R.A.P. Interview: Eric Chase

JV: You’ve had a great radio career at some legendary stations. What are some of the highlights of your radio days?
Eric: Well, the first was when I was at KAAY. It was a 50,000 watt clear channel station booming north and south, and it was kind of a heady experience for a kid just out of high school to be speaking all the way up to Canada and also down to South America. We would get calls from everywhere. We had these breakthrough shows. There was a guy named Clyde Clifford who did this thing called Beaker Street after midnight. He did it from the transmitter, because he had what they call a first phone engineer’s license so he could watch the transmitter. He was right by this huge blower which kept the transmitter cool, but it was also noisy. So he came up with these background tapes of this looping ambient sound that he would throw in behind him to cover up the noise, and it became his signature.

He would play album cuts. He would break stuff like Jimi Hendrix albums, anything that Zeppelin was doing. We’d played album cuts and would do things like the entire second side of Abbey Road, for example. Nobody was doing that then, but we didn’t have many sponsors in that timeslot, so we could. That was an interesting experience.

Coming out of there, I went to Detroit for a short time, and FM was just beginning to become a factor in music. They were making the change. FM originally was occupied mostly by the classic music stations and so on. So this station in Detroit, WDRQ, which I think still exists, was starting out with a rock and roll format on FM. I worked for a guy named Al Casey, who was a very famous programmer at the time. He hired me, but they didn’t pay me enough money. After four or five months, I was starving, and I thought, uh-oh, got to get back down South.

I was able to jump over to a really famous station in Memphis, WHBQ, which of course is still there. It was programmed by George Klein. George was in the inner circle of the Elvis cadre at the time. He was also responsible for playing a lot of Elvis’s early records on the radio as a DJ.

George was an absolute trip, because he had a show on TV at the time, and he was a well-known personality. He would do his shows, and then he would disappear. He was supposed to be the Program Director, but he would party all night with Elvis, because he was in the inner circle, and they would stay up all night. He’d show up the next day with these huge bags under his eyes, and then he’d do his show and then disappear. He was kind of like the mystery Program Director.

I stayed there about a year and a half. I was never quite in the inner circle to meet Elvis, because that takes some time, and it was a highly protected kind of thing. But George was great. I spoke to him later on, and he gave me a couple of breaks. I was a pretty young kid at the time, but I was always working in the studio, and he gave me some carte blanche on creating promos and stuff during the Drake format days. They had taken radio and basically cleaned it from the inside out. They’d streamlined the formats. They had the Johnny Mann jingles, and things like that. We were highly formatted, and it had a very rigid structure for the jocks -- except George could do what he wanted. So that was a different kind of radio than I was trained in. It was a little hard to adapt to at first, but then your personality would start to come through the format after a while.

That kind of gave me a break to go to Dallas. I was at KNUS in Dallas, where there was just a ton of people who have done so well from that era: Tommy Kramer, who is now a consultant; Beau Weaver, who is a huge voice guy out in LA and a friend of mine, and we talk from time to time; and there’s Brother John Rivers who later did the Power Line series.

I could go on and on and on. There were so many people that came out of Dallas We were all about the same age, between 20 and 25, and we all had this certain mindset. Our standards were so high, and our salaries were so low. We literally were working for free back then. We just didn’t know it.

But all that discipline and training paid off. And of course, KNUS was a McLendon station, and Gordon McLendon had some huge ties in all aspects of broadcasting. I remember when Elton John had just released Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, I believe it was. He was coming through on a tour, and Dallas was a big one. I was able to go out with Randy Haines and another guy. Randy, who is now Hudson and Harrigan here in town, he actually interviewed Elton John. He only had like three albums out prior to that.

We decided to do a show called “An Hour with Elton,” for which I took the cassette tape of all the interview comments, and we basically created an hour of music surrounding what he was talking about. To my knowledge, it’s probably one of the rarest Elton interviews out there, because it was very early on. I still have that on reel-to-reel tape. I’ve not restored it, and I should do that soon, put it into the digital world because the original tapes are quite old.

But he talked about “Take Me to the Pilot” and some of his early stuff and how it all came around. It was quite interesting, and it was very different than the documentary style of that day. Actually, it reflects more of the documentary style of what you would hear today, like on satellite radio.

We had a great time at KNUS, and then shortly after that, things… they happen. There are always changes. So I wound up doing about a five-month stretch at X-Rock 80 in El Paso, another infamous 150,000 watt mega-station. A lot of us from KNUS – like three or four of us -- actually went down there as a group to kind of kick the format into gear.

The weird thing about X-Rock was, because the transmitter was in Mexico, we could not transmit live across the country line, and they didn’t have any provision, like a phone line, to broadcast live. So we had to – now this is the weirdest thing I’ve ever done in radio, I think -- we had to do our shows the day before, and in studio, as if we were doing it live, and they would take the tapes the next day over across the border, give them to the engineers, who then played the tapes on the radio.

So we figured out, since it’s always sunny in El Paso, we’d just say “sunny and 75”, but we didn’t do a lot of weather. Everything we did was generic, as if you were doing something for a syndicated show. But we weren’t sophisticated like now, where you could really make it sound live, so we did the best we could. I actually did two shifts a day. I did 2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., and 2:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. So that meant we could never say the time is 6:00 “p.m.” We’d just say, “It’s 6 o’clock.”

Probably the most unusual thing that happened one time, and maybe more than one time, was this thing with the tapes. And you have to understand, this is on a 150,000 watt radio station that’s going everywhere. I mean, we were booming all through North America. But once in a while, one of the engineers would get the tapes, and they wouldn’t rewind one of the hours -- they were those 10-inch tapes at 7.5 ips. One time, or more than once, the guy played an hour backwards without stopping. If you can just think about how you would feel tuning into a radio station and it’s backwards for an hour. And the next day, we would say, “Oh, my God!” Of course, we’d make a promo out of it. “This is the only station in the world to turn back time….”

So that was kind of embarrassing, and usually that would happen in the early morning hours, so it would be on the sky wave off of AM, which means millions of people could be listening to it. That was strange, and that only lasted a while, but I did get a pretty big break out of some of the air checks I had done at X-Rock. I managed to go to WRKO in Boston. I think George Klein also kind of gave me a plug, too. He was still in the chain.

So I went to Boston for about a year and a half, and that’s when radio was really big. It changed dramatically for me because I was just a talent. Well, not just a talent; we were all good talents, but we were all in the AFTRA-SAG union. We had good salaries. We had benefits -- something that you never had -- but we couldn’t touch the equipment. I was a producer, and I loved working on the equipment and stuff, but it was never allowed. For a year and a half, I was never allowed to touch anything. I would work with the engineers there to try to get them to work with me, if I were doing a project for fun or whatever. And these guys were engineers; they weren’t producers. So the production was always kind of rudimentary, kind of a-b-c stuff. There was nothing that you’d call elaborately produced. But the talents were so good, and their voices were so good, and they knew how to read so well, that everything sounded great without any kind of huge elaboration. We still had the very clean Johnny Mann jingles, and a cappellas were big back then. So ‘RKO was great. I learned a lot, but I still kind of had an urge to get back to the South.

I wound up getting a break, going to Pittsburgh for a couple of years and put a station on called 13Q where I had worked with a guy named Dennis Waters, who was the Program Director. But a guy that you might remember is Bob Pittman. He created MTV. Bob Pittman and I we’re about the same age. We worked together at 13Q for a year or two, and he was such a brilliant guy. He was a great jock, but you already knew that something was cooking in his brain. He loved research, and just being around him, you knew that he was a special guy. Very shortly after that, he and a couple of other guys created MTV. It was very powerful, that whole iconic thing. We think of MTV today differently than we did back then. It was a huge force back then. It was all brand new.

So I’ve been really privileged to work with a lot of great people along the way that you learn stuff from, and it creeps into your work after a certain point. It comes back around in the generations, too, because we set some standards back then that I think are pretty high, and hopefully they’re still competitive with what’s going on in today’s production world and radio world.

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