“Dustin Time”

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CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

DUSTIN TIME

As ’68 unfolded, the Beatles took us all along on their “Magical Mystery Tour” in January.  Our hair was getting longer, our sideburns were dropping and, in my own case, a moustache took form.  Buddy Holly gave way to Emilio Zapata. I thought that mine looked even better than Paul McCartney’s, which he had introduced on the cover of “Sergeant Pepper.” This new image looked great on our WTAC “Music Guide” pushing the “Underground”.

The Lemon Pipers banged away in February on their “Green Tambourine”. They were booked far ahead for a Mt. Holly appearance in the Spring.

Everyone thought that Dustin Hoffman had really caught it when “The Graduate” was released in March.  We agreed that the most important thing in life wasn’t “plastics”. We also bought the notion that successful, prosperous American middle-class parents were well-intended, but trapped in major misconceptions about life and love. We all floated at the bottom of the pool with Dustin, would also mercy- fuck “Mrs. Robinson” if we got a chance, and were ecstatic when our hero stormed the wedding ceremony and ran off with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter. She represented youth, freedom and a much better jump than her Mom. He had blocked the door of the church with a crucifix. What a happy ending!

Simon and Garfunkle, their music providing an exceptional sound-track to the film,  jumped from just “folking-around” to major rock-star status. They went right into the WTAC “Underground” with no complaints. We all  wanted to go to “Scarborough Fair”. It sounded like it might be a place such as “Penny Lane” or “Strawberry Fields” without  Beatles.

Jimi Hendrix was booked into Flint’s I.M.A. Auditorium for a Sunday afternoon performance in late March.  Mike Quatro, a Detroit musician-turned-booking agent, was the promoter. Mike’s sister Suzie later gained a certain measure of Rock ‘n Roll fame herself as Leather Tuscadero on “Happy Days”. I was asked to help promote the concert and introduce Jimi on stage.

The opening group was an outfit called “The Frut” from Detroit. They offered an exceptional half-hour arrangement of their signature anthem,  “Blow Me.” Backstage, Jimi seemed quite convivial in an abstract sort of way, except he thought he was in Erie, Pennsylvania and was desperately in heavy need of fresh cocaine. This made us more than mildly apprehensive. “Coke” was something we related to on the same level as  D-Con Rat-Poison. Still, it was Jimi Hendrix  and he was “experienced”. Sources contacted sources, who contacted other sources. Several grams were available in less than twenty minutes.

Jimi cruised on stage as I was completing his introduction. He hugged me around the neck and gave me a great big kiss on the forehead. I’m sure he was reacting much less to my announcement that the fact I had engineered the cocaine acquisition. Right on cue, his guitar screamed the first few notes of “Purple Haze” and off we went. After forty-five minutes, he was right in the middle of “Manic Depression” when he broke two guitar strings and went nuts. Not “fun” nuts, but “nuts” nuts. He was maniacally depressed. Furious with frustration, he threw down his instrument and stormed off the stage. The crowd couldn’t have been more pleased. It was seen as a really “cool” conclusion to the performance.

Five days later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot to death in Memphis. The following week, Daniel Berrigan was convicted in Federal Court of destroying Selective Service files. After two more months, Robert F. Kennedy became front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination by winning the California Primary and was assassinated.

The Summer of ’68 brought Led Zeppelin to the “Underground”.  I played everything off their first album, especially “Whole Lotta Love”. I even took the trouble of dubbing it onto tape so I could jack things up to maximum decibel level on the trailing vocal at the end where Robert Plant says: “Shake for me, girl. I wanna be your back door man.” Hey!

Most stations were fading out of it before then to avoid accusations of bad taste. WTAC had to go in exactly the opposite direction. It was a matter of leadership. We also played Steppenwolf’s “Pusher Man”. A station in the South had been warned by the Federal Communications Commission that the “Goddamns” in the song might be construed as “blasphemous” . This was prohibited under statutory communications law. We felt that any such concerns were greatly outweighed by the anti-drug abuse message conveyed. That made a fine excuse. The WTAC “Underground” had to stay at the very edge. Much of the more popular material being exposed was finding its way onto the regular WTAC playlist as time went on.

The Beatles released “Hey Jude” in August. I took two copies and, after much practice, succeeded in splicing together the long chorus at the end so it just kept on repeating. Capitol Records in Detroit called and said they were catching flack from their local stations. Listeners were demanding to hear the “forty-five minute version” of “Hey Jude” that was being played by WTAC in Flint.

As Autumn leaves started to fall, the Beatles, who had borrowed older rock material in their earliest days, were themselves successfully copied by the spacey Joe Cocker. He got by with a little help from his friends all the way to #1. Who needs plastic?. We had spastic!

Bob Dell had decided to try “extension marketing” and expand his Mt. Holly activities into the Saginaw area with a satellite venue.  He leased an old warehouse which became “Mt. Holly North”.  Its success was limited due to direct competition launched by others, particularly at “Daniel’s Den” in Saginaw and at the “Foxy Lady” near Bay City. Additionally, “Holly North” would often wind up competing with “Holly South” on a given night, dividing up the crowds.  After the ’68 season, continuing the endeavor seemed foolish. “Mt. Holly North” was abandoned.

Bob was starting to face other competitive challenges as well; some from his fellow employees at WTAC.

Although I was committed to the nightly airshift Mondays through Fridays, weekends were open for my own promotional activities. As host of the  “WTAC Underground”, I had become quite familiar with area bands, club managers and hall owners.

WTAC’s Gary Raymond  ran successful rock promotions in the Upper “Thumb” area northeast of Flint at “The Castle” in Caseville on Lake Huron.

Afternoon personality Jackson Ross was equally prosperous at the “Cloverleaf Bowl Skating Rink” twenty miles to the West in Durand.

WTAC’s newly-arrived Johnny Irons was regularly active at several spots, including a Knights of Columbus Hall in Davison and “The Center Building” in Lapeer.

Everyone had pretty much carved out his own “turf”. The “WTAC D-J Datebook” summarizing such activities was starting to run three minutes long.

Even as WTAC had continued to prosper financially under General Manager Charlie Speights, the only thing that mattered to our new Fuqua ownership, there had nevertheless developed strong, potentially divisive, political undercurrents at the facility, This was particularly true between Sales and Programming Departments.

A theoretical organizational pyramid chart would have depicted General Manager Charlie on top. Below Charlie, we would see Bob Dell as Program Director and a gentleman named Don Mayle as General Sales Manager. Bob’s jurisdiction would include all Programming, Announcing, Production and News employees.  Don would oversee Local and National Sales Managers and the entire Sales team.

Under Gene Milner, Bob and Charlie had been organizationally equal. In spite of Charlie’s elevation to General Manager, the original mind-set continued.

Charlie deferred to Bob’s decisions on all programming issues and most other matters as well. On a professional level, Charlie respected Bob’s proven skills, judgmental qualities and knowledge of the industry.  They were also personally close, a natural consequence of their relationship during the Milner years. At times, they had been mutually protective.

While Charlie excelled at “people skills”, Bob’s natural orientation was markedly different..

Where Charlie would coax;  Dell applied chokes.

Where Charlie would persuade; Bob might say: “Get Laid!”

Where Speights would implore; Dell slammed the door.

It was common knowledge that Bob was accumulating significant personal wealth from Mt. Holly and other sources. His WTAC pay-check represented but a small percentage of his annual income. It was also understood that WTAC provided Bob with both power base and economic fulcrum which he honestly, fully and openly exploited. There was whispered speculation regarding “conflicts of interest”, “serving two masters” and “divided loyalties”. Human nature being unchanged through the centuries, much of the negativity was driven by basic jealousy and nurtured by deep resentment.

Bob tended to treat much of the Sales Department with mild disdain and, if provoked, with open contempt. Other than infrequent assignments specifically arranged by Charlie, Bob made no official “station appearances”. Bob did no “remote” broadcasts other than a selected few at his choosing. He was normally not available for client pitching, production assignment or promotional duties.

Although unique in its Flint ratings leadership, WTAC was no different than most other radio stations across the country in one significant way:

Although “on-air” people were the individuals most highly identified with any given facility by the general public, true power resided in Sales. As with any other business, those who directly “brought in the money” were ultimately regarded as priority players by upper management. Programming built the “product” which obtained “listenership”, but Sales is what turned it all into cold, hard cash. That alone was bottom line.

The average radio salesperson earned a combination of base wages and commissions easily exceeding income earned by all except a handful of air personalities. Promotions to the position of General Manager were almost exclusively restricted to candidates from the Sales Department.
The General Sales Manager was normally second-in-line to the General Manager at a station and, in many instances, an eventual successor.

While faithfully following Bob’s instructions in Programming, I remained ever mindful of other organizational obligations dictated by precedent and common sense. Both inclination and instinct led me to extend continuing assistance to those silent radio stars behind the scenes who did nothing but ring the cash register.

“Need a guy to dress up in a sailor suit and broadcast from the top of the concession stand at the South Dort Drive-In for the opening of “McHale’s Navy”?  “No problem!”

You want someone to introduce Bill Cosby at Whiting Auditorium next Sunday for Coca-Cola?” “What time do you want me there?”

“The client still wants a WTAC jock to host the local “Miss Teenage America” competition”, even with long-hair and a mustache?” “Where do I get my tux?”

I was also more than willing to spend part of my boring, unproductive, pain-in-the-ass “News and Production” shift to write copy ideas, draft promotions, speak with clients and assist sales people in any way I could. I wasn’t getting a nickel extra for the effort, but it passed the time. Charlie had expressed deep appreciation for the extent of my cooperation.

Bob indicated his growing discomfort.

You know, you sometimes make me look like an asshole.”

“What d’ya mean?”

“Mayle is runnin’ around tellin’ everybody you oughta be me!

You know better, man!  But what am I supposed to do, tell these guys to eat shit?  You get to do that around here; not me!”

Bob and I still put in plenty of Contos and Stardust time.

(Ring-Ring)

Hello.”

“Hey, Peter C.!  How the fuck did I get into that goddamn fight last night?”

“Well, that big mother-fucker thought I was hittin’ on his lady. He came over to our table and called me a “goddamn prick”. You stood up and knocked him on his ass. You were cool!”

“Wait. Wait. Wait. He called you a “goddamn prick” and I stood up and knocked him on his ass? Jesus Christ!”

“He also called you a “Jew Bastard”.

A what?”

“A “Jew Bastard”. He said I was a “goddamn prick” first.”

“Ohhhhhhhh. I feel better.”

“You can feel better, Bob. He definitely called you a “Jew Bastard”.

“Great. I’ll see ya later.”

“See ya.”

One of the interesting rumors floating around town following the establishment of Bob’s Mt. Holly money machine was that he was Jewish.
Bob was only offended being called Jewish by the inherent implication a lot of folks thought Italians weren’t capable of cranking out the sort of cash he was. With our common Catholic background, I told Bob that Jesus had been Jewish, but that most of the Popes were Italian. Who came out better in the long run? Those collection plates weren’t heading for Tel Aviv!

I don’t think I ever mentioned Saint Augustine was a “Philosophical Coon”. Bob would have run right out and picked up his book.

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