Don’t tell me chance doesn’t run the craps table in the casino of life. And don’t tell me there’s any such thing as a self-made man. I know better. Everything I have I owe to sheer dumb luck, and to the generous spirits of the people I have had the good fortune to know.
Jackson, Mississippi was, and is, a backwater. Thank God. They don’t take kindly to the pompous and uppity. It’s slow there. There’s time to burn, time to waste, time to think and not think, to reflect on the nature of existence and to make dumbass mistakes. Time to listen.
Jackson was boring. It has always had that going for it. It was good, because things that were not boring towered above the landscape like a radio tower above a pine forest. Like the rock station there, WZZQ-FM. Maybe there were a hundred other stations just like it across the country. Maybe not. Either way, it was a special thing. While other stations were trying hard to sound professional and produced and airtight, ZZQ never gave a shit. It was staffed by a small band of guys who had great taste in music and the priceless gift of being themselves whether the mic was on or off. Working out of a studio in the middle of a cow pasture north of town, they perpetrated an artistic vision so pure that Kubrick would probably have been impressed. All while partying their asses off.
ZZQ, in that town at that time, was more than just a slice of bandwidth for hawking used car lots and mortgage lenders and traffic reports. It was a like a living person, a hub, as much a member of my circle of friends as any of us. It entertained us, brought us together, exposed us to music we’d never have known of otherwise, rallied us, and became the soundtrack for the movies we imagined our lives to be. Drinking in the woods in silence? Creepy. But partying out at Lost Rabbit with Houses of Holy blasting on ZZQ from the car radio is the stuff you dream of as you sit in your cubicle waiting for 5 o’clock to come around yet again.
Say these names to most anyone between the ages of 35 and 50 in Jackson, Mississippi, and they will nod and grin: Kevin. Perez. Wayne. Dave. Victor. Sergio. They were the DJs, (the ones I remember). Through some fluke of the universe, which in reality was the management who decided AOR was the best format for selling ads, these young, shaggy dudes came to be the keepers of acres of airtime. They filled it well. They were completely authentic; brilliant fuckups who managed to create unforgettable radio without even trying. Committed amateur musicologists and professional smartasses who showed up when they felt like it, which was pretty much all the time. Seriously talented people who took the world, the audience, and the music seriously, but never themselves.
They weren’t just playing records. They were building a cult of music and personality. Fuck market research and Billboard and Arbitron. They played what they wanted, what they knew and what they wanted us to know. Listening to ZZQ was like being at the coolest cocktail party ever. It was loose, sloppy, funny, live. Dead air wasn’t uncommon. Perez had no problem flipping on the mic after a song and saying “Talk amongst yourselves” while rummaging through stacks of vinyl looking for the next song. Thirty seconds might go by, and I’d stop whatever I was doing to listen to the ambient sound, the chair rolling to the back of the studio, the shuffle of cardboard album covers, the shouts toward the mic to be patient. And we were patient. It was vastly more interesting than anything else on the dial there or anywhere else in the country because it was so damn personal. These were real people. That guy scrambling around in front of a live mic looking for Space Oddity was doing it in real time just 20 miles north of my house. At that very moment. It was like witnessing history, made fresh every day. Next day at school: “You hear Perez last night?” “Yeah, he was totally fucked up.”
But I never thought it was drugs. They may not have realized it at the time (I certainly didn’t), but they were pranksters in the tradition Ernie Kovacs, Milton Berle, and Chuck Jones. They were playing with the medium of radio, treating it like a toy, bashing it around, taking it apart and winding it up to see how much they could do to it. The station was their private science experiment and we got to listen.
They were each distinctive personalities. Wayne was the hottie. Kevin was fast, witty, political, intellectual. Dave was completely laid back, a furry music guru. Perez was just strange, with a deep, smoky voice and a habitual disregard for on-air convention. None of them could be controlled much, by management or anyone else. I imagined their control booth as a cross between NASA mission control and an opium den. I listened daily, whenever I wasn’t sitting in class. We all did. You could walk down the hill to school in the morning and hear it playing in each Camaro and GTO and Ford pickup, all the way down. It was a great time.
Then it died. Management decided a country format would sell more ad time, so one night they played “The End” by The Doors, said “This was WZZQ” and flipped off the transmitter. The next morning it was MISS 103, with cheez-whiz country music, a jingle package fresh outta Nashville and tight, perky announcers. There was angst. We held candlelight vigils. There were letters to the editor, black armbands, recriminations. But soon enough we all dispersed and went on with our lives. In my case that meant high school. I was 15.
The DJs worked different stations around town. Kevin went to WTYX, the top 40 station. He did what he could to make it tolerable, bent the format as much as he thought he could get away with. In the absence of ZZQ I listened to TYX. I imagined the control room at TYX to be different than ZZQ. More like an auto repair waiting room lit by florescents.
One night I called in to TYX to request a song. Even at 15 I had a decent phone voice with a lower pitch, made lower by the late hour and by years living with a chain smoking mother. I called, got through, Kevin answered. I requested my song in as close to a whiskey voice as I could muster, and he started talking to me. Whoa. Kevin, talking to me. Chatting me up, in fact. Then he asked me how old I was, and I told him. 15. I could almost hear him pulling up the emergency break with both hands. I figured that was the end of that. But then he said something that would change everything in my life, to this day. He said, “You should be in radio.”
I thought he was just kidding, but he asked me to come out to the station that night to record a :30 promo he’d written about TYX t-shirts. The guy could have been a serial killer and I’d have gone. I took my mother’s car (where was she? Passed out? Asleep? I don’t even remember.) and headed north, to Beasley Road.
These days Beasley Road is all strip malls and traffic lights. Then it was a dark drive though the wilds of north Jackson. I could see the stars through the windshield between infrequent streetlights. The station was near where ZZQ had been, on the same road. I turned off the two-lane and onto the gravel road leading to the station–a big metal building next to a transmitter, as butt-ugly plain as it gets. I parked next to a phone pole that held the sole streetlight with its halo of moths, crunched across the gravel lot and knocked. The industrial metal door opened and there was Kevin, lit from behind by florescents.
Kevin. He looked exactly like he sounded on air. Thin, tall, groomed beard and poboy glasses with clear plastic frames. Light blue/grey eyes that made him look strange and intense. He said hello, and walked me down a hall of windows to the booth. Gold records on black felt on the walls. He handed me the script. I did a readthrough, trying, poorly, to act like I did this every day. Then he gave me headphones and we did a few takes. He was doing this while running a board shift so he was businesslike, which I appreciated. He mixed the spot between breaks, gave me a dub of the spot and a TYX t-shirt for my trouble, and thanked me. The whole thing probably took half an hour. Then I was driving back down the gravel road in the Mississippi darkness, utterly thrilled. But not half as thrilled as I was when I heard the spot on the air.
That chance meeting and Kevin’s generosity started a chain of events that changed the course of my life. I took my TYX spot to another station, WCCL-AM oldies, and based on it they gave me a shot at working overnights. That led to other radio jobs (once you’re in, you’re in), and I was able to put work myself through high school and college in radio. I worked oldies, top 40, country, easy listening and adult contemporary formats, AM and FM, did board shifts and newscasts and cut spots. Got eight chances every shift, at the top and bottom of each hour, to time up to live ABC News feeds, and got pretty good at it. Learned how to edit AP reports on the fly and that it’s pronouced “double you”, not “dubya”. Got over hating the sound of my own voice in my cans. Totally botched saying “Apalachicola, Florida” during a newscast. Learned exactly how long thirty seconds is. And every time I wrote a spot, I heard Kevin and Perez and ZZQ in my head, and wrote it like I thought they’d write it. Loose, conversational, funny as I could make it.
When I graduated with a B.A. in English, I put together a reel and headed to Atlanta. I had the good fortune (chance and generosity again) to get an interview with Turner Network Television for an entry-level production assistant job. When I waved my degree at the creative director, he snorted and said, “We don’t care. Ted doesn’t have a degree.” Then he listened to my reel. He was mostly unimpressed, but one spot made him laugh. I didn’t get the job. But he helped my find temporary work and hired me for the next P.A position that came open, six months later. And once I got over the shock of it, I was good at the job because the audio part of it was already second nature.
Thanks to a lot more chance and generosity, the TNT job led to a job helping launch Nickelodeon UK in London, then to Turner Classic Movies and a host of fun freelance writing and production projects in Atlanta and New York. I was hired at iXL in Atlanta and learned a ton about creating content for the web. Now I live in Salt Lake City because I love it here. I’m an associate creative director for McCann Erickson (ad agency). I’ve been able to stay in this business of media for almost three decades thanks to (yes) chance and generosity. And it all began the night I called Kevin at WTYX to request a song. Wish I could remember what the damn song was.
I’m not a visually brilliant creative. My success has always come from the way I write. My party trick is that I can crank out copy that’s tight, smart, irreverent, easy to read, and fun to listen to. That’s because I grew up listening to the guys who did it best: the DJs at WZZQ. Their style was a huge creative influence on me. Even now, when I script a spot I hear them. I think of how they’d do it, how they’d subvert it, how they’d make it stick, just as fragments of the spots they made in the ‘70s are still stuck in my head. I think of how they’d play with it. That ability to play with the medium, to just have fun with it, has taken me farther than I could have imagined when I was a teenager in Mississippi. So here’s to you Kevin and Perez and Dave and Wayne and everyone at WZZQ-FM. Thanks for all you did, and for what you created. You made a difference in Jackson. I owe you. And here’s to chance and generosity. Without ‘em I’d be flipping burgers.