Radio Days: Living the Life

The three biggest inanimate loves of my life have been – movies, music and football. The longest lasting of those relationships has been music.

I was given my first 45 single when I was 5 years old. It was Herman’s Hermits’ “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter.” My second 45 was the Beatles “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” I wish those two were reversed because I would love for my first musical purchase to have been the Beatles. But to a preschooler in 1965, there was no difference between the Beatles and Herman’s Hermits.

My first album was “Meet the Monkees” a year later. Again, at the time, and to my first-grade sensibilities, there was no difference between the Monkees and the Beatles. From that point forward music has been my oldest and enduring love affair, and the Beatles still rule.

It seemed that my entire childhood had a soundtrack. The music of the 1960s covered my first 10 years, and the music of the 1970s ended as I headed into my 20s. WXXX 1301AM in Hattiesburg provided all of the music that wasn’t in my album collection. It seemed that wherever one went in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, from 1968 to 1978, WXXX, or “Triple X” as we called it, was playing in the background or foreground.

At home before school, Triple X was on the clock radio. On the way to school it was on the car radio. During breaks and recess it was on transistor radios, and after school we listened to Triple X until they signed off at sundown, at which time we switched it over – at Jim Cameron’s behest – to KAAY out of Little Rock.

Radio and music were synonymous. There was no talk radio in those days. It was all AM band Top 40.

My first job was in radio. I was hired as a weekend disc jockey for 1230 WHSY AM. I was 15 years old and as nervous as I have ever been during that first shift. I eventually grew comfortable in the DJ booth and have very fond memories of my radio days.

In those days, AM radio was still king in Hattiesburg. There were several FM stations throughout the country playing an “album rock” format – one of the greatest of those stations in that era was WZZQ in Jackson, which was thriving with that format.

WZZQ was an FM station in which the DJs programmed their own music. Those on-air personalities were as big as the rock stars whose records they played. It was all about the music. Charts, sales and record representative’s recommendations didn’t matter. It was all about the quality of the music. It was “pure and true” radio.

FM was a new medium in those days. In the mid-1970s, FM radios still weren’t installed in every car that was sold. The FCC had released FM frequencies to station owners in the 1960s, and most of them were snatched up, but many owners were skeptical that FM would catch on. It certainly was never expected to overtake AM radio, which is where all of the owner’s money was being made. The FCC required stations to air some type of programming within a certain number of years from the original purchase or lose the frequency.

At WHSY AM, we had surpassed WXXX and become the number one station in the market. The station also had an FM frequency at 104.5 but was playing a “beautiful music” format on an antiquated automated system (a primitive computer my fellow DJs and I named “Fred”), just so they wouldn’t lose the frequency to the FCC. Beautiful music was basically elevator music – something one might hear in a dentist’s office waiting room. No one in Hattiesburg was listening to that station, not even in dentist’s offices.

We begged the owner of the station to let us switch the format from beautiful music to an album-oriented rock format “like WZZQ.” He wouldn’t budge. All of the money was being billed on the AM station and, since the FM was automated (run by a machine that didn’t cost anything in labor expense), it wasn’t going to happen.

I don’t remember what finally tipped the scale and convinced the owner to let us try an album-oriented rock format, but in the spring of 1978 we brought Hattiesburg’s first true rock ‘n’ roll station online at what was then known as Y-104 (currently Rock 104). Like WZZQ, it was pure and true.

The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll might catalogue the first-ever rock ‘n’ roll musical note as being played in Hattiesburg in 1936. But it took another 40 years for my fellow DJ, Wayne Cain, to drop the needle on “Karn Evil 9” by Emerson Lake and Palmer. That is when rock ‘n’ roll truly hit Hattiesburg.

“Welcome back, my friends to the show that never ends. We’re so glad you could attend, step inside, step inside.”

In the early days, we still had to use Fred (the automated system),  though I, along with two or three other DJs, selected what music was to be played. Being a part of that launch, and the subsequent rocked-out days that followed, was one of the most exciting projects I have ever been a part of, my entire life. It was a magical.

All of the AM DJs were still on the air, but our love and passion lay in programming the rock and roll on Y-104, the FM sister station.

Fred the computer was old and problematic. It was an ancient machine that used three reel-to-reel tape machines, which alternated from one to the other, and two carousels that held carts (advertisements on what looked like 8-track tapes). It was our job to switch out the reels every so often, and – using a pegboard system – program when the commercials were to be played.

Fred was bug-prone and just flat-out quit, often. The cardinal sin in the radio business is dead air. And Fred created a lot of dead air. Since no one was manning the FM room to check whether the system was running every minute, it would just stop operating, unnoticed. Hattiesburg was so starved for rock-and-roll radio that the listeners didn’t really care about the dead air. They had taken ownership in the station and would call us up on the AM request line and, very nonchalantly, say, “Hey man, the FM’s off again.”

“Thanks,” we would replay, and walk down the hall to hit the reset button.

As the Saturday Night Fever and Grease soundtracks were dominating the AM rotation, we were playing deep cuts from David Bowie, Little Feat and Pink Floyd. It was a thrilling time.

Eventually the station owner realized there was even more money to be made on the FM station, and took it live and staffed it with DJs from 6 a.m. to midnight. We owned this market in those days. Though, as money always does when mixed with music, the format became watered down. Specific songs were required of the DJs. The days of programming our own music and playing deep cuts were over.

I pulled the 7 p.m. to midnight shift throughout my high school years and developed a loyal following of listeners. There was a constant battle between management and air personalities as to what music could be played. They always won.

Eventually, the format switched to all Top 40, and then a new program director was brought up from Pascagoula, who somehow talked the owners into an all-disco format. I was fired a few weeks later, and headed off to my freshman year of college a few months after that.

After my sophomore year, I was re-hired in a part-time capacity to pick up my night shift again, and that lasted for a few months, until I got my first restaurant job. But my second stint couldn’t come close to those early days when we first brought rock ‘n’ roll to the Hattiesburg airwaves.

Today, I have nothing but fond memories of my radio days, and anytime I am in a radio studio to do interviews, I always take a second to pause and remember those times. There are so many stories that surround that two-year period of my life. One day I’ll write a book, but until then, I’ll just keep rockin’.

 

Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur, author, speaker, philanthropist, father and husband – but not necessarily in that order. In addition to being the brainchild behind the Purple Parrot Cafe, Crescent City Grill, Mahogany Bar, Branch, Tabella and Ed’s Hamburger Joint, he’s also the founder of Extra Table, a non-profit organization created in 2009 with the mission of ending hunger and obesity in Mississippi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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