Maybe you heard me
In February 1980 I was working at WBBG-1260 AM. Nicknamed “Super Gold,” it was the AM sister to the rock station WWWM-FM, better known as M105. WBBG played oldies and employed popular Cleveland radio personalities from earlier eras, like Lou “King” Kirby and the legendary Bill Randle.
During the year prior to my working there, I had been an occasional comedy guest on two shows at the station—Willio & Phillio’s morning show on WBBG, and M105’s morning show, “Benson’s Bozo Breakfast Club,” hosted by Joe Benson (now a popular radio personality in Los Angeles).
Willio and Phillio left town toward the end of 1979, and at the beginning of 1980 I was hired to handle WBBG’s promotions and public relations. But my job immediately expanded. I had been writing jokes and comedy bits for other radio personalities and stage comedians, and myself, for several years. The colorful Jay Lawrence came in as WBBG’s new morning host. Jay had been a popular DJ on Cleveland’s KYW about 15 years earlier, when it was the most listened-to station in town, also featuring Jerry G., Jim Runyon and others.
Jay Lawrence was a funny and quick-witted guy. He was fun to work with, and also a bit nerve-wracking because he would say anything (within FCC guidelines—and maybe not always) that popped into his head, on the air.
It became an unofficial job of mine to listen to him and note when he began what sounded like it could become a comedy bit. I would then write several jokes, on the spot, to flesh out the burgeoning routine. When he said, for instance, “I went to a restaurant last night, and you know a restaurant is going to be bad when . . . ” and then told a couple of jokes to go along with that, I automatically put a piece of paper in the typewriter and started churning out “you-know-a-restaurant-is-going-to-be-bad-when . . .” jokes. I typed up a page full of them and ran it down to the studio and held it up against the glass in front of him. And he just started reading them on the air. I did a lot of that.
It was always a little harrowing. But nothing like Feb. 2, 1980. Groundhog Day fell on Saturday that year. Jay decided he wanted to do something special. He asked me to come in—I didn’t normally work on weekends—and not just come in to work, but to arrive at 5 a.m. He devised a plan to broadcast his show live from some transmitter about 15 miles south of downtown Cleveland. He was going to pretend to wait for, and then see, the groundhog, and he needed me to help supply him with material. And he insisted that even though we were pretending everything else, we still had to actually be outside.
The day after that, Feb. 3, would set a record for low temperature on that date in Cleveland—3 degrees below zero—but while the morning we were going to spend outside, Feb. 2, was only 2-below, it felt exactly like 3-below. We drove to this place in his car and when we arrived, the radio engineer who was supposed to let us inside and run the broadcast for us wasn’t there. And he never showed up. Around 6 a.m., when it was time for Jay’s show to start, we jumped back in his car and drove to a pay phone we’d spotted on the way. Jay called the engineer back at WBBG and told him to put him on the air, where Jay opened his show. Then Jay instructed the engineer to play music until he returned to the studio.
We sped back downtown to the station. Jay got on the air and told his audience that he was back in the studio, but that I—“Dave,” he always called me—was outside, waiting for the groundhog to appear and that he would be checking with me periodically. He started playing records and told me to go hang out in my office, so that every 10 or 15 minutes he could call my phone and put me on the air to give a “report.” Which meant that about six times an hour, for the next four hours, I had come up with a new comedy bit. That was 24 bits that I had only 10 minutes each to create.
But I did it. And some of them were even funny. And, cold as it was that day, I left the station drenched in sweat.
David Budin is a freelance writer for national and local publications, the former editor of Cleveland Magazine and Northern Ohio Live, an author, and a professional musician and comedian. His writing focuses on the arts and, especially, pop-music history.