Backstage: Reviving the Record Promotion Party

Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares stories of memorable rock 'n' roll encounters that took place in our local environs. This week: crazy characters from the world of radio.

In just a few months, I'm going to experience a major dose of déjà vu. It centers around a radio and record company reunion slated for early May up in Orlando, one that will bring together folks who haven't seen one another for the better part of 30 years. It would be absurdly dramatic to compare this to a reunion of old warriors who stormed some enemy beach back in the glory days, during some bloody, best-forgotten conflict, but for any of us who worked in the music biz during the '70s and '80s, it promises to be a major event.

I still have several buddies who, like me, are veterans of that continuing tussle, but the vast majority of my former colleagues I haven't seen in decades. Back in the day, we were cocky and carefree 20-somethings and 30-somethings who had great jobs in the business of rock 'n' roll, all left to our own devices to try to wrangle a few hits and reap the rewards in the process. We were all a little bit crazy too, hardly the professional buttoned-down types demanded by the corporate world. We were rock 'n' rollers in our own little universe, tucked behind the scenes perhaps, but no less committed to the business at hand. 

I'm more than a bit curious about what some of these guys are up to these days. Inevitably there will be those who are still involved with the industry in one way or another, either as managers, consultants, or mere wannabes. There's no doubt that age will have taken its toll, but it will also be interesting to see if time has tempered their wacky ways. 

For example, I remember a former program director at the old rock radio station WSHE who was such a loose cannon -- an alcoholic by any other name -- that when I'd take him out to breakfast as part of my schmooze routine, the first stop was a drive-through liquor store where he could get his bottle of scotch. This wasn't just any booze hound, mind you, but a guy who had earned a respectable reputation as a leading radio programmer and personality in Philadelphia before making his way south. Ironically, he wasn't alone; most of the rock programmers were committed to their vices and eager to get their record company reps to play along with their degenerate designs.

In fact, one of the guys organizing this upcoming Orlando soiree had a reputation at the time for repeatedly going to intoxicating extremes. I recall going for lunch at the Jacaranda country club in West Broward and partaking in so many cocktails that by the time the food arrived, we'd practically forgotten the whole point of being there. I was so plastered that I actually nodded off at the table. And yet no one even noticed! I was wearing my aviator shades, and because I managed to maintain my posture, no one could see that my eyes were shut and I was actually in dreamland. The others at the table kept up the conversation, and when I awoke after a lapse of 20 minutes or so, I had hardly missed a thing. It didn't really matter anyway. Rock 'n' roll lunches were more a form of social bonding -- the better to become the radio guy's buddy -- than any attempt to talk serious business. 

Some of the best meals I remember took place at the old Playboy Club off 79th Street in Miami. You couldn't help but feel like a big shot when you're fawned over by women in skimpy outfits wearing furry bunny tails. Our guest on those occasions was the program director of the old WIOD, when they were an easy-listening station long before their transformation to news. The PD was a happy, go-lucky guy, and while he was always hard to pin down in terms of what he'd agree to play, you couldn't help but like him as a party person.

The fact is, despite the games they'd play and the frustration they'd cause, most of the radio folks were OK, even though several could be considered flakes for their lack of willingness to ratchet up their responsibilities. Jim Dunlap, program director of the old WQAM, considered a powerhouse when it came to South Florida Top 40 stations, was a gentleman in the truest sense, and while he was fairly tight in terms of adding records to his playlist, he was still a real charmer. "How you doing, young fella?" he'd always ask, and that query alone always seemed to endear him.

Likewise, the legendary Rick Shaw, program director of WAXY, another Top 40 station of great importance at the time, would regale us with tales tallied up during his years in the business. I recall one story in particular, how when the Beatles first arrived in Miami Beach in 1964, he was out on the tarmac, microphone in hand. When Ringo Starr spied Rick's ring, he all but asked if he wouldn't mind surrendering it. Why? Because of the initials, of course. Both men had the same two letters in common -- RS, of course!

How many of these individuals will make it to the reunion remains to be seen, but for me, there will be some satisfaction in meeting them on equal ground. No longer obligated to beg and bamboozle for airplay, I can jab them the way they once jabbed me, without any need to boost rapport for the sake of seeking favors. So I plan to party like its 1983 and simply have fun without worrying about the need to convince or coerce them to do my bidding. I've got nothing to lose, and like old enemies who have long since reconciled, I can reconnect without recriminations. As long as I don't fall asleep behind my shades, that is.

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Lee Zimmerman