December 9, 2015

FTV: Characters

   What qualifies as a ‘character’?  We all have character, so technically, the term applies to anybody.  For the purposes of this article, we will define a ‘character’ as someone with some unique trait or traits that make them, for lack of a more appropriate description, memorable.  Naturally, this could open the door to a list long enough that it might rival War and Peace, so the focus will need be narrowed to an example or two at a time rather than an exhaustive list.  By the nature of this column, there will have to be some musical connection because that is what we tend to talk about the most at WOAS-FM.

    Former WOAS-FM DJ Tommy BoDean stopped by with his lovely wife Melissa during the All-School Reunion (July 2015).  Tommy wanted to show his new bride where he got his start in the radio biz (and when he sends me some notes on his career highlights, I assure you we will revisit his storied career that started right here).  We were discussing some of the folks that have influenced us, specifically radio people, and I instantly thought back to Mike Burr.

    Mike was actually a classmate of my older brother but I didn’t know that when I met him.  Mike was the DJ voice on the local Marquette AM radio station that played the Top 40 stuff.  We would call him periodically and make requests and one day he must have been bored because we had requested something from Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced? album and Mike said, “You know, I don’t have any of his stuff here.  Why don’t you guys bring over a copy of the album and I will play it.”  The WDMJ studio was on the top floor of the Marquette Daily Mining Journal building on Washington Street (which makes sense as they owned the station).  We were calling from my buddy Jim’s house that was only about four blocks away from the downtown studio, so we legged it over there (or more correctly ‘down there’ as it was mostly downhill from Jim’s house.  This was in our pre-driving high school years when we went everywhere on foot).

    I had never seen the inside of a radio station before and my first impression of the studio was, “this is it?”  With Mike manning the board, there were a couple of chairs and just enough room for us to perch and watch him do his thing.   Mike was playing mostly 45’s (Google 45 RPM if this is a foreign cultural point for the youngsters out there) and I marveled how he could scratch cue them by putting the turntable needle down and find the start of the song without hearing it.  This was done while reading ad copy or discussing the fact that he had guests in the studio while changing out the 45 record spacer to accommodate the smaller spindle hole for the 33 RPM album we had brought in for him to play.  As the late Arthur C. Clarke said, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’, and to us, this was magic and Mike was the magician.   One visit lead to two and when he said, “drop by again sometime,” we thought we had just found the golden ticket to Wonka Land.

    We didn’t want to be pests so we never tried to overstay our welcome.  If we did, Mike would put on a song and say “Well, I better let you guys out,” and usher us downstairs.  He would always say “Hey, thanks for coming, drop by again,” and we would promise to bring some other album with us.  We stopped by off and on during that one particular summer but only after calling and asking him to play something we figured he didn’t have a copy of.  He would sometimes startle us by asking us questions when he was on the air, but we never talked – he always made up something funny to make it sound like we were having a party on his dime.  He also would occasionally surprise us by rattling of a string of blue words that would surely have put the station off the air, but Mike had a quick trigger finger on the button that keyed the mic.  When we asked him, “what happens if you miss the button and do that live,”  he laughed and said quite honestly, “Well, I would be looking for a new job!”  Mike is still one of my favorite radio characters even though that was many years before I got to start working at WOAS-FM on manager Mike Bennett’s watch.

    Barry Seymour also had an influence on me, but the radio connection came many years after Barry and I played together in our band Sledgehammer.  When I moved to Ontonagon, I did a couple of fill in drummer gigs with Barry during my first couple of years here, but then we kind of lost touch with each other.  We reconnected when I randomly Googled his name and found the web page for a voiceover artist bearing his name.  What convinced me that this was the right Barry Seymour was the list of dialects he posted under ‘fluent in’ – the one that jumped out was ‘Yooper’.  A quick email later and we have been in contact ever since.  Barry’s main occupation these days is in computer programming.  He pointed out that, “Radio and voiceover are incredibly competitive now.  Just about anyone with a computer, microphone and internet connection can create high quality digital audio and deliver it anywhere. It’s been hard to get work.  If I put some time and money into it, took some classes, did some networking and brown-nosing, etc. I might make a splash, but at this point I have to think of the children… and keep my day job”.  Barry’s  resume and voiceover samples can be viewed  and heard at www.barryseymour.com.

    In our band days, Barry was always a mimic and could pop in and out of character voices at the drop of a hat.  Between the voices and the quicktime banter he could dish out, we spent a lot of time laughing too hard to play music (“please shut up and play, Barry” was uttered from time to time).  Think ‘Bill Hader’ from SNL and you will get a pretty good mental image of what I mean (and ironically, Bill and Barry bear an uncanny physical resemblance).  What I didn’t know until we reconnected was that Barry had started in radio in 1977 at NMU’s student station WBKX and then DJed at WDMJ just like Mike Burr.  Barry mentioned that the job spinning 45s got old real fast (and it showed in his performance) so they let him go after 3 months.  He landed up the road at WJPD in Ishpeming for a while, but then  embarked on a better career opportunity at WLST-FM and WMAM-AM in Marinette, WI.   As the ‘production manager’, he was able to put his mimicking skills to work doing ad campaigns.  He said it was the “BEST JOB EVER.  I was paid to be crazy;  my eccentricities were tolerated and even encouraged at times.  It was a small town with few legal limitations that anyone cared about, which is why you can hear me using Mork, The Muppets and other characters and concepts that I really should not have used!  My fellow radio actors were fellow announcers, salespeople, even the engineer.   Rank amateurs all, which contributed to the charm and lunacy of the whole thing.”   I said, “boy, I wish I could have heard some of the ads you did,” and was pleasantly surprised when he emailed me a link to an archive of his radio work (https://soundcloud.com/barry-seymour/setsm95)./f

    On the first listen, I kept getting the giggles – if any of these places are still around, the ads would still work 30 plus years later.    Imagine, if you will, having a character like a young Bill Hader or Robin Williams writing, producing and starring in your local business spots.  Barry has said multiple times that he really enjoyed the creativity of that period of his life very much but life intervened and he enlisted for a stint in the Navy.  He was deposited  in San Francisco at the end of his hitch and now resides in Los Angeles where we managed to ‘do lunch’ a couple of times when the WOAS western bureau was still located there.

    Barry admits that he sometimes wonders what the road not taken would have been like.  What if he had forgone the Navy and pursued the radio gig?  I think this is a little mind game we all play from time to time and the answer is moot:  we get to where we are because we make decisions and choose which path(s) to follow.  If one could go back,  look into a crystal ball, and see the twisted path that they would follow to get to the present,  one would never believe that life’s path could be such a crooked road.  No, you can’t go back, but as delving into Barry’s archives proves, you can enjoy what you did in the past.  Maybe I unconsciously translate Barry’s e-mails into his voice in my head, but I find that Barry is STILL one of the funniest guys I know – he is just that kind of unforgettable character!

The video clip is a tune that we used to do in Sledgehammer – Barry and I founded the band when we discovered we both had a love of The Doobie Brothers, but Steely Dan cemented the relationship.  I can’t think of another band in the Marquette area that was doing Steely Dan songs in that time period.  Our version of Pretzel Logic was a bit closer to the original album version than this Dukes of September version.