Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Dr. Jimmy Davis

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Fans of the 1970s sitcom "WKRP in Cincinnati" might remember that the producers of the show did in fact loosely base it on a real life radio station in the Queen City with similar call-letters. WKRC.
When the planning for the comedy show began the writers and producers explored WKRC and picked their brains for ideas that could resemble realism. Actually when all of this was going on former WTVN programmer Jim Lohse was the PD at WKRC. On the TV show the character of WKRP’s program director, Andy Travis did sort of remind some of us of Jim.
As some of the others on the show also reminded us of people we knew. Even Mr. Carlson was not unlike some General Managers all of us have known.
No disrespect to the news directors I worked with but Les Nesman reminded me of a few here in Columbus. Herb Tarlik was a carbon copy of some of the salesman I have known. Venus Flytrap had common personality traits of a few of the soul brothers working the Columbus airwaves and every station had a few hotties like Bailey Quarters and Jennifer Marlowe.
But I only knew one guy who could hold a candle to Johnny Fever.
I was working nights at WMNI when I walked into the vestibule one night on my way into the studio and noticed this guy who appeared to be in his late 30s, he had long salt and pepper hair, scraggly whiskers and a well-worn t-shirt with some sort of rock n' roll logo on it.
He was asleep on the couch and there was a brown paper sack on the floor that contained what appeared to be his worldly possessions. My first thought was that someone had forgotten to lock the door and perhaps a homeless man had wandered in.
I thought about calling the police to have him escorted out but instead I woke him and asked if he was lost or confused or if there was something I could do to help him out.
He asked if my name was Rick and then he explained that he was the new guy and he was waiting for me to train him. My program director did leave me a memo on this but I made it a habit of checking my mailbox at the end of my shift.
That gave me an excuse to argue new policies and such. Anyway, we got things worked out and I quickly learned this guy needed no training. He was about the best disk jockey I had ever heard. In fact he turned out to be someone I idolized as a kid.
He had worked at WCOL back in its heyday and had a voice and personality that was truly amazing. Jim Davis was not only tremendous on the air he was amazingly funny off the air. His off air persona was a mirror’s reflection of Doctor Johnny Fever.
He dressed like him, had similar sarcasm and a track record in the business that included gigs at stations from coast to coast. A rocker from the old school stuck in Columbus. And like the character on WKRP Jim hated rules.
He broke them all.
I remember sitting in a DJ meeting after the PD had finished a rant and rave about guys not following the format and when he asked if there were any questions we all looked around the room and broke into laughter. Jim was asleep, and when someone nudged him he farted. Even the PD couldn’t contain himself and quickly ended the session.
We all walked out thanking Jim for saying all that needed to be said.
Another fond memory was a contest idea that our PD had come up with. It was called "Make-It-Or-Break-It." The idea was for Jim to play two new songs and allow listeners to call in and vote on which one should be added to our play list. He would play the songs then let the phones ring off the hook without answering them. After a few minutes he would come on the air and break the loser.
He would smash it on the table and play glass-breaking sound effects and tell the listeners that they voted it the loser. What was really going on was Jim was the only voter.
One time he smashed a George Jones record and declared an obscure song recorded by an unknown artist that sounded like crap the winner. The Jones record went on to become a smash hit and Jim's winner was in the trash when the PD showed up the next day.
Because of his talents and likability on the air, women were always coming to the station late at night to meet him. However, he usually ignored the attention unless one showed up that was hard to look at or smelled bad, then he would greet them at the door and tell them that his name was Bill Weber. Bill was our morning man.
When I first went to work at WMNI the station was not yet 20 years old. To put that in perspective I have been around 5 years longer than those blinking towers in Grove City along Marlane Drive just off Interstate 71.
In retrospect I guess I didn’t think about such things when I was in my mid twenties. The studios we worked out of at The Great Southern Hotel and the equipment we used had to be older than the towers and me.
Our control console, turntables and tape recorders were like dinosaurs when compared to the equipment I had used earlier in stints at WTVN and WNCI. For example our seven second delay that was used to screen on-air no-no’s was accomplished with two old tape recorders stacked on top of one another.
The tape deck on top to record the comments, the other as a playback machine where the comments were played several seconds after being recorded. The tape would make its way down to the play-back head on that one by-passing the first recorders take-up reel and being collected on the second one.
Sound confusing? I thought it was insane but it worked! Listeners of WMNI could not have known any of this because our station sounded great. Old tape recordings of my own show sound better than I ever did.
Station president and general manager Bill Mnich even came into the studio once and offered advice on how to work on my voice to bring it down from sounding like a tenor to something more manly. I never thought of myself as a tenor but he said I sounded like a castrato.
(Ouch!) Mnich had a "man’s" voice, one of the deepest I ever heard, one that could shake a room. The voice exercises he suggested actually worked and before my second of about seven years there I noticed a difference. On the other hand maybe I just thought I did.
Throughout this book I have written about my own life and some of my experiences with WMNI and I have often said those were probably my best years in radio. Decades have passed since I left the station and since then WMNI moved out of the hotel to their studios on Dublin Road.

But I cannot go through the intersection of South High Street and East Main Street without looking up at that building and having the memories flooding back as if they were mere weeks ago.

Today the station could not sound more different with his adult standards format than it did when Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty helped me make friends, get laid and take my mind off of the personal struggles of being broke, in debt, getting married, divorced and remarried.

Broadcasting friends I met then are some of the best I have still today. Moreover, Bill's surviving family members still treat me like one of their own anytime our paths cross. I will forever miss Mr. Mnich and the opportunities he gave me when he took a chance by hiring me, at first for three dollars an hour because as he said at the time, I was coming in with experience.
Bill Mnich worked in Chillicothe when he was young and he brought Carl Wendelken to Columbus from there. Others would eventually follow. Carl was a fixture at WMNI for about three decades and when he finally left the air I was his replacement, a position I will discuss later.
Another announcer from there was a girl named Tonda Vanover, the first female DJ to work for WMNI. Tight jeans, a cowboy hat and boots, she arrived in Columbus in a black Smokey and the Bandit Trans AM and with an attitude that matched her car. She called herself Cherokee. A gifted announcer and a good fit for our format. As she might say, a little bit country and a little bit watch yourself.
I have lost touch with many from that era but I still communicate regularly with business guru Eddie Powell who has remained closely tied with local broadcasting.
Eddie was a kid who began showing up at the station as a friend of a friend of another friend of mine and he still blames me for his radio career, or at least for talking him into pursuing one. Not exactly how I remember it but it’s fun to hear him say it.
He became our nighttime announcer and a life-long comrade. Immersing himself in everything from square dance calling, hosting television shows, live concerts, motivational speaking, teaching and a host of other adventures, including radio announcing and commercial voice-overs.
He has somehow found his name on virtually every “Who’s Who” list there is. His book, “How to Get the Job You Have Always Dreamed Of” accents a career of helping others find work and to fine-tune business adventures.
Then there was Joe Higman, a guy with a big heart to match his physical frame. A gentle giant. One of the nicest people in radio and the guy who grabbed the console for me when I had to abandon my radio show one night to rush to Mt. Carmel Hospital for the birth of my son Kevin.
That night after I got the new arrival to sleep and the nurses and his mother Patti settled down I returned to the station to relieve him but I nearly had to wrestle the microphone away from Joe. He insisted I go home and get rested. He genuinely cared.
The man with the biggest ego I ever met was a guy named Bill Weber. Bill was the morning man at WMNI and his invisible sidekick was his dog named Spot.
He would talk to that dog that wasn’t there and bark answers back to himself as if it were. He encouraged his listeners to send mail to it and he even called his program “The Bill and Spot Show.”
It wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow to see him at work wearing outrageous outfits, even a dress or some other costume preparing to go out on some broadcast remote. When he went out he wanted to be noticed.
He was also our station Santa Clause during the holiday season. Every year he would do a show where kids would call in to talk to Santa and give him their list, and even though it was radio and no one would have know the difference he got into full Santa dress to do that show.
Sometimes the studio would be decorated with pictures of him (that he would plaster the walls with) and it would be pictures of him wrapped in telephone cords, balancing numerous phones as if there weren’t enough in the studio to keep up with all of calls, making faces, surrounded by celebrities, pretending to be asleep, slumped over a microphone or buried in fan mail and stacks of records. Typical radio publicity shots, a guy with a surprised expression, mouth wide open, eyeballs popping out... you’ve seen them.
Just a few co-workers from the mid '80s who were like a family; albeit dysfunctional at times but still a good group to have shared parts of my life with. I would like to believe that we all left lasting impression not only on our listeners, but also with each other. Good, bad or indifferent… impressions.

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