“Rocket to Stardom”




WNDR days marked the very birth of the “Rock era”. It advanced in a vacuum more than partially enhanced  by traditional radio professionals shunning any aspect of the new music, a fusion of grass roots “Country and Western” (as it was then called) and black-based “Rhythm and Blues” (or “Nigger Music” as it was referenced by a majority of older whites). I and other young enthusiasts were more than willing to step forward and grab the microphones. We didn’t have to wait for anyone to get out of our way. They weren’t even there to begin with. Who would have thought?

I started by riding my bike out to WNDR, which had moved to a swampy area just outside town in Dewitt where the towers were located. I was answering phones on weekends for fifty cents an hour. I would have paid them to be there.

Bill Quinn, the Program Director, had been impressed by a demo tape I had recorded at home in my bedroom entitled “Vista-View”. It was supposed to demonstrate my unique mastery of radio arts and sciences at the age of fifteen. I still have the tape, recorded on an old RCA reel-to-reel home unit . I had purchased the recorder with monies earned from mowing lawns in well-to-do neighborhoods near Nottingham High School. Although I had no idea what I was doing, the pretentious, piteous presentation miraculously “opened the door”.

“Gorgeous George” Vance became one of my first good friends at WNDR. He was  a superb alcoholic of staggering dimensions. George drove an old New York State Police car which, although official markings had been removed, nevertheless retained its siren. George was also an engineer and was required to remain in the building until sunrise due to WNDR’s directional night-time pattern. It was an FCC thing.

My first efforts at WNDR were extended to include writing early morning news. Quite often in the winter months, with permitted departure delayed by season, George would give me a ride to school and was happy to blast the siren from several blocks away until he pulled me up to the front entrance. My very first public “record hop” appearance was at The Jewish Community Center in Syracuse when George passed out drunk half-way through the night.  I, having accompanied him to handle equipment,  saved the day by stepping in. You just never know when that first big break might come.

I cajoled my way into doing a few trial “newscasts” and then a regular weekend news schedule.

“If you see news happening, call WNDR Action Central at Gibson 6-1515! WNDR pays Ten Dollars for the Top News Tip of the Week!”

“WNDR Action Central News” was fully produced with hysterical hyperbole..  Each newscast featured music beds, echo chambers, “filter” processing, sound effects, singing jingles, extreme editing and dramatic hyperbole. Fifty stories in four and a half minutes was the minimum required . One time, I squeezed in seventy-two.

You might hear:

“The President’s at Camp David/Auto accident in Dewitt mangles four/The Stock Market’s up/ Odds on sunny weather down/Syracuse Mayor says; “No” to City Council/Council says: “Wanna bet?/Break-in at Wilson’s Jewelers/The Governor wants more education money/Local State Senator says “Rocky’s right!/It could have been your sister–Jamesville girl found naked and dead near Manlius!!”

There we have ten “stories” which, allowing for “excited, rapid, machine-gun read”, would take around thirty seconds in delivery time. Stapleton always had his stopwatch handy.

WNDR’s News Director was Bud Stapleton, a good “friend of the Judge”. He was tough and mean, a former Marine. Bud was a World War Two vet who spent several serious years “island hopping” in the South Pacific and to whom a peaceful return to civilian life was “a fucking pain in the ass”. He was a certified American hero. It was Lt. Bernard J. Stapleton  who raised the first flag over Tokyo on September 3, 1945. I saw the picture. He was a short, wiry scrapper with laughing eyes, a sharp pug nose and the map of Eire stamped across his face.

Friday evenings brought Bud’s spouse-approved “Night Out With The Boys”. Bud’s weekly trauma therefore occurred without fail almost every Saturday morning when he would rise for his weekend news shift from short and fitful sleep on an incredibly funky, sin-stained couch in our WNDR reception area. His booze-blistered eyes recoiling from the light, his psyche mangled in the torturing clutches of a world-class, stomach-churning, soul-burning, head-pounding, heart-bounding hangover, Bud would take the deepest breath his smoke encrusted lungs could endure and shake the walls with mighty vocal magnificence.

We would be hanging around the studios, several rooms distant, and yet could still hear the two ritualistic screams;  always faithfully delivered in exact sequence:

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph!”

“Where the fuck is it?”

At this point, we would helpfully and carefully join Bud in his anxious quest for “the gun”.

“The gun” was Bud’s beloved 38-caliber, Smith and Wesson “Police Special” which he was fully licensed and authorized to carry. Stapleton was also a duly sworn Deputy Sheriff, a distinction quite valuable during many the “news investigation” he was prone to initiate at a second’s notice, usually into the more sordid, squalid sectors of fair Syracuse.

“The gun” was always loaded, usually with safety released.

It would generally turn up in challengingly random spots since Bud would have “hidden it from himself” as a “security precaution”. Specifics as to its exact whereabouts would inevitably be obliterated in the dark shroud of an alchoholic blackout which Bud eloquently and poetically referred to as “The Dark Irish Night”.

It would normally require five to ten minutes of cautious search and was usually somewhere in the building, although every so often it would turn up in his car.

The longest it was ever missing was a half-hour. This was when Bud overlooked the fact he had slept with it shoved into his shorts. It was upon that occasion we heard Bud’s tearful off-air lecture on the ravages of age “numbing up your balls and dick”. The thought that a fifth of Wild Turkey and a half-case of “Congress Beer” might have played a slight role in his accidental self-anesthetization was not offered.

WNDR “Action Central News” was Bud’s interpretation of the Judge’s reflections upon “Top Forty Tabloid Journalism”, later reaching its highest plateau on such stations as WFUN in Miami, WKBW in Buffalo and the legendary CKLW in Detroit.

It was quite effective with mass listenership.

Syracuse, New York is also the home of Syracuse University and the celebrated Newhouse School of Communications.

The Newhouse faculty regarded “WNDR Action Central News” as professionally falling somewhere in between pig semen and rat vomit. They went out of their way expounding with exhausted exasperation upon the  degrading, disgusting, depraving journalistic waste product available every hour on the hour at good old 1260 on their AM dial.

It was a classic case of unbridled mutual contempt.

Bud Stapleton characteristically categorized the Newhouse professors as “Candy-ass faggots who can suck my cock on the the 6-0-Clock News”. He made frequent reference to “shoving their fucking ivory tower right up their baby-boy butts”.

I tended to side with his position, albeit overstated.

Besides,  Bud was the first person who ever shared with me the functional merits and outstanding benefits of “eating pussy”. “If you eat their pussys, they’ll fuck the livin’ shit outta ya every goddamn time”, Bud would quip. An important corollary from “Helpful Stapleton Sex Hints 101” was: “Show me a broad who ain’t gettin’ her cunt chewed and I’ll show you a bitch you can steal away from the stupid fucker who won’t, if you will”.

This was an area of learning which Father Shannon had never addressed.

As inspiring as Bud was in both broadcast news and handling booze (he never actually lost that gun or shot off his pecker), I still considered news announcing a necessary evil. It was temporary dues-paying on the road to the Holiest of all possible Grails. Almost everyone knew the real radio stars were disc-jockeys.

After mounting a relentless, unyielding, non-stop campaign to get a real shot, Program Director Quinn finally acquiesced. It was determined that I be allowed a one-hour live on-air audition at Midnight the following Sunday when the station would normally sign-off for “maintenance”.

I wrote every single word I would say down on paper, practiced every  record introduction hundreds of times, sat in the control room hours on end watching every move made and memorized dozens of different “one-liners” to use if I needed, God forbid, to “ad-lib” . I prepared for my moment of glory with uncompromising commitment.

Finally, the debut.

The adrenaline hit as soon as I sat down in “the chair”.

The very first time I went to open the microphone, an ignition switch on my own, personal “rocket to stardom”, I totally crashed. Big time. Bad.

Instead of the control panel “microphone-on” button, my humble hand brushed against a “master-off” lever directly beneath the intended target. I promptly plunged WNDR into twenty minutes of stone silence.

The engineer on duty, fairly new to the business himself, took that long to determine the extent of my stupidity.

After my “first hour” was finished, I assumed I was as well; my premiere performance also a swan song.

By an astonishing stroke of fate or fortune, no one in management heard my curious initiation. The engineer, whom I blamed for not discerning my dumbness more diligently, kept his mouth shut as understood. Soon I was pulling full “jock shifts” on weekends. During my senior year at Cathedral, I worked each evening from Seven ’til Midnight. “Hooper Ratings”, then the accepted standard in radio listening measurement, displayed a 58% total audience share during the time period, more than every other station combined.

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