It’s just past eight p.m. and near a hundred degrees Fahrenheit when the sun starts its abbreviated descent – dropping like a ship’s anchor - and bruising a few hundred acres of parched yellow corn just a few yards from an oil-stained highway in dusk’s half light .
The speedometer reads a cautious Richard Nixon 60 mph. I’m frantically spinning the radio dial left to right when a familiar voice settles in for the next half mile or so. “Retiring is just practicing to be dead. That doesn’t take any practice. This is Paul Harvey – ‘now, the rest of the story.'”
The rest of what story? Paul – don’t leave me now!
Radio has always been my choice as a travelling companion. On several occasions I have covered the scenic miles between Toronto and California – once in a U-Haul truck with a Belgian sheepdog on my lap and the a.m. radio on as my constant companion. I hung for an hour or two with one of those Pentecostal ministers crackling over the air from some five watt radio transmitter, then moved on to the next ‘fire and brimstone’ psychopath a twist of the dial on. I loved this stuff; making good for a fifty or sixty mile interlude before Wolfman Jack resurfaced.
The Wolf was then being played on over 2,000 stations in fifty-three countries. That’s star power. This was long before we were bombarded and persecuted by right-wing screamers – the Rush Limbaughs who now eat up more air space than caustic bituminous coal.
Every once in awhile you’d catch a DJ with an opinion that aligns with your own, followed by some righteous sounds. “That was Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers – next up, Country Joe and the Fish.”
We made it out of Vietnam with the help of Walter Cronkite’s television and radio feeds, then further down the road with Larry King and the Iran-Contra Affair revelations at Westwood One; clean, honest, provocative reporting. On the campus radio stations you could never interrupt the ever present drum beat of conspirators and left-of-left politics. Love that too! It’s radio – the illuminating beacon, the big voice in the wild.
Radio is still king! It talks, it squawks, it makes a point. It misses and disses. Music still flows although the play sheet is the size of a ten line shopping list at a near-by variety store – yet campus radio still plays it bold and broad on a small dime
There was a time radical speech, knowledgeable music programmers and trendsetting DJs could corral huge audiences and influence a nation of listeners. Howard Stern still does - but only a rare few get to play the game these days. This is why Roger King’s, I Am What I Play is a must see documentary. Four DJs in major markets; Meg Griffin – WRNW & WNEW NYC, Dave Marsden – CFNY/The Spirit of Radio, Charles Laquidara – WBCN in Boston, and Pat O’ Day – PD at KJR Seattle, each of whom offering spellbinding delivery. These few are close to musicians, understand a brand activist politics far outside the conservative rabble; terrestrial superstars who once ruled the airwaves, attracting legions of devout followers.
I’ve hung with one such man the past four plus years: Ted Woloshyn, every Saturday at Newstalk 1010. Recently, Marsden and Roger King dropped by the studio for a chat and that’s when I snagged King for an interview. I posted a picture of Woloshyn and Marsden on Facebook and one fan scripted, “bent and twisted” underneath. They remember!
Here’s that conversation.
Bill King: Before we review the back story to this documentary, at what stage are you in finding a distributor?
Roger King: I managed to get a U.S. distributor before anyone even saw the movie.
It’s not usually the way the Indy film-maker does it. I just took a gamble I could find somebody interested and took a shot. There’s a U.S. distributor called 7th Art Releasing that that specializes in documentaries. We signed a deal last year and now it’s making the rounds of film festivals and special event screenings. The screenings are getting the word out there about the film, then maybe we can get on to television. I still have the rights in Canada. I’m not sure if I’ll partner with someone here or take it out on my own. I’ve already met with the Movie Network and had the premiere in Toronto.
B.K: You must have had eyes from the industry in seats for the premier.
R.K: There were a few film people. I’ve been trying the approach of spreading the word through the radio and broadcast media. We timed out quite well with the two-day radio conference at CMW. That was great timing. A number of broadcast people were in the audience. This film has the potential to be toured much like a musical. We can take this film for one night screenings and partner with a local radio station. A number of folks have expressed interest in this idea. I’m working with various distributors to set up these kinds of screenings.
B.K: The documentary spotlights DJs who have had a profound influence in their communities, mixing music with politics and social issues….
R.K: This was the era when the DJ could not only play what he or she wanted but could also say what he or she wanted. We cover that in the film. The radio station was the epicentre of all that was going on culturally. Obviously music was key; but as you say social and political issues were important elements as well. The DJs in the film pretty much demonstrate that. As the corporations took control, and gobbled up stations, they took control of the music and tried to control the message. The DJs in this film are four who always fought that battle for their freedom like any artist.
B.K: Ownership of radio for the most part has always been Conservative and yet there was a time when DJs could survive and flourish as long as they spoke to a broad audience….
R.K: It didn’t make the film, but one of our DJs Charles Laquidara, in Boston, a good liberal town, gets very political and at one point in the eighties. Apartheid ruled South Africa at the time and Charles decides he’s going to do a boycott Shell Oil (which was drilling in the country)and the oil company was a client of the radio station. Charles decided he was going to start the Shell Oil boycott and even told management he was going to launch this thing and do it big. He even got in Time Magazine for doing it. Management actually allowed him to do it because they knew it was part of his brand. It was something he would and should do and his listeners expected it. I can’t imagine that happening in this day and age.
B.K: The four DJs chosen for this film all stuck with their guns.
R.K: That’s the theme that runs through the film. They are artists fighting that battle, and if someone is putting limitations on them they had no qualms about quitting a gig even if they didn’t have anything else lined up. They would rather let go of the job than succumb to outside demands. It’s the constant tug between show and business.
B.K: Why these four?
R.K: It was a short list for me. I went into the project wanting to find four movie characters; people with up and down lives, arcs to their lives professionally and personally. I didn’t want some uninteresting guy in Philadelphia or wherever who has been doing nothing more than playing records for thirty years. I researched quite a bit to find four DJs who were still alive and had some stories to tell. I think people who see the film see we’ve chosen well. Not that they are the only four we could have picked, but I wanted four from different cities that fit the bill I just described.
B.K: Roger your background is as producer and director?
R.K: This is my first feature length film. I’ve been in and around the film industry as a writer. My day job, if you will, is I run a voice talent agency. I represent a lot of voices in Toronto who do radio and television commercials, documentaries – anything that needs a voice. A number of people I represent work in radio and I’ve always been intrigued by their stories particularly those who are a little older and part of this heyday we are talking about here. This is where the idea came from. It is an era that has come and gone. It’s not to be cynical about it because the spirit of radio is alive in certain places and maybe it could be alive even more if the people took the attitude these DJs do.
B.K: One thing that jumps out from the beginning is the cinematography and editing. It’s wonderfully filmed.
R.K: Absolutely. I have to give a tip of that hat to a guy by the name of David Kane who is a director of photography first and foremost and was aboard in that role. We were in the trenches from the beginning plotting this project and he then became the lead editor on it. He’s turned it into a much better film and he’s also the graphics guy too. He’s just as responsible as I am for what people see on the screen.
B.K: And a great soundtrack!
R.K: Absolutely! We got lucky there. Linda Noelle Bush did a great job taking care of licensing those well known songs. Documentaries for the most part are low budget films. You don’t have much money to bring to the table to chase down well known rock songs. Our approach was to focus on the DJs who played their music during the days when they could pick their own song lists. Their integrity comes through in the project. We did pretty securing most of the songs we wanted. Some of the artists featured in the film are the Ramones, Joni Mitchell, Rush… the title track, which I took from a David Bowie song called “DJ” which has the great line, “I am a DJ, I am what I play.”