Rob Brinson's WTMA Memories
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This Op/Ed piece appeared in the Post & Courier on Monday, July 14, 2008.
It has been posted here with the author's permission.

WTMA was a hit with kids and a Soviet trawler crew
By Ron Brinson

Fifty years ago, our generation knew nothing about iPods, MySpace or Facebook, streaming music videos, cell phones, instant messaging and XBOX madness. By today's standards, we were technology deprived, but we had WTMA-AM, one really neat Top 40 radio station.

WTMA featured disc jockeys with large personalities, jingles, jangles, call-in games and news breaks. For us teenagers, WTMA was the first sound you heard in the morning and the last at night. With a radio and an extension phone, you were "on line" in the energized world of WTMA, entertained and informed. Broadband was the AM band, and if you had a transistor radio at the beach, you could tune to WAPE, another cool station broadcasting from Jacksonville, Fla.

XM Satellite Radio's "Sonic Sounds Salutes" recently honored WTMA as a "great" radio station on its '60s channel. For several hours via satellite, listeners all over the world could hear the sounds and styles of the WTMA we knew so well four and five decades ago. On any day, we can stroll down WTMA's memory lane at a multi-featured interactive WTMAMemories.com.

Apparently, back in those days of simple '60s technology, WTMA was attracting an unusual international audience.

In the fall of 1990, the Soviet Union's break-up was beginning to take form. But Leningrad nee St. Petersburg was still very "Soviet." I was there with my Port of New Orleans colleagues marketing our port. Soviet ocean carriers were not allowed anywhere near the Port of Charleston because of naval installations, but Soviet business was very much coveted at non-naval base ports like New Orleans.

A busy day at the Port of Leningrad ended with a message that a man named "Yourily" proposed a meeting at my hotel. He wanted to discuss his interest in Charleston. I had not lived in Charleston for more than a decade, although my visa application probably required disclosure of my birthplace. This was strange and I agreed to the meeting only after a colleague committed to join me.

"Yourily" was a burly, fair-haired man in his late 40s. He insisted we call him "You". In a two-hour visit, "You" consumed several glasses of "potato juice" his term for Russian vodka. He said he was "desperate" for fresh news on how Charleston was recovering from Hurricane Hugo. He told us he hoped to travel to Charleston the following spring for Spoleto. His English was scarcely burdened by his Russian accent.

"You" chose his words carefully very carefully. In the '60s, he explained, he served aboard Soviet trawlers operating along the South Atlantic Coast, mostly off Charleston and Jacksonville. He would listen to WTMA off Charleston and WAPE off Jacksonville and practice his English. The stations piped music he and his fellow crewmen liked and the announcers and disc jockeys helped him advance his pronunciations and definitions. I can't recall his word-for-for quotes, but I do recall his declaring happily, "WTMA was the best. Mr. Bobby Dee and Mr. Booby Nash ... they were the best."

He asked me if I remembered "Charlie the Bird".

I told him I recalled Booby Nash but I thought Bobby Dee was a Top 40 singer, not a station disc jockey. I knew nothing about the "Bird." "You" insisted that Bobby Dee was the first deejay he heard while crewing off Charleston. He said "Name It And Claim It" was his favorite WTMA contest and he lamented he couldn't call to compete. I told him that I worked as a young journalist for the Charleston newspapers in the '60s, and our news desks received many reports from harbor pilots about Soviet trawlers on station just outside international boundaries monitoring naval vessel traffic in and out of Charleston. "You" smiled without comment.

As he departed, "You" promised he would be in Charleston one day for the Spoleto Festival. I invited him to New Orleans and to the Jazz Festival. Again, he smiled without comment, wished us well and walked away. "You" had skillfully avoided disclosing how he knew a Charleston native had arrived in his community. But he had been clear in his admiration and appreciation for WTMA and his abiding interest in the town he claimed he had visited but had never seen. Back in my hotel room, I searched for bugs. Was "You" for real? I committed myself to let the WTMA folks know about this intrigue and the apparent reach of the station's fan club. And now finally, on the occasion of the recent XM Satellite honors, I have.

A few days ago, John Quincy, the very helpful WTMA memories Webmaster and the station's current assistant program director and morning show producer, confirmed that Bobby Dee was a deejay in the early '60s and so was Charlie "Byrd" Lindsey. He also confirmed there was a '60s-era game called "Name It And Claim It".

Maybe "You" has a satellite radio and was able to enjoy XM's "Great Station" salute to WTMA.

Ron Brinson, a former associate editor of the Post & Courier, retired in 2003 as president/CEO of the port of New Orleans.

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