July 17, 2006

$UCCE$$: Ron ‘King B’ Britain: Sting like a B

Radio legend Ron “King B” Britain was that weird kind of countercultural icon who can meaningfully exist in the mainstream and retain credibility with the underground. He finally left the biz when he couldn’t watch the suits stab creativity to death any longer. Then he came back to Louisville.   Photo by Kelly Mackey: Louisville native Ron “King B” Britain was born Ron Megel, but a radio exec told him that sounded too ethnic. He was an anglophile, in love with all things English, so he tapped Britain for his new radio surname.An eager 24-year-old with tight, dark curls on his head walks into a radio station in Cincinnati in 1959. By this point he’s been told by one college professor that he will never work on the radio or TV, and by another — at a different university — that he will never be a painter, something he’s taken up just recently. In fact, the latter instructor lauds as the student’s best painting a rainbow mess of blotches on a small canvas where the young artist blotted his brush. His thick radio baritone doesn’t tremble, but he is nervous about his first day on the air. It’s not his first day in radio; he’s worked in several smaller markets like Elizabethtown, Louisville and Charleston, W. Va. The stakes in Cincinnati are higher, though, as are the expectations. Ron Megel goes to breakfast with the station’s program director, where a strange, unexpected question arises: What will you call yourself?“Ron Megel. … Music with Megel. Isn’t that great alliteration?” “Oh no, that sounds too ethnic.” The all-American-ness of A.M. radio in its nascent years is typified by bland disc jockey names like Don Steele and Dick Clark. Instead of his Jewish-sounding-but-German surname, the program director suggests something obliquely vanilla. “You’re going to be Ron Sinatra.” “I don’t think so.” He thinks a moment and continues. “One of the things they do, they make fun of me in the Army and at the others stations I’ve worked at, is they call me the London kid, because I’m an anglophile, I love English clothes, I love everything English.” “That’s it! We’ll call you Ron Britain.” Photo by Kelly Mackey: When Ron Britain finally tired of fighting the suits, he sent a letter to his program director and to media that said, in part: “Those old familiar words that I have heard far too many times … from frustrated management … have never convinced me that theyAnd so, the long, illustrious and defiantly weird career of Ron Britain — soon to be a radio legend — is off to the races. The fresh-faced 24-year-old will go on to practically invent a format he affectionately calls abstract radio, a psychedelic, freeform show designed at once to make you laugh and blow your mind. He will become a master at appealing to the adolescent sense of humor that exists below the surface in every human, serious or scatty, smart or stone stupid. He will learn to use this to appeal to the higher intellect — his goofy, stammering character Dr. Carl Swanson, who appears as a sex education expert but can’t muster the courage to say the word “sex” — to address cultural and political issues of monumental import. He is a child of the ’60s counterculture, a thinker consistently frustrated by the inability of Big Media to allow unguarded and provocative thought in programming. Yet he will continue operating within the traditional framework, and his leverage — his ability to change the system from the inside — will come in the form of massive ratings and unhinged popularity. Ron “King B” Britain will become a master satirist, Monty Python for radio, a pre-Howard Stern from the era before Stern’s tools of subversion turned from sociopolitical to sexual. What he needs first, though, is a larger city. The Chicago yearsStill in Cincinnati and stoking the proverbial fire, Britain tells a friendly manager — one of only a few he can truly ascribe that value to in his entire career — that he wants to go to New York. “You’re crazy,” the manager says. “I’ll call some people and they’ll take you around New York.” Soon Britain is meeting with representatives at MCA and ABC radio. In his pocket he has what he considers a rich bargaining chip: Unprecedented ratings in the Cincinnati market, with 73 percent of the listening audience tuning in every day. That nugget will eventually make the Guinness Book of World Records. As well, Britain has opened the first non-alcoholic teen nightclub in the country, and holds weekly live-music dances at supper clubs that pull crowds in the thousands. The response in New York: “That’s very impressive. You ought to stay in Cincinnati.” Discouraged, Britain twirls briefly in a period of self-examination. It doesn’t last particularly long. Cleveland, who came calling while Britain was blowing up Cincinnati, quickly becomes a launch pad to Chicago, one of his three dream cities (Los Angeles was the third). He goes to work for WCFL, a fetal station in need of some fresh, creative ideas. Britain is an instant success, helping boost ratings with a pair of innovative shows: The Ron Britain Show and Ron Britain’s Subterranean Circus. The former utilizes slapstick-grade humor — on the radio they’re called drop-ins, those quick, funny noises or quotes you’ll hear now when, say, a DJ is talking about a fart and you hear the fart noise. Except Britain uses them as fodder for his own imagination, telling engineers to drop-in at random points unbeknownst to him. He spends hours a day writing skits (and prerecording some), yet the show has the distinct feel of improv, although only some of it is. Meanwhile, increasingly disgusted with what little music he’s hearing on the dial, Britain decides to create a show to hang on the underground music that he finds interesting. The Subterranean Circus is a virtual convex to his daytime show, a three-hour romp through new albums by the artists — plain and simple — he wishes to grant attention. The first is Jimi Hendrix. Van Morrison follows, then Frank Zappa and Three Dog Night, among scores of others. All told, over the four years the Sub Circus — as it’s known — will run, Britain will interview more celebrities and musicians than he could’ve ever foreseen. He will spend 35 years in Chicago, hopping stations, starting a family with his radiant wife Peach (they have one son, Mark), and generally causing headaches for the soulless, unimaginative upper management types he deplores. This, in fact, will become something of a chorus to his career. He will become the most spectacular quitter in the business. His theater of the absurd sensibilities will inspire him to become a pioneer: Britain is the first (and probably only) person to thread a needle live on the air. I want to liveHis radio reputation in those days — in fact, for most of his career — was exceedingly different than his private one. Britain was known off the air as a quiet, circumspect man, with a classic sense of Southern hospitality. Peach says he started talking a lot more once he retired in 2004. Now he has no outlet, although his head still fills just as rapidly with ideas and words, which is a point of teasing for her: She’s on him about tangents, which occur with remarkable frequency during a four-hour conversation in late spring.Britain’s hair is a neat mix of gray and black, still with tight curls. It looks English, a sort of aged mop-top. He wears thin, rimless glasses that fit snug to the bridge of his nose. His eyes still bulge when he becomes excited, which is rather often. At 71, he shows no outward signs of slowing or softening. Talking with him about his past is rather exhilarating, like reading a collection of good short stories. You let the author do all the work; just relax and try to keep up. When he shows me the pristine 1956 Jaguar in his garage, Britain tells the story of its road lights. These particular lights were illegal in 1965 America, so the proud owner and Peach buzzed up to Montreal to have some installed. They decided to stop off in New York City on the way back — the pair are still avid travelers — but sleep beckoned somewhere upstate, so they pulled into a Howard Johnson hotel. It happened that the Rolling Stones were staying at the same HoJo, and Britain had recently done a show with the band and they’d become acquainted. After some general backslapping and whatnot, Mick Jagger made a characteristically bold move, asking Britain for a go with the Jag. “No one drives the Jag but me,” Britain said with a kid-like smile, gently closing the passenger door. And that was the end of that. The Britain house is littered with antiques and collectibles, from small European icons and ancient furniture to a 19th-century grandfather clock made for Charles Scott, the fourth governor of Kentucky. “The Speed Museum wants us to leave that to them,” Peach says, smiling, a reference to the couple’s bequest. The most revelatory story in his collection, perhaps, is the one about how Britain resigned the afternoon personality gig at Chicago’s WJMK-FM in the early ’90s. Fed up with a corporate culture he thought was strangling his creativity, he quit on the air, but not before asking listeners to turn their dials to WTMX-FM, where he would be on-air in about two minutes. He walked out of the booth and got into a limousine waiting for him curbside, then zoomed over to his new job. En route he called in on a cell phone to make his debut. “It was always a fight with management,” he says reflectively, a naughty smile arching across his face as the bright sun beaming on his deck hides briefly behind a cloud. Say you want a real solution There are two basic schools of thought for your average revolutionary: Work for change within the system or work without. Britain has always believed the best way is from the inside. That explains why he spent so many years ingratiating himself to the greedheads and suckfish who filled corporate offices in media behemoths like Infinity and Clear Channel, only to quit spectacularly when he just couldn’t take it anymore. (I mention those two in particular because, as Britain says, he’s burned both so badly that he’ll never work in mainstream radio again.)In late 2003, he emerged from retirement to host an afternoon show on a Clear Channel station. Already living in Louisville, Britain trekked down to the Clear Channel studios just off Newburg Road, recorded the show (often multiple ones per day), and had them beamed to Chicago for broadcast. He was drastically out of his element. His manager was upset that his bits were cutting into commercial time. He cites one instance where he talked about the weather in Chicago after checking it from Louisville. Of course, by the time it hit the airwaves there, it had changed. Quite simply, their system wasn’t his. So he quit, in a way only Britain could. The letter he sent to program director Tommy Edwards — with copies to media outlets — included the following: “Those old familiar words that I have heard far too many times throughout my career from frustrated management who were all trying so hard to validate their titles have never convinced me that they knew the answer to good programming. Their ill-chosen words were only a reminder to me that they had control over my life for that moment in time. Fortunately for them, I responsibly and conscientiously wanted to provide well for my family thus I permitted myself to be reinvented by them even though I felt a bit of flesh being ripped away with each change. It never surprised me when their directions about changing to a new approach on my show never worked. I continued to pay the price when I stayed and tried their way — and by the time I left, my flesh felt raw and my brain was badly bruised. It was a pretty sickening feeling.” I ask him how different radio is now from when he was breaking barriers, the time to which he refers in the excerpted letter. His answer is simple. “Freeform, yes. Restrictions, yes. But not like today. I mean, it’s really horrible Photo by Kelly Mackey: When Ron Britain finally tired of fighting the suits, he sent a letter to his program director and to media that said, in part: “Those old familiar words that I have heard far too many times … from frustrated management … have never convinced me that they.” He clarifies: “I’m really not a bad person or an egomaniac or anything; I just know what I think is right and what works.” The do-gooding tricksterIn Norse mythology, Loki is the trickster god. Though his name has come to an association with deceit, he is most commonly considered a figure of simple mischief. He is characteristically benevolent and in some cases the protector of man, and his position as a cultural influencer is clearly stated, although ponderous is typically thought to be the extent of his conviction. Britain’s contribution to American radio’s cultural lexicon is fairly astounding when taken in retrospect; he is among a rare set of media pilgrims who changed dynamics without knowing it at the time, which adds a level of purity to his body of work that can be achieved no way but organically. He and Peach are painfully humble beings, with their recently remodeled house full of weird antique stuff (most of which I don’t understand), the picturesque backyard and flower garden, the sun hitting the porch just right, the pair of single beds on the screen-porch where they sleep when it’s nice out; they have an idyllic life. But Britain’s still — and will always be — that extraordinary kind of man-child who makes silly jokes and pranks that seem superficial until they re-enter your psyche hours or days or weeks later and you really start to understand that he was affecting you on levels you tend to forget about, with your grocery lists and gas stations and soccer practices and credit card receipts. He’s boundless energy with a do-gooder spirit, Loki with true conviction.  Stephen George is the LEO Music Editor, though he tends to write about subjects considerably more heinous than music. Contact him at sgeorge@leoweekly.com