue.
Both were “Top 40" stations, programming the popular music of the day, which meant rock n’ roll and ballads with backbeats, spun by “personalities,” along with local news and contests aimed at a young audience with discretionary income. The rivalry was great, and spurred each station to try to top the other. As Marty Ross, the WPTR Program Director told me, the worst thing you could be – from a sales perspective – was the number 2 rock n’ roll station in a market.
One of the brightest radio stars of the time, Troy native Paul Flanagan, first made his mark on WTRY, and was lured over to WPTR with more money and the promise of reaching a wider audience. At 50,000 watts, the Albany station was ten times stronger. I don’t think the management of WTRY ever got over that loss. For years, in the fifties and well into the sixties, it was attack and counter-attack. The more outlandish the promotion aimed at stealing listeners from the other, the better.
There were missing call letter promotions, capitalizing on the fact that the two stations shared three of the same letters. (WTRY was actually named for Troy; WPTR was named for its parent company, Patroon Broadcasting.) During most station identification announcements, the “Y” of one or the “P” of the other would be left out. The intention was to create confusion about which radio station was which, but I always thought listeners were too smart to actually be confused. WTRY was at 980, in the middle of the AM dial, and at 1540, WPTR advertised itself as “First on the right side of your dial.” So the ploy was probably more of an annoyance, but that’s all it took to keep escalating the conflict.
The stations also rivaled each other in attracting the young recording stars of the time to “live” shows. (I use quotes because lip-synching to their own records was necessary for some of the performers, even back then.) WTRY would present its rock n’ roll stars at the Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) Field house. WPTR’s General Manager, Duncan Mounsey, had been stage manager at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, and used his connections to bring the likes of Sam Cooke, Connie Francis and Frankie Avalon to the “Tower of Power,” held at Hawkins Stadium that once stood between Troy and Albany, in Menands.
The high point (or low, depending on your attitude) of the war was WPTR’s “Trojan Horse” Plan. To inaugurate the satellite studio in Frear’s, it wouldn’t do to just announce the plan in a multi-media ad campaign. This was show business, and there had to be a show.
The construction company that built the mezzanine studio -- by sheer coincidence, my brothers-in-law at the time -- was also instructed to build a huge, hollow Trojan horse that would be part of a ballyhooed parade that would cross the Hudson from Albany County, travel noisily past the WTRY studios, and end up outside Frear’s.
Crowds of radio listeners were urged to line the parade route, and, of course, most gathered at the site of the parade’s conclusion, where they were promised a big surprise. Sure enough, when the horse was wheeled to its destination in front of Frear’s, a hatch opened, and out came the WPTR “Good Guys” in tuxedos - Boom Boom, Paul Flanagan and the rest, forcing their smiles and happy to be gulping all the fresh air they’d been denied while inside the horse’s belly on the long slow procession.
For months thereafter, my job was to make sure that all the commercials, public service announcements and promotional spots were duplicated, as the deejays split their time – and their shows – between the two studios. Whenever I slept late, I would go first to the satellite studio and claim I had genuine work to do.
Whether the Troy studio gimmick actually resulted in higher ratings is questionable, but it certainly drew Trojans to Frear's, where they could put faces to the voices of some of their favorite radio personalities who were entertaining their listeners from behind the glass on that beautiful mezzanine.
Playing B-Ball With The Harlem Globetrotters
How The Radio One-ders Won by Losing.
In the early sixties, WPTR began a promotion that was a “win-win-win.” The top forty station formed a basketball team, called the “Radio One-ders,” and offered to play high school faculties.
The school would put together a team of teachers and administrators, and both the radio station and the school would promote the game, with proceeds of ticket sales going to the school for a worthy cause.
The station won, because we received free publicity from posters and word of mouth at the schools, eventually boosting our ratings.
The school won, because they sold tickets based on the fact that radio personalities would be at their school, and so raised money they wouldn't have otherwise had.
And the faculty won, because the WPTR team was what you might call the “bizzaro Globetrotters” – we always lost, making the teachers and administrators the heroes of the evening.
Of course, our team wasn't all radio personalities. There were only five or six of them, and one of them was always on the air, of course. So, newsmen, engineers, salesmen and a 20-something continuity director – me – all suited up in our gold and black uniforms, and showed up to play what was usually a ragtag bunch of male teachers who were even less coordinated than us.
We had our gag plays, borrowed liberally from the Globetrotters, and the school team was in on the fact that they would win, regardless of their expertise on the court, or lack of it. Some of the schools' teams were so bad, it took lot of effort to insure the outcome. We brought our own referee, a public relations guy, who helped by calling fouls on us and ignoring those of our opponents.
One school added to the excitement of the game night by recruiting its female teachers to form a cheerleading squad. They were pretty young teachers, and pretty creative, too. They had a ploy to help their team win – by “kidnapping” a key WPTR player and keeping him with them on the sidelines.
The player they kidnapped was me! It may have been because I was fairly tall and thin, or the youngest member of the team, but it certainly wasn't because I was the best player. I was never interested in competitive sports, so never very good at them, but I was an avid bike rider, so maybe it was my legs that attracted the cheerleading squad.
Whatever the reason, I thoroughly enjoyed sitting out most of the game in the company of these half dozen lovely women, and I don't know where other men's cheerleader fantasies come from, but I can pinpoint the beginning of mine from that game night.
Eventually my team needed me to help us lose, so they ransomed me and I was back, double-dribbling, missing shots and passing the ball to the opposition.
About a year into our team's existence, the Harlem Globetrotters came to the nearby town of Saratoga Springs, and our sales manager came up with a deal for their promoter to get more air time for them and some publicity for our station. He got them to agree to play the WPTR Radio One-ders for five minutes at halftime. Naturally, we promoted it on the air, which we hoped would boost ticket sales.
I'm sure you can imagine what that five minutes on the court was like – I don't think any of us ever got close to the basketball, let alone the basket. The Globetrotters had a wonderful time, using all their incredible ball-handling skills to make us look totally ridiculous. Of course, it was all in good fun and we got exactly what we expected, and maybe some sympathy from the public.
Our reward that evening was to join the team – including the mild-mannered star of the team in the sixties, Meadowlark Lemon – for a wonderful Italian meal after the game, down the road at a restaurant with the unlikely name of Ecobelli's Tam-O-Shanter.
Next week -- Part two of my radio days.