They tell me radio’s in big trouble these days, because nobody’s listening in their cars and what businesses want to blow advertising money on stations where nobody’s listening?
This makes me think of Johnny Walker.
Naturally, the villain of this piece is the coronavirus. Nobody’s listening to their car radio because so many of us are stuck in our homes instead of driving somewhere. And who listens to the radio at home when there are so many other modern distractions?
This, too, makes me think of Johnny Walker.
As the morning guy at WFBR-AM radio for 13 years, he was one of Baltimore’s great pop culture figures. He brought a smile to the airwaves.
Today, AM radio brings talk show hollering and hostility.
Walker brought laughter. Some of it was childish, and some of it was rude, but mostly it was pretty harmless.
He was the last gasp of AM radio in Baltimore when it still knew how to swing. WFBR never had powerful wattage but they had great personalities over the years, such as Joe Knight (“Your knight of the spinning round table”), The Flying Dutchman, Commander Jim Morton, Ron Matz, Tom Marr, Mike March and Charley (“Call a cab”) Eckman.
But Walker was the guy who personified what they used to call “Mad Radio.” Mad as in madcap. Some still remember him for his wake-up wisecracks, his Charles Center outdoor marriage, his flight to Kenya to ask a witch doctor for a hex to help the Orioles win their 1979 pennant, the candygrams he sent to the beleaguered Nixon White House, the $129.63 he raised from listeners in a snide gesture to help bail New York out of its ‘70s financial crisis.
Not to mention his Rabelaisian “X-rated Olympics” nightclub act, and the lawsuits he inspired, and his federal indictment for tax evasion, which Walker proudly announced over the air.
He was AM radio’s last gesture at holding back the future. FM radio, with its clearer sound and stereo capacities, was crowding its way into local radio dominance, particularly with young people. And AM was starting to switch to full-time political jabbering, with talk show hosts who never leave the studio but pretend to understand the entire world.
AM radio had to get an imagination or die. So there was Walker, who described himself as “the only guy whose mouth was given a moving violation by the police department.”
The humor could be pretty adolescent. But he ran through a ton of it every day, some of it his own material, some of it supplied on the run by a funny studio engineer named John Elder.
The great irony is that Walker, whose real name was James L. Embrey Jr., was nothing at all like his radio personality. The moment he shut down his microphone each day, he became an absolute recluse.
He was a shy, scrawny waif of a fellow with a pinched little face and wire-rim glasses. He went through five wives. When his morning shift was done, he’d head home and watch movies all day.
I did a magazine piece on him years ago. He said, “There’s no comparison between the public and private me. I’m very shy. I don’t like to go out in public. I get real self-conscious. A psychiatrist would have a ball with me. You know, the quiet guy letting out his aggressions on the air.”
He did it until he ran out of time – or AM radio did anyway. WFBR went to a talk format, and Walker retired and spent his days living by himself on a big patch of isolated West Virginia mountainside. He was 55 when he died in 2004.
It’s the coronavirus that’s hurting local radio now. But something else has been hurting the AM dial for years: the failure to bring us a few laughs instead of so much hollering and hostility.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been re-issued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.
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