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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Me and Tom -- Tom Snyder, who died this week at the age of 71, will likely be best remembered for one of two things; either his groundbreaking late-night Tomorrow Show that followed Johnny Carson for years, or the Dan Aykroyd parody Snyder inspired. Aykroyd’s depiction of Snyder was fevered and bizarre, all tics and mannerisms, cigarettes and waving hands, but it had the ring of truth: Tom Snyder was strange to watch on TV. He was riveting, to be sure, and a damned good interviewer. But he looked odd on television, and Aykroyd’s shtick was as much homage as it was parody.

I was seven years old when Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow debuted on NBC, and while I did tend to stay up late to catch Carson as a young teen, Snyder was mostly known to me as the show that was coming on as I shut off the TV at 12:30 to go to bed. Tomorrow ended in 1982, still a little ways off from when the 12:30 slot would draw me in, not coincidentally because of the man chosen to succeed Snyder, David Letterman.

Letterman’s first NBC series had been a daytime variety/talk show that followed The Today Show sometime around 1979-1980. I was 13, I think, when the show debuted, and completely open and ready for Letterman’s subversive, deadpan sarcasm. It imprinted itself on my mind, and was a formative influence on my personality. So now you know who to blame.

But Snyder was someone whose cultural impact I had just missed by inches. I was just too young to care about his interviews, which skewed more to current events than to the laughs I would have been looking for in my early teens. Letterman was much more my cup of tea. So Snyder’s heyday flew almost entirely off my personal cultural radar.

But fate had other plans.

I started working at my first radio job in 1986, while still enrolled in college working toward a radio broadcasting certificate from the local Community College. The job was at WKAJ/WASM, a family-owned and operated AM/FM combo in Saratoga Springs, New York. The AM station was the more popular and influential of the two at the time, with a live air staff most hours of the day and a two-person full-time news department strongly focused on community news rather than national issues. I joined the news staff part-time to supplement the efforts of the two full-timers, Mike Hare and Dina Cimino. As a fill-in anchor and reporter, I never knew from day to day whether I would be spending hours at a City Council meeting hoping for an interview with the mayor, or anchoring morning or afternoon news, or any number of other tasks a part-time radio station employee will have visited upon him. It was a time of great learning, though, and I liked the people I worked with and the jobs I was asked to do.

In 1987, I left WKAJ for my first full-time job, as the overnight guy at a country station coincidentally owned by Mike Hare’s cousin Ed Stanley, WSCG in Corinth, New York. That job lasted less than a year, in large part because I hated it. I hated the music, I hated the building, and I hated the stench of Stanley’s cigars, which permeated every molecule of the building, and anyone and anything trapped within its cheap, airless confines.

I returned to WKAJ/WASM, which was now under new ownership. WASM, which had been an older-skewing Music of Your Life station was now transformed to WQQY, 102 Double Q, a pop/top 40 station. For the first time, the FM station was emphasized over the AM, and live DJs were brought in. The AM station, WKAJ, was set to carry a new late-night radio talk show hosted by Tom Snyder, and I was tapped to be the board operator for the show.

What that means is that I had to be behind the controls for the full three hours of the broadcast every night from 10 PM to 1 AM, turning the live feed up and down when demanded by the format of the show, to play local commercials and read the weather forecast.

Being a part-time board op at a small-town radio station is perhaps the lowest rung on the totem pole of radio. But I was 21 years old and full of enthusiasm for my chosen career, radio broadcasting. Soon, I found myself equally enamored of Tom Snyder. The show was a blast to listen to, and I was getting paid to do it.

As I say, this was not anyone’s definition of a dream radio job, but I loved it. And more than that, I had a grandiose, if self-parodying image of my importance in the grand scheme of things. I appropriated an unused, dusty desk in a far corner of the newsroom and transformed it into The Snyderdesk. A publicity photo of Tom on the wall over my workspace looked down in approval on what I was creating. I began issuing memos to the staff about what “Tom and I” needed to properly perform our jobs, and the staff at the radio station found it amusing that this young kid was making so much out of so very, very little.

I was joking, of course. I still took my actual job duties seriously; in addition to running the board for Snyder, I still did part-time news reporting and anchoring, filled in for vacationing disk jockeys, and whatever else management asked me to do. During this time I worked with some of the most dynamic and unique individuals ever to work in radio in our part of the country, including the aforementioned Mike Hare, the very British David Baker, and account executive and later general manager Jerry Shepard, who was to become someone I admired more than just about anyone I ever worked with in radio in the entirety of my career. I’ve often said of Jerry that he was “the only man I ever knew,” and I still think this is true most days.

But when I wasn’t working on actual radio station business, I was spending a good deal of time building up my Snyderdesk mythology. And one day, on a lark, I sent a sheaf of my Snyderdesk memos off to Tom Snyder. I thought he’d get a kick out of them.

Apparently he did.

One night, while running the board for the show, Tom started discussing my Snyderdesk memos during the somewhat free-wheeling third hour from midnight to 1 AM. He may have eased into the topic sideways, if I recall correctly, so that it only gradually dawned on me that he not only had received the memos, but had actually read them.

As that realization began to sink in, the telephone began ringing in the studio. Moments later, I was talking to Tom Fucking Snyder coast-to-coast on national radio.

I’d be lying if I said I remember much about the conversation. Wikipedia notes that Snyder often used his third hour to chat with his “legion of fans,” occasionally including well-known admirers like David Letterman and Ted Koppel. No doubt Tom sensed the genuine adoration that was a part of my Snyderdesk hyperbole, and he was warm and full of laughter as he read some of the memos on the show and asked me about the reaction to my efforts among my co-workers. This conversation, which lasted maybe 10 minutes, remains one of the highlights of my broadcasting career, just one of the most thrilling and enjoyable moments of my life. And certainly the first time I realized that if you enjoy the work of a well-known celebrity and approach them with honesty and no hidden motives, amazing things can happen.

I think I may have had one more on-air chat with Tom Snyder before the short-lived radio show came to an end, but it could not have been as magical or memorable to me as that first, incredible Snyderdesk chat. I did remain a genuine fan, and always made it a point to check out his later TV efforts, which were every bit as odd, unique and compelling as anything else Snyder ever accomplished. On radio or TV, he was a good host, but he was a great broadcaster.

One last anecdote that doesn’t really fit anywhere, but I am sure this happened in the latter days of the Snyder radio show.

When you are a radio board op, the rewards are few (if any), and the burdens many. Snyder seemed to understand this well, and often talked about the network of radio stations and dedicated board ops that made it possible for him to speak to the nation. If any of them were like me, they lost a lot of sleep due to the show’s odd hours, but they felt amply rewarded by the fact that Snyder cared enough to mention us on the air on a regular basis. You could tell he was a decent, empathetic soul.

As time wore on, Snyder began actually talking to the board ops after the broadcast each night. When you would turn down the knob that made the show live on the air, if you turned it all the way to the left until you felt a mild pop on the knob, you had turned it into “cue,” which meant you could now hear what was happening on that channel on a private speaker in the studio. Only someone standing in the studio could hear what came out of the speaker when it was in cue, and Snyder, a longtime broadcaster, knew that some of us would have the knob in cue, and he started talking to us every night.

It only went on for two or three minutes, after the show ended at 12:58:10 every morning. Tom no doubt was ready to go home, and certainly he knew we board ops were, but it became a nightly ritual for him to entertain just us board ops, just for a few minutes.

One night he was talking to us (we couldn’t talk back, this was strictly a one-way conversation) about a new publicity photo the network had ordered. “You should see this thing,” Snyder said, in his loud and blustery, yet intimate manner. “I’m wearing the biggest goddamned set of cans you’ve ever seen!” Cans, for those not in broadcasting, are headphones. Because it was a radio show, they wanted Snyder to wear headphones for his publicity headshot. This is how stupid network executives can be.

Snyder’s tale of the headshot was funny and delightful, as his board-op pep talks almost always were. But what Tom hadn’t counted on was that some board ops might not have turned the knob all the way to the left to put the show from live into cue. In fact, apparently some stations didn’t turn off the feed at all that night. Whether it was a sloppy or confused board op, or perhaps malfunctioning automation at stations that didn’t have live board ops, Snyder’s profane complaint about the “goddamned cans” and probably more damning, his implicit criticism of his higher-ups, was apparently broadcast on some percentage of stations that carried the broadcast.

So, that was pretty much the end of the private board-op pep-talks. Snyder humbly apologized soon thereafter, and no longer did turning the knob into cue at the end of the show provide the small measure of private joy it once did. Our secret little clique of board ops across the country, all led by Tom Snyder, had been disbanded by circumstance.

Like the entirety of Tom Snyder’s broadcasting career, it was fun while it lasted.

This one is for you Tom, in sincere admiration and love. You were, as I said, a great broadcaster, and I will never forget those late night chats with all us board ops, or the one special night that you took the time to talk only to me, and made me feel like I mattered, like I was somebody. Tom Snyder was a great broadcaster because he understood everyone in the chain, from himself to his guests to his viewers and listeners down to his part-time, small-town board-ops, mattered.

In his latter days, Tom liked to tweak the clichés of technology and hype, and tell his fans to “Fire up a colortini, sit back, relax, and watch the pictures, now, as they fly through the air.” Go ahead, Tom, fire one up. You earned it. Thank you.

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Blogger Don said...

I've read a number of appreciations written about Tom Snyder, and this one has to be the best. I well remember how often Tom would sincerely thank "the boys and girls who are working the boards all over America." I had no idea that he would stay "live" to deliver a little coda for the benefit of his board ops after the show, but it doesn't surprise me that he would do such a thing. It's a great story and probably little-known.

I listened to Tom on WICC-AM in Connecticut, and whoever ran that board did a terrible, terrible job, night after night after night. Huge hunks of dead air, followed by the show, already in progress. Two audio sources running at the same time for a minute or more. Alan, I wish you had been running the board at my station.

If you listened to the show, it was inevitable that you would come to consider yourself a friend of Tom's. Both television and radio tend to create an aura of "false intimacy" which arises from repeated exposure over a long period of time. With luck, we don't start talking back to Matlock or run up to a soap opera star on the street to inform her about what's happening behind her character's back. Fred Scott, a children's show host in the 60's, tells a great story about a child that approached him during a personal appearance. Fred said "Hello, sonny, how are you?" And the kid broke into instant tears and cried, "Don't you know me, Uncle Fred?"

The thing is, for those of us who listened to Tom on the radio, the intimacy was not false. We knew that he loved his grandkids and sometimes found them difficult; we knew he liked northern California better than southern California; we really did know quite a bit about Tom Snyder. So we all felt like his friends. We all felt that we knew him. And I think we did.

A couple of weeks ago, I started posting some TS radio shows I had saved on cassette, and though Tom is now gone, if you want to feel like you knew him and were his friend, all you have to do is listen. (They're available over at my blog, Isn't Life Terrible).

Alan, any friend of Tom's is a friend of mine. He was a fascinating guy. You and I and Tom's millions of friends all miss him.

31 July, 2007 18:42  
Blogger Alan David Doane said...

Thanks so much for your comments and memories, Don. And especially for archiving some of Tom's interviews. I'm downloading some now. Good work.

31 July, 2007 18:59  
Blogger Alan David Doane said...

By the way, Don, with the problems you describe, I'd bet the station you were listening to had a bad automation system. If it was really a live board op, man, management must not have cared at ALL...

31 July, 2007 19:04  

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