Author: Martin, George

Radio Days

Moving stuff around in my cluttered basement the other day I came upon a box containing a reel-to-reel tape (kids, ask your parents) that brought back some
bittersweet memories.

It was 1973 and Earl Scruggs, my musical hero, was coming to play the Boarding House nightclub in San Francisco with his sons The Earl Scruggs Revue. Somehow I knew that Earl’s birthday was January 24, and that in a few months, 1974, he would be 50 years old. I was working at the Oakland Tribune at the time, and I pitched the editors there on a story about Earl to run while he was in town.

Then I got the idea of doing a radio program for KPFA in Berkeley about the great banjo master. I went to the station in Berkeley and related my idea to the music director.
He asked if I had any good audio equipment, and fortunately I did have a good friend
who was a photographer and filmmaker who did fashion shoots, commercial videos and such, and he had a studio in North Beach that I was welcome to use.

So I said I had a Revox stereo reel-to-reel and my disposal and pro quality turntable and some good microphones, and the fellow agreed to give me an hour of air time on January 24 to be titled, “Happy Birthday Earl Scruggs.”

The boarding house PR people set me up with a phone number, but the person I talked to was not Earl, but his business manager wife, Louise. Mrs. Scruggs wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to interview Earl about the old days with Lester Flatt. She wanted the story to be about the “new” music with the Revue. I agreed to that, with considerable misgivings, and the appointment was made.

On the appointed day I picked up Earl at his hotel and we drove to North Beach. My friend Greg had set up a nice mike stand, and I recorded Earl for (I think) more than an hour. I hoped Mrs. Scruggs would never hear the show because most of it was about his youth and his times with Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt. He was gracious and polite; saw my banjo there and asked if I picked. “Well, yes,” I said, “but nowhere near your level.” It was tremendously exciting to be face to face with the man who had developed the style of banjo that I was right then attempting to play.

My plan was to intersperse bits of Earl talking with cuts from his records. But what I hadn’t known in advance is that Earl is a bit of a slow talker. He would be telling a story about his youth sentence. I could see that I wouldn’t get a lot of music into the hour if he talked much.

Then I got the idea of playing the music under his voice. That seemed to solve the time problem, so I set to work. I had never done anything like this before and it took hours to get it finished. I dropped the tape off at the station and went on my way.

The show was going to air twice, once in the afternoon and a rebroadcast in the evening. My wife and I gathered around the radio in the afternoon and listened. Barbara has never been afraid to tell me when something I’m doing isn’t working out well, and she said, “It’s kind of hard to hear what he’s saying; his voice gets muddied by the music.” And I had to admit she was right. I knew what he was saying, but I had heard it right from his mouth, and then again many times as I ran and re-ran the tape.

That night I turned on the radio again and heard: “The tape submitted for this hour was not broadcast quality, so we are substituting the following program....”

And that’s how my career as a radio producer started and stopped in one depressing day.

At least the newspaper story, where I was more in my element, came out fine. I have that in a scrapbook somewhere.
Posted:  3/8/2012

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