Which Radio DJ Saved Your Musical Life?

Aug 15th, 2008 // 39 Comments

Johnny_Fever.jpgI’ve had the sports-radio yakfest Mike & The Mad Dog on for most of this afternoon, and it’s been distractingly compelling, thanks to today’s show being the last of the program’s current iteration. The show, an afternoon-long chat about sports between sorta-smarmy Yankee partisan Mike Francesa and frenetic Giants fan Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, had been on New York’s WFAN for 19 years, and served as something of a sports-talk juggernaut; last night, WFAN announced that Russo was exiting his contract and was off the station effective immediately. Today’s show, hosted by Francesa, has featured call-ins from fans all over the country, including the governors of New York and New Jersey, and a tearful goodbye to the fans from Russo himself. (There’s much, much more background and play-by-play at this hilarious blog dedicated to the show.) One thing that’s struck me has been how many people were crying–really, truly sobbing–over the end of this era; it’s a testament to how radio is such a personally powerful medium because at its core, it’s basically just people talking to other people, even if those people may be scattered all over a geographical area (or, in the current era, around a particular IP address). And it made me wonder if any of you out there feel, or have felt, as powerful a connection with any radio hosts who brought you music.

I might have a bit of a dog in this fight (uh, no pun intended) because I put in a fair amount of time in the college-radio trenches, but I do think that there are DJs who have a knack for connecting on another level with their audience even when they don’t have to fill five and a half hours a day with just talking, which was what Mike and the Mad Dog were charged with. On a national level, there’s Delilah, the nationally syndicated adult-contemporary host who serves as a sort of confessional booth for her (mostly female) listenership. Chris Molanphy spoke eloquently about his connection with Casey Kasem in his most recent “100 & Single” column.

As a high schooler who was slowly transitioning out of her hard rock fandom, college-radio DJs were really important to me, turning me on to bands like Tiger Trap, Lush, and Smashing Orange. But the transient nature of college radio and my own transition to the other side of the microphone resulted in the relationship being nowhere near as long-standing as the ones that the other personalities I’ve mentioned here have enjoyed with their audiences. Is it even possible to have that sort of fan-subject relationship with a DJ anymore? Or has something else entirely filled that void, thanks to the many problems terrestrial radio has had and the explosion of outlets that have taken on the mantle of bringing people music?

  1. moulty

    Yeah, college radio changed my life too, introduced me from everything from The Replacements to MF Doom. I always had my favorite DJs, and there was something special to me about the idea that only me and maybe four other people (in the entire world!) were listening. It seemed really intimate.

  2. rocknrollwife

    Tom Crawford of the Mighty 97, WMSE 91.7 Milwaukee

  3. MayhemintheHood

    Steve Jones out in here LA(Indie 103) has been a favorite since he debuted 3 or 4 years ago. I hope he’s around for many more years because his show plays some awesome tunes, and Steve Jones is hilarious and nuts. I’d miss him for sure. Other than that…I did stay home from school on the last day KNAC was on the air(old LA metal/alternative station). KNAC was my life…keep in mind I was 16, so it’s not like it took much.

  4. brasstax

    Alabama wasn’t (and isn’t) exactly a hotbed of modern music, but thanks to Coyote J and his show “The Edge” coming out of Birmingham in the late 80s and early 90s I found out about a ton of stuff I likely never would’ve heard otherwise (with the exception of Dave Kendall on 120 Minutes).

    Apparently it’s still going too, after a pretty chaotic history: [www.theedgefest2008.com]

  5. Michaelangelo Matos

    Before he became the majordomo of the good commercial alt- and indie-rock stations WREV in Minneapolis and KEXP in Seattle (where he’s been program director for a while now), Kevin Cole was the head DJ at First Avenue in Minneapolis, and his regular Depth Probe parties there helped kick start the rave scene in that city. My introduction to him was via “Radio Depth Probe,” his Saturday-midnight radio show on KJJO-104 FM during its year-and-a-half-long life in the “modern rock” format (which ended, oddly enough, in mid-1992, right around the time every other station in the U.S. switched formats to “alternative”). I used to have tapes of it that I sadly do not anymore. He basically introduced me to the house and techno that I still love like nothing else. One of my great goals in life is to start a label that produces limited-edition mail-order CD-Rs of old “Depth Probe” episodes–all of which, Kevin has told me, are still on reel-to-reel and in storage.

  6. Anonymous

    I always dug that guy Fingers on WBAB Long Island when growing up – he had a show called “Fingers’ Metal Shop” — is that still on? Turned me on to SO MUCH good metal music…

    Moving to Los Angeles, I got into techno and loved the show they had on Y-107, called “Liphted”…

    Jonesy is good on Indie 103-1, too. It’ll be a shame when that station flips to Spanish like all the others…

  7. D.R. Mosby

    I was a devotee of early 80′s KROQ (in Los Angeles) – a commercial station that took a chance on playing new wave and punk rock when hardly anybody else would, and I give credit to the late Rick Carroll (KROQ’s program director) and DJ’s like Jed the Fish and Rodney Bingenheimer for providing a more interesting alternative to KMET and KLOS.

  8. Weezy F Baby

    Bo Jackson, 98.5 KLUC, Las Vegas.

    (this joke is only funny to those who grew up in Vegas.)

  9. mike a

    I can’t stress enough how important college radio was to me. I discovered it literally by accident, and it immediately opened up the possibility of a new world – something that was quite mysterious at age 14. What made listening to WRSU and WPRB so special was the DJs. The patented “college radio monotone” may be an easy target for ridicule, but for me, it was the voice of normal people not so different from me, only a few years older, who had access to great records I hadn’t heard and were enthusiastic to share them. I don’t think I would have gotten so deep into music without them (for better or worse).

  10. MTS

    I don’t even know where to begin with this. My life wouldn’t be The Way It Is without a chance encounter with WPRB back in 1991. There are countless DJs who have provided me with my education, and as someone who works in radio (at WPRB!), I always try to keep that connective spark alive on the air.

  11. mommymash

    {sigh} storm zobel on WFNX in the late 90s was my *favorite* radio dj ever. i will admit that this was partly because i found his voice indescribably sexy, but he also managed to have the most listenable evening radio show i’ve ever heard. miss him still!

  12. Captain Wrong

    WAJC, Butler University, before they sold it to be a commercial station. So many DJs, pretty much pick one.

  13. Anonymous

    Preston and Steve of the late Y-100 (WPLY) and currently 93.3 WMMR in Philadelphia

  14. LeBron

    Sportswise, Russo was ok, but I always preferred the more laid-back vibe of the overnight guys on WFAN, who spurred me to host my own sports radio show during college. I also stumbled into inheriting a heavy metal music show in the middle of nowhere in Upstate NY for a while, which was strange since I don’t really know a whole heck of a lot about heavy metal music. My biggest “fans,” no joke, were minimum security prisoners, who sent letters every week.

  15. Anonymous

    I know this here is American. But there’s got to be a reason I landed on this post. CHOM 97.7fm in Montreal Canada has a great overnight announcer on the weekend. She took the time to listen to me one night and I swear she ‘saved’ my life, and changed it forever. Thxs Allyson.

  16. Deadly Tango

    Once I learned about the “left of the dial” growing up in Boston in the late 80s, it was a combination of folks at WMBR and WHRB and WZBC depending on the time of day. I seldom picked out their names until I interned at ‘MBR and met the “Breakfast of Champions” and “Late Risers’ Club” crews. Collectively, those folks made it a lot easier to get through high school and spurred me to step into the booth at WPRB.

    Today, Marc Riley (BBC 6Music) is my strongest individual inspiration to stay involved in independent radio, along with my friends in the WPRB and WFMU families.

  17. Audif Jackson Winters III

    Casey Kasem: I was a weekly AT40 listener between ’84 and ’88, and the year-end countdown was always a special treat.

    In high school, Erik Dennison on Real Radio 104.1, and his show “Sunday Night Vinyl.” I remember calling Erik to report the news that Alan Wilder had left Depeche Mode, which he then announced on the show, and played, “But Not Tonight.” I was actually thinking about his show the other day, and was happy to discover that it’s still running:

    [www.realradio.fm]

  18. Anonymous

    Where’s the Deliliah love? She seems to be talking people down from ledges every show.

  19. bcapirigi

    there was ed slota on wriu, who introduced me to the raincoats, big stick, the vaselines, mission of burma, and like 29472654 other awesome bands, and also taught me that it was okay to say that woodstock was lame. which, even though i was (and still am) a big joni mitchell fan, was something of a revelation.

    that same station also had a guy who went by the name frankie stein, who mostly played kitschy fifties exotica but also taught me about stereo total and serge gainsbourg and mitch miller, whose albums he’d play every week at the wrong speed.

  20. TheRunningboard7

    The chick who hosts the After School Special on XMU (XM 43!) I just like her.

  21. Monkeyrash

    The reason I listen to satellite radio is so I don’t have to listen to the drivel that is on terrestrial radio these days. Which, unfortunately, is the same as when I was growing up. The big station was WRIF featuring Dick the Bruiser. Need I say more?

    I did have a bit of a crush on Dr. Johnny Fever, though!

  22. It Must Be Take a Worm for a Walk Week

    I’m going to catch some heat from you college rock cognoscenti for this, but my musical world was almost solely shaped by B-94 WBZZ in Pittsburgh. They were a spiritual equivalent to NYC’s legendary Z-100, a CHR station that featured a lot of live dance mixes and tracks, particularly in the eras of Freestyle (Stevie B! TKA!), Hip-House (KLF! Technotronic!), and Eurodance.

    Obviously I grew up in the early-to-mid 90s, and as much as I loved listening to Snoop Dogg and the early Green Day, nothing was as cool or as exciting to my twelve year old self as B94′s Open House Party, especially when they led with Culturebeat’s immortal “Mr. Vain”.

  23. brasstax

    @Audif Jackson Winters III: It’s still running, but it’s not quite what it once was (too much current stuff, not enough old stuff). Although, he did have a phone interview with Mick Jones a few weeks ago that was delightfully awkward in its complete uncomfortableness. You could tell that in the back of his mind he was thinking “OMFG I M TALKING TO MICK JONES FROM THE CLASH…PLAY IT COOL…PLAY IT COOL”

  24. loudersoft

    The first ones were Chris Cullen and Lee Lust at WNYU way back in “the good old days”. Soon afterwards, Marco Collins at KNDD in Seattle. Forget that he had his finger on the pulse of the Seattle music scene — he had his finger on the pulse of music, period. So-called “Alternative Radio” blossomed during Marco’s 7-10pm shift and he found ways to harness the airways at The End that only the best radio deejays ever have.

    There are many, many artists whose careers were built on Marco being the first deejay in America to not only play their music but champion it decisively to an adoring, young and music-savvy audience. Seattle’s music scene was never the same after he left — there is no question in my mind that he was one of the most important voices that has ever ridden the airwaves.

  25. galactus5000

    Michele Myers, currently spinning on Friday nights in Seattle’s KEXP. Every week she reminds me that there are people out there on the air who actually play good music.

  26. Flashman

    David Wisdom, Brent Banbury, Patti Schmidt: CBC radio’s Nightlines (DW) and Brave New Waves (BB succeeded by PS). From midnight until the early morning news, they took over the normally staid and classically-oriented CBC radio and played everything from your standard independent ‘college’ music to the more experimental and atonal.

  27. mike a

    @MTS: Totally. I did a radio show for a long time (inc. WPRB for a time), and I was always programming for a theoretical version of my 14-year-old self. Sometimes I was even successful at it.

  28. mike a

    I do want to give props to WRSU’s Linda Marczi, who played YMG and Aztec Camera in 1981, and Steve Maffei, who was a power-pop fiend and introduced me to same. It seems strange now that I didn’t discover WFMU until my sophomore year of college, yet that was the case.

  29. amyk

    I really believed in XRT in it’s heyday (TV ads with Siouxsie!) but then the evil Westinghouse/CBS buyout happened – not to mention their denial of the digital age.

    Right now BBC 6 is my savior. All day I listen and find new music that I can buy cheap tickets to – and it’s terribly easy to get on the air (if you’re a radio slut like me). Just e-mail Steve Lamacq for Good Day/Bad Day and they will call you up within a week.

    And a shout out to WHFH – the highest powered high school radio station in the country. So I never played the what was supposed to be programmed, but people needed ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ every friday at 4 pm.

  30. MTS

    Between WFMU & WPRB, the other station that was hugely influential in my musical education was the Matt Pinfield era of WHTG 106.3 FM (Eatontown, NJ). They played more of the “mainstream” alternarock but I dug it. I think I still have cassettes of shows somewhere in my parents basement.

  31. Anonymous

    sigh, Houston, TX doesn’t have too many good DJ’s…

    Zakk United ain’t exactly exemplary in my book.
    He works w/ “The Buzz” and they seem to favor cock-rock.

  32. T'Challa

    1. The Electrifying Mojo, WJLB-FM, Detroit, MI, the ’80s: If you haven’t heard the legend yet, you will. The most amazing mix of music blasting out on the hottest “urban” radio station of the time. Kraftwerk and the B-52′s were rocking the ‘hood hard thanks to Mojo.

    2. Mike Halloran, various Detroit stations, also the ’80s: Mike provided stage 2 of my musical education. I still have a cassette tape from ’82 that’s simply unreal: Siouxsie, Wire, Gang of 4, Psych Furs, Mission of Burma, Bad Brains, Elvis Colstello, Pretenders. He’s currently programming a cool San Diego station 94.9-FM. When they couldn’t get him for the job, L.A.’s Indie 103 hired his right hand Mark Sovel (AKA “Mr. Shovel”) to program-direct.

    DETROIT REPRESENT.

  33. T'Challa

    Um, yeah, in case you didn’t know, “Elvis Colstello” was this awesome blind Detroit blues singer that did covers from “My Aim is True” on downtown street corners. OK, that’s a lie. I should never comment pre-caffeine…

  34. highlifer

    @Audif Jackson Winters III:
    Yay, I thought I was going to be the only one to admit it. From 1978-1981 I not only listened every week but kept a little log of the songs. If I had something to do, I paid my sister 50 cents to do it. We still laugh at her 10-year old attempt to write down Barry White’s “It’s ecstasy when you lay down next to me” in something that her not-yet-knowing-ecstasy little brain could compute.

  35. Reidicus

    This is an interesting question. I’ve written off radio for so long (or at least the commercial dial) that I didn’t realize there were so many on-air hosts I’d actually connected with over the years. So here goes:

    1981-1984: A local nighttime guy named Charlie Fox on WBBQ FM in Augusta, Ga. introduced this pastor’s kid to music with a beat, which wasn’t (necessarily!) about Jesus. In retrospect a lot of it was cheesy, but you have to start somewhere… I still have a soft spot for synth-laden new wave pop for this reason.

    1994-1995: The college radio era. WRAS FM (Georgia State University’s 100,000-watt blowtorch, about which Paul Westerberg wrote “left of the dial) kept me company through a series of frustrating jobs. Mallory, Shachar and Ani were the on-air folks I paid attention to.

    1997-1999: The Internet radio discovery. Suddenly, I found I wasn’t tied to my local, increasingly crappy radio scene, at the same time “Americana” had its moment in the sun. Jody Denberg at Austin’s KGSR was a daily listen.

    2001-2005: A cheater’s guide to keeping up. Finding an on-air hosts whose tastes almost completely mirror yours is a rare find. But that describes John Richards at KEXP Seattle, whose morning show was a lifeline to the changing landscape of new music as I worked non-music related jobs. When I landed a music-related job, I didn’t skip a beat. Thanks KEXP!

    1997-present: Honorable mention to H. Johnson at WABE, Atlanta’s NPR affiliate. His Saturday 9-12 pm “jazz classics” show is don’t miss, largely for his old-school approach, replaying parts of his favorite tunes, singing over the melodies, etc.

  36. Anonymous

    I really like that Jack FM guy. I don’t know his name, but he really connects with me as a listener. So many funny jokes about my city! It’s really personal!

  37. Wasp vs Stryper

    OMFG My life would not have been the same without Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito’s radio show on the old Columbia station. Those two and also Riz from the Crooklyn Clan. I would listen to Riz spin vinyl and talk about Nervous Records all night and I distinctly remember stretch introducing “this crazy cat JZ, he came in from Brooklyn to freestyle up in here and help up pick some party anthems.”

    I think it was those two shows that made me want to get out of the midwest and head to NYC.

  38. Great info on your posts. Look forward to future articles, keep it coming! >:-(

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