Radio used to be such an exciting medium. In smaller cities and in the suburbs, radio served a special function -- providing very localized news and information for areas often overlooked by the major media located in the big cities.
When I was growing up, there was a station in Hartsdale that served lower and central Westchester County with local news and talk, with music actually selected by the deejay rather than off a computerized playlist generated by a programming consultant in Dallas or wherever. Those were the glory days of local radio.
Since the 1930s, the Westchester station had the call letters based on the initials of the man who founded it - Frank A. Seitz. I think he was an engineer and may have actually built much of the equipment in the early days of the station.
I began listening to WFAS during the summers off from college. I was dating a girl who lived literally in the shadow of the station's awesome transmisson tower, which rose high above the tract of suburban split levels. Coming home from a date, I'd tune into the station because the all-night deejay was a guy named Sonny Mann (real name John Manna, I later learned) who did a jazz show. Jazz was, and still is, my musical passion.
Sonny would play long jazz cuts and when he spoke, it was in a slow, soft voice so unlike the typical fast-talking deejays who shouted at you back in those days. And in the background, as he spoke he had some soft jazz playing -- the piano of Red Garland.
At school, I got involved with the college FM station and for three years did a weekly jazz show. I patterned it after Sonny Mann's show, with a repeating cartridge with some soft piano jazz that I'd play underneath my talk between songs. I loved doing that show and sharing my favorite music with unseen listeners.
So one summer night during Sonny's show, I picked up the phone and called to request a song. We got to talking and I mentioned I did a jazz show on college radio upstate. He invited me to stop in at the station anytime when he was on the air. And so I did a few days later.
I remember driving up to the station, which was in a small building right in front of that awesome tower that looked even more awesome at night, with its blinking red lights. I rang the bell and this older guy, a bit disheveled, came to the door and invited me in. It was Sonny.
We chatted for a while and then he asked me to pick out some tunes I'd like to hear. I found something by Billy Taylor, Quincy Jones, Oliver Nelson and a couple of others. Sonny said he liked my taste.
During a break between songs, he said he had a guest in the studio, a guy who did a jazz show on a college station. He put me on a mic and and asked me about one of the tunes I had chosen, which he was about to play. Nervous as I was, speaking on a real radio station, I was able to explain what I liked about the song coming up next. And then Sonny played it.
He said he was going out back to have a smoke. He said if he wasn't back by the time the song ended, to just go ahead and play some of the other stuff I had selected. He showed me the program log and said if he wasn't back by 20 past the hour, to read the commercial on this page, and about 5 minutes later to read the weather update which I should rip off the AP ticker in the newsroom. And he reminded me, just in case, to do a station ID on the half hour, which I knew was an FCC requirement.
Sonny went out and I played some music. I read ad and the commecial, and I did the station ID. I played more music, talked a little about it and, because it said so in the program log, I read another ad and a public service announcement. Sonny must have been out there smoking the whole pack.
Finally, he came back and told me I was doing a great job. I asked where he was all this time -- probably close to 45 minutes -- and he told me he had gone for a ride in his car, listening to me while joy-riding. That's when I got nervous -- what if something had happened while I was manning the station alone?
But nothing happened. Sonny came back on after a tune finished, thanked me for sitting in and told people if they were ever up in Potsdam NY to listen to my "Jazz Scene" show on WTSC-FM, 91.1 FM.
I spoke with Sonny from time to time after that, until the station cut his show and started airing a syndicated show -- I think it was "Delilah." A few years later I happened to read Sonny's obit in the local paper.
It all comes back to me now, as I read today that WFAS, now owned by radio giant Cumulus Media, is leaving that studio in Westchester, moving to The Bronx, changing its call letters and switching to an "urban" format. Although the transmitter will be in The Bronx, programming will originate from Cumulus' offices in Tribeca in Manhattan, where the company has studios for the several other stations it owns in NY, as well as the shared news operation.
This is typical of what's been happening in local radio over the past 25 years or so. I shouldn't be surprised. But this time, for me, it's personal.
So long WFAS, with fond memories of Sonny Mann, who ended his show every night at 6 a.m. saying, "Straight ahead."