The Gipper and me
When I moved from northern New Jersey to go to law school at Stanford 29 years ago, I met many types of people that I hadn't previously encountered in my 21 years on the planet. And my upbringing, which counselled me to accept them all, no matter how different from me they were, was regularly put to the acid test.
Take Mormons, for instance. Growing up in Newark, Jersey City, and surroundings, I had met exactly none. When I got to California, they were everywhere, and it seemed as though some people had a bit of a bias against them. I found out pretty early on that they didn't drink. O.k., I knew some teetotalers in Jersey. But then I heard that they didn't drink coffee, either. Or Coca-Cola. You don't say? Hmmm.
Another alien group were Republicans. Back in Essex and Hudson Counties in the '60s and '70s, they were as scarce as hen's teeth. And what few there were had little or no political clout. Whereas Stanford was a hotbed of Republicans, even young ones, members of Young Americans for Freedom or groups of that nature. I had to be very careful about what I said. The usual Democratic Party line was always subject to challenge on that campus.
And so it came to pass that I had my run-in of sorts with Ronald Reagan, who died yesterday.
I was a DJ on Stanford's student-run radio station, KZSU, for my three years at that university. College radio DJs are a curious lot, to be sure, and we were no exception. Unpaid volunteers, we were sickeningly enamored with the sounds of our own voices, with our own tastes in music, and with our own profundity before a low-wattage audience that numbered in the hundreds at best. We competed like crazy for "prime time" slots on the program schedule -- evenings, especially on weekends, were coveted, and morning "drive time" was also decent. Late morning and afternoon were less desirable, as was late night. The overnight shift -- 2 to 6 a.m. -- wasn't worth it at all, but there were people who were willing to take it.
I had a great run on that station (by my own standards, of course), and by the time I had reached my final term at Stanford, in 1978, I had a much-sought-after evening slot. I did my usual act -- Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, James Brown, Motown, and Bay Area faves, interspersed with me trying desperately to come across as another New York DJ Jonathan Schwartz (whom, of course, no one at Stanford had ever heard of, so it was a cool act to steal).
One week I was informed that my show was going to be partially pre-empted. Former California Governor Ronald Reagan was coming to town to give a speech in the Stanford Memorial Auditorium. He was planning to run for President against Carter, and a huge, overflow crowd was expected for his talk. To give all the righties around Stanford a chance to hear him speak, the station's otherwise anemic news department had persuaded the station manager to broadcast the address live. So they informed me that the Twin R would bump my show.
By its very nature, the college radio DJ ego is easily bruised, and my reaction was resistance, followed by a begrudging acceptance. But if the news department wanted to run Reagan's speech, I told them, they could supply an engineer to sit in the studio and feed the speech from the remote location out over the airwaves. I didn't want to sit there and listen to him. I didn't like his politics and had no interest in what he had to say.
Oh no, the news guy told me. You've got to run the mixing board in the studio; we don't have anyone available to do it.
And what if I don't? I asked. "Look," he said, "the speech will only run an hour. Then you can go back to your show."
"Tell you what," I responded. "I'll run it for an hour -- exactly an hour. But then I'm pulling the plug and taking my show back."
"No problem," Mr. News Director said. "It will be over in an hour."
Reagan went on more or less at the appointed time, and the adoring crowd was delirious. They applauded and shouted cheers at his every platitude. He was interrupted so often, it was hard for him to get through his script. Plus, sensing that he had the crowd going, he went on and on, laying it on good and thick.
My liberal ears got redder and redder as I listened. I disagreed with everything he was saying, and I couldn't believe he had so many true believers buying it all so completely. The minutes continued to tick by -- 57, 58, 59...
At one hour into the speech, I cut off Ronald Reagan. And with no announcement of any kind on my part, I immediately played a few songs that I felt were appropriate for the occasion. Starting with "Nowhere Man" by the Beatles. Then "Monster" by Steppenwolf. Jefferson Airplane's "Revolution." "Ohio" by Neil Young and his friends.
And so on.
The station phones rang. I didn't pick them up. They rang for a long time. Finally, the station manager, a dear friend who remains so to this day, came to the station and answered all the very, very angry calls. My stunt made his job, already tough, even tougher.
Me? I made a big speech to him about the First Amendment, my right to express opposing views, and the deal that I had made with the news director. I didn't say anything on the air about it -- I let the records make my statement to the Reagan faithful.
I lay low for a while, and eventually the whole incident faded. But it's still one of those awful, awkward stories from my youth that I try to blot out of my memory. Days like today bring it back.
Would I do it again today? Surprisingly, I might. It wasn't fair to make me sit through that talk, which I hated. If the news folks were so hot to get Ronnie on the air, they should have found a volunteer with a couple of hours free to do the studio duties, and let me fume at home about my pre-emption. With my own radio tuned to some other station.
The rest is history, of course. Reagan became the most beloved President in modern history. My radio career culminated in a graveyard-shift jazz show on KBOO here in Portland (unpaid volunteer work again, of course), and my DJ chops bring me an occasional gig these days spinning the disks at geezer birthday parties.
That night, though, I stopped the Great Communicator from communicating.