Confessions of a Top 40 Radio Junkie
Staying glued to the radio as a kid had its rewards.
Child-rearing experts agree that young people need to develop interests outside of regular family and academic activities. For some, it's sports or other competitions. For others it might be music or drama. For me in the 1960s, it was the radio.
When I was 12 years old, I developed quite an affection for two beloved electronic gadgets—my transistor radio and the kitchen telephone. Every day, in the short two hours between the time I got home from school and when my parents came home from work, I sat by the phone with the radio tuned to my favorite station in Fort Worth, Texas, KFJZ-AM. The disc jockey I liked best was Mark E. Baby (that was his hip on-air pseudonym), because not only did he play the best music, but he also gave away records, movie passes or cash, just for calling in and answering questions about music and pop culture.
I absolutely loved radio station contests, and I was an enthusiastic participant. I didn’t care what the prize was; I simply wanted to win something, anything. My desire to trade my vast-though-trivial knowledge for some free trinket, valuable or not, was persistent and uncompromising.
Here was my modus operandi: Every time a song on the radio came to an end, I dialed the first six numbers of the station's contest line (we didn’t need to dial an area code in those days). I listened for the DJ to ask a question—the name of the artist who sang the song, some piece of information about the song, or sometimes there was no question at all; he would simply award a prize to the first person who called him on that magic phone number. As soon as I heard him say the words “Call now,” I dialed the final digit of the hotline, hoping to hear a ring on the other end, and thus win whatever major award was being bestowed.
More often than not, I heard a busy signal. This was frustrating, especially because more often than not, I knew the answers.
“That was the Beatles with ‘Paperback Writer,’" Mark E. Baby shouted over the air one afternoon, “number one this week on the big King-Z Top 60. Now, if you can tell me the name of the last number one song the Beatles had before this one, be the first caller on the fantastic King-Z hotline to win a brand new copy of ‘Rubber Soul.’ Call now!”
“We Can Work it Out!” I screamed at the radio, and stuck my finger into the rotary dial, wheeling it clockwise, then watching the last number of the contest line fall into place. I waited nervously. My heart rate went up. Surely with that quick response I would be the first caller, right?
Then, after what seemed like an eternity, I heard that awful but disgustingly familiar sound: the rhythmic squawk of the busy signal on the other end. Failed again.
But there would be another contest later, and I would be there by the phone.
Eventually, the day came when I actually did win a radio contest. In fact I won two prizes, and I didn’t even have to call in. But I confess I did resort to piracy.
My radio station was tying two promotions together, one for the latest Three Stooges movie “The Outlaws is Coming” (not an Oscar contender, by the way) and an advertisement for a new soft drink called “Chocolate Soldier." The contest was basically an art competition with simple rules: send in your best drawing of an outlaw, and a team of judges would award the best artists two tickets to the movie and a full case—24 bottles— of the “tasty new soft drink sweeping the nation.”
I didn't then, nor do I now, have any artistic ability when it comes to the use of my hands. But I had an older cousin who was a professional artist, and she had painted for me an extremely creative picture of a cowboy, and given the work to me for my birthday.
Carefully taking the painting down from my wall, I covered it with a sheet of thin blank paper so the cowboy image was visible through it. Then with meticulous care, I traced the outline of the man, paying close attention to every detail, right down to the ornate design on the six-gun in his leather holster. I took out some colored pencils and then reproduced on my drawing the exact colors my cousin had chosen. Afterward I added my own original touch: an outlaw mask across the cowboy’s face. After surveying my ingenious but blatant act of plagiarism, I neatly folded my drawing and stuffed it into an envelope with the radio station’s address scrawled on the front.
When I found that my work (or more accurately, that of my cousin) had been selected as one of the lucky winners, I was ecstatic. My parents, on the other hand, were not as jubilant. The free movie tickets meant that they would have to drive me and a friend to the only theater currently showing the movie, several miles on the other side of town. It also meant a trip to the soft drink bottler, located about thirty miles in the other direction. Being the supportive parents they were, they gave in to my insistence and honored my victory, even though later, the luster came off of my prizes fairly quickly. The Stooges movie was kind of a throwaway.
And the soft drink? It turned out that not only did we have to pay a deposit on the 24 bottles and case when we picked up my prize from the bottling company; we also discovered that the taste of Chocolate Soldier was something akin to what a child might concoct by raiding his mother’s pantry and mixing cocoa powder with soda water. I don’t think we ever finished the last bottle, and my parents never made the drive to return the containers and retrieve their deposit.
You'd think that experience would have cured me from radio contests, but no, I continued my daily quest to call in, but without success. That is, until one day after a multitude of busy signals, my perseverance finally paid off. After a commercial break, my DJ Mark E. Baby spoke over the next song’s musical intro, asking, “Are you a cartoon fan? Then be the third caller to tell me this: On the Rocky and Bullwinkle show, what is the name of the girl that Dudley Do-Right constantly has a crush on?"
I knew that one! The answer of course was Nell Fenwick; Sweet Nell, the girl that Dudley Do-Right repeatedly rescued from his arch nemesis Snidely Whiplash. I called the contest number and could scarcely believe my ears; it was ringing! Then a few anxious seconds later, HE answered! “This is Mark E. Baby on the fantastic King-Z hotline," he piped. "Who’s this?”
I almost swooned at the sound of his voice. Mark E. Baby, who had just spoken over the airwaves to thousands of listeners, was now talking to me personally! I could feel my heart thumping wildly through the buttons of my collarless surfer shirt. I hesitated, too excited to speak.
“Hello, you're the third caller; what’s your name?” asked Mark E. Baby again.
I let out a gasp, my mouth immediately dry. My left hand on the telephone receiver was slippery with sweat.
“Are you there, caller?” my favorite DJ asked, growing impatient.
“Y-y-yes,” I stammered.
“Can you tell me the name?” Mr. Baby urged.
“Nicky, it’s Nicky,” I replied, finally giving him my name.
“I’m sorry, that’s incorrect,” he said. “The correct answer is ‘Nell.” But thanks for playing, and keep listening to the Big King-Z.” Then he hung up.
I stared at the phone for a long time, visions of my major award vanishing in a cloud of anguish and self-condemnation. Maybe this wasn't so much fun after all.
Not long after that, my enthusiasm for radio contests began to ebb. I still listened every day to hear the great music, but I eventually found other interests. For example, I learned that the girl down the street also liked to listen to Mark E. Baby.
That led to an entirely new interest, and I found myself calling a different phone number, and talking at length, as the radio played in the background.
© Nick Walker 2018
What about you? Did you ever enter a radio contest? What did you have to do to win? Please scroll down and leave a comment below.