Bart truly was the Wizard of Rock. He was also one of my best and most generous teachers.
The summer of 1977 was golden for all sorts of reasons. Star Wars premiered. (We didn’t yet know it was “A New Hope,” much less “Episode IV.”) I met the young woman I would end up marrying–well, met her again, but that’s another story. And I had a dream summer job. Three of them in fact. All of them were radio gigs. All of them were strange.
For three afternoons each week, I worked at Beach Patrol, a weather-forecast service managed by the celebrated Dave Moran and sponsored by Hawaiian Tropic, “the tan of the islands” (thanks, Dave, for the correction here!). I sat in a house in landlocked Salem, Virginia, and called radio stations at various beaches up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Over the phone, I’d deliver a customized weather forecast tailored for each beach area, and I’d play a Hawaiian Tropics commercial. All very professional, and all very theatrical. Radio magic. For extras, Dave told side-splittingly funny radio stories, and one of my colleagues was Gary Cooper. No, not that one, the other one.
On Sunday nights from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. Monday mornings, I’d babysit the banks of automated 10.5 inch reel-to-reel decks loaded with “beautiful music” at WLRG (“Large FM,” 92.5). I’d also program the commercials for the next day, putting pins into holes to trigger the cues that would play the spots at the correct times throughout the day. Most scientific.
Each of those gigs was thrilling in its own way, even the overnight mushy music gig. But the best gig of all was the graveyard shift at WROV, 1240 AM, midnight-6 a.m. every Sunday morning. There I was, playing rock-n-roll on the hottest hometown station, the one I’d listened to since elementary school on a little green JC Penney six-transistor radio. I was in the control room where all the greats had inspired my rock dreams: Jack Fisher, Rob O’Brady, Fred Frelantz, more. All extraordinary, larger-than-life disc jockeys, the guys who’d answer the phone when I’d call in and try to get concert tickets, the guys (and they were all guys, then, alas) who seemed to have eerie powers of concentrated hipness and wit.
But the greatest of all was Bart Prater. And in the summer of 1977, he was my boss.
I had followed Bart Prater (rhymes with “crater”) since he’d joined the WROV roster in the late 1960s. Up from Marion, Virginia, the new guy started out as the nighttime DJ, “young Bart” the upstart, the one with the long hair. As a joke, the other WROV DJs trapped him one afternoon, dragged him into the studio, and cut his hair, live on the air. Well, that’s what they said they did. It was radio, after all.
Within a few years, Bart’s career went supernova. He moved to afternoon drive after Jack Fisher left. He became program director, responsible for hiring, firing, and managing all the on-air talent. In 1974, he helped break the Doobie Brothers’ immortal “Black Water.” And in 1975, he arrived: Billboard named him DJ-of-the-year for markets of under 1,000,000 population.
Bart’s voice was an utterly compelling blend of deep baritone resonance and crisp, cutting consonants. He spoke with the same cadence and timbre as Rod Serling. Bart didn’t seem to have to work at producing the sound. He just spoke, and every syllable was imbued with his intense, witty, sometimes loopy, sometimes nearly surreal on-air personality. He’d say things so quickly, without underlining any punch line or milking any response, that I sometimes wouldn’t get the joke until the song had been playing for a minute or two. His wordplay could rival Dylan’s, or Steve Martin’s. You could almost accuse him of muttering, but he was such a stickler for great articulation that he was the farthest thing from a mutterer. It was just that his jokes and patter were so inside, so self-contained in Bart’s own world, that it really did sound sometimes as if he were talking to himself–but you were welcome there too.
Sophomore year at Wake Forest University, I took a course called “Radio Practicum.” I fell in love with radio all over again, this time not just as a listener, but as an announcer myself. Classical, jazz, progressive free-form FM rock. Heaven. As the academic year came to a close that spring, I wondered if I could find radio work at home for the summer. I could indeed. Three part-time openings to apply for. Beach Patrol. Large FM. WROV.
I went down to the converted Quonset hut that housed the WROV studios, identified myself at the front desk, and sat down to wait for Bart. I had my little reel-to-reel tape with me so he could hear how I sounded on mike at Wake Forest’s WFDD-FM. I looked around the reception area and tried hard not to hyperventilate. I’d been there before, not only to pick up the occasional contest prize but also to visit the broadcast room itself as a WROV High School Correspondent. This time, though, was different. This time I was going to ask the Wizard of Rock for a job. The lowest spot possible in the line-up, but what did that matter? I would be a DJ on WROV, and my boss would be the Wizard of Rock–if I got the gig.
An office door opened and Bart Prater stuck his head out. He looked around, saw me, asked me if I was Gardner Campbell (I believe I said yes, but who knows? I was petrified), and invited me in to his office. He asked me to sit down. I vaguely remember doing so. Bart was very low-key, very polite, and very focused. He threaded the tape up, listened to my voice, and apparently liked what he heard enough to offer me the job. I went from petrified to elated in half a second. Then he asked me a question I had not anticipated.
So, Gardner, what will you use as your air name?
Well, Gardner, I’ve always thought Bob Van Dyke would be a great air name. Bob was our WROV Diamond Keeper last spring, and I really do think the name would suit you well. What do you think?
What did I think. I thought he could suggest Tommy the Tuba as my air name and I’d agree enthusiastically, if it meant I could be a DJ on WROV. I didn’t say that, of course. I just said, “Sure! That sounds great!”
And so my gig began. Every Saturday night I’d come in about 11:15 or so and get ready to go on the air at midnight. As Bob Van Dyke, I’d do my thing on the Rock of Roanoke, Oh Lordy 1240, playing the songs, hitting the network news feed at the top of the hour (a special skill I finally mastered), filling out the transmitter logs, noting when the commercials ran. And every time I clicked the microphone on, I’d try as hard as I could to be as funny, hip, and memorable as Bart. As you might expect, I failed to reach that goal, in part because I was trying too hard, but mostly because Bart was inimitable.
My air shift was effectively over at 5 a.m. each Sunday morning. The last hour was all religious and community programming on LPs with a half-hour on each side. That left me with about an hour to roam around the station, looking at the old 45s, the production rooms, the moderne-styled transmitter with its tubes aglow and faintly humming, and the pictures hanging on the walls. Several of those photos were of Bart. One framed item was not a photo at all, but Bart’s first-class FCC license. That license meant Bart was qualified not only as a DJ (that required a “third class license with broadcast endorsement”), but also as an full-fledged radio engineer. In other words, Bart was qualified to be on the air, and he was qualified to build and run an entire radio station all by himself. I could only look on in wonder. I had no idea.
But best of all, even better than the weird phone calls and the stalkers (yes, there was one), even better than the thrill of sending out Heart’s “Barracuda” to the entire Roanoke Valley from the fabled corner of 15th and Cleveland, even better than all of these, was the weekly critique session with Bart Prater. For it’s true: every week Bart would sit down with me, the guy who was as green as grass and on the lowest of the low shifts, and spend nearly an hour listening to my airchecks and offering me private lessons in effective radio announcing. Bart taught me that things move forward in time, so the song title should be the very last thing you say before the music hits and you stop talking. Bart taught me to let my voice come out naturally, without forcing it, and certainly without the exaggerated tonsil-swinging AM style he called “puking.” Bart taught me to slow down, to trust the moment, and to enjoy myself.
As we listened to my airchecks, I heard some howlers I just knew would get me fired. I’d step on–that is, talk over–the song’s vocal. My patter was sometimes bad in ways I can’t easily describe. “Dumb” doesn’t quite do justice to the insane irrelevancies and flat “jokes” I would hear spilling out of my mouth. Once to my horror, on that little cassette that recorded my airchecks, I heard a record take about five seconds to come up to speed as I was introducing the song and yes, stepping on the vocal. Those turntables did not reach the right speed instantly, and I hadn’t taken that lag time into account when I cued up the record. So the beginning of “Hey Jude,” which starts with the vocal of course, sounded like “hohhhhhhaaahhhhhhhheeeeeeeaaaaaaaaayyyeeeeeeee Jude”–really loudly, because the station’s audio compressor was tuned for maximum impact. And all the time I was bleating away. I was mortified and couldn’t look Bart in the eye as I heard the song wowing its way to life as I kept on talking over Paul McCartney’s voice.
Bart never mentioned it. He had some kind of strange gift that could distinguish between lack of aptitude and lack of experience. I guess he assumed the latter was susceptible to education, and the mistakes would be fewer and farther between as I learned. A simple gift, really, but surprisingly rare.
And he was right. I got better over the summer. A lot better. I grew confident. My patter improved. I had more fun. I could experiment more, with better results. I could answer the phone, cue up a record, get the next spot ready in the tape-cartridge player, check the transmitter meters, and prepare to hit the news at the top of the hour with no more than a second’s lapse. And I was ready to say something short, sweet, and rocking when I clicked the microphone on.
At the end of the summer, at our last meeting, Bart looked at me and said, in the voice of the Wizard of Rock, the only voice he had and the only voice he would ever need, “Well, Gardner, you’ve improved about 1000% since you started working here. Good job.” I shook his hand and thanked him, and I said goodbye.
That was the last time I saw Bart Prater. The next summer I worked construction–the pay was better, but my heart wasn’t in it. The summer after that, I graduated from college, got married, and started working at a station in Fredericksburg, Virginia. And every time I’d go back home to Salem to visit my folks, I’d listen for Bart. I heard him in the last glory days of WROV, and I heard him when he jumped to the new FM rocker, K-92. On that new station with no static at all, Bart was still great, but it wasn’t the same. The Wizard of Rock belonged on the Rock of Roanoke. Bart Prater belonged on WROV. And in that golden summer of 1977, Bart made me believe I belonged on WROV too. What began as a polite fiction for the benefit of a young student just starting out in radio became a reality by the end of that summer. The student was ready, and the teacher appeared–one of the best teachers in the land. The Wizard of Rock himself. He taught me essential things about radio, and he taught me some vital things about teaching, too.
I paid tribute to Bart and the Rock of Roanoke at the Digital Media and Learning conference in 2015, with an Ignite Talk about radio.
But no tribute is enough for the gratitude and admiration I still feel for Bart Prater. His death last Wednesday hit me hard. I was moved by two hometown remembrances, one an article in the Roanoke Times, and one a great 1997 interview with Bart done by WDBJ television:
And I resolved to write this post.
Bart ended every one of his air shifts with, “never whittle toward yourself, or spit into the wind.” Good advice, though I also remember that other lesson he shared with me, in one of our first private conferences: things move forward in time.
Sometimes I wish they didn’t, because those things now include a big empty space where a wizard once lived.
Thank you, Bart. I won’t forget.
EDIT: I just found a remarkable “scoped” aircheck of Bart from 1972. (“Scoped” means spots, news, and voice breaks.) The aircheck showcases some fine examples of Bart’s great delivery and wicked ad-libs.
We join Bart as he shares his summer vacation slides … on the radio.
It’s also a fascinating time capsule. Those commercials, those jingles … and don’t miss the news about 14:00 in. Muskie vs. McGovern vs. Jackson vs. Humphrey. Vivid stuff.