Richard Gere, The L.A. Times and Me

I had a semi-brush with greatness this week when I learned that two Hollywood stars apparently chill out listening to our Iowa Channel webcast. Full story on the Iowa Channel blog, and here is the story that appeared in the L.A. Times.
Believe it or not, this is not the first time my work has been featured in the L.A. Times.
Our tale begins in those halcyon days of 1987. The Iowa Hawkeyes were flying high under
Hayden Fry. In Cedar Rapids, people worked for Teleconnect, Iowa Electric and Rockwell International. They shopped downtown at Armstrongs or at Westdale, which believe it or not, was then the “good” mall. And a young DJ named Dennis Green held down the PM Drive shift at WMT-FM, and was given entirely too much creative freedom.

This particular year, we were electrified to learn that a MAJOR MOTION PICTURE was going to be filmed on our community. Now bear in mind, this was before The Final Season, yes even before Field of Dreams. Up to this point in time, the only fairly recent movie to be made in Iowa was a 1970’s Sylvester Stallone vehicle entitled “F.I.S.T.” filmed partly in Dubuque (Don’t bother).
This movie was to be titled “Farm of the Year,” and would begin with the visit of Nikita Krushchev to an Iowa farm in the 50s (which actually happened). The movie would be the dramatic tale of the sons of the farmer who hosted Krushchev. They fall on hard times during the 80s farm crisis and become folk heroes when they take to robbing banks after the farm fails. What the dramatic connection between the Krushchev visit and modern day Robin Hoods was supposed to be, was never adequately explained.

But the BIG NEWS was that the movie would star Richard Gere, then one of Hollywood’s biggest leading men. And he would live & work in our town for several weeks during filming.
Well, the moviemaking took the town by storm that summer. A lot of people got work as extras and on the crew. A few even got in the movie, including a young Coulter Wood, now a geologist and occasional jazz singer (Coulter’s cousin Elijah had already split Iowa for Hollywood and would get his first pre-Frodo break just a few years later).

The filming was also not without some controversy, as then-Linn County Sheriff Dennis Blome was criticized for giving the production company free or reduced cost security services in exchange for his own part in the film. An interesting precursor to the flap over Iowa’s Film Tax Credit.
But, the one question that galvanized the entire community was “Where is Richard?”

It was a daily occurrence during my show… The phone would ring and the person on the other end would tell me that they had heard Richard Gere showed up at a bar with the cast and crew the other night. He was seen buying a 6 pack at the Handi-Mart. He’s rented a house on Sherman Street…. It went on and on.

So, I did what any DJ at the time would do, created a comedy bit out of it. It took the familiar form of an Emergency Broadcasting System announcement.

“This is a test. This station is conducting a test of the Emergency Richard Gere-Sighting System. This is only a test.”

The familar EBS tone was replaced by a high-pitched voice, dumbfounded by a close encounter with the star. At the end, the announcer instructed people “where to swoon.”

It was good for a few laughs during our shows, and then we kind of forgot about it.

Until one day, several weeks later, my phone rings at the office and it’s an L.A. Times reporter. She’s doing a story on circus a “big-time” film crew creates in an Iowa town, and has heard about the ERGSS. I play it for her down the phone line. She chuckles politely.

A few days later an L.A. friend tells me I’m in the paper. Sure enough, there’s an article, which actually doesn’t completely make us seem like ignorant hicks, and my comedy bit is the main topic. The AP picked up the story, and it also appeared in papers in Alaska and Ohio, among other places.

So, for the rest of my career, my official bio now truthfully can read “…. whose antics were covered by newspapers as far away as Los Angeles and Anchorage, Alaska.”

As for the movie, it finally premiered under a new title, “Miles From Home,” and was forgotten about as quickly as the more recent (although I think, better film), The Final Season.



An interesting footnote is that while we were all so obsessed with Richard Gere, we may have missed out several equally-interesting folks. Now, twenty-plus years on, it’s hard to remember if these were all present in Cedar Rapids, but certainly some were. The movie may have been forgettable but a good half the cast have gone on to long and successful careers: Brian Dennehy, Penelope Ann Miller, Helen Hunt, Judith Ivey, Laurie Metcalf, John Malkovich and Laura San Giacomo all may have spent some time in our fair city.

But, the biggest surprise has to be the director. “Miles From Home” was the feature film directorial debut of… Gary Sinise.

I wish we’d kept better track of Sinise Sightings.



Usually, my colleagues at NPR are spot on both in hard news and soft features, but yesterday…. not so much.

Robert Siegel introduced an interview with an upstart NCAA tourney team by explaining this group of young men was the “feel-good story of March Madness.”… The first team from their conference to reach the Sweet Sixteen since 1979 … done it without the benefit of any likely NBA top draft picks.
He then introduced the senior forward from….. Cornell University.
East Coast bias? Ivy League elitism? Or maybe the Sports Illustrated with Ali Farokhmanesh on the cover just hadn’t arrived at the NPR offices yet.

Survey Says!

Survey Says!-Dennis

Thanks again to everyone who participated in KCCK’s recent Listener Survey. We had over 200 responses, which ran the gamut from “We love everything you do” to “You suck pretty much all the time” and everything in between.

In years past, we would have shared the results and comments with our staff, and maybe put a summary in a newsletter article. But today, we can post the whole darn thing so anyone who is interested can take a look. So, we’ve done so, down this page. It’s mostly all there, warts and all. The only editing we’ve down is to take out a couple of really uncalled-for personal attacks against a couple of our staff, and taken out one particularly profane entry.

Fun with Google Voice

So, the geeky among us know that Google has rolled out a phone service called Google Voice, where you can get a phone number from Google and have the calls forwarded to the phone or phones of your choice.

One of the really cool functions of GV is that when someone leaves you a voicemail, Google will transcribe and email or text the voicemail to you.
However, the transcription algorithm leaves just a little to be desired.
Case in point: I received the following transcription this afternoon (edited slightly to protect the innocent, not that you’d ever be able to tell, and no one involved was named Vince, Andy or Jess)
Dennis, I just wanna apologize for breaking on you unnecessarily … so I want to get it was inappropriate, Hi, this is Vince not a very good mood. Ohh I’m sexy and I just want to apologize. I got a call and Andy through sad actually. Can panties voicemail box is also full, so I can leave a message with him, so I left a message just battery. I need to call me so maybe I can get a hold of. I don’t know that I have the exact date of the quarter. Jess. It might book so I need late that day too, so if you could just ev shoot an email to me with that at date that would be great. And please try to somehow it. It’s on it there as soon as possible. I think, so we’ll figure it out. Alright, talk to you later. Bye

Does anyone else find it disturbing that the default transcription attempts are rather… sexual?

Always a Cool Yule Here…

There are two groups of people who are already tired of Christmas music before most of us have even started our shopping: Anyone who works in retail, and…. DJs.

Personally, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with holiday music for years. As a young radio announcer, I would watch with a sinking feeling as the program director hauled a scarred cardboard box into the studio with the word “XMAS” scrawled on the side in faded block letters. This sight signaled four endless weeks of format-busting tedium, as even the most contemporary station’s playlist suddenly sprouted Perry Como, Bing Crosby and the Boston Pops. For a young DJ who prided himself on being on music’s cutting edge…. pure torture.

Had you asked me in those days, I would have told you the only Christmas song worth the vinyl on which it was pressed was Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” As time passed, a few other tunes made my “tolerable” list: Bing Crosby and David Bowie’s “Little Drummer Boy,” Santa Baby” (Eartha Kitt’s original, not Madonna’s horrifying remake), and the Russian and Chinese Dances from the Nutcracker (although that may have been due more to Disney’s “Fantasia”).

But in 1984 a record arrived that changed how I, and millions of others, perceived Christmas music forever.

It was by a little-known Midwestern group whose music combined the forms of classical music with the rhythms of rock & roll.Up to this point, the major market for their albums had been to audiophiles and the occasional stereo store, who used their high-quality vinyl pressings to demo stereo speakers.

I’m speaking, of course, of Mannheim Steamroller. Chip Davis began writing what would become his Fresh Aire series when he was a junior high music teacher. Adding some drums and electrics helped his students relate to the classical structures he was trying to teach them. Later, as the leader of the “Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Plant Band,” backup group for 70s star C.W. McCall, Davis parlayed some particularly savvy instrumental work on the novelty hit “Convoy,” into a Grammy award for best Country Instrumental and subsequently a chance to record his own unique music.

But classically-inspired rock wasn’t easy to pigeon-hole, and Mannheim Steamroller’s Fresh Aire might have remained just a musical footnote (or perhaps, grace note), had Davis not turned his attention to Christmas music.

For my money, the release of “Christmas” is one of the major musical landmarks of the last thirty years, because it completely rejuvenated the holiday music industry. It not only made people take holiday music more seriously, it paved the way for other artists to get their Christmas music heard, even if it didn’t fit into the usual pop milieu.

Certainly, Mannheim Steamroller changed the way I thought about Christmas music. I was captivated not only by the fresh spin Davis put on familiar tunes, but also the obvious passion and love he had for this music. It made me listen to other Christmas music with a different perspective. Gradually, I began to hear that same passion in other, more conventional arrangements. The velvet-smoothness of Nat King Cole’s “Christmas Song,” Bing Crosby’s heartbreaking wistfulness in “White Christmas.” Even Whitney Houston, then a pop icon, now a self-parody, returned to her gospel roots in a soaring “Do You Hear What I Hear” that still stands up well today.

When I got to Jazz 88.3, I didn’t know what to expect when Gordon Paulsen pulled out the boxes with the Christmas CDs (aluminum instead of cardboard, it was the Nineties, after all). Would Christmas jazz meet my new “it’s OK if they’re serious about the quality” test or be the jazz equivalent of the Beach Boys “Little Saint Nick?”

I was pleasantly surprised. Instead of changing KCCK’s sound, our Christmas music enhanced it, as every tune was good jazz, just jazz that happened to feature holiday melodies. Now, Christmas on 88.3 is one of my favorite times to listen, as I get to hear all-time jazz greats from Miles Davis to Oscar Peterson to Harry Connick Jr. make the music of the holidays their own.

So what makes good Christmas music? I suggest that a great Christmas song needs to embody the same qualities of an artist’s entire body of work. The song needs to stand on its own, regardless of whether it’s a Christmas song or not.

Springsteen’s “Santa Claus” works because it’s a good Springsteen tune. Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, and of course Chip Davis bring the same artistry to their Christmas music they sought to achieve with their “regular” recordings.

Good Christmas music? Yes. But good music first.

My most memorable concert experience

My friend Chad Canfield, host and producer of the excellent podcast, The Canman Show, recently asked fans of the show on Facebook to tell him about their most memorable concert experience. Read those postings here.

Chad’s request seems to have been inspired by taking his daughters to see Miley Cyrus in Des Moines, but let’s not hold that against him.
Being in the media, and an omnivorous music fan, I’ve seen hundreds of concerts, of course. The unexpected appearance of a giant star makes this one my most memorable.
The year was 1979, I was in between my freshman and sophomore years of college, working a summer job in Council Bluffs, the town where I grew up. I bought tickets to see America in Omaha’s Civic Auditorium, with a friend and co-worker, Steve Haberman.
I wasn’t a huge America fan, and was actually more interested in seeing the opening band, a new group called McGuinn, Clark and Hillman, who had just released their debut album. I say new, but these guys had been around and had an exceptional pedigree. The astute music fan has already recognized Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark and Chris Hillman as founding members of the Byrds, along with the legendary David Crosby.
I liked the MCH album, and was also intrigued to see what Byrds chestnuts (or Chestnut Mares) they might pull out during their set.
In retrospect, I must have been even more of a fanboy than I really remember, as I chose this concert over seeing Eric Clapton, who was playing a day or two later in the same venue.
So, the concert arrives, my friend Steve and I have sits in the first balcony with a good view of the stage. There’s a skinny, middle aged man with brown hair and a bear a couple of rows behind us, who we are sure is an incognito Clapton.
The MCH set is good, including their minor Top 40 hit, “Don’t You Write Her Off,” but it was the encore that made it memorable. My sharp-eyed friend picked up some commotion just offstage and said “let’s go to the main floor.”
So, we run downstairs, and arrive in front of the stage just to hear Roger McGuinn say, “Here’s a great old song, and a great friend to help us out… Eric Clapton!”
Wearing a faded jean jacket, Clapton walked onstage. He was clean-shaven, so was not the fellow who had been sitting behind us. In retrospect, I don’t know why we would have thought Eric Clapton would have been sitting in the balcony, anyway, but it was the seventies and it is possible our thought processes were somewhat cloudy.
Clapton buckled the strap of a Fender strat around his shoulders, and proceeded to rip through a torrid version of “Eight Miles High.”
We would have listened to that band jam all night, but unfortunately the headliners wanted to go on, so the ex-Byrds and EC left the stage. We went back to our seats to hear an unremarkable set from America.
Thirty-plus years later, that 15 minutes still ranks as my most memorable concert experience.
On an unrelated note, I see that Miley Cyrus Fan Club is now following me on Twitter. Obviously, typing that name in the original FB posting was a mistake.

Fall TV

Took me a few days to get to it, but I finally pulled “Flash Forward” off the DVR last night. I was pretty impressed. I haven’t read the Robert Sawyer novel it’s loosely based on, but was skeptical. I’m generally nuts for Sci Fi shows (or is it SyFy now?), but have been unimpressed with ABC’s efforts in that direction.

I simply can’t make heads or tails of the video morass that’s “Lost.” Nothing against dense plots, I mean I loved the way Babylon 5 set up plot points in Season 1 that weren’t resolved till Season 3, but gimme a break. I understand this season, someone may go back in time to insure the airplane crash never happened. Does that mean we’ll get back the hundreds of hours we’ve wasted trying to make sense of this show?
I had high hopes for Live on Mars, so, of course it barely lasted one season. I was a huge fan of the original BBC series. And I do have to give ABC credit for letting the producers give the show a real ending, and for cooking up an original spin on the “it was a all dream” plot device.
Way better than how Fox left the 8 viewers of “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” hanging, stranding young John Connor in a future where no one had ever heard of him. Of course, by my count, there couldn’t have been that many people left in the future. Connor had sent them all back to torture his younger self.
“Daybreak” was another good show that never got traction. So, I guess I should be pleased that ABC continues to swing at Sci Fi shows, and has invested some pretty heavy promotional time in Flash Foward.
Which largely delivered. Since the Flash Forward happened to the entire world, we get to bypass the tired “I’ve seen the future but no one believes me” device. The Flashes we’ve glimpsed thus far represent the kind of variety in experience you’d expect from a random sample of viewpoint characters. Hopefully, each of them won’t end up carrying around a vital (& obvious) piece of the puzzle. And, having one character whose entire Flash consisted of him taking a crap was too great for words.
I have high hopes, and will keep watching. I am also increasingly intrigued by the promos for “Stargate Universe,” not normally being a fan of Planet of the Week shows, and am looking forward to the return of Sanctuary.
Although I do think the person who suggested the normally-excellent Amanda Tapping adopt that atrocious British accent should be forced to listen to an Ipod whose entire contents are recordings of Carrie Fisher’s similarly-inflected lines from Star Wars: ANH.