For those who don't know...being in radio was all I ever wanted to do. At a very early age, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, the answer always took the oldsters by surprise..."I want to be on the radio."
I was given the first opportunity in Ava, Mo. at 15, reading the news. I nailed it and then the radio heroin slowly but surely took hold. I went to radio school while going to high school (the same radio school that spawned Spike O'dell, who retired from WGN). In between my sophomore and junior year at United Township High School in East Moline Illinois, I got the opportunity to "play" radio.
UTHS was so big, it had two campuses, one for the 9th and 10th grades and the big newer campus was reserved for the "big kids." When I made the jump, I immediately sought out the journalism teacher who was the only teacher at UT that had hair longer than mine. A couple of us "radio heads" started a club for future broadcasters, the only left thing to do was start a radio station. (yes, that's me, third from left)
One of us had knowledge about electronics, one was up on the government, another was a programming nut (me) and the other guys were just there because it was fun. We petitioned the FCC for a low power license and got started that summer on procuring radio equipment that the local stations could
a.) donate or
b.) throw away.
At the start of 11th grade (September 1972), we had just received word that the FCC had granted us a license for us to broadcast with a one watt tower. Somehow, our technical guy fashioned a tower out of a CB antenna and got permission to mount it on the roof. You could hear the station in the parking lot and on a real good day, in my bedroom which was about 3/4 of a mile away.
The first thing we did was to write all of the record companies asking if they would send us free albums.(I learned that during my travels through various stations in the area.) Sure enough, RCA and MCA sent us copies of albums they wanted us to play. In one bundle from MCA under the new "Groundhogs" and "Wishbone Ash" albums was this group of long haired hard nosed looking guys named Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Their first album of course was "Pronounced", released in 1973. We auditioned it and thought these guys had some talent. Plus, there was an 8 minute song on there that had to be good, right?
A few months passed and while listening to the radio, I heard that these guys were coming through Davenport, opening for someone else I had just discovered named ZZ Top. I wrote the record company asking if I could get an interview with the guys in LS, explaining that we had made an anthem out of Freebird, we played the song every Friday at dismissal time, it had become a tradition to kick off the weekend.
About a week later, over the loudspeaker, I was informed there was a phone call for me at the principals office. Of course, I thought it was my mom or someone in my family but it was the national rep for MCA explaining to me the rules of the interview. After the show and only for ten minutes, I would get "someone" in the band. The "press passes" would be available at the box office window.
So, with notepad and cassette recorder in hand, I went to the show, was absolutely destroyed by how they blew ZZ off the stage. It wasn't close. Those five tough looking guys just smoked.
I waited around back stage after the show, feeling pretty large about my "press pass" and waited, and waited, and waited. A stage door opened and out came Ronnie VanZandt, not more than 21 or 22 at the time. Still barefoot, he seemed pretty reluctant to talk.
"So, let me get this straight, you have a high school radio station?" "Yes, sir" I replied. "And you broadcast?" "Yes sir, we even get out to the parking lot." He laughed very hard at that and seemed to be a bit more interested.
We chatted about a number of things..growing up in a town on the wrong side of the tracks...what was a lynyrd skynyrd ( a gym teacher they hated so they called him that)...he was pissed off at Neil Young about his songs "Alabama" and "Southern Man" which made the south seem like rednecks...musical influences...how we both hated Nixon... At the end of the interview (which lasted 30 minutes) someone came and got him and he seemed bummed to have to quit. "So you have a radio station in high school that broadcasts over the air? In Jacksonville we never heard of anything like that. How cool." He shook my hand, gave me a hug and was genuinely impressed that a kid from a high school radio station was the only media outlet who wanted to interview the band, no one else did.
"We love you guys, when you come back maybe you can play at my school?" "Sure, kid, be happy to", he replied.
Before he left, I said I had one more question for him..."sure kid, what?" "Why do you perform barefoot?" I asked. "So I can feel the stage burn" he answered. Then he was gone.
I thought Skynyrd's first two album were filthy, nasty, take no prisoners rock and roll. They got sloppy with the next two but "Street Survivors" to me, was/is a masterpiece.
It was 1976 when I got into the business for good, long after "Sweet Home Alabama" made these guys household names. I will never forget the kindness of Ronnie VanZandt to put up with a 17 year old punk kid who was just looking to help fulfill his dream.
While working in Muscatine, Iowa in the fall of 1977, we all got the news about the plane crash. I pulled out my cassette from that interview and played it. I realized at that time how much I sucked in the interview, but no one seemed to care. I have only cried twice on the air and that was the first time.
My next interview, in 1978, was with Harry Chapin.
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