“Beaker Street,” Clyde Clifford’s pioneering late-night radio show, is back on the air. The program debuted on 50,000-watt AM radio station KAAY in 1966 and established itself as an underground dispatch — and as an antidote to commercial radio’s milquetoast formulas and penchants for repeating the same 100 classic rock tracks on a carousel. Clifford favored deeper and longer album cuts than daytime mainstream radio had patience for, and because he broadcast the show from KAAY’s Wrightsville location, where the station’s transmitter was located, he set his mellow narration to a backdrop of freaky space sounds to muffle the transmitter’s hum — a trademark that so defined the show that it had to be kept, even when “Beaker Street” found life in other, more noise-controlled studios.
Now, with Clifford’s (real name: Dale Seidenschwarz) retirement from a decades-long day job in the rearview mirror (barely), the beloved rock radio bulletin is slated for a revival on Arkansas Rocks, a coalition of veteran radio talent that, like Clifford, skews less toward stuff like “Hotel California” and more toward the likes of “Traveller in Time.” Stay tuned for more on Clifford’s return to the airwaves, scheduled for February 2020. Until then, here’s Arkansas Rocks’ air talent Tom Wood bringing the good news.
Even people who weren’t around for the heyday of “Beaker Street,” this writer included, might know it as a sort of ambassador for the weird and a trailblazer for underground radio. Why revive it, and why now?
Absolutely. It was a fun situation to kind of “reel in the fish.” All of us at Arkansas Rocks are kind of old veteran broadcasters in Arkansas and worked for the corporate guys for many years and, for one or reason or another, are not with them anymore. So we got a chance to start this station. And, of course, Clyde is the epitome of veteran broadcasters that are anything other than the corporate image. And, yes, “Beaker Street” was an ambassador for the weird, and for the deep music that people love. So, when we got this thing off the ground, two guys in particular have a longstanding friendship with Clyde and wondered if he’d want to be part of it, called him. And he said, “Yeah, I think I would like to be part of that. I haven’t been on the air for eight years. I’m not sure how I would sound, but the invitation is one that I really like the idea of.”
So we put it all together and there was some equipment we had to get ready for him in the control room. Because he plays such deep cut music, we didn’t have it all readily available.
That’s a good sign.
Yeah, exactly! If he didn’t want to play stuff we already had, that was a great sign. So we decided, well, let’s do it in a kind of unusual way and bring it back on New Year’s Eve at midnight, and it worked out great. We had a couple of technical problems in the first 15 minutes and got those worked out. [Clyde] did three hours, and when it was over — well, nobody wanted to ask him then, because it was three o’clock in the morning — but the very next day we all called him and said, “What’d you think?”
And he said, “Man, I didn’t know what I was gonna say. I didn’t know how I was gonna feel. But within a half-hour, I was totally back in the groove of the early ’70s and just having a ball.” You know, he just retired from UAMS, where he worked for decades, in addition to the radio career. Radio was always something that as a young person was his job, but when he was doing “Beaker Street,” that was a once-a-week program, so radio became more of a hobby. But Dec. 31 was his last day, so he’s officially a retired guy now.
So he went from his last day at work at UAMS to the radio station to revive “Beaker Street” in the middle of the night?
[Laughs.] Exactly! It told us that wow, he really is into doing this. You know, he’s kind of a night owl, too, and one of the things we talked about when we knew he wanted to come back and do it on Arkansas Rocks was, “Man, you sure you still want to do this, like, late at night? Do you want to come in during the day and tape it or something?” And he said, “No, no, man. I’ve gotta do it live. And it’s gotta be at night, because the whole vibe of the show is, like, nighttime.”
Yes! I read Donald Fagen’s autobiography a while back, and he talks a lot about how nighttime radio was so important to him, and how it shaped so much of what Steely Dan was trying to do — about the mystery of radio and the unknowns of wheeling around the dial in those days, not really even knowing what you’re looking for. But not quite so mysterious during the daytime.
Right! We’re all just regular people during the day. But you tune into something that you didn’t expect and it’s 11 p.m. or 1 a.m. and man, it’s got so many layers of coolness.
When will it air? Is there a timeslot for “Beaker Street” that’s been settled into?
We have not done that. … All we have right now is the gentleman’s agreement between all of us — because we’re all good friends — that “Yep, I’m back. I wanna do it. It’s too much fun not to.” We also need to — and this is so cool, because so many people are into vinyl now, and you know, a lot of radio stations don’t have turntables. Everything is audio files, and sometimes you play deeper tracks from CDs. But he said, “Look, if there’s any way you could install a couple of turntables, because there’s a lot of stuff I want to play that’s on vinyl that I wouldn’t be able to play without a turntable.” So we’re going to get those installed, too.
I’ll speak for myself, but I think this is probably true of a lot of folks who listen to this station: Part of what I love about Arkansas Rocks is that — all due respect to the 100 tracks in the classic rock radio canon — I’ve heard Boston’s “More Than A Feeling” enough times to last me my whole life. And I like when I tune in and I’m like, “Well, this sounds like, say, Joe Jackson, but I’ve definitely never heard this song.”
Those of us who have been in this business for as long as we all have kind of pride ourselves in being able to tell what a song is within the first few seconds. I myself — and I’m 67 years old and have been doing this since 1970! — I’ll put it on in the car and go, “I think I know who that is, but I’m not really sure.” And the guy comes on afterward and says, you know, “That’s a track from the Golden Earring album,” but it’s not “Radar Love” or “Twilight Zone.” And I just get off on that so much.
I think listeners do, too. Because what you’re saying is “We trust you.” There’s a place and time when you tune into classic rock radio and just want to hear stuff you know, but what you’re doing at Arkansas Rocks is trusting that your listeners enjoy discovering things through radio, and not just confirming the things they already know. That can build pretty fierce loyalty.
I love that that’s the reaction that you’re having to it, and hopefully that’s what a lot of people are having. And I’ll tell you another “trusting” thing that is part of our mission: We don’t think we’ve gotta jump in between every song and remind you what radio station you’re listening to. We don’t feel like we’ve gotta jam it down your throat.
Listen to Arkansas Rocks on KLRG-FM, 94.5, in Little Rock; KAFN-FM, 99.3, in Benton; KZYP-FM, 104.1, in Malvern; KWPS-FM, 99.7, in Hot Springs; KDEL-FM, 100.9, in Arkadelphia; KYXK-FM, 106.9, in Gurdon; and KJJI-FM, 98.9, in Pine Bluff, and stay tuned for the return of Clyde Clifford’s “Beaker Street” in February 2020.