I'm omitting the names of anyone I've ever worked with, although many of those colleagues would be in my Top 20 or 30. And it's obvious that spending my young
years in Michigan and Texas ignited my passion for radio and shaped my own
on-air style, so that's why those two states are represented so frequently.
It was fairly easy to come up with ten personalities for this list and leave out others, as I've admired the work of so many but couldn't overlook their biggest flaws. I recall someone on public radio with a great voice and strong approach to music but he was a lazy programmer, repeating the same songs and artists way too often ("that's the only song you like from that album?," I'd be thinking). That was part of my criteria for eliminating some of the DJs or announcers that had a shot at making my Top Ten: anyone who plans their show in a perfunctory manner or merely fills up time--no matter how smooth they sound--doesn't resonate with me. Here's my list...
10. Scott Regen (WKNR-AM/Detroit, 1960s): One of the most likable personalities in
the business, Regen had a few tricks up his sleeve (he got Edwin Starr and the Woolies to re-record part of their hit singles to promote his program--in the middle of the latter's only hit, the Woolies sang "Scott Regen Show! Scott Regen Show!" where the "Who Do You Love" part would be). However, this "Keener 13" DJ transcended gimmicks because he had a genuine love for rock and soul, portraying it as an art form. At the end of the Four Tops' "Bernadette," for instance, Regen would be reciting those great Holland-Dozier-Holland lyrics as Levi Stubbs was emphatically singing them: "Bernadette, you mean more to me/than a woman was ever meant to be!"
9. Dave Dixon (WABX-FM/Detroit, 1960s-'70s; WDET-FM/Detroit, 1980s): It's a surprise to me that I'd list Dixon, who was not known to be a pleasant person. He insulted listeners and callers (and colleagues, I've heard), yet on the air, when he was good, he was very good. I've documented his WABX tenure before, so fast forward to 1986 on public radio and WDET; his return to the Motor City from Florida was a huge boost for me, as I thought creative radio programming had all but vanished by then. Here was someone who promoted the small labels (like Marcia Ball on Rounder Records), while not forgetting artists with a huge reach: he played the Rolling Stones! There are a few notable exceptions--such as Mike Halloran's post-punk "Radios In Motion" on WDET,
circa 1980--but the public radio I'd heard in the past was in general musically stodgy and long-winded until Dixon's reemergence in Detroit in the '80s. It's possible that I better appreciated his work the second time around because his competition had shrunk.
8. The Electrifying Mojo (WGPR-FM/Detroit, 1980s): In the mid-'80s, there was quite a rebound in rock and soul music. Once again, for the first time in 15 years, what was really popular was really good, with Prince leading the charge. I've mentioned before that one would hear the Time with Morris Day and Fleetwood Mac's "Seven Wonders" on Mojo's (Charles Johnson) delightful show, but how about the Go-Gos' "This Town" (with that deep, killer guitar riff)? On the eve of the Gulf War in 1990, Mojo played the entire What's Going On album by Marvin Gaye, adding sound effects of planes flying overhead that would be deploying solders or preparing to drop bombs (Mojo is a military veteran, by the way). It was an incredible listening experience, and Gaye's album, already a masterpiece with 20 years of history, never sounded so contemporary.
7. Martha Martinez (KEXL-FM/San Antonio, 1970s): For many radio followers growing up when I did, it was a rare thing to hear female voices on the air. In the '50s, there was Memphis station WDIA-AM (with several women announcers), including Martha Jean "The Queen" Steinberg, who moved from Memphis to Detroit's WCHB-AM in 1963 (in 1967, Martha Jean spent a lot of airtime trying to calm tempers down during the Detroit riots). On the FM side, several years later, WABX had Ann Christ (last name pronounced like Crisco). But I got to hear San Antonio's great announcer more often than any other female DJ, and MM was wonderful. Martha Martinez's programming incorporated jazz and blues elements into rock and folk--and there was Stevie Wonder, too. I heard Bonnie Raitt and Medusa regularly. Martinez had a terrific voice with all the right inflections, like the time in 1975 when KEXL (who aired an LP in its entirety every evening) played what she called, "the fantastic new album by Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run." No hype, just restrained, conversational enthusiasm.
6. Amy Goodman ("Democracy Now!"--syndicated radio, 1996-present): Sure, I'd say that Goodman is so relentless that she sometimes sounds uptight, even in the show's lighter moments when they cover the arts (artists with a social message, usually). Almost all the time, she and co-host Juan Gonzales aren't afraid to ask tough questions of anybody, though I detected a bit of rare schmoozing when AG accompanied former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide when he returned to Haiti in 2011 after living in exile. The KAOS announcer running the soundboard dropped in this cutting live message in the middle of the program: "Now back to the Aristide Admiration Society show." What Goodman does is hard-hitting and inspiring, and those skills cannot be over-emphasized. I won't forget the time when Bill Clinton called WBAI in New York, "Democracy Now" 's flagship station, in 2000 to recruit votes for Al Gore's run at the White House. Clinton wasn't expecting Amy Goodman or anyone with her intensity to pick up the phone, and she let him have it about NAFTA, racial profiling and the Middle East crisis. It was an amazing, surprising exchange.
5. Walter Cronkite (CBS Television, 1950-1981): I could certainly have chosen Bill Moyers, the last of the responsible, old school announcers, but I've got a soft spot for Cronkite, whose retirement left a huge hole in the field of news reporting. He most certainly was pooh-poohed by young people in the 1960s, thought to be too establishment or just plain square, yet Cronkite was reassuring and his approach beautifully measured--he was the solid rock that is so sorely missing from today's broadcast journalism. Following a 1968 trip to Vietnam, Cronkite had the nerve to say that there was no way the U.S. was going to be able to win the war, and he got us through our personal grief following the JFK assassination. And when Chicago police were beating up anyone in sight during the 1968 Democratic Convention, security pushed CBS reporter Dan Rather to the floor on live television. Cronkite came right back with, "I think we have a bunch of thugs here, Dan."
4. Dennis Frawley (WABX-FM/Detroit, 1960s-'70s): Frawley first kicked radio ass at
one of the first free form stations in the country, WFMU-FM at Upsala College in East Orange, NJ. There, he co-hosted the "Kokaine Karma" program with Bob Rudnick. By the early '70s, his early evening show (it followed Mark Parenteau's) at WABX/Detroit was overflowing with gritty punch. He aired lots of the Stooges and John Lee Hooker in addition to plenty of choice West Coast rock (I knew the Byrds, but not Arthur Lee's band Love--save for their hit single in Detroit, "My Little Red Book"--quite an awakening). Frawley was so in tune with the black undercurrent in rock that around 1974, he played current R&B almost exclusively. The last time I heard him was on a summer 1980 trip to Michigan, where in the midst of the corporate rock he was forced to play, he snuck in Martha & the Vandellas' still-explosive and joyous "Dancing In the Street."
3. Tom Quarles (KLBJ-FM/Austin, 1970s-'80s): He called himself "TQ" and provided sparkling listening with a relaxed but fervent approach. In fact, I appreciated his style so much that I sent Quarles some music columns I'd written, and he phoned me from KLBJ one night. He was way ahead of the game on, for instance, Elvis Costello and Squeeze, getting the latter's 1980 record Argybargy on the air almost immediately. A year later, when Squeeze's "Tempted" and the LP East Side Story captured the imagination of a much bigger audience, TQ said, "We told you so" without a shred of bragging. We talked about Talking Heads on the phone and the big, live sound Springsteen got on The River, which made Bruce's earlier records sound claustrophobic by comparison. And TQ related some of the nasty, racially intolerant calls he would get when playing a Stevie Wonder album track (I wonder if Martha Martinez caught the same crap in San Antonio). The album features hosted by TQ showed a lot of knowledge of whatever artist he was playing. A truly great DJ.
2. Ernie Harwell (the voice of the Detroit Tigers, WJR-AM/Detroit, 1960-1991; 1993-2002): Those who complain about baseball's sometimes leisurely pace don't understand that it's so much like life, full of quiet pleasures until something big happens. Ernie Harwell rode that wave so well, raising his voice when he needed to, telling stories in a calm but engaging matter. The times he was silent and just let the sounds around the stadium melt into the microphone are so special to me. Please see my full blog entry on him dated 5/5/10. Ernie was a true gentleman, the best friend I never met.
1. Mark Parenteau (WABX-FM/Detroit, 1970s): I have a more complete description of MP's work on my blog of 4/9/10, but let me say that for whatever crimes he may have committed, Mark Parenteau on the radio was both cutting edge and respectful of the past, with a hip, concise way of getting a message across. He wasn't afraid to play Captain Beefheart and the Jackson 5 's walloping "I Want You Back" in the same set, for one thing--which is the kind of crazed contrast I would not hear again until 20 years later at KAOS, when a few DJs would follow a set of throttling punk rock with a piece of easy listening they picked up at Goodwill. Full of energy on the air, Parenteau was also far ahead of the curve with one of the most exciting bands of the 1970s, Roxy Music; among other tunes, he went for their edgy, inflatable doll fantasy, "In Every Dream Home a Heartache." There was also Jack Kittel's macabre version of the already macabre country song, "Psycho," and Sparks' "Whippings and Apologies." Need I say more? Another huge plus: Parenteau was not a musical snob. Upon playing a reissue of the '60s group the Orlons, for instance, he would tell those serious "album freaks" in the listening audience--who may have frowned upon their "heavy" FM station playing a pre-Beatles AM radio hit--about, "That old Philadelphia rock'n'roll; it qualifies as rock'n'roll because you can dance to it and it makes you feel good."