For the first decade of my existence I pretty much lived in a dead zone. My dad was too cheap to get cable, so we relied on a 40′ antenna tower for our television needs. I didn’t really miss cable till I got a little older and things like USA Up All Night, movies with nudity, and MTV weren’t available to my pre-teen eyes and ears.
Though we were living untethered to Warner Cable and coaxially mainlined to an aluminum antenna at the tip of a 40′ eyesore, it made clear summer nights all the more special. On those nights I could get in channels 9, 32, and 50 from Chicago from my northeast Indiana super secret location. Twilight Zone, The Benny Hill Show, and Morton Downy Jr were what was on the viewing schedule for me. But normally I had the typical network crap, along with two local PBS stations(dad had a motor on the antenna so we could point it east for Fort Wayne stations, and west for South Bend stations.)
When I was much smaller there was Channel 46 out of South Bend. This was a predominantly Christian television station that broadcast The 700 Club, Pastor Lester Sumrall, and K-Tel and Statler Brothers infomercials. But in the afternoons they played cartoons. Rocky and Bullwinkle, Little Rascals, Superman with George Reeves, and this weird cartoon called Jot. It was literally a white dot that ran around in these really sparse adventures, spreading moral lessons and God’s love. But I was little and was easily amused.
There was also Channel 55 out of Fort Wayne. This was my favorite station, as it was the closest we had to cable access. They pretty much played what they wanted and had their own original broadcasting. There was Happy’s Place and Froggie’s Pad in the morning and afternoon for the kiddos(Think Bozo The Clown, Howdy Doody, etc.) They had kids on the show and did little games so the kids could win prizes. In-between set pieces they’d play cartoons like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, GI Joe, Transformers, and M.A.S.K. It was my main source of entertainment as a kid in Husky Jeans and a bowl haircut. In the afternoons on 55, before Happy’s Place, they’d show the Spiderman ’67 cartoon. This was also a favorite of mine. I dug the simple animation, and the fact that teenage Peter Parker’s voice sounded like that of a 40-year old man.
Though no cable, I seemed to stay pretty entertained most of the time. And once we got a VCR in 1984 I was set for home entertainment until Sting reminded me that I wanted my MTV by the 6th grade.
TV wasn’t the problem, really. It was radio. That was the problem.
We had a local radio station, WRSW, 107.3. It was probably the strongest signal station in a 50 mile radius. 50,000 watts of power. Unfortunately the only music they played seemed to be what was popular 5 to 10 years before. Lots of Kim Carnes, Bee Gees, Leo Sayer, and The Eagles. There were some easy listening stations as well, MAGIC 95 was a big one. There were also some top 40 stations, like 97.3 WMEE and U93. They were the spots if you were wanting your Madonna, Whitney Houston, or Lionel Ritchie fixes.
I never wanted that kind of fix.
Even from an early age I loved rock and roll, and unfortunately we didn’t have any rock stations that I could get in. There was Rock 104 out of Fort Wayne. We had to be about 25 miles east of our house in order to get that in. South Bend was kind of a dead zone for rock stations, but just north of the state line in Michigan you had 95.3 WAOR. In the late 70s and 80s this was the stop if you wanted to hear good rock music. In the mid-80s 97.7 out of Elkhart was oldies. More mid-to-late 60s, with an occasional Chuck Berry for good measure. On Saturday nights they’d run Doctor Demento, too. One New Year’s Eve my cousin and I stayed up and recorded the top 50 Demento songs ever. We rang in the New Year with “They’re Coming To Take Me Away”, “Pencil Neck Geek”, and “Fishheads”.
When I hit middle school and started playing guitar I LOVED the syndicated radio show Metal Shop. It aired Friday nights on 95.3 WAOR at 10pm. I’d set up my boom box in the one spot in the living room where 95.3 would come in and I’d hear interviews with Skid Row, Man-O-War, and David Lee Roth. I’d hear exclusive tracks and make a list of the albums I’d want to look for on our next trip to Butterfly Records or Musicland at the Glenbrook Mall. I’d listen with headphones as not to wake my parents, and during commercial breaks I’d watch Late Night With David Letterman. That was a solid Friday night.
Also in 7th grade our local station, the 50,000 watted 107.3, started playing an hour block of metal on Saturday nights. Like, serious metal. It seemed to be the same songs each Saturday night but I didn’t care. I went from Iron Maiden’s “Stranger In A Strange Land” to Judas Priest’s “Livin’ After Midnight” to Cinderella’s “Shake Me” and then close it out with Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love A Bad Name”. I wasn’t super excited for Bon Jovi, but man it was just cool hearing modern rock music on our lame WRSW. And as a kid who’s entertainment pipeline was very much of the analog variety, I felt like I was living amongst others in these modern times.
There was this other radio station that on strange, clear days we could get in. 107.7 WRKR out of Kalamazoo. That was the first place I ever heard Masters Of Reality’s “The Candy Song”. They also played Queensryche, Metallica, and Sabbath. Listening to those songs coming through my parents Pioneer receiver and speakers in the living room felt kind of magical. Another moment where I felt I was living beyond my Midwestern home. Living in the future.
At a certain point that special feeling of those local radio and TV stations went away. Channel 55 became the first Fox Channel in our area. All the charm of those local shows and even the Channel 55 Christmas Movie Marathon were replaced with 24-hour cycle of garbage. There was something kind of cool and eerie when you were watching TV and then all of a sudden “The Star Spangled Banner” began playing over a montage of flags flying and WWII memorials. That meant you had about a minute before the TV became a frightening wash of static or the color test screen appeared with an audible hum over it. On those nights you truly felt as if you were the last human awake. You’d entered some other time zone completely. There was almost a touch of danger there. It was as if the whole world was turned off until 5 or 6 am when the early morning news came on.
I think we need the world to shut down from 1am to 6am. I feel like what we’re suffering from is too much information. Our brains never turn off anymore. At any point in the day we can switch on the television and there’s a constant stream of noise and opinion to keep our insomnia going till the break of dawn. When the TVs and radio stations went off the air it was the mental equivalent of the bartender yelling “Last call. You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.” I mean, if you had insomnia in the early 80s you were forced to go to the kitchen and drink a glass of warm milk to get back to bed. Or you just went outside and roamed the neighborhood with the dog on a leash like Richard Ramirez. You couldn’t find refuge in infomercials starring William Devane, or game show reruns or soft core porn on Cinemax(that is, unless you had one of those satellites the size of a car in your backyard.) You had to ride it out on your own, man. You were left to just those thoughts that wouldn’t let you sleep in the first place, and the source for those problems to contend with in the dark.
But at least you had that warm glass of milk.
I used to think I was denied the typical 80s MTV childhood, but I look at it now as a positive. All the local productions, the syndicated shows, the weird local commercials, and the commercial-free rock block on my local station went a long way to mold my brain the way it ended up. I think that’s why stuff like Tim and Eric, Mr. Show, and to some degree SCTV resonated so deeply with me. They loved the cheesy informercials and weird actors and odd personalities that made up local TV and radio. They parodied it, but they also respected the ramshackle, DIY approach. When stations weren’t attached to a media conglomerate that only worried about ad money and pushing agendas, there was a kind of wacky beauty to it all. Sure, even cable access needed people to advertise with them, but they’d find people that were cool with their ads running before and after Nightmare Theater, clowns jugging to a room of 15 sugar-fed kiddos, and a whole two-hour rock block dedicated to the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal.
And they understood the value of some dead air for a few hours in the middle of the night. I miss those late night airwaves, in a sleepy town where you felt you were the last teen on earth.