Friday, June 18, 2010

The Doctor is Out, and you’re not looking all that well yourself…

Mind you, The Dr. Demento Show is still heard in one community over the terrestrial airwaves, thanks to a contractual obligation with KACV in Amarillo, Texas, although that’s simply an edit of his online show. And the show will still be available as an Internet stream at for future programs. But, for all intents and purposes, Dr. Demento as we knew him for the last 40 years is gone from the airwaves, and the era of creative radio programming went with him when he left.

The illustration for this post happens to be the front cover of Dr. Demento’s Delights, a 1975 Warner Brothers concoction of novelty songs ranging from the brightly amusing (Jim Kweskin’s revival of “If You’re a Viper”) to, frankly, the disturbingly demented (Napoleon XIV’s “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” has never generated a laugh out of anyone with a loved one who has been institutionalized for mental problems, or for that matter anyone who has had to deal with a stalker). It was my first exposure to the good Doctor’s works, as I lived at the time in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, a community that didn’t have any radio stations hip enough to add the show to their schedules. A few months after the purchase, I moved to Kenosha, where I got a weekly fix of Dementia over WRKR in Racine (somehow fittingly, on Sunday nights, right before falling asleep for the next day’s scholastic traumas). This just proved to me that Kenosha has always been cooler than Oshkosh.

Dr. Demento, born Barret Hansen in Minneapolis (also cooler than Oshkosh) on the day after April Fool’s Day 1941, was the last living morsel of the era of creative radio programming known as “Underground FM.” After making his daily bread by writing liner notes for those $2 two-record LP mail-order sets that Warner Brothers used to advertise on their inner sleeves, and being a talent scout for Specialty Records before that, Ol’ Barry Hansen got a radio gig at one of the country’s first outlets of the hippie counterculture, KPPC-FM in Pasadena, California. After a couple of 1970 hours of material like Harry “The Hipster” Gibson’s “Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine” and The Novas’ affectionate immortalisation of The Wrestler That Made Milwaukee Famous, “The Crusher,” relief jock The Obscene Steven Clean took over the KPPC airwaves by uttering, “Man, you gotta be demented to play that stuff on the radio.” Ol’ Barry relished the recognition of what his work had thus accomplished, and the Demento handle stuck.

Flash forward to the end of May, 2010. The last major affiliate of Dr. Demento’s syndicated radio show, WLUP in Chicago, cancelled the program after running it for over 30 years. (For a while, when WLUP used Steve Dahl as the big “star” of its roster, Dr. Demento was the only thing worth listening to on the station.) From a peak of over 100 affiliates – including KMET and, later, KLSX in Los Angeles and WNBC in New York, all now long gone from those communities’ dials – the show’s affiliate roster is now down to one, that straggler in Amarillo. And at the end of the summer, even Amarillo will most likely be gone, too.

Thanks in large part to Bill Clinton’s signing that horrendous broadcasting deregulation bill in 1996, terrestrial radio has now become 57 boring varieties of the same basic glop. There may be more stations licensed in the United States than ever before, but there are less station owners in the United States than at the end of the Coolidge Administration (1929, for the historically-challenged). Music radio is invariably plucked off a satellite or a computer file sent from Nashville or Hollywood, regardless of the type of music it is. “Air personalities” (if there are any left with actual personality, please let me know) are invariably not at the radio stations’ studios when you hear their voices over the signal, and in most cases have never even set foot in the stations’ offices or cities of license, either. Talk radio has mutated from thoughtful conversations featuring flesh-and-blood humans (Good God, how I miss Tom Snyder, Chicago Eddie Schwartz and Don Vogel) to five tiers of satellite-fed fascist demons pounding into their audiences’ heads who their Orwellian daily three-minute hate should be aimed at today. Past, say, my old acquaintances Steve King & Johnnie Putman on WGN Chicago and Danny Bonaduce on Philadelphia’s WYSP, Harry Shearer’s Le Show on KCRW Santa Monica, Duke & Banner on KBBF Santa Rosa (and for you virgins) and maybe Tom Leykis’ Tasting Room syndicated show, there’s precious little justification in tuning to a terrestrial U.S. radio station anymore.

And I can’t exactly call what my business has turned into “iPod Radio,” since my own mp3 player is stocked with old KHJ and KRLA airchecks from the 1960s heyday of “Boss Angeles” radio. The Real Don Steele may have died a dozen years ago, but every day I still hear him at the peak of his powers, making even the worst of ‘60s pop music – Herb Alpert should never have taken that trumpet off his lips in order to sing – worth waiting through.

Whenever I visited with him, Tom Snyder would rib me about how twisted a mind I maintained in my brain. Well, it was he, along with Larry Lujack, Wolfman Jack, Connie Szerszen, Jerry & Dody Cowan and Dr. Demento who did the twisting. Now they’re all gone from the airwaves (and, in the cases of the Wolfman and Brother Snyder, gone from the planet). I weep at the thought of the newest crop of radio listeners having to draw inspiration from, horror of horrors, Ryan Seacrest. Perhaps that’s the real curse mentioned at the end of the Book of Malachi?

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