Saturday, October 10, 2009
Connie Szerszen was a pioneer female disc jockey in Chicago, and has just written a book called "Top Rock Girly Jock"
Rick: What made you decide to write the book?
Connie: I thought I should document some of the “firsts” of women in the radio world. In March of 1974, Westinghouse Broadcasting sent out a press release stating they had the “first female personality on AM radio to have her own prime time radio show.” The station told me that no major market -- Chicago, New York, nor L.A. -- had ever done this. Women had only held positions in “news” or on the graveyard shift, or as sidekick to a man. When Al Mitchell became the new program director at WIND, he switched me from week-ends to my own 6-10 PM full-time shift.
Of course, this “first” followed the other “first” – when WIND Program Director, Bob Moomey, hired me as a week-end DJ. Phil Nolan was General Manager during this entire period.
I also wrote the book because it was another art form I hadn’t yet explored. Besides broadcasting, I also paint oils, pastels, and watercolor, fine art portraits. I love both radio and art for different reasons – radio allows such creative immediacy and is such fun; whereas portraits have longevity – hanging in hospitals, corporations, and homes for a lifetime. Books have this same permanence and, just like in radio, friendship is shared through communication. Through the years, so many have asked how I got started – was I originally from Chicago – and so on. Much of the book is stuff I would have said on the air, if I had had time before the vocal started – Hah!
Rick: You really were the first female rock jock on AM radio in Chicago. I've gone back and read some of the articles written about you then, and it's just hilarious what you had to deal with in those days. Norman Mark wrote this in the Daily News in 1972: "AM Program directors conceded that she had a good voice, but they added that women were sometimes unsuitable for AM air work because of their unstable employment record (they sometimes get pregnant)." Later in the article he wrote "Another prospective employer told Connie that a woman's voice doesn't have the authority needed for AM radio. It is obvious he has never argued with a woman over a checkbook imbalance." Whoo boy. To say that was a different time is an understatement, isn't it?
Connie: Yes, it was a shocker. And if you think Norman Mark’s article was hilarious – you should’ve been there on my very first day at WIND. Talk about “a woman’s voice not having the authority for AM radio” – it seemed no one could hear my voice on that very first show. Someone had turned the mic around so I was speaking into the back of it; and since it had a foam cover, not even the engineer could figure it out quickly. The book tells that story – and hints at who I thought the prankster might have been.
Norman was so right about the authority issue – how COULD women have authority to report the news (like the war in Vietnam) while only men had the authority to introduce “Be Bop a Lula?”
My story made all the papers – Besides Norman Mark of the Chicago Daily News, Ron Powers of the Chicago Sun-Times (who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize) also covered it. It was written into the U.S. Congressional Record, and I was invited to appear on many TV shows and host events all over town.
Rick: When you first started on the air you didn't go by your real name. At WSDM-FM, "the station with the girls and all that jazz", which I believe is now the Loop, you went by "Dawn, the world's most sensuous disc jockey." Talk about how that name came to be, and how important do you think that sort of sex appeal was to your early success?
Connie: At WSDM, the Den Pals were sort of a take-off on the Playboy Club’s “Bunnies.” (Photo: the Den Pals, Connie is standing, second from left). The girls were asked to pick an “air name” and since I started so early on Saturday morning, I chose “Dawn.” (Maybe it should’ve been “Yawn.”)
As for “the world’s most sensuous disc jockey” tag, I meant it to be a parody. Everyone on the station sounded so sexy (I guess that was part of the plan), that I didn’t really feel like I fit that mold. So I played with it. If you’ll look at my pics in the book – especially the teen years – “sexy” wasn’t an adjective that could easily be applied to me. I made every attempt to bring humor into my show rather than sex appeal; I had features on the show like “The Bachelor Boy Household Hint of the Day,” and even read the funnies on the air. (Later I heard that Mayor LaGuardia also read the funnies on his radio show in New York – and now, look, he has an airport named after him! Hah!)
When I started working at WIND, I was glad to just be myself and not have to “bring sexy back.” But somewhere down the line, I remember being told to try and sound sexier, because I had more women listeners than men. It may well have been that women were finally able to hear someone they could relate to. When I hear some of my “sexy” attempts on old air-checks, it makes me laugh. I mean, don’t even men want more than just a pretty voice?
In fact, it was “humor” that made WIND finally decide to hire me. Bob Moomey, the program director, said that when they listened to my air-check from WSDM, and heard my kicker to a news story – he said everyone laughed. It made me feel so good to hear that – because I love to make people laugh.
Rick: Probably the pinnacle of your career was your stint on WIND-AM, during it's Top 40 days. You were there for most of the 70s, which was an exciting time for Top-40 radio in Chicago. People tend to remember the great lineups at WLS and WCFL, but WIND is often overlooked despite having people like yourself, Clark Weber, Eddie Schwartz, Dave Baum, sportscaster Jim Durham, and many others. To people who weren't there at the time, how would you describe what that station was trying to accomplish, and compare it to the other AM radio stations of that era.
Connie: When I first came to WIND, Ron Britain was the morning man. In fact, I later heard that he had put in a good word for me to management when they asked if I was reliable. I had been the Talent Coordinator at WCFL and had been booking the DJ’s for several years, while also working at WSDM as a DJ, and therefore, was “in the loop” in the radio world. When WCFL started to slide, many changes came with that. The jocks that had big Chicago names were hot properties. As the WCFL and WLS battles eventually wore off, the hot jocks found work elsewhere.
WIND offered Chicago a brand new sound. No one played the current hits AND OLDIES. The slogan at WIND was “’50s, ’60s, and NOW!” The station was not only a whole new sound – but also played to the Chicago community. As with WCFL and WLS, the jocks did “personality radio” – but hometown Chicago events were also a big part of WIND’s picture. The annual kite-fly in Grant Park – the Zoo Day at Lincoln Park Zoo – the Lambs Farm event where we auctioned off box lunches to raise money for the Lambs.
Our format was more family oriented. We played the Top 40 – but not the real hard rock. Nothing trashy – we left that to “Captain Whammo” at some FM station. My evening show from 6-10 PM allowed me to play one hard rock song per hour. Those songs were tagged on our roll-a-dex with a red dot. All the jocks would program their shows from the roll-a-dex stack of songs. I found that to be so organized -- but not the best music mix. So I always took the stack that was scheduled for my show and rearranged them to flow better – certain fade ends just sounded better next to certain cold opens – stuff like that. Listeners used to say that I played different music on my show than the other jocks did. Except for that one hard rock song per hour, the rest were the same songs everyone else played – but I cheated a bit (with permission) -- by rearranging, the same old songs could have a whole new sound.
With all the promotions and full page ads in the Chicago Sun-Times, WIND was a major player in town. They ran ads with my picture – and called me “The Evening Star.” My week-end shows pulled a “10” in the Arbitron ratings. By appealing to “family,” we became a part of many Chicago families. Our ethnic names were admired by station management – I was asked to use my real name since I was of Polish descent and since there are more Poles in Chicago than Warsaw. I was encouraged to say, at the end of my very first show at WIND – “Jeszcze Polska Nie Zginela!” It’s the first line of the Polish National Anthem. I had said it off the air near the end of my show, and the assistant P.D. suggested I use it to close the show. Good idea – I’ve used it ever since. “Poland is not yet lost” is the literal translation.
Rick: Lets talk about some of the perks of being in the public eye. Explain the picture (in the book) of Elton John, Hef, Barbie Benton, John Landecker, Elton John, and you standing around a Foosball table.
Connie: As an air personality at a hot station, you got invited to many press parties. Some were held at the Chicago Playboy mansion. That’s where many of us DJ’s met celebs, like Elton John. I had no idea we were being photographed around the foosball table, but later, Sharon Fox, a local reporter, sent me the front page of FACES magazine, and there we were – legendary DJ John Landecker standing right next to me, and upfront were Elton John, Hef, and his playmate at the time, Barbie Benton. I remember the swimming pool in the basement with the paper bathing suits they handed out – the fireman’s pole that I really wanted to slide down, but didn’t – but I don’t remember the foosball moment – hmmmm, why is that?
The parties were always a surprise – so thrilling to be one of the special guests! Of course, I had my camera with me, as always, and snapped many good pics of my own (one very unusual shot of Elton is in the book -- that I doubt you’ll see anywhere else – Hah!) Fleetwood Mac was there at one party – Stevie Nicks was very sweet and posed for pictures.
Even before I was a DJ, when I worked at WCFL, we also got invited everywhere. I had the opportunity to meet Henry Mancini, Andy Williams, Paul Revere and the Raiders, John Denver, Carly Simon, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Evil Knievel, and so many more.
As a WIND jock, I emceed many big oldie acts that came to town, like Bobby Vinton, and Danny & the Juniors. PR guy, Jim Feeley, booked me to emcee Wayne Newton and Tom Jones. Then, of course, there were the celebs who came to the station for radio interviews, like the Carpenters, and Steve Allen.
These were historical figures in the pop culture/entertainment world – but also just normal folks like us – making a living at what they did best – and most were always very nice and friendly (and some, even a little too friendly.) I always thought – what am I doing here with them – what a kick!
Rick: OK, two more stories must be told. Give us the Reader's Digest version of the day you met Elvis and your date with Neil Diamond.
Connie: Oh noooooooo, you want to know about Elvis and Neil Diamond? Well, the Elvis story is safe enough. I used to do a bit on my show – called “The Radio-Gram” – kinda like a telegram. I asked listeners to call the show, and my engineer taped their voice messages to the celeb who was appearing in town. I did this for Tom Jones and for Elvis.
When I heard Elvis was performing in town – BINGO – this was my chance to meet Elvis! It just so happened that my cousin-in-law was working at the hotel he was staying at – and arranged the entire “ambush.” SO EXCITING! And YES, I met him. Stood there – a little wobbly in the legs – right in front of him as I handed him the tapes of Chicagoans who had love-messages for him. He was beautiful. More than your everyday celebrity entertainer. He seemed kind – gentle – humble – quiet – and bigger than life. He was ELVIS -- and you could see that he did all he could to be all you wanted him to be. I think, if you read his favorite book, “The Impersonal Life,” the way he felt about his celebrity would become very clear.
As for Neil Diamond – hmmm – how much does this guy love soup? Totally unexpected, he had asked the record promoter (Earl Glickman) to fix him up with me – to show him around town in Chicago. I was the Talent Coordinator at WCFL at the time – and met him as Joel Sebastian was interviewing him on the air at WCFL – talking about his latest hit. What went on (or didn’t) at the Holiday Inn on Lake Shore Drive, later that day, is in the book. He’s a great performer – so I hear.
Rick: You were out of radio for quite awhile before being approached by WJMK program director Jim Smith back in the early part of this decade. What was that phone call like, how surprised were you, and how did you like being back in the saddle again after all those years away?
Connie: JIM SMITH!!! OMG! I was halfway out the door when the phone rang. Jim Smith (photo), Program Director of WJMK – asking me if I would like to come out of “radio retirement” as he put it. I was stunned. I thought, YESSSSSS!!!! and then NOOOOOO!!!! and then didn’t know what to think. Coming back after 17 years was kinda like a cicada. Hey, well, if an insect could do it, then so could I. It wasn’t an easy decision, but now I thank Jim Smith for completing my “radio-me.” I was coming very close to that at WIND, but was nipped in the bud. The other stations I worked at after that, balked at “personality radio.”
This was my denouement! This became my pinnacle! Eventually, I had the #1 show in Chicago on Saturday nights (excluding urban stations) -- “’70’s Saturday Night” – rated #1 by Arbitron in the 25-54 demographics. It was here that I became “The first woman in America to broadcast ‘live’ on an all-digital radio station” – WJMK HD2 – All Access Net News.
It wasn’t easy at first. When I left radio to pursue an art career, the jocks were playing cartridges. (Sort of like an 8-track, but there was one song on each cartridge.) When I returned, it was all on computer – Audiovault – and an occasional CD. But Jim Smith knew enough about my past to allow me a chance to acclimate and he also allowed me great creative freedom – such as choosing music for the Elvis special. I remember adding the Elvis song, “Paralyzed” – (one of my faves). A listener called with unbelief – because it was also her favorite song by Elvis and no other stations ever played it. Of course not, they only played the so-called, overplayed, “hits.” (Photo of Connie by Michael G. Bush)
Besides his knowledge of Chicago radio, Jim Smith had this experienced instinct. He knew that what had worked before would work again. Though it’s a different era now, creativity doesn’t lessen – it just changes and adapts. “Creativity” continually creates. Unfortunately, the heads in New York were too far removed to be aware of what Chicago radio was all about. They don’t get it. It’s so different here. New York and L.A. are very transient. There’s no “hometown” as there is in Chicago. Our listeners are so very much more loyal – so much more “family.” Chicago is different – Chicago is very special. Of all three major markets, Chicago radio will always be “First!”
Rick: If these stories are any indication of the kind of stories in the book, I can't wait to read it. Where can we get a copy? Is it going to be in bookstores or is it available only on-line, or both?
Connie: Oh, Rick – You’re gonna love the book. It’s a lot about radio – but even more so, it’s about life – how does a not-media-connected-Chicago-girl get such a fabulous chance to live a dream that she never even dreamed? How does life lead one on to do God’s work in the world – when one never even imagined that? How does a phone call come from out of the blue, from someone like Den Pal Penny Lane, who led a “secretary” to entertain the public, or from Program Director, Jim Smith, who brought someone back to Chicago radio?
It’s a life lesson – beyond radio – it extends to everyone’s life. And that’s the main point of my book. Yes, it’s an autobiography – all about my life – yadayadayada – but the main point is that everyone has a gift that they are meant to share with the world –
“There’s a bit of Stardust in everyone – so we may sparkle for each other!”
I hope you’ll enjoy the book – At this site – www.TopRockGirlyJock.com, you’ll receive a first edition, autographed copy -- $19.95 plus IL tax, and no S&H (Cheaper than Sham-Wow! And lasts even longer!) Also available at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, etc.
Hope you’ll tune in to Steve & Johnnie, Tuesday, October 27, for the radio interview on WGN, 720 AM.
Oh, and pass this on to all the Chicago P.D.s – I’m looking for a new radio home --- money’s not the issue – love of the art form is! Thanks, Rick! Your blog is a Chicago treasure!