Beaker Street, Clyde Clifford’s pioneering late-night radio show, is back on the air this Friday night. 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.
With Clifford’s (real name: Dale Seidenschwarz) retirement from a decades-long day job in the rearview mirror (barely), the beloved rock radio bulletin was slated for a revival earlier this year, but was delayed due to Clifford’s diagnosis with multiple myeloma. This Friday night, May 15, between 9 p.m. and midnight, Beaker Street airs on Arkansas Rocks, a station that, like Clifford, skews less toward stuff like “Hotel California” and more toward the likes of “Traveller in Time.” True to the show’s original spirit, it will be live, unscripted and, as Clifford put it, a “true musical stream of consciousness, where not even the first song each week is pre-planned.”
Stream Friday night’s show online or tune in to any of Arkansas Rocks’ affiliates: KLRG-FM, 94.5, in Little Rock; KAFN-FM, 99.3, in Benton; KWPS-FM, 99.7, in Hot Springs; KDEL-FM, 100.9, in Arkadelphia; KZYP-FM, 104.1, in Malvern; KXYK-FM, 106.9, in Gurdon; and KCMC-FM, 94.3, in Mountain Home.
First things first: are we keeping the space music background vibe here, even though I’m pretty sure the Arkansas Rocks studio doesn’t sit right abreast of its station transmitter?
Well, yeah. It’s become a trademark, so yes, we’ll continue doing it.
Are you really doing this live? I mean, I think that’s amazing, but you’re retired now, and could probably get away with, you know, not coming in late at night.
When I first started, I actually was the transmitter engineer at KAAY, and got bit by the disc jockey bug. It’s a vicious animal. And the station manager was, shall we say, frugal. He had a transmitter engineer, a newsman and a disc jockey for the price of one. So that’s why I worked nights there. And it just became a late-night program. It just sort of fits in the darkness, and in the undercurrents of the night, so to speak.
I tried scripting it out, and doing it “like the big guys do.” So I knew exactly what I was going to play each time, what was going to follow what. And that was about the deadest-sounding programming I ever did. It just did not have any kind of a spark to it.
So the rule is there are nor rules. … I’ll just walk in and something will catch my attention and I’ll start, and then it will lead to something else, and then that will lead to something else, depending on what the night feels like, and what sort of mood the evening has. It will just sort of program itself. I just sort of follow it along. … Everybody else is doing voice tracks, and then programming it into the computer, and the computer plays everything in line, and it sounds like [the DJ] is there. So far, I just haven’t been able to do that. I just cannot get a feel for calling it in, as it were.
I have a question about the sorts of stuff you played in the context of classic rock at the time, and now. Even when Beaker Street was on the air, radio was still never as rogue and deep-diving as your playlists were. And since then, radio has gotten maybe even more streamlined, even less willing to play something outside the “canon.” Were there people you considered peers in what you were doing, or did you feel like you were more on your own?
Well, no one around here was doing anything like that, and I really never heard any air checks from either coast. So I guess I was out there winging it on my own.
Part of your connection to listeners was just giving them a place where they felt like there were other people out there in search of the weird. Did you feel that at the time, like, did you think of doing that intentionally?
What I was doing was, I would listen to the stuff that came in, and find stuff that I thought was interesting and good, and I would basically be sharing that with people. And people would call me and say, “Hey, have you heard so-and-so?” And I’d look it up, and some of the things they’d called up and told me to listen to were pure dreck, and others were great. It was sort of a sharing thing; they’d share it with me and I’d share it back. It was sort of a — pardon me for saying this — but sort of a communal thing.
The stuff that you played on Beaker Street, is this what you would have listened to at home? Or were you also listening to, like, The Carpenters at home, and just knowing that wasn’t meant for Beaker Street?
There’s a lot of stuff I listen to on my own that is not Beaker Street material, and I know it. We all have our guilty vices. Like rocky road ice cream.
Do you have something that’s your rocky road ice cream of the music world?
Oh, not offhand. If somebody asks me what my favorite album is, I only have about 200 favorite albums. I can’t tell you what would be a favorite vice. It depends on what kind of mood I’m in. I mean, I am not a fan of the 1910 Fruit Gum Company, but once in a while, that might be interesting, too.
Can you talk a little bit about how this return kind of fits into your personal life? Why revive “Beaker Street” now?
Because I have a chance to. If there is a radio station that would like to have Beaker Street on it, I would like to be there. Radio is also a terrible vice. You get bit by it, and you’re addicted, and I don’t know that there is a cure.
To what do you attribute the passion and the longevity of the show’s impact?
I guess it’s because the sort of thing that I did on the air, and still do, is not a hype. I’m not playing a game. I’m just being me, sharing things that I find interesting. I don’t know, I guess that comes through. I’m not running a scam on anybody. When I play something, it’s because I think it’s genuinely something that needs to be played then. I think people sense that. Have you ever listened to a “boss jock” doing the “boss jock” thing?
I think I know what you mean.
It’s the — well, I can’t even do it. I don’t know how to do it. I don’t want to do it.
The sort of over-enunciated thing.
Yeah, it’s the kind of [affected voice] “Get down and get with it, rock and roll!” bullshit. I just want to be the guy on the radio who shares things with you.
I know there’s a very dedicated following at the Beaker Street Facebook group. Have people been sending you requests since they heard the show was coming back?
I have not gotten a lot of requests, because there’s really not a whole lot of ways to get it to me. I’m not a whole lot of a Facebooker. I have my — [calls out to his wife in the background] what is it? … I have my Officer in Charge of Shameless Promotion, also known as my wife.
I just got burnt out on Facebook. I know this is a terrible reveal, but I am a fairly liberal kind of person, and I just got disgusted with it. So, I do not spend much time looking at Facebook. I have a number of friends on there who I like to keep up with, but I don’t want to wade through the goo to get to them. … I probably will start up an email address, and maybe have people get things to me that way. Right now, it’s just kinda gonna be what comes in. Basically, and this sounds spacey, but I think I will just be able to sort of feel what people want to hear.
It’s a challenge to go back on the air, because a lot of the stuff I was pioneering is now standard airplay. One of the things that I do — Central Arkansas has a pretty vibrant music community. There are a lot of good bands around here. I was playing Amy Lee long before she got Evanescence going. I like to reach out and find bands that have promise. There’s a whole bunch of little bands out there that don’t have a following, and are doing really good stuff, that I’d like to expose. I’m hoping that by virtue of going back on the air, maybe a lot of them will reach out and try to get to me, and I can have some things that are not “proven play” pieces.