For somewhere in the neighborhood of 26 years, Clyde Clifford has been the driving force behind one of the most successful radio shows in the history of broadcast. His program Beaker Street is virtually a household name in millions of homes, which may sound like a rather exaggerated and lofty statement, I know, but consider that for a large part of these 26 years Beaker Street was broadcast all over the United States, Canada, and Central and South America on superstation KAAY.
Beaker Street was a hit, ironically, for doing just the opposite of what was considered the formula for successful "hit radio." Indeed, rather than playing the current top-100-type-tunes and hyping oral flatulence all over the airwaves, the soft-spoken Clyde Clifford concentrated on album cuts from albums that simply did not get airplay.
Again, the word "millions" comes to mind. At any given time on the air the show had tens of millions of listeners within earshot.
Clyde's favorite pastime seemed to be to check out whatever the latest so-called counterculture recordings were making the rounds, and introducing his audience to, essentially, what was really happening in the creative end of the music business.
His influence, then, has been astounding.
In a nutshell, he helped turn on the better part of this hemisphere to what we now consider "Classic Rock"... Cuts by Arlo Guthrie, the Grateful Dead, It's A beautiful Day, pre-pop-fame Heart, pre-pop-fame Pink Floyd... In fact, pre-pop-fame Eric Clapton, Iron Butterfly, Led Zeppelin, John Prine, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Brown, Van Morrison.......the list could go on for a while....... And this was at a time when "Tie A Yellow Ribbon" was the standard of the industry.
Through the years the show has taken on many different radio stations, and now resides at Little Rock's Magic 105 (Sundays, 7 - midnite.)
I had a chance to catch up with Mr. Clyde Clifford for a pleasant interview at Juanita's recently, for a story of such monumental proportions should not be translated.
Rather, let it be told by the man who, well, gives it life.
The following, then, is Part 1 of an interview with Clyde Clifford.
Clyde Clifford: I have a question before we get going? Where the hell is the key to Crossweirds?
Peter Read: Uh - I'm not sure that there really is one. He say's there is. But I'm not so sure...
CC: They really are real strange.
PR: That's why we call them Crossweirds...
CC: With an emphasis on the weird part...
PR: Right. So tell me about Beaker Street. When did you start the show? And for that matter, how long have you been in broadcast?
CC: I've been in broadcast nearly forever. I started when I was in high school. I was interested in electronics and ham radio, and got a job working for KAAY AM-1090 in about '62 or '63 as a summer replacement engineer at their transmitter at Wrightsville. I did that for two years and then went to school at Russellville. And then I would come in and do about an hour and half of rock and roll every Sunday morning.
Well, I got bit by that in a big way. So I went to Russellville and got a job at KXRJ, and I was always sending tapes back to KAAY because I wanted to come back there. Apparently I kept the production room crawling with tapes because years later I would run across some of these tapes still at the station.
Well finally I did get a chance to come back - I ended up going to UALR and working at KAAY full time.
Now the music thing was really beginning to break loose on the West Coast, especially San Francisco, and we were getting all kinds of recordings in that just wouldn't get played. Now this was the era when anything over about 3 minutes just simply would not get airplay.
PR: Why was that?
CC: Well, this was the Drake era. You had this guy laying on a raft in a swimming pool somewhere in California who owned 7 major stations - all top stations, I might add. And this was his formula. I mean, he would monitor them and if anyone on any one of these stations varied from the formula even one iota, he'd fire them. Right then. But every one of his stations was top of their market - each ran as smooth as a sewing machine. And they were number one wherever they were.
So all the other radio stations around would simply listen to a Drake station and set their playlists accordingly.
PR: That's power.
CC: Sure it is. Real power. It's also censorship, because nothing got on the air that Drake wouldn't play.
PR: And you were getting all this other music in the mail...
CC: ...that just wouldn't get played. Right. So at a drunken staff party one night at a place called Tijuana's, we came to the conclusion that we were gonna try 30 minutes of this weird music, and I was gonna do it, right from the transmitter. And they loved this, because they were gonna have one person running a 50,000 watt station all by himself.
PR: Now when exactly was this?
CC: This was in '66 or '67. In the last part of 1966 or the first part of 1967 is when we began. 30 minutes. And we called it Beaker Street from the start.
PR: Explain the name, Beaker Street.
CC: The name Beaker Street comes from "Wow, man, this is acid rock and we're gonna name the show from where they make all the acid, man...in a Beaker, man..."
PR: Was there any response at first?
CC: Oh yeah. From the very first show the mail just rolled in. We literally got bushel baskets of mail from all over the Western Hemisphere.
PR: What time were you doing the show then?
CC: At midnight.
PR: So you guys were on the sky waves?
CC: Right. We could kick it up to sky waves after dark because we were a clear channel.
PR: For the benefit of whomever, explain "sky waves."
CC: Sky waves, essentially, are radio waves that are reflected back to earth from one of the layers of the ionosphere.
PR: So you guys were going out how far?
CC: All over the place. A 50,000 watt AM radio station on sky waves is a considerable proposition. It really is. I mean, we were heard in most states, most of Canada and most of South America.
PR: You had completely protected frequency?
CC: Not exactly. What we were doing is throwing a null over WBAL in Baltimore and also another null over XERB.PR: What is a null?
CC: Okay, KAAY is a directional radio station. And this means you have other radio stations on the same frequency, and you try not to radiate any signal into their area because if you do you screw up the works for everybody. You really don't gain anything anyway, you really don't. So you put what's called a null in that direction.
Another interesting thing about this is that XERB was also 1090, and that's where Wolfman Jack was. Well, KAAY was originally called KTHS, which stood for Kome To Hot Springs, where the original station actually was. And it was started by a guy named Doctor Brinkley. Now Doc Brinkley was the old geezer that publicized the goat-gland cure for people who had "lost their energy."
After a certain period of time that sort of medical quackery was outlawed - you couldn't advertise stuff like that in the U.S. So Doc Brinkley moved to the border of the country and built XERB, the station Wolfman Jack worked at.
PR: So in a kind of, uh, crossweird sort of way, you and Wolfman Jack were connected.
CC: Right. Jack was busy being the Wolfman on the coast, and I was busy being Beaker Street in the middle of the country. Both on the same frequency - 1090 AM.
PR: Wow. I'm certain there's something cosmic in that. For that matter, I'm sure one of our more psychic readers will let us know all about it.
CC: Probably so.
PR: So with all the great response, when did you kick it up to a longer show?
CC: Well we just started moving times up and gradually grew.
PR: Were you able to get sponsors?
CC: That's an interesting story too. Yes! There were lots of people that wanted to sponsor the show. But that just ain't how radio was sold. People didn't just walk in off the street and say "I want to buy." Y'know, you're supposed to send out sales people and talk to them and sell them...
We had a chain of drive-in movies in Iowa that just called and bought time. We had clubs in New Orleans that were buying time. We had various clubs in places all over that would just call down here and say "I want to buy. What are your rates? Send us a rate card..."
But the station wouldn't follow up on it.
PR: For Heavens' sake, why?
CC: Well, there's some speculation that some of the, er, powers-that-be at the station at the time wanted to sort of laugh up their sleeves when the show didn't do any good.
CC: They never got to laugh up their sleeves. And I think that there was a certain reluctance to sell Beaker Street because it was kind of one of those not-invented-here things.
Anyway, we got a ton of mail right from the start - I mean garbage bags full of mail. And I'd try to answer it, but there was just no way.
But it just got more and more popular and finally the station couldn't deny it.
PR: Describe exactly what you were doing to be so popular and successful...
CC: Well, I felt like I was doing something that needed to be done. This music really needed to be getting out. I was playing album cuts from the so-called counterculture - the "hippy music" from San Francisco that wouldn't get played anywhere else in this part of the country.
I do feel that Beaker Street was responsible in this part of the country for a lot of this music ever having gotten out.
PR: Oh absolutely. And far beyond.
CC: I'd heard Wolfman Jack and I liked what he was doing. He was fun. But that's not my personality. I mean, the person you hear on the air is just me. It's not a character I do for the radio.
PR: So who's 'Clyde Clifford'? I mean, that's a stage-name...
CC: It is. How it worked out was that all the air-staff at KAAY - Ken Knight, Sonny Martin, Rob Robbins - all those air-staff names were the names of the board of directors of LIN Broadcasting. Clyde W. Clifford was actually the comptroller general of the company that owned KAAY.
PR: Named after the board of directors?
CC: Right. For all those years...
PR: How many years? You were there for a long time...
CC: A long while. I switched in about 1974 to KLAZ and went as Uncle Clyde.
PR: Why did you move?
CC: KLAZ was the first significant FM station. KKYK was on the air, but it was basically a juke-box at the time.
And I was at KLAZ then for about 4 or 5 years. And then about '77 or '78 I cut out. I decided to be an entrepreneur for the first time ever. Until I found out that wasn't the way for me to go.
PR: Doing what?
CC: Believe it or not, tower repair. You see, all this time I had a first-class license. That was why I could run a 50,000 watt radio station.
PR: So in school you weren't studying broadcast?
CC: No. I've never studied any broadcast. Ever. What I was taking at UALR was Electronic Engineering. And all the broadcasting I've learned and picked up is basically self-taught with no formal education.
Anyway, after a short time I decided being a businessman wasn't for me and went back to KLAZ for a time.
When that wore out I went to work for Channel 11 for a time. And then went to work at UAMS, where I work now.
PR: UAMS? What do you do there?
CC: Television. We have an instructional television department.
PR: For the hospital? For the school?
CC: For all kinds of people. Do you know what a biomedical photographer is?
PR: No. Although after my recent extended visits to several hospitals I ought to.
CC: That's a specialty that is arrived at through a lot of training and a lot of work. And I'm not one of those. But a biomedical photographer is a photographer that can handle just about anything that you could want. Everything from little bloody squishy things to product photography to portraits to whatever.
Well, we do about the same thing with television. We do everything from making PSA's to commercials for the Medical Center. Most of the time we're doing educational materials, classroom tapes, things like that.
It's a lot of fun, actually. It's a very interesting job.
PR: Being "Clyde Clifford", do those cute little med students ever catch your eye?
CC: No, not really. Funny thing is, every now and then somebody will knock on the door and go "That's him...right there..."
PR: I bet. Of course, a pro like you doesn't really notice.
CC: Oh, right. Of course.
PR: For a time you were out of the radio show. What prompted you to bring it back?
CC: I'd thought about it for some time. I was thinking all sorts of things. Honestly, I really didn't know if it would work anymore, 'cause a lot of the stuff I had played as "my" underground stuff was being played as regular airplay stuff. I mean, there's really been an amazing change.
PR: The "classic rock" format...
CC: Right. So I didn't know whether or not it would work. And I had my doubts as to whether it would even be possible. I mean, from a marketing standpoint. So I thought I'll try it and see.
PR: Did you approach a station?
CC: Yes. I contacted KAAY. And as we were talking about it the sale of the station was going through.
PR: And they didn't let on?
CC: Well, I don't think they knew. I mean, the station management. That was in the owner's hands.
And then the sale did go through and that was that...
PR: The 'Mighty 1090' suddenly became the 'Almighty 1090'...
CC: Exactly. So that was about the time I got a call from Barry Wood and he told me that he and all the rest of the gang were coming back to do a last day-fling on KAAY. Kind of a final farewell. So I came in that morning and did an hour with Sonny Martin, and we decided that it would be fitting that the last thing on KAAY, as we knew it, should be Beaker Street.
So that was the last thing before the change.
PR: What was the very last song?
CC: "The Circle Game" by Joni Mitchell.
PR: I bet it was very emotional.
CC: It was a real rite of passing, it really was. And I really thought it was the last time I'd do the show at all.
PR: So what happened then? I mean, you're doing Beaker Street?
CC: Well, a few years went by and Mark Wallace called and asked if I'd like to do Beaker Street on KZ 95. I said I'd like to try it.
PR: And it worked.
CC: And it worked. And I did it there until they went off the air.
PR: And then to Magic 105.
CC: And then to Magic 105. And it still works.
NEXT ISSUE: Lasting success in a changing business...
Last issue, we began our discussion of the infamous radio program Beaker Street with Clyde Clifford, the equally infamous radio personality who literally helped turn on a generation to what was then called counterculture music, and is now known to most as simply "classic rock."
We continue now with the conclusion of our interview.
PR: Looking back through the all the years you've been in broadcast, how do you feel about the medium?
CC: Well, it's a real funny thing when you're working in radio...you live and die by the ratings. Now you also know that the ratings don't really have a helluva lot of bearing on reality. They really aren't that real.
PR: You have a way with understatement...
CC: Right. Well, you know that although you're living and dying by the ratings even though they're not really real, you're doing whatever you can to make your numbers bigger.
So ultimately, when you're living according to this standard, you're living a kind of unreal life. You're kind of moving out into a kind of fantasy land. And knowing that, it makes it hard to listen to the radio. You listen to the radio for entertainment, presumably, when you're not in radio. But when you're in radio, you listen to the other guy and you're comparing sound and selection and approach and all. "He stepped on the end of that song...", etc., etc., etc.
Now there's a point that people don't understand about radio right there, and I want to address it. People are always asking "Why the hell do you talk over the beginning of the song?" Well, because it's there. It's a rush to talk over a 57-1/2 second intro and end just on the beat where they start singing. It's one of those dj things, okay? It's a rush. And that's why they do it. It's really a rush.
And that was one of the things I tried to do on Beaker Street was to play the whole damn song without stepping on anything.
PR: Well it was/is all a part of your personna.
CC: Exactly. I was determined not to be any kind of top-40 jock. No hype whatsoever.
PR: Do you realize that you are a prototype?
CC: Wellll...I've never exactly thought of myself in those terms...
PR: Seriously...a prototype...of the late-night FM dj... I mean, take the character Clint Eastwood played in the movie 'Play Misty For Me'... Soft-spoken, laid-back, virtually hype-less. And that character has been repeated endlessly all over the place...on tv, in movies...
CC: The funny part of that is that's exactly my personality.
PR: Describe yourself.
CC: Well, I think I'm a little dry, maybe a little sarcastic and I guess just a little relaxed.
PR: A little! I've had people ask me "Does that guy take downers or something?"
CC: No. I think I can safely say I don't need them... To tell the truth, one of the things I've always wanted to do around my job at the Med Center around drug reps - they call them "detail men" now - I always wanted one of the guys to come up with a Valium coffee cup for me, and I haven't got one yet. Maybe one of your kind readers.......
PR: Readers? What about it? (I feel like Ann Landers...)
CC: You look kind of like Ann Landers.
PR: Thanks, Clyde.
CC: Don't mention it.
PR: Okay. So you've been through approximately, what, 26 years of Beaker Street? That's incredible that anything in media would have that kind of staying power. So what lies in store for you and/or the show?
CC: Well, when I came on board at Magic, I had a talk with Tom Wood and told him that I had an itch to eventually try and syndicate the show, and that if I ever got the opportunity I'm gonna damn sure do it.
PR: I would think that Magic 105 would be a great place to syndicate from.
CC: Exactly. Me too. And that's still on the burner.
PR: Are you any further on the idea?
CC: Yes. I've talked to a couple of people and there seems to be interest. I've talked to some of the major sydicator-types like Westwood and frankly, a lot of them don't know what I'm talking about. On the other hand, I still get a lot of mail sent to KAAY which they send on to me here from all over the country. And then there are folks who drive through Arkansas and remember the show and try to look me up, especially if it happens to be Sunday night when I'm on. They'll usually hear the background and they'll go "Holy Moses, I remember that" and they'll stop and call. "I used to listen to you when I was a kid. I thought you were dead or something."
PR: How big an area did you really cover? I mean, we already mentioned that at night you were on the sky waves and really beamed out.
CC: Well, we went up through most of the central northern states way into Canada and right on down through all of Central America and into South America. In fact, I think at that time we were pretty well covering all of South America.
PR: Have you ever stopped to think how many potential listeners you had then?
CC: Quite a few.
PR: A few?! How about hundreds of millions of people?! Literally. Hundreds of millions or more.
CC: Well, it went out further than even that at times. During the Viet Nam war I got letters from Southeast Asia. And you see, I never really thought about that then. But while I was broadcasting at night, over there it was daytime. And the big thing about sky waves is that you're dealing with reflective signals from the night-time ionosphere, and during the day the sun dissipates the ionosphere. You only have ionosphere on the dark side of the planet, and I guess what was happening is that it would get its last bounce and then bounce into the daytime signal, and they were hearing it over on the other side of the world. They would send lists of the stuff that I played and requests and all.
PR: So you really potentially had a couple of billion people within earshot at any given time. That's astounding.
CC: Well, I didn't think about that at the time. I was just doing my job.
PR: Which, at least in my way of thinking, would suggest that there still is one helluva potential market out there should you do the syndication.
CC: Exactly. We'd probably have to start by bicycling tapes for a while. But what I'd really like to do would be to go on the air, on satellite, live. In my opinion, the chemistry of Beaker Street works because it is live. It's the real thing.
PR: Human radio...
CC: Human radio. It's sort of mystical sounding, but for some reason people can key in.
PR: A medium. It's like going to a Grateful Dead show where you've got that synergy of the entire crowd. When people listen to Beaker Street, I think they can feel everyone else that's keyed into it, too. It mesmerizes them to the energy and not just the music.
By the way, this may be a trade secret, but where did you get all the sound effects from? I mean, this was back before the plethora of electronics...
CC: Well first, I need to tell you the reason for the background. You've got to remember that I was in the control room of a 50,000 watt AM transmitter, actually broadcasting right from there. And I was literally about 10 feet away from one very powerful piece of electronic gear that was about 50 feet long and had several hundred cubic feet of air going through it per second. Well, that makes lots of noise. So we needed something to mask that out.
PR: You're kidding! And here I thought it was just for the spacey effects...
CC: In answer to your question of what it was, believe it or not, the original background was from the dream sequence in the movie Charade. Henry Mancini.
PR: A Henry Mancini soundtrack was the background for Beaker Street?!! That's almost sacrilegious.
CC: Well, it was great. And because of it, I could pause and think of what I was going to say, etc.
PR: Even if it was ".......yeah......."
CC: Exactly. And that's what let me do that. People got into the sound effects about as much as anything else on the show.
PR: Did you stick with the Mancini?
CC: No. Eventually, an album came out by a group named Head, and there was a cut on it called "Cannabis Sativa". And that's what I've been using for quite a while. No, it's not whale sounds, it's "Cannabis Sativa."
PR: How appropriate.
CC: I think so.
PR: In this day and age of 'Classic Rock', how do you handle it? I mean let's face it, a lot of what you were playing then is pretty common material nowadays.
CC: Well, I never really got into the image of Beaker Street as any kind of sort of "retro-rock" show. I don't want it to become like some museum piece. And that's not really where it was, or is.
You've got to remember that the big thing about Beaker Street was that we were playing things that just simply didn't get played. It was the real meaning of the overused phrase 'Alternative Music'... It was, really, alternative music to whatever was getting played a lot.
And that's what I'm trying to still do...play stuff that otherwise may not be heard by the majority of people listening to mainstream radio...stuff like Trout Fishing In America and various independent recording artists. Or stuff that the record companies in their infinite wisdom don't really try to market that hard 'cause they don't think they'll make enough money on.
PR: And when that becomes mainstream?
CC: Well, then I'll find something else...
PR: Forgive me for sounding maudlin, but you've really touched a lot of people's lives through the years.
CC: Well, a lot of them have touched mine, too.
PR: How do you see the music today?
CC: Well, a lot of it's good and all. But I guess I'm seeing an attitude problem with a lot of today's music. Back then most of the music was somehow about love or peace or taking care of each other. Nowadays there just seems to be a lot of, well, nihilism...just basically "let's tear everything down just because we feel like it..."
PR: A lot of serious negativity...
CC: Yeah. And what's worse is that a lot of these guys defend that stuff, saying it's no different from the protest music of the 60s. But it is. It's totally different. Then we were reacting to and speaking out against a terrible situation - the war - and calling for love and real peace. The protests were working for something...something good...an end to the war and the killing...
PR: Whereas a lot of this today seems to be promoting sheer chaos for the sake of chaos...or maybe boredome.
CC: Exactly. And to me that's really sad and a great waste of the medium. That's what makes me so happy when I run across something like Trout Fishing In America, because they're such a positive, happy group, and they make truly uplifting music. Really, they would fit right in the middle of the 60s stuff beautifully.
PR: Really... And I'm so glad they moved to Arkansas...
CC: In answer to your question, though, I do see some positive things happening. The main thing, as I see it, is that due to the electronics nowadays, and the fact that you no longer have to have tens of thousands of dollars to have good recording gear, we're seeing, I think, the dawning of the age of empowerment of the people. I mean, the average musician can have a home studio set-up now where he can cut studio-quality stuff. And I think that as time goes on this will allow a lot of very talented people to really get somewhere, whereas before it was more a matter of the old 'being in the right place at the right time. ' Which is still the case, but not like it was. Anyway, I think it will also allow a lot more really quality music to be made, recorded and distributed.
PR: I often think about what somebody like Beethoven might have achieved if he'd had the kind of gear we have now.
CC: Oh, it's amazing. He would have freaked out.
Another thing is that with all the possibilities due to the satellite electronics, etc., we have far fewer limits to just what can be achieved. I really feel that music can be a very important tool for bringing people in the world together. And as more and more people can achieve this level of, well, empowerment, things have to get better. I just hope that's the case, anyway.
PR: Indeed. Clyde, I've enjoyed this conversation immensely. Thanks for sharing your story with us. Is there anything else you'd like to get in here? I mean, now's your chance...
CC: Well, just that I'd like to say thanks to everybody who's made Beaker Street what it is. The music is for you - well, all of us - and I'm glad we've gotten to share it. And I guess, I hope we get to keep sharing it for a long time to come.