Chronicling my Adventures in Radioland

Classic radio studio microphones stand against a black background.

From the 1920s through the 1990s, radio was an important part of everyday life.

I grew up on the road.  My family moved a lot when I was a kid so there is no town that I can really call my “home town”.  But there is one town where I lived more than once.  I was not always happy to live there.  In fact, I was probably never happy when I lived there.  I had friends and I had friends in other cities, other states.

My life and times in Augusta, GA were, to me, an interlude in-between adventures and “real life”.  But those are the feelings of a kid who is uprooted in the middle of his life and forced to adapt to a new town and a new school.

To be honest, I dropped out of school in the 9th grade because I hated having to prove myself all over again to new teachers and principals, and I was under-impressed with the Georgia school system in those years.

Radio Stations Ran Contests Almost Every Week

But I do have some happy or interesting memories from Augusta, GA.  Among my happiest memories are the songs I heard on the radio and the adventures I had in radioland.  I was one of the local kids who always seemed to get his name on the radio either by winning contests or by participating in amateur talent spots.

The easiest album win I can recall happened entirely by accident.  I was phoning the DeeJay to request a song when they played the little “gobble” sound they were using to trigger contests that weekend (I guess it was around Thanksgiving).

The DeeJay answered the phone and I said, “Did you just play the gobble sound?”  “Yes, we did,” he replied.  So I won a free album.  Maybe it was “Guitar Man” by Bread, or maybe it was “Wild Turkey” by some band I don’t recall the name of (maybe Wild Turkey?)  The best part of that phone call was they played my song (whatever it was).

Every Town Wanted Its Own Woodstock Concert

Would you like to see a picture of me in those wild, long-haired hippie days?  Here you go:

August 1972, Rock and Roll Park

Augusta, GA in August 1972 at Rock and Roll Park. Photo courtesy of the Augusta Chronicle.

I am the kid with the long hair in the back of the crowd.  My brother and a couple of his friends were there, too.  Or maybe they were my friends.  Or both our friends.  To be honest, I don’t remember who the guys were that we went with.

That was the only music festival ever held in Augusta, GA.  I found the picture in this August, 2011 article on the Augusta Chronicle Website.  Ed Turner writes about how that concert came about and why there were never any others like it.  One man, then-Sherriff Bill Anderson, set out to make the concert a miserable experience for all the teens and young adults who showed up to listen to the hippie music.

Augusta, GA was not very friendly to hippies.  It was known mostly for being near Fort Gordon, home of the Army’s Signal Corps school and about 50,000 troops either coming from or going to Vietnam.  And also Augusta was proud of the fact that General Sherman did not send any Union soldiers that way to burn the town because, supposedly, he had a mistress there (how he found time to romance a southern belle 100 miles behind enemy lines has always been a mystery to me, but people like their legends).

I remember that concert very well.  It was headlined by Argent, then one of my favorite rock bands (I won a copy of their album off local radio station WBBQ).

The Radio Station that Put Augusta, GA in the Music History Books

WBBQ is the other reason why Augusta was so well-known at the time.  They were one of the more influential US radio stations according to rock historians.  If you got airplay on WBBQ your song was almost sure to go on to become a hit.  That must be because those 50,000 soldiers told all their friends and relatives to listen for the song, maybe.

Doctor Hook and the Medicine Show memorialized WBBQ at the beginning of their song “The Cover of the Rolling Stone” because, apparently, WBBQ helped to make them a big success.  In fact, I saw Doctor Hook and (I think) Jim Croce at a concert in Augusta’s Bell Auditorium.

Back to the Festival at Rock and Roll Park

But I digress.  I was talking about my picture at Rock and Roll Park.  That is what they called the venue that day.  It had formerly been known as Rodeo Park, according to Ed Turner’s article.  I sort of vaguely recall the name “Rodeo Park”.  I also remember my brother’s friends sneering at the venue.  They thought it was funny that anyone would try to hold a Woodstock-style festival in Augusta, GA.

Maybe 10,000 people attended the “festival”.

Guitarist Steve Morse and his Dixie Grit band opened the show.  My brother and his rock band buddies were totally impressed with the Dixie Grit guys (yeah, Morse could pick a note or two on guitar).  I can tell you a few stories about Steve Morse (never met the guy, personally).

I went to the “festival” to see Argent.  Everyone else went to see Bloodrock and Rory Gallagher.  I don’t recall if the concert was promoted on WBBQ at all.  I guess they bought air time on all the radio stations, including WAUG and WFNL-AM.  My brother and his buds listened to WAUG.  We were never sure who could actually receive the AM station signals in our neighborhood.  I was not a big fan of AM radio because the local station signals were always so weak.  I loved FM from the moment I first heard it.

Other than the bands on the stage my most vivid memory of the concert is when about half the crowd rushed up into the bleachers to watch the police lead some poor girl off.  She had been arrested for smoking marijuana (never did the stuff myself, but that’s a different story).  “Hey!” someone with the concert yelled out from the stage (aided by microphone and speakers).  “The show is over HERE!”

I think I knew someone who knew someone who knew that girl.  Her family was devastated by the arrest but all the adults in our neighborhood agreed that Sherriff Bill Anderson was a jerk, a crook, and someone you never wanted to cross.  He ended up going to jail for selling drugs or something.

I endured the Dixie Grit band (I thought their music was kind of weird).  I kind of enjoyed Bloodrock and thought Rory Gallagher was okay (or maybe it was the other way around).  But I was there for Argent and had a blast when they came on stage.  That lasted about five minutes into “Hold Your Head Up”, which they cut short because (apparently) they were tired of playing it for American audiences who didn’t want to hear anything else by Argent.

Russ Ballard, the lead guitarist, sang lead on the song “Liar”, which he had written and which Three Dog Night had made famous in 1971.   I thought it was an okay cover of the Three Dog Night song but I felt cheated by not getting to hear “my song”.

Your Rock Icons Are Never What They Seem Like

Now that I think about it, Doctor Hook disappointed me by messing up “Sylvia’s Mother” when they performed it live at the Bell Auditorium.  In fact, of all the concerts I got to see in Augusta, only Jim Croce (and his best friend Ray) actually gave the audience what they wanted: near-continuous music with a minimum of talking.  And he wasn’t drunk or stoned like the other dudes so you could actually understand what he was saying most of the time.

Somewhere along the way one of my brother’s girlfriends told me a story about Steve Morse.  She said she was at some local venue where his group was playing and when she came out of the women’s restroom (or “loo” for you non-Americans) she accidentally swung the door into the back of his head as he was chatting up some girl.

Steve, on behalf of whatshername, sorry.  And to you guys in the audience, if you’re trying to be an ubercool music dude chatting up girls in-between sets: don’t lean against the wall just beside a swinging restroom (“loo”) door.

We Should Have Placed Bets on Steve Morse

Funny thing about Steve Morse.  A few years later he released a “local print” album with his then new band the Dixie Dregs.  Some people may recall it as “the white album”.  We called it the “Dixie Dregs Album” but I think it was semi-officially called The Great Spectacular (which was or became the Dregs’ signature song).  Only about 1500-2500 copies were made (depending on who you talked to).  We all went down to some local music store to buy copies of the album, and to buy some extra copies because everyone was sure that Steve Morse would one day be famous.

I guess they were right about that part.

Remembering Barry Hodge, the Trashman

But I am getting ahead of myself.  I had other adventures in radioland in Augusta, GA.  During the mid-70s the local radio scene was shaken up by the arrival of Barry Hodge, “the Trashman”.  He brought with him a regular feature called “Trash People Talent” in which people called him up and did really dumb things over the telephone.  He recorded you and if he liked your piece he played it on the air.

Barry was recruited by WAUG to come liven things up.  WAUG was at that time the progressive FM station in Augusta.  All the cool rock band kids listened to it.  The rest of (the majority of the teen rock music audience) were still listening to WBBQ, king of the Top 40 stations.  WAUG wanted to become bigger than WBBQ, so they hired some new Deejays and loosened up their format a little bit.

Barry hit the Augusta airwaves in late 1975 or early 1976.  When a friend of mine made it onto Trash People Talent I decided it was time to show the world what I was capable of.  So I called up the station and asked if I could perform all the “bad notes from the rock opera ‘Tommy'”.  Barry loved the idea so I grabbed my brother’s Gibson SG guitar, plugged it into our “expensive” stereo system and cranked up the speakers.  My parents were yelling at me to stop and all Barry kept saying was, “Can you play any louder?  It’s not coming through.”

So, in order to save my dignity I said, “How about if I read the dictionary backwards?”  “Not good enough,” he replied.  “How about the credits on the back of my Bread album?”  “Okay, let’s hear it.”  And so I went onto the radio and I still recall saying, “Records Arista …”

Although I had the least auspicious opening segment on Trash People Talent I did not give up there.  I began writing comedy skits and phoning them in (literally).  It was 1975 or 1976 and CBS Television was airing “Bicentennial Minutes” in-between shows where famous people (most of whom I had never heard of) shared a minute’s worth of history from the War for Independence.  Inspired by Saturday Night Live I lampooned the CBS spots with “Bicentennial Moments”.

Not everything I did was a “Bicentennial Moment” but people started telling me they would listen to Barry’s show hoping I’d do another one.  When Barry would do live events around town my friends and I would go down there to say “hi” to him.  He had me do a couple of impromptu TPT spots and people would come up to me and say, “You’re Michael Martinez!”

There were these two big guys who said they were my biggest fans.  Every time I met them they were with different girls.  They kept hitting the girls and knocking them down.  I asked the girls why they were with the guys.  “I don’t know,” they kept replying, but I never saw the girls again.

Welcome to the Age of Smooth Jazz

And then life moved on.  I moved to Atlanta and began listening to a local station’s Sunday night Jazz Flavor’s program.  The DeeJay was a big Steve Morse fan.  He played the “first” Dixie Dregs album all the time.  But he never played anything from the “white” album.  So one night I called him up and asked, “Why don’t you play anything from the first Dixie Dregs album?”

“We play it all the time,” he replied.  “No, I mean the one from Augusta,” I said.  “Never heard of it,” he told me.  Gee, I knew something about Steve Morse that a radio DeeJay didn’t know.  He went on the air after our phone call and asked his listeners if they could confirm what I had told him.  At least one person called in and gave him the details on the album, which he later acquired and played on his show.

You’re welcome, Atlanta.

If you have never heard the original version of “The Great Spectacular” I found a copy of it on YouTube (but they have since removed it).  It’s a bit more raw and somewhat less polished than the later version that all the second generation Dregs fans came to know.  And if I haven’t bored you to sleep yet, I’ll share one more radio anecdote below.

My Career in Radio Took Off in Indiana …

There is nothing quite like doing live radio.  I had a summer job in 1975 working for the Indiana University student radio station WIUS.  Jim Berkey was the general manager of the radio station and he hired me through a summer jobs program called Manpower to learn how to program in SNOBOL 4.  But that’s not what I want to share with you.  I just want you to know that we had some crazy times on and off the air.   And I want to apologize to Jim Brightenstein for not realizing he was actually someone important the day he called up to demand to know what the HE** we were doing … but I digress.

And Then There was That Book I Wrote

After I published my first book, Visualizing Middle-earth, I worked with a publicist who arranged for me to get some radio and television interviews.  One of the funniest was with a big radio station in Canada. I called in at the scheduled time and spoke with the DeeJays, who were really nice guys.  They explained how the interview would go and made sure I was comfortable with the format and I said I was.

So I waited and listened to about 10 minutes’ worth of songs and commercials while they kept announcing they were going to interview me.  Finally they brought me on the air and asked a couple of questions.  At that point one of them said, “We’ll be right back with Michael after this commercial and because he is a Tolkien expert he’ll take your questions live.  You can ask him anything!”

So they played the commercial and came back on the line with me.  I said, “Guys, I have to research all my articles.  I usually have the books open when I answer reader questions.”

“Don’t worry,” they said.  “These will be simple, easy questions.”

“Okay …”

So we came back on the air and they had a caller.  She introduced herself and said she followed my weekly column (this was back when I was writing for the original Suite 101 Website).  “And what’s your question,” the DeeJays asked.

“What’s the one mistake J.R.R. Tolkien made in The Lord of the Rings?”

Like I said, there is nothing quite like doing live radio.

NOTE ON BARRY HODGE: I’ve often wondered what happened to Barry after he left the Augusta radio market.  I’ve found a couple of Websites where he shared highlights from his career.  The Trashman, sadly, passed away in 2016.  I would have liked to have met him again, although I would not have expected him to remember me.