When AM Radio Was More Than Talk And Static

Dick Biondi, a radio DJ since the 1950s, has worked for 28 stations and has been fired 25 times, and may have been the first person to play the Beatles on the radio in the U.S. Host Scott Simon asks Biondi about those days, and what keeps him in radio at age 81.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

AM radio used to be the main stage of this medium, and great AM deejays spinning rock 'n' roll were national celebrities: Alan Freed in Cleveland, Casey Kasem in Los Angeles, Wolfman Jack just across the border in Mexico, who told listeners: Now lay your hands on the radio and squeeze my knobs. Not exactly how Robert Siegel would say it, now is it?

But these days, AM radio is the staticky, less-listened-to slice of the dial and has mostly dropped music for talk radio. There are even calls to get rid of AM and use the bandwidth for more FM stations, mobile phones or wireless devices. Let's turn now to a man who may have worked at more AM and FM stations than any other member of the Radio Hall of Fame, Dick Biondi, who has worked for 28 stations since the early l950's, from New York to Chicago to L.A. to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and who has, according to legend, been fired 25 times.

He's now on late nights on Chicago's WLS-FM and joins us from Chicago. Thanks so much for being with us.

DICK BIONDI: Thank you, and thank you for that very wonderful introduction. I didn't know I did all that.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Well, OK, another thing you were reported to have done. Did you really play the first Beatles record in the U.S.?

BIONDI: Yes I did, in February of 1963. It was a Friday, and Hewitt Abner, the national promotion man for Vee-Jay Records, came up, and he was bringing his latest releases. And he handed me one, and he said, Dick, listen to this. This is a group from England. You might like it. I listened and I played it that night, and it was on. It was no monster thing but it was on for a couple of weeks.

And then in May I got fired, and I went to L.A. and brought the record with me, and I played it the second night that I went on the air at KRLA, and the phones started ringing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLEASE PLEASE ME")

BIONDI: And I picked them up, and the kids were calling saying take that crap off and put The Beach Boys on.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Oh, well, it wasn't...

BIONDI: Now a year later, 1964, the whole world was Beatles. But that's what happened in '63.

SIMON: What was the single, do you remember?

BIONDI: "Please Please Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLEASE PLEASE ME")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Come one, come on, come on, please please me, oh yeah, like I please you.

SIMON: So Dick, how did you get fired 25 times? What happened?

BIONDI: Oh, all kinds of things. Probably the most significant firing was in 1960 at WKBW in Buffalo. I was doing my show and the owner of the station, he came into the studio, and he walked in, and he said what are you doing? You're the worst disc jockey I've ever heard. You don't follow rules. You don't play this. And I didn't know what to say.

And he said now I'm going downtown to see a movie at the Buffalo Theater, and you better shape up. So he walked out, the record that was playing ended, and I got on, I said my boss just walked in and told me that I'm a terrible disc jockey, and he's driving down Main Street right now in a gray Chevrolet Impala convertible.

(LAUGHTER)

BIONDI: So if you see it, throw a stone at him. And wouldn't you know it, some kid put the size of an orange stone right through the windshield, and the next morning I was gone.

SIMON: You know, I've run into people over the years who have told me that there was something thrilling, when they were growing up in rural Iowa or Utah or Texas, to twirl through the static and suddenly hear Dick Biondi or John Landecker or Larry Lujack playing rock 'n' roll from far off, mysterious Chicago. Do we miss some of that thrill with AM radio disappearing?

BIONDI: Yeah, well, first of all let me tell you what Sam Holman said, the man who was my first program director at WLS. And I'd say the best program director I ever had. He said: Now all of you, I want you to go into the studio, have fun, don't lose the license. That was the only rule. That doesn't happen today.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: No, my gosh, have fun, don't lose the license, no. It's - I mean, nowadays, as you know, right, we've tested this, got to do that, we've run this through the focus groups, got to play that.

BIONDI: Well, Scott, let me ask you a question, if I may.

SIMON: Uh-oh, yeah?

BIONDI: Would you agree with me that radio is a part of show business?

SIMON: Oh absolutely, sure.

BIONDI: Well, then I can answer your question by saying today's radio forgot the first word and only worries about the second word.

SIMON: Ah. Dick, you - are you really 81?

BIONDI: Yeah.

SIMON: Do you want to play shuffleboard? Do you ever know where your AARP card is?

BIONDI: No, no, I don't want to - I want to stay in radio, and everybody says when are you going to retire? I don't want to retire because as my dad told me when I was just a young kid, when you retire, you start to rust. And I don't want to rust.

SIMON: Well, Duck, have fun, and don't lose the license.

(LAUGHTER)

BIONDI: Thank you, and to everybody that's listening, please, if you can, try to love one another. Let's get rid of some of the hate. And God bless you all.

SIMON: Dick Biondi in Chicago. Dick, can you give us a sign off?

BIONDI: This has been WEEKEND EDITION from NPR news. I'm not Scott Simon. I'm Dick Biondi.

(LAUGHTER)

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