Transmission: Impossible

The airwaves beckon. Yet we are captives on the Venetian Causeway. Locked in traffic and reduced to soothing our frayed nerves straight from a bottle. Our larger half, Jim, is not one to obey gridlock protocol. His faded red Mazda lurches left, then right. Soon we are slaloming through the jam like a wall-eyed wasp. As we approach the tollbooth a brief, profane debate ensues over whether to pay or gun through the emblem-only gate. Law and order prevails, barely. We cough up two quarters, offer the toll-tender a swig of our hooch, and splutter on toward our destination, the proud South Beach studios of WMBM-AM (1490).

Before going any further, it is important to note that our bosses did not bother to bid us farewell. They do not seem to care that we are destined to abandon their mullet-wrapper weekly for a higher calling. That we stand on the very brink of talk-show megastardom, poised to join the ranks of the uni-named: Phil. Oprah. Jim. Steve. Or perhaps Steve Jesse Raphael.

No, our bosses obviously feel this little project will come to nothing. A lark.

Then again, they may have a point.
As of the tollbooth we are, admittedly, ten minutes late for our on-air debut.

There is no dispute, at least, about the genesis of this talk-show venture. It begins as a joke. Because of our penchant for creating scenes in public, for interrogating waitresses and heckling visitors to the newsroom, it is recommended we stick our schtick on the airwaves. (Actually, we receive a number of suggestions as to where we can stick our shtick. The airwaves merely prove the most polite and physically hospitable.)

This is about two months ago, a time when tiny, 1000-watt WMBM is frantically promoting itself as a new talk outlet, "First Talk for the Nineties." We know WMBM's general manager, Eddie Margolis. And we know Margolis to be a man of exceptional qualities: bold, innovative, easily conned. So we call him, and frame a proposal around the possibility of writing a story about our experience as talk-show hosts. Like a famished carp seduced by a dangling hunk of Vienna sausage, he bites. A meeting with station general manager Ira Everett is proposed.

As we hang up, a tremor of terror rattles our otherwise unshakable egos. Wasn't Margolis supposed to laugh the idea into oblivion? But we quickly adjust to the notion of our impending fame. Is it not an American birthright to host your own talk show, like using hair mousse and failing to vote? Do we not possess a veritable gold mine of radio experience?

Was Steve not a substitute DJ at his itty-bitty college station in Connecticut? Was Jim not a phenom during his one pirate radio stint, when he led a pack of stumbling-drunk journalists into his college's station, locked the late-night engineer in a closet, and serenaded his classmates with TV theme songs until dawn? Is not Jim still remembered for his mournful, beer-burpin' rendition of "Rawhide"?

Our timing, of course, is impeccable. For if nothing else, the late Twentieth Century has revealed itself as the era of the talk show, in which broadcast chatter is the moment's medium, an eternal campfire to warm the hearts and inflame the brains of global villagers. Nerdy Larry King, in case you hadn't noticed, plays presidential Kingmaker these days. Rush Limbaugh and John McLaughlin rank as the nation's leading conservatives. Howard Stern and David Letterman are Rolling Stone cover boys. Oprah and Arsenio are...well, Oprah and Arsenio.

With such visions doing a cha-cha through our fat little heads, we march into WMBM and stride down the long dark corridor that leads to Ira Everett's office. Upon entering, we are a bit unnerved. Everett's domain resembles the closet of an agoraphobic pack rat: stacks of yellowing newspapers, tattered promotional posters, record albums, a duffel bag curled houndlike on the floor. As we sit, white specks drift from the water-stained ceiling (lint? asbestos?). Everett, a linebacker-size man with a sonic-boom laugh, sits behind an antique desk that covers approximately four-fifths of the office.

In a made-for-radio baritone, the 35-year-old general manager describes WMBM's niche: issue-oriented talk, an alternative to the giants: WINZ's ten-second news bites and the greasy kids' stuff on WIOD. We agree, of course, and commence spewing forth a variety of possible topics, deftly switching subjects just before it becomes clear we have no idea what we're talking about. This is possible through an intricate form of coded communication that, to lesser minds, sounds a little like constant interrupting.

But Everett knows talent when he sees it. "You two have something very rare in this business," he decides. "Something you can't buy: chemistry."  

We had always thought any chemistry we shared was more of a basic disdain-for-laundry/physical-odor-type thing. But Ira A we call him Ira now A assures us that this mystical quality is not something to be trifled with. He repeats the word at least a hundred times in the next half hour.

"It's like with Siskel and Ebert," he explains. "The two of them have that something together. That, that...chemistry." Jim, our plumper half, takes momentary umbrage at the comparison, given the obvious weight implications, but all is forgiven as Ira begins batting around the inside skinny regarding our soon-to-be competitors, Rick and Suds, the afternoon mock jocks on WIOD. "Suds is the real brains of that operation," he assures us, cryptically.

Ira should know. He's been an AM radio junkie since the morning he and a bunch of friends commandeered the intercom at Evanston (Illinois) High School and blasted Jimi Hendrix over the morning announcements. After college he settled into a "safe job," as a law clerk, but moonlighted at Chicago's WVON. In 1983 he moved to Miami, where he hosted a weekend talk show on WINZ for five years, while launching his own TV production company.

"We want you guys to be promoted," Ira assures us. "Let's not rush into something here. Give it a few weeks. We'll work with you. We want to do whatever is neccessary to make sure you guys succeed in this market."

We imagine bus signs with our pictures on them. Full-page ads in the trade mags. Hobnobbing with Montel Williams. Neil Rogers begging us to come over for one of his XXX-rated videotape parties.

"There's nothing our listeners love more than virgin meat," Ira says, broadsiding our reverie. His gleaming smile has assumed a suddenly predatory cast. We are initially confused. Then we divine his point.

He means us.
A week later the phone rings. Ira. He wants to know if we can consummate a tad sooner than planned. "How's Friday?" he says blithely.

"This Friday?" we ask. It is Tuesday.
"Yeah. I'd love to hold off," Ira says hurriedly. "But we're experimenting right now, trying some different combos. We'd like to give you guys a shot while we're still fluid."

We huddle for a few seconds before answering. No problema, we tell him, though we were sort of hoping the bus signs would have a chance to make a few rounds.

Still, during our last few weeks of listening, we've noticed WMBM's unique penchant for fluidity. Among the more ominous signs:

A steady stream of faxes announcing new programs, many of these replacing shows that debuted only weeks before.

Constant shuffling of time slots among even established hosts. Conservative kibbitzer Mike Thompson, for instance, leaps from afternoons to mornings in the space of a weekend.

A discernible lapse in highbrow programming. Most notably, an afternoon program hosted by two aging coquettes who discuss vaginal insertion devices and the size of their breasts. (Though short-lived, the show does feature the first documented instance of radio "flashing" an WMBM innovation).

Margolis's own wincingly nebbishy promos for the station.
And, perhaps most disturbing of all, the numbing dearth of callers, a deficit that infuriates the station's one bona fide "name," former WIOD and WINZ host Stan Major. "Here we are 42 minutes into the show and we're still awaiting our first caller. Hey, that's talk radio in this exciting market," he cries caustically during one slot. "Yup, we've been on the air for five weeks now and at 4:00 p.m. on a Friday I'm still talking to myself."

Indeed, the more we listen to WMBM, whose staticky signal blankets most of Dade county and Broward's southern fringe A the more we doubt whether we want our faces on their bus signs. But, as Ira continually points out, the format has to catch on.

Then again, WMBM's track record with new formats is not exactly sterling. Gold lettering and a 200-foot antenna tower distinguish the otherwise nondescript station, a dungeonlike building on Miami Beach's First Street. There are also two WMBM mascots, stray pooches whose job is to chase the few cars that happen to blunder into this shabby corner of the Beach.

Eddie's father, Allan Margolis, rescued the station from bankruptcy on Christmas Day 1961, when its call letters were WFEC. After popular WMBM-AM (790) changed its name in 1962, Allan snatched the call letters in the hopes, apparently, of fooling people into tuning in.

A Wall Street dropout from Philadelphia, the older Margolis was Jewish, and terminally white. But he knew the appeal of soul and R&B A "black music" as it was known in those days. And during the last hurrah of AM radio, the Sixties, hosts such as Milton "Butterball" Smith and Reverend Ira McCall helped WMBM become a dominant black-oriented station. Old-timers fondly recall the Thanksgiving Day that one DJ offered a free turkey to the first hundred listeners who visited the station, a contest that was quickly aborted after the MacArthur Causeway clogged with drumstick-crazed drivers swarming in from Overtown.  

But as television, and later FM radio gnawed away at AM radio's market, WMBM stumbled though half a dozen format shifts. The Black Giant begat Gold Soul 15 begat Black Talk begat Disco 15. WMBM broadcast gospel music from 1984 until this past year, when Eddie Margolis, who bought the station from his dad, offered listeners one of the truly daring formats in radio history: half Haitian/half gospel. The result: slumperino. Determined to wring a profit from his operation, Margolis hit upon the talk concept in November, and recruited Ira Everett to oversee the shift.

Margolis concedes that WMBM's shrinking legion of listeners, many of whom still tune in expecting "Amazing Grace," were a little troubled to find their gospel outlet overrun by political demagogues ranting about safe sex in the Nineties and rabbis discussing the circumcision rite.

But despite a track record that seems to suggest, even promise, disaster, we sense that WMBM, the little station that couldn't, is ready to turn the corner. At the fulcrom of their pivot, of course, stand two brave men. Reporters. Virgin meat. Superstars in vitro.

Nor do we take our mantle lightly. We immediately set about jotting down shticks. The night before our date with destiny, we meet at Wolfie's for a final strategy session. We have barely begun when a tanned figure in a white pith helmet makes a beeline for our table. "Jungle Jim," he croaks, as if sensing our natural gift as radio hosts. "I'm a fixture on the Beach." He extends a calloused hand. In unison, we cringe.

For a few minutes we brainstorm in peace. Then a voice intercedes. "Would you like some lima bean soup?" the fixture says, Jack Nicholson-like. We flatly decline, but Jungle Jim continues to offer unsolicited observations on life as a Miami Beach transient. "I slept with a girl from Sweden once," he remarks thoughtfully. It soon becomes clear we will get nothing done this evening. Instead we hone our interviewing style on Jungle Jim and Darla, our waitress. After some prodding, Darla confesses that her estranged parents are flying down from Detroit. We suggest on-the-air counseling.

Soon a shouting match erupts between the eatery's maitre d' and a besotted bag lady. "Lookee here at the little faggot boy," the woman raves. "You gonna find your boyfriend down the street? I'll betcha he'll like your little faggot ass." It is all very poignant. We make a note to schedule a live broadcast from Wolfie's.

As for tomorrow's show, we opt to wing it. How tough can three hours be, anyway? Besides, for our inaugural broadcast we've invited a ringer, Gunter Frentz, a former civil rights activist now in the business of leading sex tours to Bangkok. We bank on Frentz, a talk-show regular (and the subject of one of Jim's cover stories last year), to generate calls. And the true pro that he is, he arrives at the station fifteen minutes early for the show. We, on the other hand, enter fifteen minutes late, and a bit soused from our whiskey-soaked adventure on the Venetian Causeway.

We pile into WMBM's studio, a shoebox of a room accented with broken furniture and holes in the ceiling. Gunter slumps behind his microphone, bows his head, and digs his fingers deep into his eye sockets. He will remain frozen in this contemplative posture for the next 90 minutes. We'll ask questions for a few minutes, then go to calls, we tell him. Gunter expells a short grunt. "Do you really expect calls?" He chuckles. "I don't think anyone's listening."

Now perfectly at ease, we turn to our engineer, Jerry, who leads into our show by slowly and carefully reading aloud a legal disclaimer. Bottom line: WMBM can't be held responsible for anything we say. This disclaimer will, in the weeks to come, rank as the closest we come to a regular feature.

We commence by listing the exotic gifts we'll be giving away during the program A a New Times coffee mug, New Times ballpoint pens A and offering our own disclaimer: "We're not going to take this opportunity to slam the Miami Herald relentlessly for three hours. As we said, we'll have Gunter Frentz on for an hour, and about two hours of slamming the Herald."

Our first call comes just ten minutes into the show. A woman named Beryl. She wants to know if Bangkok's men are as sexually adept as the ladies. Gunter finesses a response. The truth: he has not slept with any of the men.  

As we head into our first break, Jim wanders into the nearest bathroom to empty some of the liquor from his bladder. A brief panic ensues when it's discovered he's stumbled into the station's ladies room. Back on the air, the old reportorial juices start flowing. In the notable absence of calls, we begin grilling Gunter.

JIM: Now, a rough estimate, round off to the nearest tenth, how many women have you actually been with?

STEVE: And we mean fluids exchanged.
GUNTER: Numbers don't really count. Somewhere around 400, 450.
STEVE: Is that with repeats?
GUNTER: No, that's different.
After an hour and a half, Gunter Frentz departs.

We are on our own. Just us and the silent phone lines. We start with a pro and con on the topic everyone is talking about: the Miami Grand Prix, slated for the weekend.

STEVE: Jim, I like it. It's about a week of inconveniencing about a million drivers so that a group of extremely wealthy suicidal crazies can drive 300 or 400 miles an hour for about an hour. One of the things they might want to do is give these guys a gun, to complete the Miami motif.

JIM: My problem with the Grand Prix is that it's not really inclusive of the community. They put up those barriers so that when you're driving down Biscayne you have to detour. I say take down those barriers and let commuter traffic go through the Grand Prix. Make it a part of the race itself. My bet is that what they're afraid of is that some of the commuters are going to beat these so-called race drivers.

At the bidding of a second caller, Steve suggests moving the race south. "They've cleared a lot of roads down in Homestead with that hurricane," Steve observes. "People look at the downside, trees were knocked down, homes were ruined. Me, I see open track.

Mike from Miami Beach thinks the race should be scratched altogether. "You're just killing yourself by going so fast," he notes.

STEVE: How fast do you drive, Mike? [Pause] Do you drive?
MIKE: Uh, no. I'm blind.
STEVE: Oh, my gracious. Well I'm glad you don't drive, in that case.

Jim intercedes with our first giveaway: tickets to the Oba! Oba! dance extravaganza.

JIM: I've seen the commercial for this show, and it seems to be a show about jiggling Brazilian butts. Here's our quiz question for the tickets: Which weighs more, [county commissioner] Mary Collins or seventeen square feet of damp sod? The lines start blinking! We take caller one, Sandy:

SANDY: I'll overwhelmingly go with Ms. Collins.
JIM: You realize this is damp sod. Kentucky long grass.
SANDY: It's close, but I'm still going with Ms. Collins.
STEVE: Sorry. You're wrong.

JIM: We should have made it easier. Which is smarter, Mary Collins or the sod?

STEVE: All right, we'll give Sandy another chance. Which weighs more, Wayne Huizenga or 1000 Burger King onion rings?

SANDY: Don't start the clock yet.
STEVE: Don't worry sir, there is no clock.
SANDY: I'll go with the onion rings.
STEVE: Sorry, wrong again.
SANDY: I was hoping to see those jiggling Brazilian tuchises.
STEVE: Sandy, it sounds as if your car phone is breaking up.
SANDY: I'm not breaking up. I said tuchises. I got deleted.
JIM: We wouldn't delete you for tuchises.

STEVE: There's no one Yiddish on the FCC. You don't have to worry about that.

Well into hour three, we call for "Celebrity Cage Matches," a feature that pits public figures against each other in a hypothetical death match held in a steel-and-barbed-wire cage.

JIM: Attorney Jack Thompson with a single-shot derringer, against Janet Reno armed only with a canoe paddle and her feminine wiles. I'm going with Reno. Thompson only wings her with that one bullet and she paddles him unconscious, then snaps his little neck. Okay. Here's another one: Sally Fitz versus Bryan Norcross. In a death grip struggle, who would come out alive? I've got to think it's Sally Fitz.

STEVE: I've got to think that if you put Bryan Norcross against Marjory Stoneman Douglas, you'd come out with Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

We exit the studio groggy but triumphant. Notorious as a cheap drunk, Steve nearly passes out on the way back to the newsroom.

Our second show is slated for two days later: midnight to 4:00 a.m., Monday morning.

The move to such a popular spot can mean only one thing: they're grooming us. Immediately, we sense the new slot will invite a somewhat more free-roaming program. For one thing, our new engineer, Dave, is certifiably insane and burps incessantly. This becomes problematic.  

We rhapsodize for a few minutes about our good fortune.
JIM: This is really the best slot we could ask for. It's liberating in a sense, because now, no matter what we do, we can't be moved to a worse time slot.

STEVE: It's the bestest.
The Broward line alights. It's the Radio Outlaw, co-host of WMBM's Mantalk A a wit-impaired show dedicated to the belief that men are victims. Though initially friendly, the Outlaw, a computer geek turned radio host, soon turns paranoid.

OUTLAW: I just want to warn you guys not to try to steal any material from us!

STEVE: Now, help me out here. If you're called the "Radio Outlaw," why are you portraying us as criminals?

Silence. The Outlaw is stumped. Then suddenly, a deafening dial tone. The Outlaw has hung up on us. This must be a part of the "team spirit" that Ira mentioned.

On the heels of that auspicious exchange, the first two hours fly by. In this more relaxed setting, our caller-friendly style flourishes. Samples:

CALLER #1: I can barely hear you.
JIM: Look mister, we're working the foot pedals as hard as we can.
CALLER #2: How do I get the number for Burger King or McDonald's?

JIM: Where are you? What are you wearing? No, come closer to the window. We need to ID you for the FBI background check.

CALLER #3: You guys sound sexy.
STEVE: Are you interested in any giveaways or any sort of bizarre sexual cult behavior?

This charming rapport extends even to designated correspondents, such as New Times music writer Todd Anthony, whom we've bullied into calling. During his live remote from Washington Square, he suggests that the Miami music scene is ready to break.

TODD: I'd compare it to where Seattle was three years ago.
STEVE: And does this mean we're also gonna be responsible for setting some sort of fashion trend? Because Jim and I are suggesting right early on that on the coattails of this grunge thing, the Miami thing will be schlumph.

TODD: What's schlumph? How is that spelled?
STEVE: Schlumph's a marketing theme and a way of life. It's getting up late, actually begging the guy from Dunkin Donuts to deliver to your home, and getting in all the talk shows.

TODD: So Jim DeFede is basically schlumph?
JIM: Right. Schlumph is where you say, 'Yeah, I could've done grunge, if I had the energy.' It's grunge without effort.

STEVE: If grunge is actually going to the garage to play loud music, then schlumph is just sitting in front of the TV, channel-surfing.

As hour three wears on, the callers dwindle and we are forced to dig deeper into our improvisational repertoire. We discuss pimento and pimento-related issues for half an hour. We implore Dave the engineer to show us his third nipple. We call Wolfie's and chat up Darla.

At precisely 3:29 a.m. we become officially unglued.
JIM: You know, this is talk radio, people. We need you to help us out here. Is your wife snoring in bed next to you like a pig? Do you want to call in and vent? We're here to help. We just want to talk to people. Steve's a Jew. I'm a Catholic. We're both white. We're just here, people. This is love. This is family. We can heal together. We can be a society. We can all get together. We can be together.

STEVE: We are the world, we are the multinational corporate children.
Our appeal is heard. Somewhere out in radio land a brave soul dials those magic digits: 532-1490.

He has called to tell us he's masturbating.
Dave the engineer bounds out of the studio, effusive over our performance. This from a man who works days in a funeral parlor and imitates Woody Woodpecker with an authenticity that borders on the paranormal.

Our true test, we know, will be Ira. We wait a few days, then a week. No response. We phone the station and leave messages for Ira. We have him paged. We call his digital beeper. Then, in a final reckless act, we have his digital beeper paged. Still nothing. Despair seeps into our lives. We begin to accept that the empty routine of journalism A badgering sources and poring over documents A may be our fate. We shall heckle no more.

After what seems a month, Ira calls. He has had trouble reaching us, he claims. Do we have time for a second meeting?  

At 9:00 the next morning, we wedge ourselves into his office. Ira quickly cuts to the chase. He would like us to work the 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. slot every weekday. Morning drive-time is also available. The money, he concedes, would not quite reach poverty level. But he floats the possibility of syndication. "You two have something very rare in this business," he adds knowingly.

Yes, chemistry.
At a certain point, it dawns on us that he is not joking. This puts us in a tender spot, for there is no way our bosses will allow us to moonlight during working hours (which at New Times run roughly from dawn to incoherency). Finally we hammer out a compromise. We will continue to work, but only weekend nights. Steve, by mutual assent, gets to be Suds.

Despite our belief in the talk-radio renaissance, our decision forces us to ponder the life span of "First Talk for the Nineties". We predict a month, tops. Sadly, our skepticism proves prescient. No more than two weeks after we agree to join the WMBM team, Eddie Margolis abruptly cuts Ira Everett from the roster. He will not cite a specific reason. But with ad revenues still meager and the new format in chaos, Margolis sounds typically ambivalent about the station's future.

"We're in this for do-or-die," he pronounces. "Wait. Don't say that. Say, 'We're in this until we make this work or find something that works better, or I sell the radio station.' Oh, don't say that. That's putting a negative light on this. Put that we're in this do-or-die. I'm a romantic kind of guy."

Everett says it was just such wishy-washyism that made him happy to leave: "You must be committed to something to make it work. Ed was not committed." The deposed general manager charges that Margolis reneged on pledges to improve the station's archaic equipment and to beef up a nearly invisible sales staff. In the days following Everett's departure, two of the station's prominent hosts tender their resignations: Taffy McCallum and Sharon Reed. The station's executive producer, Dora Rawlins, also quits.

As for us, we've been assured a regular gig A pending publication of this article. We still don't have a formal name for our show, of course. Hence our latest engineer, Nat, doesn't bother introducing us on Saturday nights. An expert in the little-known art of radio mime, he simply shrugs and plugs in the snippet of music we supply him, until we cut in and start babbling. He refuses to speak to us. At least he doesn't burp. Yet.

The commercial that the station runs to promote us also continues to identify the wrong time slot. But who knows A wait long enough and it might be right again.

Two Sundays ago, before tumult returned to its familiar roost at WMBM, we enjoyed perhaps our finest outing to date. Crisp jokes. Florid callers. Chemistry that crackled with such intensity we nearly burst into flames at one point. After the show, we headed outside to have a smoke with Dave, our loyal Sunday-night engineer. Dressed in jeans, a black T-shirt, and a wide-brim gaucho hat, Dave looked almost mythical. Like Billy Jack, only smaller. We sat in the predawn on the front steps of WMBM, far too juiced to sleep.

Dave is a sweet guy, witty as hell in a manic sort of way. He talks too fast, smokes too much, and laments his late start in life. He's 32 and lives with his parents. He earns five bucks an hour manning the soundboard and prepares a morning sports report that is far better than it needs to be. Like us, he has his own radio dreams. "Where else can a guy like me get into a business like this?" he asks, talking menthol smoke into the damp air. "I do something that most people in this country can't say they do. I'm on the air. And that counts for something."

Dave confesses his love for the talk format. Like any gab junkie, he lives barb-to-barb, from one in-your-face opinion to the next. Talk is his way of life, whether shooting the shit among friends or scanning the AM band for a voice of provocation.

So on this hopeful morning, sensing a kinship with us bigmouths, he leans closer to revel in the struggling station's higher mission: to prick the conscience of our apathetic citizenry, to poke playfully at its funny bone, perhaps to reinvigorate the oral tradition flagging in this TV-addicted age.

He does not mention the rumor currently making the rounds at WMBM: that the whole talk-show gig is a tax write-off.  

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