Monday, April 23, 2018

The Wizard of Odds

The Stranger [SOURCE] called him the "worst pulp novelist ever" but they also called him "the greatest hack ever." Leo Guild wrote a river of schlock: kids joke books,  fawning, gossipy puff books on Bob Hope, Hedy Lamarr, Jayne Mansfield, and Liberace. He later switched to schlock horror books like his 1972 novel The Werewolf vs. Vampire Woman and for a change of pace penned utterly disposable, trashy sexploitation novels like his 1976 book, Street of Ho's. He was the Ed Wood of pulp novels. In 1967, the Los Angeles Time published an an article by Guild titled "Confessions of a Celebrity Ghost Writer" It was a self-serving autobiographical piece but gives you an idea of how highly he thought of his trade. Later in life he made some big money on lawsuits.
In 1973 he filed a $2 million lawsuit against NBC. They had started a game show named Wizard of Odds hosted by Alex Trebek. But he had used it as a newspaper column during the late 1940s, the same column that led to that book above What Are The Odds?  In 1992 he sued the Carsey-Werner Co. and Bill Cosby for 11 million dollars. He claimed he owned the copyright to the title “You Bet Your Life.”  He kinda did. In 1948, journalist Leo Guild named his newspaper column and a book “You Bet Your Life” and copyrighted that title. NBC settled.
Leo did dip his toe into radio, it wasn't all as a plaintiff. He was a radio and TV columnist for the Hollywood reporter in the 1940s, which is what probably led to his 1954 KFWB program Amateur Record Hour. It was produced by Merrilyn Hammond of Capitol Records. Previously he had hosted "Hollywood's Best" on KRCA-TV. Station KFWB also aired his short-lived program The Wizard of Odds, and it's later version, The Wizard Vs. Criswell. It started in KFI then quickly moved to KFWB. It had at least a 14 week initial run sponsored by Wax Seal in 1947. Teevee Film Company (TFC) licensed it in 1950 for a half-hour TV show. His co-host, Criswell (aka Jeron Criswell Konig) later became "The Amazing Criswell", a psychic and radio-personality. In Criswell's career highs and lows he appeared on the Jack Paar Show and also appeared in Ed Wood films. Criswell himself claimed that he had once worked as a radio announcer, this was also probably at KFWB.
But back to that book What Are The Odds?. My copy is falling apart and is missing the first dozen pages. But the Entertainment section is intact and had a few radio gems of dubious import. I"m paraphrasing but... TV commercials are less disruptive than radio ads, Only 1 in 15 radio actually works, landing a radio writer job is an 8,000 to 1 long shot, 99% of daytime radio listeners are women, Odds are 190 to 1 of landing a radio gig via audition... etc. The stats are ostensibly based on 1940s data, but I think that more than 50% of his stats are just made up.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Legend of Chickenman

Chickenman was an American radio series created by Dick Orkin. It spoofed adventure books and comic book heroes. The series was created in 1966 and originally aired on 1000 WCFL-AM, in Chicago, IL. It began as part of the Jim Runyon Show.  The show's protagonist, Benton Harbor, (presumably named for the Michigan town) was a shoe salesman who spent his weekends fighting crime. He also he hangs around the Police Commissioner Benjamin Norton's office and annoyed the Commissioner's secretary, Miss Helfinger.


  • Benjamin Norton, Police Comissioner, -  Dick Orkin
  • Miss Helfinger, Comissioners assistant  - Jane Roberts
  • Chickenman, Benton Harbor - Dick Orkin
  • Chickeman's mother, Mildred Harbor - Jane Roberts
  • Trooper 36-24-36 - Jane Roberts
  • Narrator - Jim Runyon

Each episode began with a four-note trumpet sound from the song Thunderball and Chickenman's Buck-buck-buck-buuuuuck" chicken call. Orkin expected to run with the gag for two weeks. The original series eventually lasted over 5 years! That original 1966 series was released in 2003 as The Original, Complete & Unexpurgated Story of Chickenman, all 273, 2.5 minute episodes in a 14-CD set. Yes it is that popular. This was presaged by the 1966 LP The Best of Chickenman, released first on Spot records then ATCO. More here. Many LPs and posters read "exclusively on..." then a set of local call letters. There was nothing exclusive about Chickenman. By some reports, at it's peak the program was syndicated on 1,500 radio stations.

While the series was the brain-child of Dick Orkin he needed people to voice the parts.  Jane Roberts, a Chicago theater actress who worked at WCFL as the traffic reporter voices almost all the female parts in the series. Dick handled most of the men, Jim Runyon was the narrator. Jane's background was mostly in theater: Kraft Suspense Theatre, and a stretch at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. Runyon has already been a DJ on WBHT, WHTN, WLW, WLWT, WTVN, WLWD, and KYW before he made it to WCFL.

Orkin began his radio career on WKOK in Sunbury, PA as a teenager. He worked part-time at WGAL while attending Franklin & Marshall college  He graduated in 1956 with a BA in speech and theater and headed for the Yale School of Drama to earn an MFA. He returned to Lancaster in 1959 to be the news director at WLAN. [SOURCE]  He headed off to KYW (back when it was in Cleveland) in 1963. He remained there until In 1967 when he moved to Chicago to work on WCFL. Runyon had already been there for 2 years. Runyon went back to KYW (then WKYC) in 1969. The two had worked at both stations together.

In 1973, Orkin began producing 52 special weekend episodes called Chickenman vs. the Earth Polluters. In 1976, a special LP was created by Orkin and ad man Bert Berdis: Chickenman Returns. This was followed by 65 episodes of an updated radio show in 1977, Chickenman Returns for the Last Time Again. In 1995, for the 30th anniversary of the series, Orkin brought Chickenman out of retirement for a tribute episode on This American Life. This was all in addition to the original 195 episodes. The man was nothing if not prolific.

Weirdly Chickenman never really went away. It is still played on a number of stations regularly AFRTS, 99.3 KPCH in Ruston, LA; 103.3 WFJV in Crystal River, FL, 101.1 WVRE in Dubuque, IA; 1430 WION-AM, Ionia, MI... a couple Canadian stations, and inexplicably several stations in Australia. For these feats and others, Dick Orkin was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2014.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Radio Kurzwellen

I was reminded of Karlheinz Stockhausen's work Kurzwellen by a passage in the book Recombo DNA by Kevin C. Smith. The book is ostensibly about the band Devo, but delves so deeply into krautrock, and 1970s protopunk that it also serves as a fine treatise on all three topics. Smith walked himself backwards to Stockhausen from Holger Czukay, a founding member of the German band Can.
"In 1967 Czukay attemded a performance of his mentor's Kurzwellen, which consisted of five musicians playing shortwave radios as well as traditional instruments. Before inviting American expatriate singer Malcolm Mooney to join the band in 1968, Can incorporated random shortwave frequencies into their sets instead. "
The quote is out of context; Smith was writing about Can's exposure to electronic music. He saw the radio as a route to that destination. For our purposes, Can is using Radio as a musical instrument which is a rare thing indeed. [LINK] Excluding the theremin, I can only think of a few composers who also has done so: John Cage, Brian Eno, and more recently Robin Rimbaud and Marc Leclair aka Akufen. More here.

In this small pantheon, Cage experimented with radio first. His works Radio Music and Speech and from 1955 and 1956 respectively. His work Imaginary Landscape No. 4 was actually from 1951 and was composed for 12 radios. But his first radio-based composition was from 1942 "Credo in US" which was scored for a pianist, two percussionists and a fourth performer operating a radio and phonograph. [SOURCE]

Firstly, Kurzwellen is German for "Shortwaves." So the title is a reference to the instrumentation. The worked debuted on May 5th, 1968 in the television studios of Radio Bremen. Bremen only began broadcasting in 1945 during the post-war Allied occupation of Germany, originally on 6190kHz. The station was under American command. In 1949 it's management was handed over to ARD, (German Public Radio). It's appropriate then that Radio Bremen transmitted on 936kHz medium wave until March of 2010.

Kurzwellen is part of a series of works by Stockhausen dating from the 1960s that he called "process" compositions. It was a focus on form over content. In the sheet music he used plus, minus, and equal symbols instead of standard notation. The plus means higher or longer (in duration) or louder or more rhythmic segments; minus means lower or shorter or softer or fewer segments; the equal sign just means no change. So the instruction requires some interpretation. Unsurprisingly even the 1968 and 1969 recordings differ greatly. Today's avant garde enthusiasts still debate their relative merits. [LINK]

It is widely assumed that Stockhausen got the idea of using radios from Cage, though their implementations were different. All of their radio works were dependent on random, unrepeatable inputs from radios. By the 1960s Cage had moved on to different instrumentation entirely. Stockhausen stuck with it and his next three works also features shortwave radio: Spiral, Pole and Expo. His experiments were well-received and he was appointed Professor of Composition at the Hochschule für Musik Köln in 1971, where he taught until 1977. He died in 2007.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Desert Oracle Radio

The station 107.7 KCDZ signed on in Joshua Tree, CA in 1989. It's a Class B 6,700 watt station to the East of LA but with a directional signal transmitting North into the Mojave desert.  The Los Angeles Times reported on this aptly in their "Desert Cities Scene" section.
"The Federal Communications Commission has assigned the call sign KCDZ to the new FM radio station license recently awarded to Morongo Basin Broadcasting Corp. "We wanted call signs that would be easy to remember that let people know what we are doing," said Gary Daigneault, program director and vice president for the locally owned corporation...  The studios are currently under construction in the Starr Plaza in Joshua Tree. KCDZ-FM will broadcast 24 hours a day at the assigned frequency of 107.7, and its signal is expected to reach from Amboy on the east to Yucca Valley on the west. The projected air debut is set for July.
The American South West is full of stations broadcasting in the desert. What distinguishes this one is content. They brand themselves as a Community station even though they are formatted Hot AC. So they're not in the same league as say, KXCI. But despite that, or perhaps to compensate for that, they are also the radio home of Desert Oracle Radio which airs Friday nights at 10:00 PM. More here.

Ken Layne, “the voice of the desert” hosts the program. Though he's probably best known for his accomplishments as a writer and/or blogger for Gawker, Wonkette and The Awl, he also is a writer and novelist and editor of the literary journal Desert Oracle. It is that publication that begat the radio show and podcast of the same name. The print version of Desert Oracle only launched in 2015 giving it a small head start on the program which debuted June 18th, 2017. He described the first program "Expect evocative tales of lost mines, UFOs, missing tourists, secret military projects, local legends, weird animals and weirder people." The summary made it sound like a take on an old Coast to Coast AM episode.

But over 26 episodes, it's 30-minute format evolved from conspiracy-a-go-go and trucker hats into a melange of desert soundscapes, interviews with local eccentrics and UFO stories... Well if it ain't broke don't fix it. In the most recent broadcast he describes quite a scene at the broadcast studio:
"It's a wonderful set up out here tonight. because I'm broadcasting form this old yellow trailer there are all kinds of people walking around in the night between the main house and the various sculptures in the trail and there's a shipping container across the way people are in there singing various songs and what have you. There are big creosote and Joshua trees around and we've got radios piled up all over, every kind of portable radio, in various states of repair outside the trailer here and around the property... A night out on the desert way down a dirt road. People are parked up and down the road, maybe just arriving, maybe just leaving, maybe headed to the liquor store..."
Ken was describing a remote broadcast from an art show but somehow his chops as a former tabloid writer, his baritone voice, and the soundtrack make for a somewhat spookier production. He manages to add gravitas in places you wouldn't expect, like an interview on energy independence. The program seems out of place on KCDZ, more like a program from an actual community station.  But it also is perfectly at home in Twentynine Palms, broadcasting from a trailer, in the darkness, surrounded by the ghostly night landscape of the Mojave.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Maximum Rock 'N' Roll Radio

Maximum Rock 'N' Roll, whether you consider it a 'zine, fanzine or a magazine is a cultural tour-de-force of punk rock. What many readers do not know is that the publication has strong roots in radio. (Maximum Rock 'N' Roll shall heretofore be referred to as MRR for the sake of space.)  The infamous magazine MRR was founded in 1982, but the now obscure MRR radio program, began in 1977. It's host was Tim Yohannan, also known as Tim Yo. More here.  It's worth noting that Tim was kind of a dick. Even Wikipedia which is typically loath to use personal adjectives, describes him as "notoriously difficult" and "divisive" with the same understated subtext one might use to describe Ginger Baker. But colorful and abrasive personalities are not unusual in either publishing or in broadcasting.
Maximum Rock 'N' Roll aired on 94.1 KPFA,  on Sundays at Midnight, moving to Tuesdays 8:00 - 10:00 PM in June of 1979. In 1977 it was one of only a few punk rock radio radio programs in America, if not the world. The use of the word "punk" to describe the musical genre only began in the early 1970s. The earliest contextually musical use of the word I am aware of is from Lester Bangs. , In the December 1970 issue of Creem, Lester Bangs, ironically referred to Iggy Pop as "that Stooge punk". Writer Dave Marsh, also of Creem used it similarly in 1971. Alan Vega of the band Suicide, credits Bang's usage with inspiring his duo to bill its gigs as a "punk mass." From there it permeated pop culture. In this context it makes a lot of sense that early flyers refer to Urban Blues, Soul, Surf or Rockabilly as much as rocknroll. [SOURCE] The punk rock of the era is now often categorized as protopunk. The MRR website today describes the program:
“Maximum Rock & Roll” started in 1977 as a punk rock radio show—one of the first and best of all time. “Tim and the gang” played the latest punk and hardcore sounds from across the world, the U.S., and from their home in the bristling San Francisco Bay Area punk scene. “The gang” included personalities like Jeff Bale, Ruth Schwartz, and Jello Biafra. Punk antiheroes regularly visited as guest DJs, and the roster of touring bands interviewed on the show reads like the track list on a classic old comp. The show was notable for the immediacy of the music, a dedication to international coverage (rare at the time), and for explicitly interjecting progressive politics into the dialogue of punk. The show became hugely successful in the underground, and eventually was broadcast from stations across the U.S. and abroad."
There are surviving tapes from as early as 1980 posted online. But on one tape from a show aired in January 1987, Tim plays a segment from an MRR tape recorded in 1978. It's also worth noting that as part of fundraising drive, KPFA sponsored themed programming days. On March 7, 1981 the theme was "Punk Day" this was more or less MRR day.
1978 ad from Search & Destroy Magazine
But Tim Yo didn't host the Maximum Rock 'N' Roll radio show alone. There were three regular faces in on that show. Among them, Ruth Schwartz is notable for having her own radio program, she was a DJ at KALX then started hosting Harmful Emissions at 90.3 KUSF in 1980. In a 2012 interview, she describes meeting Tim.
"I had never met Tim Yohannan. I knew of him, but I don’t think I had met him until he walked into the KUSF studio one night to meet me. He walked in and said, “Do you want to be on our radio program?” ...That’s how I met him."
At the MRR radio program Ruth handled board ops and edited 1/4 tape with an Xacto knife for broadcast, duplication and distribution. Yes, Ruth is how MRR got distributed around the world. (She went on to found Mordam distribution.)  The original MRR program was cancelled in 1990 despite the fact that Ruth was manually syndicating to 20-30 stations. According to Alan O'Coconner, author of Punk Record Labels and the Struggle for Autonomy, (2008) Pacifica was trying to reach more upscale listener-supporters.

It may have been a coincidence, but when Tim died in 1998, at the urging of Tim Munson, MRR magazine themed the next issue (June issue 181) as their Pirate Radio issue. They did interviews and articles about pirate stations like 91.3 Radio Mutiny (WPPR), 90.9 Rebel Radio, 94.7 Radio Free Gainesville, 99.7 Black Liberation Radio, Radio Free Berkeley, Beat Radio, Radio Cairo, 104.7 WZVU, 88.9 KAW, Free Radio Memphis, 105.5 WDOA, Radio Free Alston, Micro Kind Radio, 107.9 KCMG, 97.7 WSKR, Lutz Community Radio, 88.7 Steal This Radio and many others.
MRR relaunched the program around 2002 in a podcast like format. It remains a fine purveyor of punk rock, but is no longer affiliated with KPFA.