Category Archives: Broadcast

Chickenman, Signing Off

Two weeks of every summer of my pre-teen and teen years were spent on Long Beach Island, following a script that reflected the 1970s in so many ways: fresh pastry for breakfast, a quick jaunt off the beach for lunch, and before the advent of smart phones and digital music, entertainment in the form of magazines, books, puzzles, and broadcast radio. Each and every weekday — ten of the fourteen, the quieter days when most of the fathers you saw were truly on vacation and not shuttling back to a (hopefully foreshortened) work week — we tuned into WJRZ-FM at lunchtime, ostensibly to hear the news, somewhat ironically to hear Paul Harvey’s meta-news delivery and the ultimate entertainment, an episode of Dick Orkin’s “Chickenman”.

Here’s what I remember about listening to WJRZ: It provided me a sense that radio could really be that “companion unobtrusive”, and yet the top-40 format left room for Peter Frampton and Genesis. I cherished the local ads (“the Ship Bottom Motor Lodge, the one and only circular motel on the island”) to the point that I believe many hours spent in the 1980s producing ads for WPRB-FM were the by-product of knowing that a 10 second intro could capture the sights, smells and tastes of a favorite place with description alone. Marking time through the wide range of music, syndicated news, national and local advertisements and relatively unknown DJs, for the extent of those summers, was the daily episode of Chickenman. Like clockwork, you could count it on for moving along a story that was basically about nothing — no super powers, no crimes real or imagined, no serious tension. It was Seinfeld and The Office before we knew that nothing could be funny.

Listening to Chickenman, a campy send up of Batman and the radio serializations of a prior decade, my sister and I decided that we could write and record our own episodes and have some fun. So my love of recording and production began with a cheap cassette recorder and a pencil to precisely wind the tapes. Chickenman had a brief fling with environmental consciousness as the series wound down in popularity, but Benton Harbor (Chickenman’s Clark Kent) couldn’t make social justice trendy. And the next summer I brought a portable stereo to LBI with a milk crate of vinyl, choosing the music and the pacing and slowly fading WJRZ and Chickenman into the wonderful, sunset tinged memories of endless summers.

But as the outro squawked, “he’s everywhere, he’s everywhere” and we never really forgot the feathered non-crime non-fighter, not until today when Dick Orkin died. Indirectly, those five minute intervals of his shared creativity — less than an hour of each summer — led me into college radio, music production, advertising, public speaking, sales, and through a transitive closure that would make Godel blush, these very blog entries.

Bradys, Partridges and “This Is Us”

For weeks I’ve been trying to put my finger on why I adore NBC’s “This Is Us” so much. It’s not just the Ken Olin reflection of “thirtysomething” of twenty-something years ago; it’s a deep visceral feeling that it’s TV that we truly need right now. Two simultaneous conversations refocused my thinking – one was a Facebook comment thread in which friend Jenni commented that “This Is Us” is a show about adoption, and the other was a long phone call with my sister, happily recalling the small screen families with whom we grew up: The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. The plate of shrimp turned all the way around when I remembered an early first season Partridge Family episode in which Danny believes he was adopted (and yes, I checked the air date — March 12, 1971, precisely 46 years earlier).

“This Is Us” works because it echoes the same risks, themes and family situations, recast forty years later, as the shows we loved the most as tweens.

Shirley Partridge was a widow. The Brady Bunch were the original blended family. Danny thought he was adopted. The Patridge Family, especially in its last season, dealt with women’s liberation, religion, the precursor to Title IX sports equality, gender roles, aging, subtle racial bias (when the Patridge Family and the Temptations bookings are switched) and the strong nuclear bond of the non-nuclear family. The Brady Bunch dealt in simpler fare: sibling rivalry, respect, dignity in failure. Put this television into the context of the early 1970s: a country reeling from racial tension and social schism around Vietnam, the collected after images of Woodstock, JFK, MLK, Nixon, Apollo 11 and Apollo 13. Like “thirtysomething” which was essentially a comedy with serious family and professional relationship undertones, our 1970s family comedies stepped up to present difficult (for the time) themes. We were just slightly younger than the lead characters of each series, looking up to them as fictional older siblings and idealized role models.

When we watch “This Is Us”, then, we are transposed twice in time – we are older than the Pearson kids in the 1970s timeline equivalent of our TV days, and older than their current ages in the forward timeline. We are now the slightly older, perhaps wiser siblings to our TV characters. Having navigated teenage and adult years we see “This Is Us” as validation that our issues with parents, family structure, rivalry, pressure, perfection, friends and extended family are universal, and maybe just maybe we successfully navigated them and the “Us” refers to the characters as it reflects the audience.

End of the Broadcast Day

During three months of Sunday mornings, I was the first DJ on the air on WPRB-FM. I popped in the “sign on cart” that opened with a bit of patriotic music and then segued right into a Dixieland-style vamp that invited listeners to stay with us through the broadcast day. That was always one of my favorite parts of being on the air; the mix of charged-but-serious (who can’t be serious when you are firing up 17,000 watts of power through a lot of analog electronics?) and seriously fun struck the right balance for college radio. Bill Rosenblatt used to say that good DJs made you feel like you were sitting in the living room with them, listening to records. For me, the sign-on cart was turning on the lights to invite people in.

My Reunions jacket "patch" in memory of Jim Robinson.  I left it tacked on the wall at WPRB.

My Reunions jacket “patch” in memory of Jim Robinson. I left it tacked on the wall at WPRB.


Over the course of three years and two summers, I learned a number of valuable lessons at WPRB, ranging from how to sell to how to present to people much more senior than me to how to deal with seemingly large (but ultimately small and short-lived) crises. The very tenor of the place, the mix of fun and function, of embracing a freedom to explore musically, technically and organizationally, stemmed from Jim Robinson (Princeton ’43), co-founder of the station. He was, in the words of John Shyer, immediately comfortable with everyone he met, no matter how many decades removed from his own experiences and musical tastes. His living room was always open for advice or insight. As an engineer, in sidebar discussions with him, he impressed me as someone who believed in solving problems the right way, even if it was less celebrated or less visible, because design was important.

My Princeton experience was centered on WPRB, and for that I owe a huge debt to Jim Robinson, not only for having the courage and initiative to get it on the air, but for continuing to imbue it with love, a sense of community and continuity for the next four decades. obituaryJim passed away last week, just prior to his 70th Princeton Reunion. An impressive group of alumnni from six different decades congregated in the station to pay tribute to him, as we were all influenced directly or indirectly by his gentle nature.

Eureka: Season 5 Opener

[Spoiler alert]

I watched my first episode of Eureka in broadcast time tonight, complete with commercial breaks highly useful for checking Twitter #eureka updates. I’ve seen every episode of the first four seasons on iTunes in compressed time (both without commercials and without a week to digest each new plot twist).

As the opener unfolded, the “it’s all been done” chimes tolled: evil robots, villains in refrain, time travel, loves lived and lost (very Frank Sinatra), James Bond like races to save the (Felicia) day and Carter’s Jeep getting destroyed. You knew that the episode wasn’t that hackneyed, not from a show that has pushed science fiction equally along the mainstream and nerd axes of content. And it wasn’t – and it was more creative than the composition of all of the quickly dismissed pseudo-themes.

It was worth waiting through the winter.