Voices of the night
Shortly before midnight on March 22, a small crowd assembled in the darkly paneled, pseudo-posh lobby of the Executive Inn West hotel in Louisville, Ky. They had gathered to witness the ending of an era: the last remote WBAP broadcast of radio personality Bill Mack, a.k.a. the Midnight Cowboy.
“This is a sort of going away party for me,” said Mack, who is being succeeded by Eric Harley. “And I couldn’t ask for a better place to be tonight,” he said, referring to the audience in front of him on folding chairs.
Many in the room had listened to Mack for years, and they knew him to be a guy who understood their industry and shared their concerns. He was also a country music icon who’d personally known every big star since the days of Hank Williams Sr. Just as important, he was one of the founders of truck-oriented radio, a genre catering to the unique interests of drivers working through the night.
For truckers, radio isn’t simply a utility. It is a constant companion, a major source of entertainment and information, friendlier than a standard-issue truck stop waitress and more reliable than the CB. During the early days of Overdrive’s 40-year history, nobody had targeted this segment of the listening public. In 1970, Charlie Douglas began his Road Gang show on WWL in New Orleans. Mack soon followed suit. Since then, many other DJs – among them, Billy Cole, Gene Davis, Dave Nemo, Billy Parker, Fred Sanders, Larry Scott and Dale Sommers – established trucker shows.
Mack, who plans to host a trucking show for XM Satellite Radio when it launches this fall, hadn’t intended to hitch his career to the trucking industry when he got into radio during the ’50s, even though his father had driven truck and owned a truck stop in Mack’s hometown of Shamrock, Texas. In fact, he’d already become a successful radio and television personality when fate came calling – literally – on March 2, 1969, the date he began working as an all-night disc jockey for WBAP, a 50,000-watt station in Fort Worth, Texas. According to Mack, “The first call I received that night was from a trucker in Minnesota. The guy says, ‘Man, I’m glad to hear we have some country music we can listen to at nights. Looks like we got us a midnight cowboy.’”
Mack says he’s had many memorable experiences as a truckin’ DJ. One of his more embarrassing moments occurred when a woman requested a song for her husband. She told Mack, “We just got back together after a long separation, and he left tonight to go trucking. Please play something good for him.” Mack hung up the phone and, without thinking, dedicated the very next song, which was already cued up.
Unfortunately, it was Roy Clark’s “Thank God and Greyhound You’re Gone.” “I said [on the air], ‘I’m going to play this song for Ed out there. It’s from Geneva.’ Well, the trucker quickly called in and said, ‘You can tell Geneva what she can do. I’m gone.’ Then, the woman called back, nearly in tears,” Mack says. “I spent the rest of the night apologizing to that couple.”
In radio, though, even disappointed callers are better than no callers. Charlie Douglas remembers his start on WWL. “I didn’t answer the phones for the first week,” he says. “They never rang. We just kind of sat around with our thumbs in our ears.”
For Douglas, the initial silence was all the more troubling because he had worked hard to convince WWL’s management that truckers were a vast, untapped market. “The management was quite traditional,” he says. “They had great trepidation about going country at night.”
Douglas had come up with the idea for a trucker-oriented show while working as a rock ‘n’ roll jock at KNOE in New Orleans. “I woke up one morning and realized I didn’t like the manager there nearly as much as he didn’t like me,” he recalls. “I started talking with John Pela, who was then the program director at WWL. He was brave enough to let me try [my idea].”
The station was soon flooded with late-night callers, securing the show’s future.
It wasn’t long before other stations began paying Douglas the ultimate compliment by imitating his Road Gang format. One of them was KMO in Seattle, where “Big John” Trimble was working as an afternoon announcer. Trimble says the idea started when someone mentioned the success that Douglas was having. This led to a decision to try the same thing in the Northwest. Co-workers elected Trimble to be the host because they believed his Southern accent would lend authenticity to the broadcasts.
The Seattle gig lasted three years. Trimble moved to KGA in Spokane, Wash., and then to KWKH in Shreveport, La., where he broadcasted from Kelly’s Truck Stop. “I started meeting people in the trucking industry: at first, all drivers, and later, some of the leaders and union people,” he says. “I just got involved and jumped in with both feet.”