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Tuesday 16 Jul 2024

Pilots of the Airwaves
Matt Seinberg

"Pilot of The Airwaves, here is my request, You don't have to play it but I hope you'll do your best, I've been listening to your show on the radio, And you seem like a friend to me."

Those lyrics are from Charlie Dore's debut album, "Where to Now" released in 1978. The lyric struck me when I first heard it. It went on to be number thirteen on the "Billboard Hot 100 Chart charts, and is a radio classic to this day.

I was in college, in 1978, playing DJ on WNYT, the radio station at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT). I wanted to work full-time in radio. Regular readers are shaking their heads, thinking they have heard this all before.

This is not a story about me, but the pilots of the airwaves, the night-time DJs that made a lasting impression on radio. I'll focus on those night-time jocks on some of the most famous, and most listened to radio stations of all-time.

On WABC-AM in New York City, with its 50,000-watt clear channel signal, one of those voices heard was the late Chuck Leonard. He was the first Black DJ on the station, coming from WWRL-AM, also in New York City, at urging of WABC-AM afternoon host, Dan Ingram. With his smooth delivery and resonant voice, Chuck was the go to guy at WABC, covering all shifts during his time there, from 1965-1979.

One of the first out of town stations I remember was CKLW-AM from Windsor, Ontario, in Canada; across the river from Detroit. The voice I heard booming from my radio was Max "Super Max" Kinkel. On-air, he seemed larger than life. His voice was deep, deeper than I ever heard, I can only imagine how he sounded on quality speakers.

In 1983, Max came to New York City to do the overnight shift at WCBS-FM, but I was mostly out of radio, even air checking. I didn't realize, until years later, this was the same DJ I listened to years earlier. He sounded great on FM stereo. Not being much of a night owl, I mostly listened to Max on air checks; I was always behind on what he was doing.

I recently talked to Max. He isn't in radio, full-time, any more, but his voice still sound great and he's working on a few projects. Knowing Max, he'll be on the air somewhere soon.

Who can forget WCFL-AM, out of Chicago? With its booming power signal, WCFL-AM blanketed the USA and Canada, from the Rocky Mountains to Bermuda; deep in the Canadian north to the Gulf of Mexico. My old friend, the late "Big Ron" O'Brien took advantage of that power by making Super CFL his personal playground. No one could talk up a record like "Big Ron," making everything sound so easy. Big Ron was one of a kind.

The other monster station in Chicago was the Big 89, WLS-AM. John "Records" Landecker rocked the night-time. His middle name is "Records"; he claims it's not a made up name.

When "Records" is your name, radio is your job. Landecker had a nightly "Boogie Check," which boomed across the continent. In 1981, he moved to CFTR-AM, in Toronto. Nights in Chicago were never the same, again.

Dewey Phillips was a bit before my time, the 1950s. His nightly show, "Red Hot and Blue," boomed from WHBQ-AM, in Memphis. At the time, Phillips was the DJ to hear.

In 1954, Phillips was the first to air, "That's Alright Mama," by Elvis Presley. He broke other Presley records, too; if you wanted to hear Presley, first, you listened to Phillips on WHBQ-FM. Such firsts made Dewey Phillips popular across the USA.

The late-night and all-night DJs had huge audiences, covering most of the USA and Canada. Once the sun went down, AM signals traveled farther. You might hear, Dewey Phillips, for example, 2500 miles north, in Ottawa, Canada.

There are other DJs, who didn't work late nights, but are among the top radio entertainers. "The Real Don Steele" on various Los Angeles radio stations is such DJ. He made his name as part of the "Boss Jock" line-up on the Drake-formatted KHJ-AM.

Steele did PM Drive and Robert W. Morgan did AM Drive, on KHJ-AM. Drake Format DJs worked from a list of "must dos." It was difficult to work this format, but Morgan and Steele made it seem easy.

Today, such pilot DJs that are role models for newcomers, don't exist. Pat St. John, on WCBS-FM, in New York City, is an exception. Jim Kerr, who does AM Drive at WAXQ-FM, also in New York City, is another exception.

St. John and Kerr know how to talk with listeners, not to or at listeners. They know how to entertain, working the music and commercials into their style. Although neither has the creative autonomy they once had, audiences love and respect them.

Tune your dials, close your eyes and listen as your pilot guides you on your musical journey. Don't forget to fasten your seat belt. Don't forget to put your tray tables up.

Matt Seinberg lives on Long Island, a few minutes east of New York City. He looks at everything around him and notices much. Somewhat less cynical than dyed in the wool New Yorkers, Seinberg believes those who don't see what he does like reading about what he sees and what it means to him. Seinberg columns revel in the silly little things of life and laughter as well as much well-directed anger at inept, foolish public officials. Mostly, Seinberg writes for those who laugh easily at their own foibles as well as those of others.

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