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Mr. Radio Man

Posted on 10 April 2009

by Joseph Hanna

“No, you are wrong!” said my boss. “Radio is the most intimate medium there is. You are speaking into someone’s ear, right into their head. Try it again from the top, and speak like you are talking to someone you know.”

The exchange had begun while I was attempting to read some copy for a bank commercial that would be replayed on five area stations including WLNG. I was trying to use my FM radio voice, the deep one, properly articulated, sonorous, oily, and as phony as a starlet’s promise of undying fidelity.

“It’s got to be real,” said my boss. “The hardest thing in broadcasting is honesty – and when you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

Did I mention he was a wit?

I lived on Howard Street in those days. I was so close to the WLNG signal tower that I could pick up the station at three places on the dial. I got the main carrier signal plus the harmonics, which are usually too faint to matter. I used to joke that I could pick it up on my toaster, but that was only half a joke, It came through my guitar amp, my reel to reel recorder, my microphones and anything else that wasn’t well grounded.

When we moved to Sag Harbor after a touring the South and Midwest with a country band, I had heard a lot of stations around the US, from LA to backwoods Arkansas. Our mandolin player (from East Meadow, Long Island) loved to imitate the drawling fundamentalists from the giant, unregulated, high-powered stations in Texas. We called them “blowtorches” because their signal from the big transmitters across the border from Del Rio could toast bread. You could pick them up all the way to Indiana on a clear winter night. I had heard a lot of radio on thousand mile drives and I thought I had heard it all, but WLNG was unique. There was nothing else like it in the entire country.

What would make a radio station so … eccentric?

It was filled with weird anachronisms like the little 5-second musical station IDs. My boss at the studio had been a jazz vocal arranger. He knew how to fashion a chord using human voices that would make a hep cat flip his wig. The station IDs for WLNG sounded as if some wiggy, flipped out hep cat had done the vocal arrangements. Why? How? By the ‘70s when I first heard the station, hep cats were hippies and they played fuzz guitar and sang in trippy monotones. What was going on?

This is how I found out.

The boss bought an ancient RCA ribbon microphone from an antique shop in New York to use as a stage prop for his ultra-modern control room. A ribbon mic uses a microscopically thin ribbon of metal to catch sound waves – hence the name. A good one is extremely delicate. A friend of mine ruined one by putting it down on its side. They have a particular sound, or as we used to say, they color the sound they pick up. Sound engineers can recognize the type of mic used for a particular recording. When the boss tired of the dusty old thing, he asked me to give it to Paul Sidney as a kind of gag. You have probably seen those mics in old movies. They were the size of a cocktail shaker, shaped like a suppository and had ribbed sides. RCA with a lightning bolt was emblazoned on the side.

“What did he say?” asked the boss on my return.

“He said thank you.” I answered.

“That’s it?”

The joke was on us. A couple of weeks later I had to deliver some spots to the station after the receptionist had gone for the day. I entered quietly because I knew from my car radio that Paul was live on the air. He didn’t see me come in. He had his back to me. The announcer booth door was open. He was talking fast, gesticulating like a pushcart fruit vendor and dancing on one foot. He was directing his energy, his words and indeed his personality into the ancient RCA ribbon mic! It was back on the air! Back from nowheresville! He was using it in real life! That’s how he was getting that particular sound that I noted on the drive to the station.

When the recording studio in Bridgehampton was shutting down, it was my job to offer Paul another piece of equipment, the old Ampex mono tape recorder. It had been converted from tube to transistors in the ‘60s. The American tape recorder came from an intelligence operation in Germany during the war. An Army unit was sent to a radio station to close down a “live” concert in the middle of the night. They discovered a tape recorder and a lonely and terrified engineer. Tape recorders had been developed by Germany in secret just before the war. The men had never seen anything like it. It was shipped to California as war booty, where it was copied and produced by the company that became Ampex a few years later.

Paul’s eyes lit up when he saw it. He put it into immediate service and it was still being used the last time I looked about eight years ago. While I was there, Paul showed me around the facility. He explained that he grew up in love with radio in the classic era just before television took over much of the entertainment load. He found a place in Buffalo that was going out of business and bought all their old station IDs. He wanted the old sound. He wanted the old vocal arrangements. He even ran his signal through an obsolete spring reverb and a compressor to get that specific, high-energy but out-of-focus sound we associate with the early rock and roll days. He thought about everything he did. Nothing at the station just happened by accident. The eccentric sound was one man’s vision, worked out detail by detail.

I tried not to listen to WLNG in those days. My wife and I played in a local band and we tried to project a certain professional cool. But it was impossible not to listen to it because it was a true community resource. The on-air personalities called out our son’s birthdays, told us who died, told us who to call for used boats and motors, garage tools, firewood, septic tank services. Paul and crew ginned up excitement for thousands of pancake breakfasts, whaler’s festivals, parades, basketball games, football games, Santa visits and all the happenings that gave a sense of community to our town. It was an eccentric station for an eccentric town. It was completely honest in a dishonest medium.

“Look at those numbers!” said Paul as we concluded the tour. He pointed excitedly at the latest Arbitron survey. WLNG was the most listened to station in the local market. His eyes were on fire. This (in every sense) was his baby. In a world dimmed down by sameness and franchised offerings that varied not at all from sea to shining sea, WLNG stood out like a ’57 Chevy with hood scoops in the valet parking lot for a charity ball.

“Those are good numbers,” I said.

“Those are great numbers,” he said.

The numbers didn’t lie. They told me what I already knew through experience, that WLNG was the voice of Sag Harbor and the East End. It was brought to you by Paul Sidney, who was passionate about radio and what it could do. In a sense, it was a giant toy, but some of the best things in life are created by people who enjoy what they do. When you love your job, it’s like play time all the time. We will miss him.

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