Radio Days

They say music is like a time machine...

While other kids were spending their Saturdays, summers and winter breaks goofing off with the rest of their high school friends, I spent mine standing behind a cash register at my mom and dad’s store in Fremont, Nebraska.

The store was called Fremont Salvage. It was located just north of the Holiday Lodge on a dirt road off Highway 30 behind a couple faceless buildings on the edge of a corn field. The store’s building was nothing more than a large metal shed, a former semi-truck garage with a huge ceiling, concrete floors and no windows.

My father’s business model was deceptively simple: Buy low and sell at a price lower than the other guy. His merchandise came from other salvage dealers, various distributors and from discount stores that either needed to get rid of overstock or were going out of business. That meant everything was marked half price of whatever it had been marked, and we’re talking about good stuff and every day staples -- new clothes (flannel shirts, $8; insulated coveralls, $25); motor oil (any brand, 50 cents a quart!); health and beauty aids (Skin Bracer, 25 cents a bottle!); candy (Peter Paul Almond Joys, 10 for a $1!); electronics (Spark-0-matic car stereos, $25!); tools (socket sets from $5 to $25) and thousands of other items (car mats, lots of car mats). 

Being able to read was a requirement to shop at Fremont Salvage, because there were signs everywhere demanding your attention: You break it, you buy it! All sales cash! No refunds, no returns! The management has the right to refuse service to anyone for any reason! The customer isn’t always right, and in fact, rarely is (That wasn’t a sign, that was my dad’s business credo).

At age 13 I started running the cash register during the week in the summer and on Saturdays during the school year, not because I had to, but because I wanted the cash, and working at the store was a helluva lot easier than the alternative -- walking beans or de-tassling corn or doing whatever grueling manual labor was available for underage country bumpkins like myself.

While my dad and the customers kept my brother and I plenty busy, the hours could drag and often did. At least there was the stereo, right? Unfortunately, my dad wouldn’t let us listen to Rock 100 or any of those “kids stations.” Instead, we were told to “Leave it on Eleven” -- that’s AM 1110 KFAB -- the only radio station we were allowed to play at the store.

Back then KFAB was a drastically different radio station than the right-wing hate-spewing Rush Limbaugh-powered America-Love-It-Or-Leave-It all-talk radio station that it is today. Back then KFAB actually played music. And oh what music it played.

I assumed the station’s programmer was looking to strike the perfect balance between oldies and “modern” music (This was 1978-1983) while making sure to play nothing that could possibly offend the farmer or priest or shop keeper who presumably listened ‘round the clock.

That meant long, tedious hours of such rousing hits as The New Vaudeville Band’s “Winchester Cathedral,” The New Christy Minstrel’s “Green, Green,” Bent Fabric’s “The Alleycat” and Johnny Mathis’ “Misty,” next to modern MOR (stands for Middle of the Road) numbers like Frankie Valli’s “My Eyes Adore You,” Little River Band’s “Reminiscing,” Barry Manilow’s “Could It Be Magic,” Neil Diamond’s “Love on the Rocks,” Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,”  Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” or any non-disco song by The Bee Gees.

I’m sure KFAB’s play list probably contained hundreds if not thousands of songs, but somehow over years of hot, boring afternoons, it all began to sound the same. You didn’t so much look forward to hearing the next song as prepare yourself to tolerate another earful of, say, The Sandpipers’ “Guantanamera” or Albert Hammond’s “It Never Rains in Southern California” or Jim Croce’s “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” or Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown.”

After a long Saturday at the store I couldn’t wait to get home to slap on my headphones and wash the stale taste of KFAB out of my mind… until the next Saturday.

Well, eventually my days at Fremont Salvage came to an end. I got a job at Kmart to pay my way through college at UNO and never had to listen to KFAB again. Despite being hugely successful, my dad sold the store a few years later. And, lo, how the years went by, and along with them, the memories of those long afternoons slowly began to fade...

Until a few weeks ago. The Omaha World Herald ran a story about a renegade AM radio station -- Magic 1490. I could care less about the story’s primary focus -- the mystery behind who was running the radio station. Instead, I was intrigued by the description of the station’s content -- “The station specializes in old music, dubbed ‘easy listening’ or ‘middle of the road’ by programmers.” Wait a minute, what?

I quickly poked the AM button on my Harman/Kardon, adjusted the antennae, scrolled the digital dial to 1490 and on came “Monday Monday” by the Mamas & the Papas in all its fuzzy AM glory. I was immediately transported back to the salvage store, circa 1978.

Sure, I could find these songs on Spotify or Pandora, but they would sound too pristine, too perfect and completely different than that far-away sound that only AM radio can provide.

They say music is like a time machine. Every time I listen to Magic 1490 I’m transported back to those dusty days in Fremont with my mom and dad and brothers, days that at the time I couldn’t wait to be over; days that today I never want to forget -- all lived beneath a soundtrack broadcast in glorious AM.

Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com.

posted at 04:12 pm
on Tuesday, October 08th, 2013

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