This particular trip down Memory Lane was inspired by tuning into an interview between William Shatner and Jimmy Kimmel. My wife had the correct response, which was to ask who was interviewing whom. As it turns out, Shatner was asking the questions, one of which was about Kimmel's early days in radio. He talked about the challenges of talking to a microphone, with no audience around him. He recalled one night that he was giving away a pizza "to the tenth caller," and then waiting. After a lengthy pause, he changed it to the fifth caller. He never did give away the pizza.
This made me think of my first concerted dalliance with the people inside the radio. I had grown up calling the KIMN request line, begging them to play "Yellow Submarine" one more time, and on Autumn afternoons pestering the friendly voices at KBOL's Ken Penfold Grid-A-Phone for that Slippery Rock score. But it wasn't until I was in college where I had my first serious connection with an on-air personality.
My roommate and I were flipping around the cable TV dial, and as the practicing inebriates we were, came to rest at a channel that featured a scrolling calendar of upcoming campus events and the audio was coming from KAIR, the radio voice of the University of Colorado. We might not have stopped, but we heard "We Are The World" playing and being socially responsible inebriates, we felt the need to stick around and listen to this new anthem for social responsibility. When the song was over, the DJ came on and said this: "I dunno. I'm all about feeding the world, but I'm pretty sure somebody's getting rich." This, along with the seven minute diatribe that continued from that point kept us glued. We listened for another hour, and though the music never made an impression, we were intrigued enough by the bitter banter to make a note of the day and time of the show so we could tune in the following week. We were not disappointed.
The show started like most college radio shows, with a bit of way-too-hip music back announced with a few reminders of other shows that we had already ignored. Then, instead of another surly diatribe, it was announced that there would be a special guest on the air that night: Johnny Dragon. Curiosity piqued, we sat through a few more bits of electronica and a public service announcement before we were introduced to "a very big rock star in his native Bolivia." An interview, of sorts, began and then a flurry of less-than-politically-correct suggestions were made by Johnny Dragon. The studio phone lines began to light up. We listened to angry and offended callers mixed with those who sounded more like us: drunk and amused. As the subject turned from sex to mass murderers to less polite matters still, my roommate and I felt compelled to get involved. We dialed 492-KAIR with the hope of getting on sometime before the end of the show. To our surprise, we were allowed directly into "The Dragon's Lair."
We said our piece, listened a while longer, and when something came to us, we called back, always surprised at how quickly we were allowed access to the public airwaves. When the show was over, we were determined to let the world know about this slice of late-night anarchy. We told our friends, we let everyone we knew on campus and off about The Johnny Dragon Show. We were in on the ground floor. The next week, we organized a listening party. More beer. More people. More calls to the station. We made recordings and shared them with those who were outside of the pitiful transmitter range or didn't have cable TV. We were building a cult.
A couple of weeks later, it was just the two of us again. My roommate and I made our initial calls to let the Dragon and his host know that we were listening, and we sat back to listen. That's when my good friend and confidante turns to me and says, "We should go up there." Though I knew exactly where the KAIR studios were located, it had never occurred to me that we could, or should, go up there. "We could take them some beer," he suggested. This logic was impenetrable to me, and so we loaded our case of Little Kings cream ale into my car and drove the half-mile to campus.
When we got to the studio door, we were surprised to find it open. Shouldn't such a high-profile celebrity like Johnny Dragon have some measure of security? We were met in the office by a pair of fresh-faced co-eds who wondered why we were there. "We came to see the Dragon," we explained, hoisting the case of beer. In the distance, behind a pair of closed doors, we could hear the show going on. That's when we notice that a third young woman was in the far corner of the office, talking on the phone. She was complaining, as a feminist, about all the misogynistic suggestions in Johnny's songs and poems. When she hung up, she looked at my roommate and me. "You guys here to meet the Dragon?"
We put the beer down on a desk. "Yeah. I guess." The dream was unraveling fast.
"Just a minute," Phone Co-Ed told us, and went down the hall to the studio. We listened to the show through a tinny speaker in the office, and when the Dragon stopped long enough for a musical interlude, we heard the door to the studio open, and moments later, we were in the presence of The Dragon and His Host.
Only it couldn't be. These were two guys in T-shirts and jeans, clean-shaven, no dark glasses. We could have been looking into a mirror. I don't remember much about what we said, and we left the beer without sharing one with them. It was all just a little too embarrassing. It was very quiet when we got home.
We listened for a few minutes the next week, and weeks passed before the next time it crossed our mind to tune in. The Dragon had disappeared. He was rumored to have returned to South America. Then we stopped listening to KAIR.
Sometimes, when I'm flipping around the dial, I hear a lonely voice talking to the night. It crosses my mind to call in, but I never do. I just think of The Dragon and smile.