Hawthorne: An Early Shock Jock
By Jim Hawthorne
Talk about outrageous on-air conduct. I must admit that was how I became successful in the incipient stages of my Los Angeles radio career. I did everything Howard Stern and Don Imus are doing today except I took a more adult approach to life, particularly considering the words and descriptive phrases uttered by those two guys, especially Howard. Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of both performers. They are doing what the public wants to hear; otherwise, they wouldn't be around.
A Two-Way Talkster: I even did two-way talk radio. No technical equipment to handle telephone calls, though. I did it the fundamental way. I held the receiver up to the microphone, fighting feedback and an unsure station manager who thought that maybe what I was doing was against the law. That just made me do it more often. I would have telephone guests, such as a lady who was running for dogcatcher in a nearby hamlet. Often, with no tape delay, I would ask listeners to call in and comment. As a result, some pretty nutty stuff stirred up the kilocycles.
Remember To Watch Your Language Everybody and anybody on the air was subject to instant dismissal if we ever, ever, ever uttered those two extremely bad words ó "hell" or "damn." One time, late at night, a guy on a small L.A. station was heard to say both "heck" and "darn" during a conversation he was having with a nightclub owner. The announcer was actually suspended for three days! It seems the station manager's pastor was listening and was shocked to hear such radical, filthy language on the radio. During the 1940s and into the early 1950s, radio demeanor was under the strict control of an FCC that simply didn't allow anybody to defile the airwaves. We walked the line, talked the talk, and did what we were supposed to do.
Off To Los Angeles: Shortly after beginning my radio career at KMYR/Denver, I left for Los Angeles and almost immediately was working part-time on a 10,000-watt radio station in Pasadena, Calif., within a 20-minute drive of Hollywood's Sunset and Vine. The program director at the station (KXLA 1110, by the way) was a pretty busy person, so when I asked him if I could take over the 11:30 p.m.-to-midnight slot. "Go ahead," he said. "Nobody listens to us that late, anyway." The following Monday night, I began my five-time-a-week, half-hour show facing a formidable lineup of big-time stations that programmed everything from music to news and lectures. Two independent stations, KFWB and KMPC (if I remember the call letters correctly), owned the late-evening market with highly successful deejay music programming, based upon the "Make-Believe Ballroom" format of that time. It was obvious to me that if I was to get any kind of audience, I couldn't play the same music the same way that the deejays on stations opposite me were playing, nor could I make a dent in audience ratings unless I did something tremendously different. Make that radically different. I couldn't do the show as a regular announcer, and, generally, the only way to survive would be to do the opposite of what was being broadcast on the other Los Angeles stations. My peers constantly reminded me that the two deejay-driven programs opposite me in my new time period had more listeners than all other L.A. stations combined. According to the ratings service, the station I was on had an asterisk next to two fat zeros, meaning that not enough people were listening to even register a ratings blip.
Opposites Attract: I decided to play the same records that my competition was spinning, only I would play them every which way. I'd play them backwards, forwards, at wrong speeds, and I'd talk over the vocals. I made a promise to myself that I would never play a record completely through. Frequently I would pick up the stylus and drag it across the record grooves ó a distinct no-no in the radio world of >yesteryear. It ruined a lot of 78 rpm records and destroyed more than one needle. I used my previously collected library of cut-in voices and sound effects to comment on my ad-lib patter. I had been using the voicers and FX at KMYR/Denver on an afternoon teen show called "Meet the Boys in the Band." Doing that kind of radio had never been done in Los Angeles, and it immediately attracted the attention of radio columnists >from the local newspaper. I began getting "That Nut Hawthorne" mentions in virtually all print media. In addition to messing up contemporary singers such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, and the like, I wrote and read nutty letters from listeners, adding the voice comments and the weird sound effects, plus doing whatever I could to get attention. I only read the fake letters over the vocals. One time, someone who identified himself as a "representative of Mr. Crosby" called me after a show and told me that Bing said he never sounded better, and that I should keep it up. It wasn't until years later that I found out that it really was a rep of Crosby who called and that Bing had actually said that. More than one big-name musician or singer called me after a show and gave me hell ó oops, sorry ó heck, usually with tongue-in-cheek.
Win A Cheese Sandwich: Two beer-sponsored shows, "Lucky Lager Dance Time" and "The Eastside Show," dominated the 9 p.m.-to-midnight slot. Here I was tackling the last half-hour of those hugely successful shows, hoping to make some kind of mark in the highly competitive Los Angeles market. I held inane contests, such as asking my listeners to tell me how many letters were in my last name. Then I would spell my last name and count each letter for the listener ó "One, 'H,' two, 'A,' three, 'W,'" and so on. I figured that way I could become known rapidly while holding a stupid contest at the same time. Of course I told the listeners that, in the event of a tie, I would select the winner by a drawing to be held at a nearby hamburger stand where the entrant could eat his or her first prize ó a large cheeseburger with mustard, pickles and onions. The "Cheeseburger" weighed 50 or 60 pounds (no kidding) and that alone garnered vast newspaper and magazine coverage. Stacks of entries were coming in daily. Each entry had to have my last name, H-A-W-T-H-O-R-N-E, printed on it. Entries often arrived with an explanation ó "Your last name has nine letters; please enter me in your crummy contest" ó or words to that effect.
The Principal's Office: My new program began on a Monday night. A week later, the mail at the station increased dramatically. The second week, on a Friday morning, I got a call at home asking me to appear at the manager's office at noon. The thought that I just might be in trouble immediately came to mind. I was sure that I wasn't being invited to a free executive lunch. As I approached the manager's office, I saw that there was a huge stack of mail on his desk. He greeted me with "Hello, kid," as he reached for a heap of letters and unceremoniously dumped it on top of the stack already there on his desk. The manager and the program director just stood there staring at me silently. After a pause that seemed to last at least five minutes ó it was really just a few seconds ó the manager spoke up. "What the heck is this?" the manager asked, pointing to the mail. I related to him that I was conducting a contest, playing records backwards, doing things that had never before been done on the radio, and so on. I also explained the spelling-of-my-name contest. I spelled H-A-W-T-H-O-R-N-E to them, and both of the suits just looked at me like I was just plain nuts. Sheepishly, I told them about the prize. The cheeseburger.
After a prolonged period of stunned silence, the manager spoke again. "Hawthorne, I haven't heard your show, and neither has he," he said, pointing to the program director. "We don't intend to listen, because we're afraid of what you might be doing. Just keep it up, whatever it is. "Oh, one other thing," he continued. "No swearing like 'hell' or 'damn.' Using those foul words on the air is cause for immediate dismissal!" I answered, "Yes sir." "Remember, we have a broadcast license here," he added. "Don't do anything that would screw it up." I explained the show as best I could. There was no response. Apparently, nobody at the station had ever done such weird things. They could care less. Further, nobody at the station, except the engineer playing the records on my show, knew what was happening. I received no interference, so I just kept going until boom! The ABC Radio Network called me one day and said they wanted to talk to me. They did, and I was signed to a contract with the network. The rest is, well, you know, history.
Jim Hawthorne is the Denver correspondent for RadioDigest.com.
February 23, 1999
©1999 Jim Hawthorne