Courtesy Dr. Demento
For evidence of the way radio broadcasting has evolved, Exhibit A is a personality named Barry Hansen. KPCC’s Steve Julian looks back about 40 years, when Hansen created a character who delivered the equivalent of "Mad Magazine" to the airwaves.
"I was playing 'Transfusion' by Nervous Norvus," said Hansen, "and I clearly recall one of the other employees, maybe a secretary at the station, saying, 'You’ve got to be demented to play that.'"
That station was KPPC in Pasadena – the call letters stood for Pasadena Presbyterian Church. That station became the original home of Dr. Demento. He had come to L.A. from Oregon and worked as a roadie for a couple of rock bands.
"Canned Heat and Spirit and then I got a job with Specialty Records, putting out reissues of early R&B, blues, and gospel music. I was working there when the KPPC episode began."
In 1971, after he earned a master’s degree in ethnomusicology from UCLA, Hansen took Dr. Demento to the iconic FM rock station, KMET.
"Dr. Demento is just Barry Hansen talking a little louder and telling stories about the origins of old records and what they mean and playing crazy, wacky stuff. As the show went on, the stuff got wackier. Outside of that, Dr. Demento is somewhat of a scholar of music – Barry Hansen certainly is a scholar of music. Dr Demento is just a little louder, more extroverted version of Barry Hansen."
That extroverted personality became very popular with listeners and Westwood One syndicated the Dr. Demento show across the country. Through the show, America learned songs like “Junk Food Junkie,” “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh,” “Monster Mash,” and “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa.” Hansen enjoyed a long ride with Westwood One, until 1992.
"Well, I had no choice. Westwood One decided that I was not big enough for them anymore. So, I actually hooked up with another syndicator, On the Radio Broadcasting, which was a much smaller version of Westwood One. I went with them for five years. After that I decided to take it over myself. What’s done is done in that department."
What’s also done is Dr. Demento’s run on terrestrial radio. Here’s Exhibit B. The number of stations that carried his show dwindled to only a handful and reached a point where it made no sense to continue. As of this week, the Dr. Demento show can be heard only on the Internet at DrDemento.com.
"To me it’s like the change from cassette to CDs. The music goes on. Before the Internet got going, before high speed Internet, I was really dependent on which stations carried the show.
"Even at the height of the show that meant that there were large swaths of the country, not to mention the rest of the world, where you could not hear my show. Now, potentially, anybody with a high speed Internet connection can hear it anywhere."
Of course, Hansen hopes that his online listenership will attract advertisers.
"But I’m happy to play for any audience I can get and it strikes me that the Internet is the way to most efficiently reach all the people who really enjoy what I do, wherever they may be around the world."
There are two names that seem to crop up in conversations with Dr. Demento: "Weird Al" Yankovic, whose songs often were played on the show, and Frank Zappa.
"I was one of the relatively few people [Zappa] knew who could hold an intelligent conversation about ‘50s doo-wop and about Stravinsky or the other avant garde composers he liked. On the other hand, he was very suspicious that people would take advantage of him ‐ people like former managers, record companies, things like that. But on the other hand I think we had a whole lot of respect for each other. I certainly had for him, still do."
Hansen’s fans, who still hold respect for Dr. Demento, can hear those familiar songs and his musings at DrDemento.com.