For about a decade, I had a job working in radio. Not really a career, as I was only full time for about a year, mostly I reviewed horror and crime movies with my pal, Buzz Kilman and did various fill-in jobs for other hosts when they were on vacation or otherwise absent. For a long time I really enjoyed it. It was getting paid to fuck off and have a good time. WLUP paid for my movies and then paid me to talk about them. It was great. Buzz and I had the same taste in films; we loved horror movies and action movies and slowly I found out we just loved movies. In the beginning, we only reviewed horror films and action films–our kind of movies–but as our show grew more popular we were forced to review shit like When Harry met Sally and other “chick flicks” and found that our show was good, maybe even better, when we didn’t want to see the movies. Siskel and Ebert we were not. Actually, we enjoyed extolling the virtues of splatter films that those fine men abhorred. We loved a good “quality kill;” an exploding head a la Scanners, or a protruding pineal gland, like in Basket Case. We were kind of the anti-critics and we never confused movies with real life like many of the bone-headed censors do. I’ve never thought life much imitated art, but quite the contrary. It was a fun job. I always thought one could do amazing stuff with radio as a medium if the right imaginations were involved. Not that I ever did any.
Regrettably, most of the radio I was involved in besides Drive-In Reviews was standard run-of-the-mill FM drivel that did nothing to distinguish itself. It is one of my great regrets that I squandered this opportunity. Especially in light of what others have done with it.
Studs Terkel dignified the medium for 50 years. Ira Glass reinvented radio as real-life theater with This American Life and every day Terri Gross delivers illuminating interviews and intelligent perspective on Fresh Air. I feel like I could have done more with the opportunity I had.
I quit in 1997, over a decade ago and remarkably, people still recognize my voice from “The Loop.” I quit after I noticed the mean-spirited shows coming on and beginning to hold sway over this country. Not that we at the Loop were gentle; we could be thoughtlessly cruel, and I regret what part I had in this as well. Sadly, I was not above this. Were there targets deserving of this pillory? Mostly. . .yeah. I still don’t feel bad about the merciless pounding Penn Jillette and I issued to a “radio psychic” one night who had it coming and decided to take on Penn. Mr. Jillette pounded the snot out of this guy but good. He was one of those “cold readers” whom sad and lonely people would call with real life problems that required real professional help and not fakery. Any number of these folks sounded like they could’ve benefitted from a psychiatric professional or medical help, and the “psychic” quacks can do real damage in this setting.
After I quit, I more or less stopped listening to the radio, other than NPR in the morning and news radio once in a while. I mostly listen to music. When I’d tune in once in a while, I was appalled at the level of hate radio; the Limbaughs, Becks, O’Reillys, Savages and a whole bunch on Air America as well. Left or right–it was vicious. Talk radio had become the worst neighborhood in our country.
Radio seems to thrive on instilling fear of each other into the atmosphere. In my drives across country I’ve heard the most racist, anti-semitic, homophobic crap on the planet, the religious stations of the South and Southwest being among the worst of them. These folks scare the holy dog-shit out of me. There are times when I stare at the radio and I suppose this is the desired result.
There are other times when I listen to the classical station late at night and they’ll be playing Chopin nocturnes or Mahler or, on occasion, a furious storm of Shostkovich, and the radio is a great balm to the end of a hard day. On Monday nights I listen to my pal Tom Marker’s Blues Breakers and the radio takes me to humid places where I can smell BarBQ and sweet tea. Marker is a student of the blues and nothing escapes his notice; one of those great radio DJs that loves what they do, like the great Dick Buckley, Johnny Mars and Herb Kent, The Cool Gent. Those voices I remain grateful for; out there like ether, in the night air.