How I Got to Madison Avenue. And beyond.

As with life, this blog is developing and changing. It began with a lot of stories that occurred on my career path from Albany to Madison Avenue and back.

There were some similarities to the AMC series "Mad Men," and then I went even farther back in time with a somewhat fictionalized version of growing up in Troy's Little Italy.

And now, a new development. As my free lance advertising and marketing career winds down, I'm becoming more interested in the theatre arts that my father and his 3 brothers helped instill in me as I grew up.

As a result, I've volunteered to help promote the Theatre Institute at Sage, and now, to continue a long-interrupted desire to be behind the proscenium, I've joined the newly formed Troy Civic Theatre, and was actually fortunate enough to appear in their first production.

So, I hope you'll enjoy the new stories that will develop from this latest turn.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Rock 'n' Roll Years, Part Two

In the 3rd season of "Mad Men," one of the owners of the agency comments on David Ogilvy's new (in 1963) book, "Confessions of an Adman," saying it's the book every adman writes, only Ogilvy's got published.

That may be true -- there are enough stories to go around on Madison Avenue, and we all enjoy telling them.

But I think "Ad Missions" is different, or I wouldn't be writing it. It's a personal journey to Mad. Ave., and it took several attempts and twenty years.

Hope you're enjoying them as much as I am remembering and sharing them. In this posting, more stories from my radio days, and a brush with New York City.

I'm John Lennon Of The Beatles

Penance comes in many forms.

Yes, I was John Lennon, in a particular way, for a year, starting in 1964.

My first job was as the Continuity Director at a 50,000 rock & roll radio station in Albany, NY. Continuity Director was an old radio title, back in the days when radio programs and commercials flowed into one another -- segue is the word for it, from the Latin, meaning to follow. Non sequitur is the opposite - something that doesn't follow-- changing the subject completely.

In the old days of radio, it was the Continuity Director's job to tie everything together -- coming out of an organ recital into the news, from the news to a commercial, and back again. Somehow, the writer would make a connection.

What I really was was the station's writer. I wrote little blurbs for each disc jockey's programs, so that the other jocks could cross-plug them. I helped write lyrics for the station's identification jingles, came up with contest ideas and wrote commercials for clients who didn't have advertising agencies. I started there in 1959, when I nineteen, and just three years out of high school. So I was writing for the people I listened to as a young teenager. I learned on the job, and by the beginning of 1964 I wanted to move from writing for radio to writing advertising for all media.

Before that happened, the Beatles happened. It was incredible. WPTR, the Good Guys station, became the Good Guys/Beatles Station for Albany and the Northeast. I was writing Beatles promos, Beatles contests, Beatles concert listings.

They made their first trip to the USA in 1964, and our Program Director, Jim Ramsburg, arranged to go to a Beatles press conference in New York. He called the station right after the conference, said that he had recorded all four Beatles saying our call letters, and that I was to write a promo for a contest and get it on the air before he got back.

If a listener who was called could predict which Beatle would say he was a WPTR Good Guy, that listener would win a Beatles promotional item -- album, wig, tickets, Beatle Book, whatever. I wrote it, we produced it and put it on the air that day.

A few days later, Ramsburg returned with his tape of the Beatles. It was his closely-guarded treasure -- he brought the tape into the station's recording studio, where, as we were to dub it, making safety copies, just three people were allowed to hear it: The Program Director, the Recording Engineer, and The Continuity Director.

We heard Paul's voice, saying: “I'm Paul McCartney of the Beatles, and I'm a WPTR Good Guy, too.”

Then we heard George's voice, saying, “I'm George Harrison of the Beatles, and I'm a WPTR Good Guy, too.”

Then we heard Ringo's voice, saying, “I'm Ringo Starr of the Beatles, and I'm a WPTR Good Guy, too.”

Then we heard… ...silence.

We didn't hear John. Ramsburg had either erased it, or never recorded it, I still don't know which.

We were in deep you know what. The promo was on the air, announcing that we had all four Beatles saying WPTR! The station's license renewal from the FCC was already being held up, due to some other irregularities. We couldn't -- or wouldn't -- let this be the cause of another problem.

The solution was, for one of us in that room to imitate John Lennon.

It couldn't have been the Program Director – his voice was well known, because he hosted a three hour show five days a week.

It also couldn't have been the Recording Engineer, he was already imitating someone on the air. His was the voice of a car dealer, “Art Neet of Armory Garage”, in a weekly series of commercials.

Of the three of us, only one voice had never been heard on the air: mine.

Can you imitate their accents”, Ramsburg asked.

I'll try.” I went into the announcer's booth. The engineer, Jimmy Cruise, played the three Beatles' voices for me. To my ear, they sounded like a couple of Bob & Ray characters. One was Uncle Eugene, a character in a soap opera satire called “The Life and Loves of Linda Lovely, Girl Intern,” played by Bob Elliot, father to Chris and grandfather to Abby.

Eugene had a disease called Fleabus, which made him “walk around like you're sitting down, and made your head as soft as a grape.” His voice came directly from his throat, like Bob & Ray's newsman, Wally Balew, and like Lily Tomlin's little girl character, Edith Ann, years later on Laugh-In.

Of course, the Beatles had Liverpudlian accents, which I had never heard before, so I tried to combine the Fleabus voice with the strange accent, as I said, “I'm John Lennon of the Beatles, and I'm a PTR Good Guy, also.”

I said “also” because it sounded more British to me. We mixed my John Lennon with the background sounds from the press conference, put all four Beatles on a tape cartridge many times in random order, put them on the air without telling anyone, not even the General Manager of the station, about the deception.

But for the next dozen years, I couldn't get anywhere near a microphone without breaking out in a cold sweat of Roman Catholic guilt, full of fear of damnation and just plain embarrassment. I had what is commonly known as “mike fright.”

Of course, I've told this story to people who listened to WPTR in those days. And almost everyone of them have told me that the John Lennon statement was their favorite, because it sounded “so British.”

Twelve years later, I found myself in a job where I had to be in front of a microphone. I read and read and recorded and recorded, in a continual cold sweat, until I could do it without flinching. The job was for a part of the very institution that instilled that sense of guilt and fear in me -- the Roman Catholic Church!

The Beatle Book

And How It Led to a Beetle.

I was 24 years old when the Beatle phenomenon struck, and received my first lesson in merchandising.

The rock 'n' roll radio station I worked for became The Beatles Station practically overnight. Our 50,000 watts of power beamed northeast, so we had listeners throughout New England, and even in Northeastern Canada.

One of our distant listeners had been to England, and sent us a copy of a London-printed full-color magazine about the Beatles. My Program Director saw it and his eyes lit up.

He asked me to call the publisher, whose name was listed, and ask if anyone owned the US rights to the magazine. I did as he instructed, and talked to a very surprised publisher. The rights hadn't been sold, and if we were interested, he said to cable an offer. After that, it was out of my hands.

The Program Director got the backing he needed, cabled an offer which was accepted, and the color plates were sent from London. We started promoting the WPTR Beatle Book like crazy, and crazy was how people reacted. At something like $1.25, the orders poured in.

My job was to stamp the station's call letters on each magazine before it was mailed out. Meanwhile, the Program Director sent offers to rock radio stations around the country, and wholesaled the books in each market. He made a small fortune.

Soon after, I left the station and started working at an ad agency. One day, out of the blue, the Program Director called and suggested we meet for lunch. He said he had a surprise for me. And what a surprise -- he handed me a check for one thousand dollars!

One thousand dollars for making a phone call. I knew right away what I would do with that money. I used it as the down payment on a brand new, shiny red 1964 Volkswagen Beetle! It was quite a down payment, because that year, a new VW cost just about eighteen hundred dollars.

Fraim & Fortune

Selling Something That Never Existed

We were young and brash. All three of us. Two disk jockeys -- Don Fortunato and Ed Neilson -- and a copywriter -- me. We worked at a rock 'n' roll radio station in Albany, NY, and we were funny, or at least we thought we were. So we created a radio show that never existed.

Don went by the name of Don Fortune, and trying to be clever, we changed Ed's name to Ed Fraim. I was the off-air writer. We wrote some material, scripted what sounded like what is called in the radio business an air check -- a sample of a show taped off the air, and sent out copies to radio stations. To our surprise, we were hired -- all three of us -- to do the morning drive time show -- one of the most important slots in radio -- in the New York/New Jersey Metro area.

(I had the additional duty of working as the station's copywriter, dealing with clients like the New Jersey Branch of Macy's, called Bamberger's.) True; it was a radio station in Newark, New Jersey, but there we were, competing with the likes of Klavan & Finch on WNEW.

Well, it didn't last long, even though we had a small but loyal band of listeners, mostly in Brooklyn. We were out, at least two of us, as the station shifted format from silly to country and western. I was offered my old job back in Albany, and I gladly took it, in spite of the kind offers from co-workers who said they could get me interviews with ad agencies in Manhattan. I wasn't ready for that, and I think I knew it.

But a few months working in Newark and living in suburban New Jersey convinced me that a career in radio was not going to be my life. In order to move up in the world of radio, you had to move around, and that wasn't for me. I made up my mind that I would work in advertising, and started studying that market.

Identity Theft on a Grand Scale

When They Called it “Pirate Radio,” They Meant It.

I was rehired at WPTR, when Perry Samuels, the recently installed station manager at WPTR realized that there was a need for an on-staff copywriter in Albany. His experience in larger markets led him to believe that all advertising copy came from ad agencies or clients' own “in-house” creative staff. Not so upstate. It wasn't even true during my brief stint as Fraim & Fortune's writer in Newark, where half my time had been spent writing for “direct” clients.

The rehire gave me the opportunity to bring my young and growing family back to where we started, and breathing room to start my search for employment in a local ad agency.

Of course, Samuels didn't know I was the voice of John Lennon, or he probably would have booted me right out the door again. He did berate me for writing some off-color weather promos that our Program Director got recording stars Ian and Sylvia (“Love is Strange”), to record for us, but that was minor, compared to the problem that one of his disc jockeys caused.

The “identity theft” happened shortly after I left the radio station and began working for a small, one-man agency, but even though I wasn't involved in it, it's worth retelling here.

First, you should know that WPTR had great station identification jingles – it had started in the late fifties, when General Manager Duncan Mounsey used his show business connections to have piano duo Ferrante & Teicher write and record a custom package of music, using the “W” to stand for “Wonderful,” as in “Wonderful PTR.” Each deejay got his own personal theme song, too.

After that, Station Manager Don Kelly and his Program Director, Jim Ramsburg, signed on with PAMS in Dallas, a company that specialized in radio station ID's, to produce several series of outstanding, fully orchestrated and beautifully sung packages. Don, Jim and I would re-write the suggested lyrics to tailor them to our area, in one case changing “The station with the happy difference” to “Good neighbor to the Great Northeast.” It scanned closely enough. (Our rival across the Hudson River, WTRY, discovered that we had bought the package, and started using “happy difference” in their promos before our jingles aired, thinking they were stealing our thunder, but of course were blind-sided and deflated when they heard our replaced lyrics.)

Like the others before it, the PAMS package that was produced for WPTR in the mid-sixties featured a jingle for each of the deejays. Well, it's too late to make a long story short, but one of the deejays who left the station in 1966 took copies of the entire package, and brought them with him to his next job, which was on a ship off the coast of England operating an offshore, 24 hour rock 'n' roll station – pirate radio.

The station manager loved the jingle package, shamelessly changed the names of all his deejays to the same names as the WPTR deejays, and used our jingles until the British outlawed the rogue stations in November of '66.

The “pirate Boomer” returned to the states and kept using the name until he died in a motorcycle accident a year later, and so, for just about a year, the world had two Boom Boom Branningans to listen to. As if one wasn't enough.

Next: A Boy in a One Man Ad Agency

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