Saturday, February 4, 2012

radioactivity and two of my favorite people

Two of my favorite people a buddy (Gregg), and one a stranger (Pierre, more on him below). Picture is from backstage at New Hope's 2012 Winterfest concert, always a good time. Winterfest isn't exactly Quebec's Carnival, but hey we try. Anyway, that's Gregg Cagno on the left. If you're reading this blog it's likely you know who he is, but here's one thing I wrote about Gregg. (That link goes to the original blog entry...jpg of the magazine article is below, just right-click it and expand.)

The guy on the right in that B&W pic above is Pierre Robert, quite simply the world's greatest DJ/broadcaster/radio concierge...whatever you want to call it. I'm very old school with radio, and consider "DJ" to be a compliment, so we'll call it that. Anyway, in my definition of things, Pierre has ascended from being one of the world's most unique and lovable DJs to assuming the throne of "simply the best." It helps that the station he's on, WMMR in Philadelphia, is one of the country's last great commercial stations. It's not freeform exactly, but it's as close as you can come in major commercial broadcasting. (In fact, Pierre did a brilliant broadcast on Thanksgiving weekend this year where he mapped the station's "Everything That Rocks" mantra and did this generational connections thing where he spun triple-plays of seemingly unrelated but oh-so-related-in-his-mind songs, all of which were about ten years apart from each other. I'm not doing a good job of describing it, but it was kick-ass. The fact that it started with an impassioned monologue on and song from CSN and then went on in the course of the hour+ to include Foo Fighters, Green Day, blah blah you name it...all wrapped in Pierre's wit and wisdom...lovely.) These days I'm 41 and old and if I'm in the car I tend to be NPR news on WHYY (mornings) or god-i-need-a-drink jazz on WRTI (evenings...home of the second greatest radio concierge, "BP with the GM")...but if I'm cruising around on the weekend, the odds are good that I need to rock out loud, and it's a comfort to know that WMMR is always there for me.

But back to Pierre, through a slight digression first.

It's a little known fact but I am a radio obsessive. When I was a boy, my father was in radio, both as a DJ and then later as a suit. And even as a suit, he usually kept his hand in as a broadcaster, wherever he was. My father is a whole other story that I don't want to get into right now, but of the few positive things he introduced into my life, radio was probably the biggest one. I could cue a record and run a board when I was 7 years old, skills I learned both directly and indirectly from him, at a slew of stations across the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, as well as the old WIFI in Philly (and all the other stations that filled 1 Bala Plaza, where I wandered unnoticed while my distractable Dad took phone calls or did whatever it was that he did), and a couple of religious stations whose call letters I forget. When I was pre-teen I built my own radio studio in the attic of my mom and step-father's house (no, it didn't actually work, but that's besides the point) where I would quite happily spend entire summer days (let's be honest, entire summer weeks) reading the news and commercial spots (all written by me) and spinning records. As the songs played I indulged my other obsession: reading. I'm sure psychologically all of this was supposed to bring me closer to my Dad or some shit. The side result was three things: 1. A huge and useless backlog of lyrics and liner notes that I still have memorized; 2. A huge amount of novels read at a very young age; 3. A deep and abiding love of all things radio.

I had a shortwave, which was amazing. And AM was amazing (for some reason getting a midnight broadcast from Singapore on shortwave or a midnight broadcast from Chicago on AM was equally cool to me). But as I entered my teen years my late-night radio listening began to focus more and more on FM, and where I lived there were only two stations that mattered: an hour north of me, Z95 in Allentown, and an hour south of me, the mighty WMMR in Philadelphia. My entree into WMMR was the legendary (and still rocking) Michael Tearson, and his late-night "For Headphones Only" show. Too much fun. But the guy who nailed it, the guy who symbolized everything I thought rock radio should be, was the guy who was on mid-day (then, later on, mornings, which made no sense, and now back mid-day again). An hour might go by and Pierre Robert might say very little...or he might just decide to talk for a full hour, which was just as awesome. He was about community, he was about equality ("Excuse me, fellow citizen..."). He knew more about arcane music facts than any other human being I'd ever heard, and he sprinkled the knowledge like shiny diamonds across the landscape of his broadcasts. He was generous. And, if you listened to him over the years, it was also clear that he loved radio as much as I did. Without a doubt my favorite Pierre Robert broadcast was similar to the Thanksgiving weekend broadcast I described above in that I heard it quite by accident, because due to circumstances I wasn't able to listen to Pierre much at the time (like now, honestly). Looking at the Wikipedia entry, this broadcast would have been in January 2004. It was Pierre describing the memorial service for Ed Sciaky, that he had just attended. Ed was another legendary Philly DJ, also with time at WMMR, but people my age probably more closely identified him with WYSP. Pierre spent a long time just talking about Ed Sciaky and his life and his love of music and radio, and then talked of all the amazingly diverse radio folks who came out to pay tribute...all the rock guys, of course, but also people like Ed Cunningham from WHYY (small side note on him below).

Anyway, Pierre has just always symbolized everything cool in Philadelphia ("always" self-servingly defined in my Generation X context). I remember being in high school and going with Gregg (remember him? See up top) to see Tom Petty and Bob Dylan at the old Spectrum (as I recall, Dylan sucked and Petty rocked) but seeing Pierre in person up on the second level was as cool as the concert itself. It's just a very simple outcome from an impossible-to-duplicate formula: when you turn on your radio and Pierre is there, it makes you happy. What could be better than that. The promise of radio,'s a beautiful thing.


Last side note: to prove just how large of a radio geek I am, is this small story: Knowing what a radiohead I am, it should be no surprise to you that the number 2 and 3 coolest things that ever happened in my writing career weren't book related but were being a guest on Terry Gross and the approximately 10 or so commentaries I did for All Things Considered (those were #2 and #3 respectively). But what was #1? I was in the lobby of WHYY, waiting to be interviewed by Terry Gross, when who comes walking past me but Ed Cunningham, this giant voice of radio from my youth and still broadcasting today. Ed was concerned about the weather and asked the receptionist if he would need an umbrella. As he walked to the door he happened to glance at the visitor's couches where I sat, and he said, "Hi there." That was cool moment #1 with a bullet.