An Interview with Michael Tearson: One of the Great Late-Night FM Rock DJs from the 60s

on Nov 13 in Interviews by

Unbeknownst to Michael Tearson, he discovered me. When I was thirteen years old, living in a Philadelphia suburb with parents whose musical adventures consisted of Harry Bellafonte and Barbara Streisand, I spent many long evenings listening to him. There were some really good DJs in Philly in the late 60s, but it was Michael more than any other who schooled me in the history of rock and roll and the social meaning of my generation’s music.

Over the course of three and a half hours in August 2012, Michael and I met in an upstairs bedroom of his small house in Maple Shade, NJ. Michael sat at his desk in the middle of a room, covered floor to ceiling with CDs. On the desk was an old computer for googling facts to augment his prodigious memory and a rack of pretty standard looking old audio equipment — CD players, equalizers, compressors and a large mic. The man with the golden voice was amiable, generous and voluble, particularly excited by his own recording, and happy to tell it like he sees it about any number of subjects from music to radio to the ups and downs of his personal life to many of the artists he’s come across (live and on recordings) over the course of an almost forty year career. A few times, I felt like I was a kid sitting in my bedroom in the dark listening to a disembodied iconic voice. Because of its breadth and length, I’ve broken the interview down into sections that I’ll post over the course of the next few weeks.

Michael’s CD, Stuff That Works, is available from the CD Baby. Review it! Nowadays, he can be heard on the internet at Radio that Doesn’t Suck, on Sirius-XM on the classic rock channel, Deep Tracks and the Blues channel and in Philly on WMGK.

  Part I

Did you ever DJ in front of a live audience?

I’ve never been very good at being a social critter. I preferred being in a little room by myself between ten and two at night talking to people who weren’t there. And getting to be brilliant and imaginative and creating sound castles. There was a stretch when I did a show live from the Empire Rock Club on Roosevelt Boulevard on WMMR, and eventually wound up at 23 East once a week and let me tell you something: those were horror shows for me. I hated them. I hated doing radio for a live audience. Didn’t work for me. I’m just not a very social person. I’ve never been much good at the boy/girl dance either, especially since the great love of my life, Lynn, died of undiagnosed cancer 17 years ago. It’s a shock I’ve never really gotten past.

Are you comfortable talking about that?

Sure. We met at the radio station. She was a listener who really liked my work. She called me in June of ’89. We had a nice chat. I wasn’t paying much attention, not quite open. My instincts have always been to isolate, which I’ve been much too successful at. Too successful for my own long-term good. Lynn called again in early January ’90 by which time I’d had a little epiphany having decided that my professional life was a little closer to the end at MMR than the beginning – I could already feel the end out past my fingertips. I decided that my social life was not working either and that cruising for romance had become a sordid, sad joke. So I decided to eliminate all that sexual tension and cruise for friendship and let anything grow from there.

So she called me up. We had this incredible night’s talk. I had her call back on the Jersey line cause she lived in Cherry Hill and I saw no reason for her to run up the meter. At the end of it I said I’d really like to get together. Have dinner or something – how bout you call me at the beginning of the week and we can do something. She said, Look I’m a little tipsy. I don’t call disk jockeys, you’re going to have to call me. So she gave me her work number. This was Thursday night. Next day I called her up and asked her if she felt like meeting me at JC Dobbs, where the Dukes of Destiny were gonna play, a band that I occasionally got up and sang a song or two with. And she said, No I can’t make it. But don’t think I’m blowing you off. Take another shot at it. There was another caller, Fran, a Penn grad student, who I never met but should have. Her goal in life was apparently to become an Ice Capades skater. So the girl was going to be clearly fit. I was kinda foolish for having avoided contact with her. Anyway, I invited her to meet me at Dobbs and she said, That sounds like fun, I’ll try to make it.

So it’s about 11PM and I’m upstairs at the bar where there’s a short side near a wall. And some woman says, Oh Michael. And I say, Oh Fran. She says, Who’s Fran? So I put things together quickly and I say, Wait a minute, you must be Lynn. Fran never showed up that night, which was one of the luckiest things in my life. I gallantly gave Lynn the stool. She was a little tipsy and lost her balance, grabbed hold of my coat, and pulled me in slow motion down onto the floor on top of her. I fell in love instantly. We closed the bar, went to a movie the next night and by the end of that movie I was convinced that I needed to get that woman’s attention. From that moment to the end there weren’t more than three days that we didn’t have contact. Good thing I didn’t waste time. In five weeks we were engaged. At that point I’d been single for 16 years.

How long were you together after you were married?

We met on January 13, 1990 and she died on May 17, 1995. I think of those five years, four months and five days as an arch, but who’s counting? And I don’t feel like breaking it into before marriage. The whole thing is one story. It left me in ragged ass shape. I’ve been pretty numb for a long time. Recently, I met a woman who I liked well enough, but it was very long distance. Between the geography and a few medical conditions I’ve been dealing with, we sort of lost the spontaneity.

So if you think of your work as a performance, what was it’s role through your period of grieving?

OK, I was back at MMR ’92 to’95 after they’d cut me loose in March of ’92. I was briefly on YSP which was even more miserable than being on IOQ. That November, XPN bought me in to do late night for a pathetic fifty dollars a night. And I was doing nothing and I figured I could use a little bit of money and it basically gave me an outlet to do some scream therapy in public. They gave me the last hour of the show to perform. I did something that was pretty radical. I decided that I wanted to do a different persona than the usual happy talk disk jockey, Hi there happy to be with you happy you could be here with me. stick around… I decided to be an introspective, downbeat persona for the freedom hour so that I could do some really dark radio that works completely against the grain. That was a situation that was executed in such a way that I was bound to fail at it. First off, about a month after I was there with great hosannas  and acclaim, the station general manager had a work meeting, on a Friday night, for full timers (I was on five nights a week) and the program and music directors. I was not invited. The following summer, when I was doing all kinds of taping, I asked him about it. He says, Oh that was an oversight. I say, I don’t believe you. If you’re looking to have a work meeting to look for new ideas, why would you not bring in the fresh voice? But, I was told there were people there who resented me coming from commercial radio and I think that David was never that fond of me from when I usurped the night job from him in the ‘70s. I basically lasted for a few months after Lynn’s death. After she died I was a very difficult camper for a while because, gee, I’d been watching my wife dying by millimeters for four years and changing and then she was gone. What do you expect? Happy? I didn’t get empathy from WXPN at the time. I got a good deal of discipline and they’ve treated me really crappy ever since. I kind of look at what they do now – they have people like Jerry Blavat who has a regular show and Ben Vaughn does a show that’s pretty cool, but they wouldn’t consider me cause they’re still really scared of me. When people asked what I thought, I told them.

Don’t ask me what I think if you don’t want to know.

There’s a phrase I learned when I tried to become a paralegal. That was a bad idea. You need a very orderly, ruthless mind for that type of work. I have a messy artist’s mind. So there’s the rule: Answer as asked. Any time you’re in court: Answer as asked. Do not embellish. You do not help yourself by embellishing. So when people ask me what I think, I’m going to tell them, which often makes people unhappy, but nobody can ever say that I lied to them about stuff. I’ve never been duplicitous like an awful lot of people are, especially within the backbiting radio world.

Yeah, I was basically fighting my wife’s cancer and grieved in public on the radio. And there were some powerful dark shows.

Was it helpful?

It gave me an outlet. I didn’t have anybody. She was the one with cancer. People were always concerned about her. No one ever asked about me. I probably could have been helped if I had been pointed toward therapy. No one suggested it and I certainly didn’t think about it. At this point I don’t have a lot of trust in psychotherapists. It’s not in their interest to help you get better in any short order of time. It’s in their interest to keep you coming back and paying for the Porsche.

In the late ‘90s I found a therapist. After awhile he turns me on to a book, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People that, at its root, is about one’s relationship to god. And it’s written by someone who’s Jewish. I stopped practicing religion during my bar mitzvah when the Rabbi had to black mailed me from the pulpit to stay in Hebrew School an extra year. I figure this guy knows I’m an atheist. I don’t buy ritual. A lot of people find ritual very comforting. I figure I live my life through grace and dignity and kindness and I think that’s where religion is supposed to take you. And I live out there without any of the proscriptions and directives. Basically, I treat people the way you think you should be treated. Basically, your golden rule, and it pretty well works as a philosophy of how to live a good life and have low impact.

Is this (pointing to Tearson’s broadcast setup) a ritual that helps you get through the day?

I don’t think in those terms. I don’t think in terms of spiritual richness. I don’t believe in happiness. I figure that happiness works pretty much like flash paper. Do you know what flash paper is? Flash paper is a sheet that is frequently used for special effects in movies and in the world of wrestling when they throw fireballs. You have a little sheet of paper, you light a corner and whoosh – it’s gone. Happiness works like that. It does not stick around with you the way sadness does. Sadness sticks like a shroud. I figure that the best you can hope for is some degree of contentment that doesn’t burn nearly as high or as long. It doesn’t burn as high as happiness, but it burns stronger for longer. And that’s something, if you’re lucky, you get to live with. But I don’t think anybody lives happy. I don’t believe that. And I’ve been fighting depression, in retrospect, all of my life. When I was a little kid my parents sent me to a shrink because they worried I wasn’t interacting with other people. I found in my adult life the perfect job where I could do something fresh and new and different every night, in a little room by myself, talking to people who weren’t there.

I grew up with your voice. You were on the air when I was a teenager and I felt a real connection to you and the music you played.

That was something I was always very conscious of. I always felt that, especially back in those days when WMMR was primary entertainment, and the late night show was the flagship just as the morning drive has come to be. You take a look at the early ‘70s – there were very few TV channels that you could even receive in Center City. There wasn’t cable, no VCRS, video games, time shifting, not much for the younger generation.

I felt like my job was to be an impresario every night. People would strap in and it would be my job to take them for a ride. No two nights were the same. And that’s one of the things that appealed to me, as Attention Deficit as I am. Doing the same thing is so boring. That’s one reason I don’t do fill ins on WMGK any more. I don’t miss it. With the whole thing on hard drive, you don’t really mess around with the music, you don’t pick and choose anything, you crack the mike four times an hour and two of them are fly bys during music suite and the other two go into commercial breaks. And on of them you have a promo to read. That leaves you one break an hour to put something on the table. I run out of crossword puzzles by the end of the third hour.

How did you get hired?

I was at WDAS in between WXPN and WMMR. I first got my job in January of 1970 so that my last semester as a college student, I spent working full time. And I only had three classes left to fulfill the requirements because they had been cut at the end of the ‘60s. So I basically got a tape to DAS that they accepted and brought me in. They were a progressive rock station then. MMR had the Marconi Experiment, four hours a night, but other than that it was Frank Sinatra middle of the road stuff. DAS had about twenty-two hours a day of rock so they were really the first full time rock station. I started the same date in April ‘68, so I predate both of them in Philadelphia by a good half a year. Ed Sciaky had been at RTI at Temple as a student – he was a year ahead of me. Ed wound up becoming Gene Shay’s caddy, carrying the records and stuff – that’s how he got in. Ed was always more interested in rubbing elbows and all that meeting and greeting stuff than I ever way. I was more interested in doing the performance of it. I’m a performer in my heart. That’s why I’ve never had any interest and haven’t gone into radio management. Never wanted to be the program director, never wanted to have to decide who works when, who doesn’t. I just wanted to do the work.

As a curator, you took things farther artistically than the other guys.

After I was fired from WMMR, in ’76 I was briefly hired by WIOQ that was one of the most miserable experiences of my life. It’s not even on my resume. They put me in a ball-busting all night schedule where I had six nights a week midnight to 6:00AM except for the final night which was Friday when I went till 7:00AM. They had me finish with the news. Frankly, getting someone on overnight to do 15 minutes of live news is asking for trouble. After awhile, I was just making stuff up as I went along. And no one ever called me on it.

About the connection thing: I never doubted there was anyone there. I knew if I did my job well enough the numbers would take care of themselves. In those early days I was getting 20% of the radio listening audience. For that time slot I had a huge audience. They changed my slot around a bit. Finally I did 10:00PM to 3:00AM. Until they got a live DJ they’d play tapes after me.

Did you do it from their studios in Rittenhouse Square?

Oh yeah. I was living in Center City so I could bicycle back and forth and take my bike up the elevator. There were a couple of really persistent harassers. One of them was actually calling me from across the street in front of the deli. When I was leaving I slipped out the back door and circled the block so I could pass him and get a look at him.

What would people harass you for?

Threaten my life for not playing requests. There’ve always been creeps and assholes. Late night you know.

How important is it to have some interaction with the audience via telephone, Facebook postings, email?

I truly miss the lifeline to human contact that the telephone gave me but there were dark sides to that. There was one guy in particular, a Howard Stern acolyte, who harassed me mercilessly with prank calls that he now has posted on You Tube. I’ve tried to get them taken down because they were recorded without my permission or knowledge and posted without either which is illegal. When he posts them on You Tube he resets the statute of limitations. They took them down once last year, but they wouldn’t take them down this year. I’ll try again. But, I did meet both of my wives calling in. I made some good friends out of that even though there were downsides.

When did you form you own personal relationship to music and what makes you the kind of listener and curator that you are?

I’ve been a fan of music since I was very, very small. Neither of my parents were the least bit musical. Neither of my brothers is either, although my younger brother worked as a roadie for a number of years for people like George Benson and the Crusaders. He traveled the world. I’ve never been much of a traveler. I figure I can be more comfortable sleeping in my own bed for way cheaper. And traveling by myself isn’t much fun. I don’t travel to see places. I travel to see people.

From the beginning I was interested in radio. I always loved the communication from the disk jockey to the audience and that informed my philosophy later, that the DJ at his best is a constant companion – the friend that you’ve never met in person. I still get a lot of people who tell me I did my job well.

Was there a first disk jockey to whom you responded?

I grew up in Baltimore. The DJ who influenced me the most was Dick Summer at WBZ Boston. Ironically, I’m in touch with him and he lives in PA. First chance I can I’m going to get together and hang out with him. He did these incredible collages of stuff. His Loving Touch things were kind of florid and romantic. He also did the adventures of Super Plant, Irving did, the Adventures of the Flytrap, forever fighting the forces of B.U.G., the big ugly guy – one of my all time favorite acronyms. Works very well when talking about the Republicans these days.

He had the leeway to take radio where he wanted it to go. He made much more of an overnight shift than should have been possible. Something that got duplicated years later when Jerry Stevens got to do the overnights on WPEN. Jerry hired me at WMMR in ’70 and again in ’78 in his second run as program director. In between, he’d created Fascinating Rhythm, the first disco music format for CAU FM, where CBS ripped off his ideas. Later he sued them and won. And before that he’d been on WIBG. Jerry had a massive impact on four formats. He really energized WIP with an incredibly creative overnight show. I think he’s one of the most underrated people. There was one other guy at BZ named Jefferson Kay who went on to be a major voice at NFL Film. He also lives in this area. He did a Sunday night folk music show that was terrific and that’s where I first heard and taped Tom rush doing Joni Mitchell’s “Urge for Going,” when I had no clue who Joni Mitchell was. That was in ’66.

Gene Shay was in Philadelphia by then, but I wasn’t. I didn’t get to Philly till fall ’66. I was a folkie performer and did “Urge for Going,” that I found out was one of the only Joni Mitchell tunes that was in standard tuning. Eventually, I got nudged out of performing as a single to do radio. I wasn’t able to write songs that were worth playing or listening to and still have that problem with original songs though I try (I still keep those little bastards safely hidden behind the third circle of hell). And don’t let them out. I would love to have one or two originals on the next album, but I’m sure that’s not going to happen.

Why do you keep them hidden?

They’re that bad.

Is that because your inner critic is so good?

I don’t know. I’ve had no output for forty years. It’s not the curator/critic; it’s the artist that can at least recognize crap. I mean look, one of the things that most informs stuff that works, and if I’ve learned nothing else over forty-five years of doing radio, I can select and sequence songs. So casting the songs for my record was a wonderful, thrilling experience. I went through hundreds. I actually have several picked for the album. One of them is by a guy you never heard of – a kid from Vancouver named Joshua Hislip whose debut album is called Where the Mountain Meets the Valley. He’s written this song that’s the darkest, most forlorn song I’ve heard in years. I love it.

I loved your version of Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man.”

I approached the song as an actor. What I was trying to do was to keep soundly to the interpretation side of the recitation/interpretation dynamic. Recitation is pointless to me. There’s no reason to do a song unless you can bring something to it. Especially in that first verse, I cast myself into it and tried to sing it with the bitterness of the verse, as much as from the heart, as I could make it. Consequently, there’s a whole lot of inferred autobiography in it.

As a method actor would?

Yeah, though I’ve never been trained in that, but I’ve done it instinctively. I’ve done about fifty movies, four or five credited parts in my IMDB page.

For Part II of this interview, go to:


Comments are closed.