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Radio's signal has weakened over years

Just a thought

February 08, 2012
Last month, the Duke of Louisville died. People half my age probably wouldn't have a clue who he was or why his passing brought a flood of memories to many people like me, who grew up in the 1960s and '70s.

His real name was William Boahn, but most people knew him by his radio names: The Duke of Louisville and Bill Bailey. He was indeed a local celebrity, heard on AM radio stations WAKY and WKLO for years and seen at many promotional events throughout the city. Bill was both witty and funny, and, as long as AM radio prevailed (before there were FM stations), Bill kept us laughing as he spun the top 40 hits of the day.

For many people my age, radio shaped our lives. My family didn't get a television set until I was about 5, but we always had a radio.

I remember my grandparents coming to our house for a visit, and my grandfather and I would sneak off to my dad's workshop, turn on the radio that my dad kept there and listen to ballgames, mainly the Cincinnati Reds, our favorite.

In the evenings, the radio had shows like "The Lone Ranger," "Superman" and "Gunsmoke" that, although you couldn't see the scenes or actors, you could let your imagination fill in the blanks, and it was just as dramatic and fun as the shows were to watch a few years later when they were shown on TV.

My family had a sort of ritual when it came to radio. In the mornings, while eating breakfast and getting ready for school, the radio on top of the refrigerator was tuned to WHAS and DJ Wayne Perkey because they covered the news and weather every 30 minutes. At noon, everyone around had their radios tuned to Barney Arnold's farm report.

On the school bus, our driver always played WAKY or WKLO on the radio, and that's where we all got to know Bill Bailey. Reed Yadon was his weatherman/sidekick for years.

"I'll tell you, Reed, it's raining cats and dogs out there," Bailey would say. "Didn't you say yesterday that it was going to be dry and warm? Oh, I'm sorry, that must have been your Florida forecast."

It was on the school bus that I first heard the song "I Want to Hold Your Hand" by a new group from England called the Beatles. I'd never seen a picture of the group, but, obviously, The Duke of Louisville had.

"I guess over in England, it's OK for the boys to look just like the girls," I remember him saying. "Or else, they've run out of barbers."

Most of the young people I knew listened to WAKY or WKLO. They were both fairly high-power stations and could be heard all over northern Kentucky and Southern Indiana. But many radio stations at the time played similar music, which was all kinds.

Most of the small farms in our area raised tobacco as a cash crop. In the winter months, we spent a lot of time in the "stripping rooms," pulling tobacco leaves off the stalks, grading them, tying them in "hands" and pressing them in a large tobacco press so they could be stacked neatly, ready for market. There was an old pot-belly stove in our stripping room and, even on bitter cold days, it was cozy and warm. We also had a radio that played all day. Everyone, old and young alike, listened to — and enjoyed — the same music.

On WAKY, they played songs by Buddy Holly, Dean Martin, Marty Robbins, Roy Orbison, Herb Albert, Pasty Cline, Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra, The Everly Brothers, Hank Snow, George Jones, The Rolling Stones, the Righteous Brothers, Beatles, Elvis, Sonny and Cher, the Beach Boys, Roger Miller, the Supremes and many others, all on the same station. At noon, we always switched over to WHAS for the farm report then back to WAKY for music. And Frank Sinatra was appreciated just as much as Marty Robbins and the Rolling Stones. It was all good music. These days, music is aimed at specific audiences and no station even comes close to appealing to a wide or varied audience.

In 1970, I remember driving back from Frankfort, Ky., listening to Bill Bailey on WAKY. I had been on the river for several days, working on towboats, and was on my way home. I heard him say something about "they shot those kids." I couldn't quite figure out what he was talking about until later, when I realized that the National Guard had shot several college students at Kent State University in Ohio the day before, killing four of them. I couldn't believe it. The war that so many of us had been protesting for so long had come home. It was a shocking time, one that I've never forgotten. Just three or four days later, Bailey played a brand-new Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song, "Four Dead in Ohio," that was hastily written by Neil Young and recorded the day after the shootings.

AM radio, as we knew it, is gone. It is now known as "hate radio" by many and shock jocks compete for the most absurd and asinine audiences. Even WHAS, once a mainstay of families throughout the area, now fills the airways with ways and reasons to hate fellow Americans. The music and people like Wayne Perkey and Barney Arnold are long gone.

WKLO is gone also, and WAKY was gone for a while as well but it's back now, on FM at 103.5. They still play the same music: music that was fresh, creative and exhilarating to us years ago, but is called "oldies" today. I roam the radio dial quite often, in a quest for fresh, creative and exhilarating new music, but I find little that I would want to buy a copy of. So, I click the third button from the right on my car radio, and, suddenly, it's 1966 again, and the Rolling Stones still can't "Get No Satisfaction," Merle Haggard is still a "Fugitive," the Beach Boys are still "In My Room" and Frank Sinatra is still going to "New York — New York." The only thing missing is The Duke of Louisville.

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