(Above: Top, Raymond Babbit giving the station ID. Bottom, commemorating the anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley in 1991. L-R: PD Guy Perry, production director Ray Sherman, Len as Elvis, and News Director Katie Cole.)
Twenty-five years ago this week I left my job at 97X in the Quad Cities. In a career that spans three decades there are certainly highlights and lowlights. Some stations are legendary while others are rightfully forgotten. Given a little bit of hindsight, I can safely say that this one was one of the legendary ones that I was honored to be a part of.
I first applied to the station in the spring of 1989 when they needed a news person. I was not a news person at the time. But I did desperately want to work in rock radio. I was still in my first job at WJTW/Joliet working overnights and winning the divorced-thirtysomething ratings category. There was no opportunity for the “edge”that I wanted to create in radio. WXLP was all about edge. The station became a staple of my visits to the Quad Cities before I lived there, and I appreciated the fact that the station took no prisoners in its approach. From the morning show at the time – Ian Case (Punnett) and the Coach, to the radical contests (giving away a breast augmentation?), it was very different than what I was able to get from Chicago radio. And the talent was no different to me. Solid jocks that loved the music. Why wouldn’t I want to work there?
It took a year and a half, but I finally got the call in the fall of 1990. They needed an air talent who could write copy and do production during the week and hold an airshift or two on the weekends. My first go-around in the Quad Cities, at KRVR, didn’t go well, so I saw the opportunity as a shot at redemption. I moved back to Davenport in the fall of 1990, renting a room in the upstairs of a house directly opposite the Wonder Bread plant that made cinnamon rolls. That smell was an improvement from the first time I lived in that city, when my apartment was between Purina and Oscar Meyer, and the direction of the wind determined which off-gassing we received.
My role as weekend air talent lasted about four months. In a strange twist of tragedy causing opportunity, the start of the Gulf War led to moving Katie Cole from nights to mornings as news anchor on the Dwyer and Michaels show. That left nights open for me, and I held the shift down for the final eight months I worked there. That included the Spring book in 1991, when the station put up incredible numbers across the board. Ray Sherman’s outstanding promos for edgy contests (I mean, we gave away a vasectomy for mother’s day) got people to actually call up and request station IDs. The station got so popular that appearances included autograph signings, which I had never been exposed to before. The oddest example of celebrity happened the night a guy called up to explain how great it was to meet me the night before at a local bar. I hadn’t been out. I asked him to describe me. “What do you mean? You’re six foot two, have red hair…” I had an impersonator. Fortunately, that has never happened again since. Maybe the Internet is good for certain things, like learning what the DJs really look like.
More importantly, the additional exposure to air time led to more exposure to the deep cuts in the record library. The early 90s were still a time when local talent could have a say in what was played on stations, and program director Guy Perry and music director Malcolm Ryker had a great handle on what the locals loved in terms of catalog tracks. One of the most beloved of my mixtapes from the region was one that I made in the production room of the station filled with some of those songs. (I still have the tape, but I am unsure if it will track. I’ll give it a shot for Part 2.) The musical knowledge came in handy when I left in the fall of 1991 to start my own morning show back at WLLI in Joliet. I had free reign to play mostly what I wanted on the morning show for a period, and a lot of the songs I reached for were these “obscure” songs that they loved up the road in Iowa.
Among the songs that generated a lot of requests on the nighttime show:
Kim Mitchell, “Go For a Soda.” It was a Canadian content selection from 1985’s Akimbo Alogo LP. Good luck finding this gem on the radio today.
Axe, “Rock and Roll Party In the Streets.” This tune from 1982 is, in my mind, forever linked to this station. I played it later at WLLI and remember a phone call one morning from someone who simply said “What the HELL is that?” Maybe a bit strong for 5:45 on a Tuesday morning, in retrospect.
Head East, “Never Been Any Reason.” Recorded in Peoria, it enjoyed a period of time as a classic rock staple in the Midwest. My including this song from 1978’s Flat As a Pancake on my afternoon show at WERV/Aurora led to a discussion about attracting female demographics, which many program directors (wrongly) assume cannot rock. This song, however, rocks.
Mason Profitt, “Two Hangmen.” Of all the songs that I think of when I recall 97X, though, this one is probably the most associated with the station. The song comes from the Chicago band’s 1969 LP Wanted. I had been told that the album was extraordinarily rare and that a reissue was impossible since the original masters were lost in a fire. Whether true or not, it added an allure to an already interesting tale. I’ve worked this song in more than once in other places, usually over the objections of corporate authority. Maybe in that sense I’m the hangman breaking the rules.
More great 97X memories and music come tomorrow in Part 2 – stay tuned!