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'Beaker Street,' remembered

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If The Observer was the maudlin sort, we'd say that last Sunday, while you were busy gorging yourself on seven-layer dip and watching the Super Bowl, was the day the music died. But Don McLean and his good ol' boys drinkin' whiskey and rye have no place in this story. Rather, we'll simply say that, when the clock struck midnight Sunday night, one of the few remaining sovereign states of radio disappeared from the map: Clyde Clifford's "Beaker Street" went dark.

In the show's final five hours, Clifford played The Beatles at their most lysergic; a nine-minute, moog-laden Yes cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "America" and the Barbara Raney and Deepwater Horizon folk-romp "Cindy's Crying." Songs faded out into brief dead space, rather than transitioning neatly into what followed. Between tracks, Clifford talked in the platonic ideal of mellow-DJ-voice, while the background hummed with bleeps and blips and the sorts of sounds fitting to soundtrack drug trips — in space. At one point, Clifford said he was trying to fill the show "according to some of the vibes that've been floating around here."

Sunday's was a special show, but had you tuned in 10 or 20 or even 45 years earlier, you would've recognized a similar tilt.

Clifford, whose real name is Dale Seidenschwarz, started "Beaker Street" in 1966 at Little Rock's KAAY AM-1090 ("The Mighty 1090"). Much like today, commercial radio at the time was programmed based on precise formulas. "Beaker Street" was an experiment in defying convention. Clifford's bosses were game, in part, because he could broadcast the show from the station transmitter in Wrightsville, where he was already working as an engineer.

"The station manager had the whole shooting match in one salary," Clifford told The Observer earlier this week.

To understand how an AM radio signal travels, Clifford asked The Observer to consider shining a flashlight at a glancing angle in a long mirrored room. An AM radio signal travels similarly, radiating to the ionosphere (the charged upper layer in the atmosphere), where it bounces back down to earth, skipping across the globe. The Mighty 1090's directional signal almost guaranteed it airspace throughout the middle swath of North America. When the conditions were right and when there were no other AM stations using the same frequency (in the early days of "Beaker Street," Wolfman Jack broadcast on a station located just south of the U.S. border that used 1090, too), "Beaker Street" could reach just about every part of the globe.

Early on, Clifford struck a chord. Initial feedback, he said, was "amazing." Gradually, the show expanded from occupying a half-hour slot to an hour one, then a two-hour window and finally, to six nights a week for three-and-a-half hours. Clifford got calls from people all across the country and letters from around the world (seawater has "great conductivity," he said). Longtime Little Rock radio personality Tom Wood, currently at 94.9 TOM-FM, remembers listening to Beaker Street in the early '70s when he was growing up in the suburbs of Chicago. "It was the only place you could hear Jimi Hendrix's "The Wind Cries Mary." Bill Eginton, owner of Arkansas Record and CD Exchange, listened to the show growing up in Minnesota and figured, before he moved South, "Arkansas had to be cool" if Beaker Street was based here.

Clifford stopped hosting "Beaker Street" in 1972, but returned in the 1980s, the day before "The Mighty 1090" got religion and became "The Almighty 1090," to do one final edition of "Beaker Street." Another years-long hiatus followed, before KZLR-FM asked Clifford to revive the show on Sunday nights, and there it stayed, living for years on Magic 105 FM and finally, after Magic 105 changed formats, on The Point for the last few years.

Management at The Point described the cancellation "Beaker Street" as "a business decision." Earlier this week, Clifford told The Observer he was disappointed. "I'd expected to hang on there until I finally decided to retire."

Clifford told The Observer that he's looking into the possibility of recording the show from his home and syndicating it through the state.

But on Sunday, he left listeners with a more philosophical proposition, from Joni Mitchell's song "The Circle Game."

It goes like this: "We're captive on the carousel of time/We can't return/ We can only look behind from where we came/and go round and round in the circle game."

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