My plan was to do a nostalgia piece this week, noodling some of the wild and woolly experiences I had back in my salad days as a radio news reporter/editor working alongside Dick Holmes, my all-time favorite disc jockey. In digging through my files for notes on Dick I came upon a column I wrote about him in the Wilmington, Del., Sunday News Journal back in the 1970s. And, since it gives a pretty good rundown on what the zany world of commercial radio was like following World War II, I offer it to you in toto as preface to the piece I started out to do and which now will be held over for next week’s blog.
You wonder who these guys are. You turn a knob and they’re there instantly, to chatter of laundry soap and automobiles and dish washers and underwear and tires and lawn services and paint and face cream and tired blood and all the other artifacts and gimcracks of Shove, American-Style. And then, as they prepare to play music, they convey to whoever’s out there — often with an exuberance just this side of hysterical collapse — that they’re having fun, fun, FUN.
Radio is ubiquitous and impartial, in that it enters all places, from mansions to massage parlors, with the same relentless cheer. And the cheeriest of all radio’s minions are the disc jockeys, those resolute, indefatigable, and eternally chortling purveyors of music and musings.
What’s with these burbly fellers, anyhow?
Perhaps because he’s low-key and milder than most, I dropped in on Dick Holmes, program director at WTUX, who is also a disc jockey of some 30 years on the Wilmington scene and who might be expected to know as much, if not more, than anybody about the subject.
Dick, for all his authority as a grizzled veteran of commercial radio, is perennially boyish. He’s lean, medium-size, and has a crop of dark, wavy hair of standard cut. He smiles readily, and I watched closely to determine if it’s real good humor or mere show-biz reflex. It’s good humor, sure enough. And infectious, because I found myself smiling back at him a lot.
“How did you get into this business, Dick?”
He gazed at me amiably from his perch behind a spaghetti of wires and a dazzle of buttons, reels and microphones. “Out of high school I got a job at Kresge’s as a stock boy,” he said. “My first day there, I ate a half-ton of candy. When an old-timer asked, ‘Who’s the green kid?’ he meant it. I was green.”
“Mm. But how about radio—”
“I went to work for Du Pont in self-defense. But in 1942 I was drafted and spent most of the war in the ETO as a clerk in General Bradley’s headquarters. Every time we moved from one office to another, I got another battle star on my chest ribbons.”
“Radio, Dick. Radio.”
“When the war was over, a buddy of mine who worked for Radio Luxembourg and was headed Stateside, said he was going to open an FM station. I was to go home and wait until he called mc to join him and learn the business. I’m still waiting for his call.”
A light flickered and Dick picked up a phone. He chatted with someone for a moment and rang off. “So,” he said without seeming to take a breath, “I drifted over to WILM, where my cousin, Ray Mulderic, had some influence. Radio fascinated me, and I hung around enough to audition at a dead mike for Gorm Walsh and Bob Roberts, who, by the way, went on to become Bob Warren, Lawrence WeIk’s announcer. They were great, helping me with suggestions, like, ‘When you read the news, you have to be serious — news is serious business and the listener takes it awful seriously.’ That kind at thing. In 1946, WILM hired me to work nights.”
“As a disc jockey?”
“Well, radio was different in those days. Almost everything was scripted, and we’d plug into the network nearly all the time. Everything the local guy said would be written out for him and timed to the split-second. And we depended a lot on transcriptions — big platters carrying whole shows, with voids in the disk so we could insert local commercials or station-breaks or whatever. We canned a lot of stuff ourselves, too. When a network show came on at a bad time for our local needs, we’d record it and play it at a better time. I remember I was recording Captain Midnight one time and my elbow bumped the needle across the whole show. All the kids in town thought Captain Midnight had been zapped.”
I nodded at the console, with all its complicated controls. “How in the world did you ever learn to push which button when?”
He chuckled. “It was scary, I’ll tell you. I used to lie awake nights worrying that I’d blow a fuse or plug into the wrong show or run Guy Lombardo backwards. And just as I had practiced myself blue learning the WILM board, the station got a new one. But it’s like learning to drive a car. You finally get so it’s automatic. Second nature.”
“When did you come with TUX?”
“I was with WILM from ’46 to ’48, then I did two years at WAMS. Then I returned to WILM for 16 years, and then here.”
“So when did the disk jockey thing evolve?”
The door opened and Pat Downes, Dick’s side-kick and fellow WTUX personality, stuck his head in the door to say hello and to take some script Dick handed him. “Pat’s doing the news slot for me so that you and I can keep talking,” Dick explained over a flurry of music and chatter that came from speakers on the wall here and there. “We back each other up like that. Now: Where were we?”
“I was asking about the disc jockey thing.”
He thought a moment, his youngish eyes examining the past. “It began with the big independent stations, I’d say, along with the emergence of wire and tape recordings. The indies generated the idea of ‘modern, dynamic radio’ with a big emphasis on local stuff and public service programming. And the network affiliates soon began to follow, and so the net result was personality, audience-playback radio. People would call in and request certain numbers, and there began a kind of two-way interplay, a rapport between listeners and jockeys who played the music and made the chitchat, like.
“In concept, the stations wanted to localize, and the new technology made it possible for them to do it. All I know is that I was on the air, live, more and more. And so were Dick Aydelotte over at WDEL, and Del Parks at ILM or WAMS or whatever we all might be working at the time. All the guys on stations everywhere were experiencing the name thing, and getting better at it.”
“As I recall, you sang along with the records you played.”
He laughed. “Yep, I really liked to sing, and so, when a melody was nice and in my range, I’d pick it up. People seemed to enjoy it. It was different, I guess.”
“Baritone, aren’t you?”
“You’re a politician, too, the way I hear it.”
He laughed even harder. “Not really. Back in the ’50s I was a councilman and mayor of Elsmere, where I live. It was OK but I’m an entertainer, mostly.”
“Politicians can be very entertaining sometimes.”
“I suppose. But I mean entertaining entertainer.”
I glanced at my notes. “A lot of disc jockeys around the country come on real strong, Dick. You know, as if they have degrees from the Barnum and Bailey School of Gush. But I notice that when I listen to you I get the distinct impression you’re talking directly to me. Easy-going and personal. How do you get that effect?”
“Well,” he shrugged, “I do talk directly to somebody. I pick out in my mind a couple of people I know and like, and think of them as I gab along; and it comes out as if I’m talking directly to everybody who’s listening. Radio is like prayer: You’ve got to talk to somebody you can’t see but who you absolutely believe is there, listening.”
“You’re into nostalgia these days, I understand.”
“Yeah. There’s an awful lot of interest in the old days, especially music and radio programs. So Pat and I have been playing the old stuff — big bands, Amos ’n’ Andy, Kraft Theater, Bing Crosby, Ed Murrow news shots, early Cronkite. The audience reaction’s been great.”
“Where do you get these oldies?”
“Tape houses, libraries, friends. We lift out most of the old commercials, though. The FTC might not approve of some of the more extravagant claims the advertisers made back then. And some of it sounds weird, too. I mean, it sounds goofy to have some nice music and then some guy breaking in with, ‘How’d you like to buy a keen new ’49 Olds?”
“You pick out all your own material?”
“Right. I have a four-hour show, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.. with a noon break for news. I come in at 6 a.m. to take care of the news and other morning stuff until 8:30. Then I select the stuff far my regular show. The trick is to hear the whole show in your mind as you’re selecting. It’s for pacing, overall tone. It’s like a painter with a kind of four hour canvas to fill. Out of all the colors available on his palette he’s got to pick those that work together to produce an overall mood.”
The phone lights were flickering again, and Dick, for all his courteous attention and unhurried air, began sneaking little glances at the clock. Time to get out of his hair, I decided. “One more question. Dick. How come you never got Into TV?”
“I did. I had a spell at WHYY-TV. Short spell.”
“You didn’t like it?”
“It was all very serious, and I like to kid around. And I found I was worrying about everything too much. I wasn’t having fun.” He paused, then added: “But that wasn’t the real problem.”
“What was the real problem?"
“My face. I have an ideal face for radio.”
* * *
Talk about a nostalgia trip! Here’s a glimpse of this great guy at work: