Friday Flashback

I always enjoy getting e-mail from my radio show listeners. But this one caught my eye. Yes, for the first time since Doug’s Place opened, it’s time to open up the RockTrax e-mailbag…

(insert Paul and the CBS Late Show orchestra singing “Letters” here)

Here’s what a listener writes. And as always, we protect the author’s ID…

“Doug, i’ve enjoyed listening to Rocktrax on 104.5. I realize i’m late in sending congratulations on your 6th anniversary. I finally decided to break dowon and get a computer and internet access. I can still remember the day turning on Backtrax on 100.3 to find you weren’t there…later that day, i found you were at 104.5. Gotta ask, do you think 100.3 shuld’ve gone all classic rock while you were there?”

In a word, yes. Glad you invested some money in a computer. Now, how about a spellchecker? 🙂 J/k.

Seriously, let’s turn the clock back to 1991. I wasn’t in radio, the Morris family had just settled into Mississippi life after eight years in Ohio and I tuned in to SL-100. From my many visits with family in South Mississippi before, I knew SL was a popular hit music station.

One Sunday, I detected a rather different flavor of music. I wondered if this was a permanent change. One that I liked. I learned BackTrax, a program of classic rock from the ’70s — then hosted by Andy Cole — was a Sunday tradition on SL-100. I was content with the arrangement.

Anyway, fast forward to the fall of ’92. I’d just wrapped up a summer semester at USM — including some volunteer airtime at WUSM-FM, the on-campus public radio station (don’t puke at those words, check out www.usm.edu/wusm/ and you might find something you like) — and was starting a semester at Jones Junior College.

I read in the paper a local radio station was looking for part-time help. I sent them a tape and resume and found out it was Rick James, then SL’s program director, who placed the ad. To distinguish himself from that other Rick James, the guy who sang “Superfreak”, the PD was also SL’s afternoon drive jock at the time under the name “The Real Rick James”.

Starting on Halloween night of ’92, I was hired to be Stephen St. James’ sidekick for The Saturday Night Rock Party and then hold down the fort for the graveyard shift early Sunday morning. I’d hoped to meet Andy — but he was long gone by the time of my hire.

Four months later, Rick felt my dues in those wee hours were paid — and gave me a chance to host BackTrax at least on an interim basis. Jeff “J.T.” Tillman had left during the holidays for a job at WRNO in New Orleans; he not only hosted BackTrax at the time, he also was an engineer.

A few weeks into 1993, Rick came to the realization I had a steady hand on BackTrax and the interim label was traded in for a permanent assignment.

During the next few years, even though SL-100 billed itself as Mississippi’s #1 hit music station, the classic rock tunes were well represented. Not only did was there BackTrax on Sunday, there was also a spinoff show each weekday, the morning doses of BackTrax during Scott Sands’ morning show and on occasion Scott would take over the radio station and play ’70s rock and even disco.

Regarding the latter (one of few moves of Scott’s I’d ever applaud), this all stemmed from a morning show topic of his. He asked listeners for their favorite ’70s songs and memories. One thing lead to another and before you know it, this particular episode of The Scott In The Morning Show lasted well past 10:00am. His “hostile takeover” lasted ’til about 3:00pm.

But man was it fun. The listeners loved it. Some even demanded it be a permanent arrangement. In fact, one caller remarked on air, “I’ll take this music over the s**t you normally play.” Too bad we weren’t on a five-second delay. Oh well.

Looking back on my tenure of almost four years at SL-100, my answer to the listener’s above e-mail is a definite yes. We had the experience, the professionalism and the resources. All we had to do was invest a couple of grand on a new music library and imaging and we’d be set.

However, Rick would never give in. Even though there had been futile attmepts by other stations for a full-time classic rock format, WHSY-FM’s attempt was just firing up April 1, 1995 as Rock 104.

Larry Blakeney and company purchased WHSY at auction after the station was forced to sign off by the FCC in 1994. WHSY kept records poorly and didn’t properly maintain a public file (if memory serves, there was no public file ever found upon FCC inspection). WHSY represented one of those aforementioned failed attempts as a full-time rock station. Some of the previous management team at WHSY would later go on to revamp WKNZ as Zoo 107, a full-time classic rock station in early 1995.

As the spring ’95 ratings period was just beginning and two new competitors entered the picture — the aforementioned classic rock stations — Rick went into full panic mode. He didn’t show it; but he knew Zoo 107 and Rock 104, later to take on the call letters WXRR in mid-spring, were out to get us.

How did Rick react to the new competition? Do the words “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” mean anything to you? The classic rock programming at SL-100 increased dramatically during the first business week (Monday-Friday) of that ratings period. It was all ’70s in morning drive and midday. Our format would return to some sort of normalcy around 3:00pm with still some ’70s rock sprinkled therein.

All this caught the attention of a newspaper reporter who asked Rick if he felt SL-100 was threatened. No, Rick said, noting that SL had received more phone-in requests for this type of music. Bull! We may have gotten more requests for ’70s music — but Rick never really put a lot of faith in listener input.

I know I’ve noted this elsewhere here at DougMorris.org. But, it’s worth repeating. When all was said and done, Rock 104 chimed in at #2 overall, Zoo 107 had a respectable showing and SL took a severe hit in the ratings. The only bright spots? BackTrax and me.

Even though Rick wouldn’t admit it, my way worked, his way didn’t and Scott’s often controversial antics and lack of cooperation (trust me, this is better left as another entry for another day) weren’t helping. On my watch, BackTrax was based on requests and I never had a music log to go by. Rick planned on BackTrax taking the non-request route and I’d have to go by a log. It never happened — and if did, it took place after my resignation.

In late winter of ’96, upper management in Pennsylvania was not pleased with SL’s performance, demanded changes and clipped Rick’s wings. Rick’s station manager duties were transferred solely to the podunk AM sister talk radio station, his managerial and programming duties were divided among others and the format itself would concentrate on music from the ’80s and ’90s with the ’70s remaining on BackTrax.

Looks great on paper (or should I say your computer monitor?). But if you’re thinking this is what SL should’ve done in the dawn of Rock 104 and Zoo 107, you’re right.

At the risk of biting the hand that fed me for those 3 1/2 years of BackTrax (nearly four years total at SL), what Rick should’ve done was truly hype SL-100 was a hit music station. Concentrate on “the music of today”, throw in some ’80s and, hate to say it, cancel BackTrax — oh, and hire me full-time (remember, all my years in radio have been part-time work).

Seriously, in 1995, Rick should’ve realized the classic rock devotees would go elsewhere and reformat the station in an attempt to find a new audience. He failed to do that. What’s he doing now? Selling pre-paid phone cards in Mobile — or so I hear from Stephen.

Anyway, to tie up some more loose ends, you know I moved on to Rock 104 in the spring of ’96 — just as the major changes were taking place at SL. When Larry asked what I should call my new show, I suggested Doug Morris On The Air. But, leave it to Lar to come up with something better — Rock 104’s RockTrax with Doug Morris. Even today, I sometimes think have the syllable “rock” in their twice is redundant — but my name and the syllable “trax” are in the title and the show’s still strong after 6 years and different versions. So who am I to argue?

Stephen was there to welcome me — he left SL in late spring of ’93 and started working for Larry in ’94. Zoo 107 would succumb to the hot breath of Rock 104 and change formats several times — still under the “Zoo 107” identifier; much like the old WHSY days.

As for Andy, I have no idea where he is. He and I have talked on the phone a couple of times — but never met in person. I do know Andy was married to Katherine Bontemps (if that spelling’s wrong, look who needs a spell-checker now). She was a news producer at WDAM and previously worked in radio news at WHSY. They divorced years ago.

After a number of managerial and program director jobs, Scott’s now PD at a radio station in Indianapolis. I read where earlier this year, the morning team on his station left for a cross-town rival. Hmm… why does that sound familiar?

Finally, as for SL-100 itself, BackTrax died a quiet death in March of 1997. During its final 11 months on the air, I left for Rock 104 and there were 5 different hosts since my departure. Can you say “lack of consistency”? The last man to host BackTrax — Matt Martin, who used the name “Mike Gordon” on the air — is now in marketing for the Hattiesburg offices of CellularOne. WNSL-FM, SL-100, was sold to Cumulus in 1998 — later eaten up by Clear Channel. Rick would resurface at SL as PD before the CC sale — after being fired in the fall of 1996, aligning with Scott on a top 40 station on the gulf coast as well as a talk station here in the Pine Belt. Both stations’ efforts failed. What a surprise?

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