Once upon a time during the 1960s and ‘70s, in the universe called radio, disc jockeys (DJs) were the stars.
Baby boomers, whether they realized it or not, grew up during a time when radio was king, and DJs anointed which records we would hear. And they had a lot to choose from at the time – the Beatles and the British invasion, Motown, the surf sound, soul, and other genres that were changing pop music forever.
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Dick Clark, Casey Kasem, Wolfman Jack, Alan Freed (Moon Dog), Dick “The Screamer” Biondi, Alison Steele were the names of some nationally famous announcers, but many Boomers fondly remember the names of their favorite DJs, either on local stations or those mega-watt, clear channel stations that could reach out, especially at night, and touch hundreds of thousands of souls simultaneously across many states.
In today’s digital world of streaming services, smart phones, I-pods and all manner of digital devices, a world of music and information is a swipe or button-push away. But, back in the day, the car radio and a transistor radio were a boomer’s lifeline to the world of music, and the DJs who controlled “our station, our music.”
They came in all sorts of personalities; some were smooth and cool, some were provocatively sexy, some were “shock jocks” who said and did outlandish things on-air that sometimes got them fired. They would talk, tell jokes, do skits, sometimes take phone calls from fans; they would tell listeners about the songs, about musicians, about life. They were just…cool. They were “rock stars.”
There were all sorts of soundtracks and gimmicks an announcer could use but first and foremost, there had to be personality, a unique persona, whether it was natural or developed over time.
Kelly McCoy, a well-known Atlanta DJ, started in radio when he was a high school junior circa 1970. Now living in Oconee County, he shrinks from the idea of having been a star, although he was inducted into the Georgia Radio Hall of Fame in 2013. The Perry native modestly says, “I knew ‘ego jocks’ who thought they were something special, but we were just blessed to have a cool, unique job.”
Until he was a junior in high school, McCoy was planning to be a funeral director. Then a friend of his got a job at WKLY radio in their hometown of Hartwell. McCoy hung out with his friend and realized, “This is cool. You get to play music and talk. It’s kind of fun,” he says in an interview with Lisa Nicolas on Friends of Georgia Radio.
The station’s general manager offered him a job and he started his first broadcasting experience in the afternoon drive time slot. “I would get out of band practice and be on the radio at three o’clock every day,” he says.
He remembers hearing himself for the first time doing a taped commercial on the radio while he was driving. “I had to pull over,” he says. “It was kind of embarrassing, made me feel kind of shy…”
He worked in all facets of radio at WKLY, giving him a firm foundation to later work at stations in Athens and then back to Atlanta to WQXI and WSB. He developed his distinctive smooth style by listening to other, established DJs.
“I found jocks to emulate, such as (Larry) Lujack, Gary Gears and Steve Lundy on WLS, because I liked their style or attitude,” says McCoy. “I probably picked up bits and pieces from others, but I was never a jock who tried to go over the top in any direction. I started in 1970 and by 1975 it was all me, my own personality.”
Since McCoy was music director at several stations, he met many stars. “Backstage parties, lunches, private dinners, all kinds of fun,” he says. Record promoters eagerly courted DJs, hoping to get their music aired.
He could tell countless stories about star encounters; however, he recalls
Lionel Richie as perhaps the nicest superstar he’d met. “Fresh from winning a Grammy with Diana Ross, he stopped by WQXI one day to hang out. I had him on the air for at least a half hour, pretty much unheard of with stars of that era.
WQXI had a special place in Richie’s heart, McCoy explains. “In the days when the Commodores were just getting started, they would drive to Atlanta from Tuskegee, Ala., to hear the station and find out which popular songs they should cover at their concerts.”
McCoy worked in the Atlanta market for 35 years, first at WQXI and later at WSB. “Spending 35 years in the same market allowed me to be a part of so many things,” he says. WQXI was the real-life counterpart for the fictional radio station, WKRP in Cincinnati, the 1970s sitcom created by Hugh Wilson who had worked there in the 1960s before McCoy’s time. McCoy retired from WSB in 2012 after 27 years there. He recently re-retired from a new streaming radio station, TGC, The Georgia Classics, but continues to write articles for Atlanta’s Reporter Newspapers about his days as a top-rated DJ in a major market. Read them online at Reporternewspapers.net.
TGC Streaming Radio
TGC was launched during the pandemic by Sanders Hickey, 67, who lives at the Georgia Club and who has been in radio broadcasting, sales, and management since about 1973 and currently owns radio stations in Glynn County and in Texas. Hickey says he got bored when everything shut down two years ago and decided to get his radio buddies together and create TGC. New technology has made it possible for everyone to work remotely.
Sanders says he has always been completely enchanted and forever in love with radio since he was about 12. Throughout the 1970s, he worked as an announcer at stations in Columbus, Athens, and Atlanta, including Z-93 and 790 WQXI. In 1982, he applied to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for approval to buy his very own radio station and moved to Texas to launch K-Lite 106 FM. Over the past 35 years, he has owned and managed over 20 radio stations. He was inducted into the Georgia Radio Hall of Fame in 2021, and he can be heard on TGC Monday through Friday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Another of the TGC announcers is Ron Parker, 69, an Atlanta native, who has 50 years of experience in radio. Parker’s interest in radio started early. In 1970 at age 15, he passed his 3rd Class FCC test and one year later was airing Top 40 and rock tunes at the former 103.3 WPLO in Atlanta. College at UGA soon followed from 1971-75 while he worked in Athens-area stations WDOL, WRFC, and WFOX.
He got his big break in 1973, landing an announcing spot at legendary Top 40 station WQXI in Atlanta and then in 1975 at WGZC, Z-93. After college he went on to hold on-air and programming positions in major markets such Tampa Bay’s WLCY and WCKX; KFRC in San Francisco; KKBQ, and KLDE, both in Houston, WCBS in New York and WLS in Chicago. In 1983, he was named one of 5 best Top 40 announcers in American by Electronic Media Magazine. He was inducted into the Texas Radio Hall of Fame in 2016 and Georgia’s in 2019.
In addition to his show on TGC, he has been working with SIRIUS XM for fifteen years on the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s channels. “I can’t localize to a certain city or locale, but it’s still the same; it’s my personality, it’s me having fun and talking about the music.”
Women in radio
Boom Magazine publisher Betsy Bean says she would never have aspired to be a DJ because, “I had heard only male voices on the air.” A teenager in Brunswick in the 1960s, she listened to WAPE, the “Big Ape” broadcasting 50,000 watts from Jacksonville, with the “Greaseman” the DJ she remembers most.
Still, when she found out she wasn’t cut out for teaching in 1974 and cast about for other work English majors could do, she found a book that recommended communications careers. She timidly approached a local radio station – maybe that was a way into something different.
“I was scared, but they hired me after having me read a few things,” she recounts. “I didn’t know it at the time, but the FCC was encouraging broadcasters to hire more women and minorities. So, I benefited from affirmative action.”
She was the only female announcer at the Top 40 station, and not surprisingly, met with some resistance. “Some of my male counterparts were very hostile to me,” she recalls. She eventually hosted the morning show and recalls one amusing prank she played on the morning toll taker for the St. Simons causeway, which at the time charged a 25-cent toll and had drawbridges that were raised to allow shrimp boats and other tall-masted boats through.
“I got the toll booth number somehow and called him on-air a couple days after Jimmy Carter won the 1976 election,” she recalls. News reports had said Carter was coming down to Sea Island for a couple of weeks.
“I called and pretended to be a secretary arranging the trip logistics, and asked if each car in Carter’s entourage would have to stop and pay the quarter, and that if a shrimp boat needed to get through at the same time, who would wait – the boat or the president-elect? He was very earnest and totally taken in,” she says. “I felt guilty for a little while.”
Bean ended her radio days in Atlanta in 1983 and did go on to a communications career in voice-over work, newspaper reporting as well as marketing and public relations.
Successful DJs of the era had to be able to convey pictures using words; they had to be storytellers.
“Storytelling, whether in long-form such as today’s podcasters, or in brief, fun, pithy intros over the ramps of songs by on-air talent, is and always has been one of the captivating beauties of great radio,” Hickey says. “The better the storyteller, the bigger, more captivated, and loyal the audience becomes.” DJs give radio personality. But, laments Hickey, times have changed, and with it, the concept of radio personality has too. The FCC de-regulated the broadcast industry in the mid-1990s, creating a proliferation of radio stations. Prior to that, “Expectations of on-air presentation skills were very high,” he says. “We worked for years to hone our on-air abilities and you were either good enough, or you didn’t get on the air.”
If you’d like to hear Ron, Sanders, and other professional announcers of the era and enjoy the music you love from the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, just type in TGCradio.com.
Randy Gaddo is a recent retiree to Athens. He stays active through freelance writing and his music business, Boomerang: Music that keeps coming back.
Radio technology then and now
Sanders Hickey says current broadcast technology is “an amazing resource” for radio stations. Back in the day, radio studios were bulging with stacks of 45s and racks of vinyl LPs. Announcers would put a record on a turntable, find the beginning, and then spin it back a bit before they pressed the play button and brought up the sound. Naturally, from all the handling there would be scratches.
By the 1970s, stations had migrated to a “song-on-tape playback system called “carts.” The music sounded great, regardless of the number of spins. Then came CDs in the 1990s and now today, all the music at a radio station resides on hard-drive servers and is immediately available with the click of a mouse.
Hickey explains that announcers today can produce shows in real time or use the same digital technology to produce a four-hour radio show in less than an hour.
Thanks Randy Gaddo for the wonderful read about the golden age of radio that I grew up with. I listened to the jocks you featured at various stages and they were/are great entertainers. And do check out TGC streaming channel. It’s great radio.