Thursday afternoon, just south of Vulcan’s anvil, a group of guys will gather to do what they do best, which is talk, about a subject that depends upon such, which is broadcasting. It is part of a delightful series, organized by Philip Ratliff and the crew at Vulcan Park and Museum, called “Birmingham Revealed,” giving folks inside stuff on the city wherein they dwell.
The specific topic Thursday is “The Golden Age of Birmingham Broadcasting: Radio Edition,” following up on a successful panel mounted last year on television, which featured famous faces from the Magic City’s cathode ray tube era. With radio, the faces will be less famous than the voices, but it will be interesting to hear their take on what made that medium golden.
The theme of the one-hour discussion is community, suggesting that radio had the power then, as the Internet does today, to bring groups of people together for common purpose. It’s a valid notion, as panel members Bob Freidman and Shelley Stewart can explain, in the context of 1963, when Civil Rights organizers relied on messages passed on by urban radio to help coordinate political actions. (If that chapter in history intrigues you, Bob has his own seminar on the role of radio in the Civil Rights Movement next month at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.)
However, radio was more than that to Birmingham. That’s my take, anyway, and since I’ll be on the panel Thursday to expound for at least three minutes on that perspective, I might as well practice here. (Besides clarifying my thinking, it’ll save you an admission fee.)
You can tell from looking at an antique radio that the medium was intended for community. As the fantastic concept of voices flying through the air into homes became reality, radio sets were designed as furniture for the living room, around which the whole family could gather to be entertained.
By 1929, there were three stations in Birmingham — WBRC, WAPI, and WKBC, which would eventually become WSGN — and because there were comparatively few stations on the air throughout the country at the time, our three could be picked up in other cities by listeners whose sets had good antennae. That meant Birmingham pop culture was exported far and wide, for despite the network shows each carried, the bulk of the programming on our local stations was based on local performers. In those days before it was permissible to spin records on the air, programmers created blocks of time for area musicians to perform live, so songs that were sung in a studio in the Tutwiler Hotel might wind up getting fan mail from Goose Bay, Labrador.
Even before the FCC mandated that radio stations must allocate a percentage of their broadcast time to public service, smart station owners realized that local people would listen if their station aired programs of interest to them. Thus originated hugely popular segments devoted to funeral home announcements, roll calls of the sick and shut-in and, anticipating craigslist, the “Swap Shop of the Air.” Cornball? In the context of our media-besotted present, sure, but back in that day, hearing the names of people you knew on the magic radio box was powerful ju-ju indeed.
After World War II, personalities came to dominate local radio, and perhaps the biggest was Joe Rumore, broadcasting on the 50,000-watt blowtorch that was WVOK. Joe eschewed the mannered modulations of most radio announcers to speak to his audience in a down-home conversational manner that made him, incidentally, one of the most effective pitchmen on radio. Other stations latched on to marquee names such as Ron Carney, Tommy Charles, Doug Layton and Joe’s brother, Duke. As Top 40 made its way into the marketplace, even mild-mannered announcers like Neal Miller and Bill Bolen became personalities through their association with the hit records of the moment.
Believe it or otherwise, the pop culture of the ’60s created its own kind of community, refining the sense of mass teen identity that arose out of Elvis and rock ‘n’ roll in the ’50s. Elvis had brought black sensibilities into popular music, but in Top 40 formats, soul records could be played without differentiation alongside pop records, creating a music mix scarcely imaginable back when the only place you could hear black music was on black-oriented stations, such as WBCO or WJLD.
Growing up among a teen counterculture meant staying tuned to radio, in that age before MTV and Internet. In Birmingham, WSGN’s Jim Taber, Steve Norris and Dave Roddy competed with WVOK’s Johnny Davis and Dan Brennan, as well as WAQY’s Layton and Charles for the hearts and minds of teen listeners. Into the Seventies, the competition broadened with WERC joining the fray, featuring Jim Christian and Coyote J. Calhoun.
This doesn’t even account for the community-engaging FM band, first represented on WJLN-FM with the pioneering “underground” broadcasts of Father Tree, later joined by WERC-FM, WAPI-FM, and, later still, Kicks 106 and Rock 99, under whose aegis Greg Bass and I put in some quality time in the 80s and 90s.
Despite my purported expert opinion, I don’t know exactly which years constitute the golden age for Birmingham’s airwaves. I have a feeling it depends on which years you were listening to it intensively.
Radio doesn’t exist anymore, at least not in the community-bestriding manner of that so-called golden age. Corporations control practically all the bandwidth in Birmingham, and their commitment to maximizing profits has resulted in downsizing, homogenization, voice tracking, repurposing and lots of other practices that have diminished the audience’s interest in their product.
So, never mind what I said earlier. Spend the ten bucks to come up to Vulcan Thursday, and listen to the actual voices of Shelley and Doug and other luminaries of a more idiosyncratic age in Birmingham radio.
Another decided benefit of attending over just reading about it: the cash bar opens at 5:30 p.m.