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Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2009

Steve Palec’s Radio Roots

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Twenty-two years is a long time for anything in a world where change can come too rapidly, too often. It’s especially long in radio, where burnout, turnover and corporate consolidation have thinned the herd of radio veterans. Steve Palec is among the exceptions, keeping his WKLH show, “Rock & Roll Roots,” for more than two decades. Palec can be heard every Sunday from 9 a.m. to noon.

How did you get into radio?

When I was a sophomore in high school, I wrote a letter to every station in town. I told them, “I’ll do anything to learn. I’ll sweep your floors!” WZUU responded, thinking I was applying as a janitor. They took me literally. But WUWM said I could hang out. A few weeks later I was on the air for the first time.

WUWM had a loose format in those days.

They sure did. They’d run a half-hour of NPR, then play songs for 15 minutes. After I graduated from high school I went to Whitewater, where I cut my teeth at a great campus station. My first on-air interview was at Whitewater. It was with Frank Zappa. I was nervous and he wasn’t kind.

You did some sports-casting and finally wound up at WQFM around 1980. QFM had been Bob Reitman’s station in the ’70s and was considered wide open, musically. Had this already changed?

There were still crumbs from the Reitman era. The management was becoming more cognizant of ratings and sponsorships, but they hadn’t fully embraced the technology of policing their programming. Today every song is logged on a computer printout. Back then DJs filled out cards. It was kind of an honor system, but even so I saw some people who were shown to the door because of what they played. I got away with things because of two words: “I’m sorry.” I’d say “I’m sorry” and I’d live to play another day.

What was FM like in those days?

It was like the cliche—sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. It was anything you wanted. There were people who were there to have something to do before going out to the bars. But I saw radio as a career—not just a job. I took it seriously.

How has radio changed?

After a while, the audience had disposable income. It wasn’t sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. It was rock, mortgage and kids.

You were going to quit and work in commercial real estate?

I am working in commercial real estate. I intended to get out of radio altogether, but KLH kept coming back to me. When they offered me three hours on Sunday where I could do pretty much anything, I said yes.

What’s the concept behind your Sunday show?

I respect the station I work for, but I want to be creative. I’ll serve the meat and potatoes but throw in some weird side dishes. I like to follow Dean Martin with Barenaked Ladies. I like doing interviews and telling the stories behind the music. Take “Layla.” I’ve heard the song 10,589 times—it’s still powerful, and so is the story behind it: Eric Clapton lusting after Pattie Boyd, who was the wife of his best friend, George Harrison, who wrote “Something” about her. Did you know that Donovan’s “Jennifer Juniper” was written about Pattie’s sister, Jenny? It must have been some family…

Photo by Amelia Coffaro