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Behind The Mic: A Personal Peek Into 1970s FM Classic Rock Radio--Pt. 1, The College Years
Two Texas-based stations: Behind the scenes of my 2 years at college FM rock radio in the mid-'70s.
The “five-year-plan” that seemed to propel my high school colleagues toward our 1973 graduation was spelled “five-minute-plan” in my binder. The only thing that drove me toward college at all was the sudden realization that the draft was still in play, and collegians, I had learned, were exempt.
My graduation in May, the end of the Vietnam War, and the end of the U.S. Draft all seemed to converge at once, that year, but plans to attend college were set, nonetheless.
Wanting to move out of our Houston home to experience some adventure was a reason to choose an out-of-town school. Inasmuch as they had a bangin’ music department, I chose North Texas State (now U. of North Texas) in Denton, north of Dallas. I hadn’t planned on learning or playing any music there, but I figured it’d be cool to at least be around musicians! My 5-minute-plan was working flawlessly.
Batteries Not Included
I ended up at Kerr Hall, the co-ed dorm I was impressed to learn that NFL Hall-of-Famer, Mean Joe Greene, had also stayed and vacated in the late ‘60s until the Pittsburgh Steelers nabbed him as their first-round draft pick in 1969. I only stayed at NTSU a year, but I managed to plant the seeds of a brief radio career amid my scant schedule of basic classes.
Dad had been in Houston radio since the early ‘50s, first on-air, then, around 1960, as an ad exec, selling commercial time on CBS-owned KTRH, and eventually their sister FM-er, KLOL (about which more can be read in Part 2). People always seemed to be asking me if I was going to follow in his footsteps and seek a career in radio. KNTU gave me my first chance to find out.
The campus radio station at NTSU had first plugged in four years previously (a few short months after Mean Joe’s exit), and as a declared journalism major, they let me in the door. Rather than “go live” on a particular day part, I pitched a pre-recorded (on reel) half-hour, weekly mix of music and info, called “Batteries Not Included,” inspired by the Sparks tune of the same name from their “A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing.”
That was the band’s second album released in early ‘73. In fact, I used a snippet of “Batteries” as my intro- and outro-themes.
Using the promo records Dad was able to get through his job, I had plenty of access to free music, mostly from Warner Bros. Records. Warners also published a weekly, in-house, (mostly) 8-page info booklet (about the size of a 45-rpm single sleeve), called “Circular,” with PR blurbs mostly written by Barry Hansen aka Dr. Demento.
It was Hansen’s behind-the-scenes, informative notes that I’d use to surround my inclusion of the latest songs by the likes of T. Rex, Alice Cooper, Jethro Tull, Black Sabbath, and other Warner Bros. acts.
While I was at NTSU, I spent two weekends with the New York Dolls in September 1973. You can read about those fabulous misadventures here:
The Unexpected Mentor
Following my five-minute-plan to a “T,” I moved back down to Houston for the school year in the fall of 1974, and rapidly became Music Director of the University of Houston’s FM-er, KUHF. My daily afternoon gig (3-6pm) on the student-run station was my first “live” on-air foray, and it felt as natural as I guess it should have, as I now was beginning to realize I might have “radio in my blood.”
The KUHF faculty advisor at the time was Arvil Cochran, then in his mid-40s. For my shift, I played middle-of-the road (MOR) soft rock and pop, and it was Cochran’s job to make sure I didn’t have too many “loud noises” emanating from either of my two studio turntables.
The only “head-butt” of any consequence I remember having with him was whether or not I could (or should) play Elton John’s “The Bitch is Back.” Elton’s songs were usually in the airplay wheelhouse for my format, but that song was not only fairly boisterous, but had that unfortunate word in its title. Genteel and even provincial, Cochran taught me an early lesson in logic and critical thinking: “If you have to ask, it’s probably not appropriate.”
Cochran passed away in 2018 at the age of 90. A KUHF colleague back in the day, Dave Barrett, included a pre-recorded message at the time for Cochran’s family that perfectly reflects the feelings of those who knew the man: "He let you live your passion. Mr. C, as I came to know him, was a gentle person and a gentleman. If I didn't have that opportunity, then I wouldn't be here." Barrett has been a CBS News Radio correspondent in the decades following his UH stint.
A Gift From Journey (pre-Steve Perry)
We had a visit to the station, one day in the spring of 1975, from a Columbia Records sales rep (Houston’s CBS Records regional office was just off the Katy Freeway in NW Houston). In tow was a nascent, 4-piece Journey, many months away from slotting in a young Steve Perry into an eventual front-man role.
The band had just released their self-titled debut LP, and, with two instrumentals on the album, their sound was more jazz-rock fusion, with keyboardist, Gregg Rolie, handling the few lead vocal chores, just as he had with the other band he co-founded, Santana. Joining Rolie, that day at KUHF, was fellow Santana alumnus, guitarist Neil Schon, plus bassist Ross Valory, and drummer Aynsley Dunbar.
Their purpose at the station was to bestow upon me (well, anyone at the station, really, but inasmuch as I was the Music Director, ‘twas I who was included in the photo shoot with the band!) a framed deed to a star in the heavens. I had a copy of the photo, but it’s lost to the decades and many moves. Whether KUHF still has the deed hanging in their new, digital studios is another mystery.
The album cover art for “Journey” had the band floating in a space-decorated soundstage bedecked in what looked like Texaco onesies, a song on the record was called, “Kohoutek” (after the comet), so the theme was “space,” hence the star deed. The only single released from that album was the non-descript rocker, “To Play Some Music,” apparently the answer to an unspoken question, “Why is there Journey?”
Don’t laugh. Months later, at another radio station (but the same CBS rep), I witnessed the unceremonious gifting of actual coconuts to staffers that accompanied the delivery of Dave Mason’s “Split Coconut” LP. Promotional subtlety was clearly not a Columbia hallmark. Mercifully, Crazy Elephant wasn’t a CBS act.
A Case in Point
Concurrent with my year-plus turn as Music Director at KUHF was the several months my brother, Clint, served as host of a pre-taped (periodic, if not weekly) interview show, “A Case in Point,” for the station. Dad, having spent years providing voice-overs for local TV and radio commercials for years, as well as being “The Voice of NASA” in the ‘60s (for the Space Center’s guided tour tapes), donated Clint’s intro voice-over.
I produced the shows, and chose occasional music intros. As celebrities passed through Houston for concerts or promotional endeavors, we’d contact them, and have them come to the station for them to tape their respective interviews with Clint.
We managed to score such internationally-known celebs as George Foreman, Ed McMahon (by phone), comedian Robert Klein, big band singer, Helen O’Connell, and 1960s Noxzema pitch-gal (and Miss Sweden, 1961) Gunilla Knutson, among many others, including Houston media types. A vintage Knutson/Noxzema spot:
The Post-Partridge David Cassidy
During this time, too (the summer of 1975), the late David Cassidy had his fifth solo LP released. Unlike his Partridge Family-era solo LPs, “The Higher They Climb, The Harder They Fall” was on RCA Records, and he co-produced it with the Beach Boys’ Bruce Johnston.
I was invited by the local RCA rep to join half-a-dozen other media types in attending a press junket with David one afternoon in his penthouse of a downtown Houston hotel. David liked calling such usually tiresome, but promotionally-necessary functions a “shrimp shuffle,” and true to form, crustaceans and other finger fineries were served in the nearly two-hour powwow. I took a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and recorded the entire proceedings.
A friend of Dave’s, a fellow RCA recording artist, called him during our interview, plus Dave asked the assembled gaggle of reporters and myself a question that, to his astonishment, I was the only one who knew the answer!
Read about that interview with David, and discover the name of the fellow RCA recording artist Cassidy wanted to know, and how it led to an exclusive interview with that singer/songwriter, Stephen Michael Schwartz, here: