50 Stories: 50 Years in Radio
Preface: A "50 Stories" Freebie: The Urban LegendStory Fifteen, "Another One Bites the Dust" (Freebie read below) may be the Most Read of the 50 Stories. If not, it should be. If nothing else, it's an education in human behavior that will boggle the mind of anyone who listened to the radio growing up and is still reasonably adept at Logic, Reason, Objectivity.
Now, some 40 years and countless interviews, news articles and this book later, yet another Facebook "discussion" recently ensued on the page Willard at 96 Rock. The posts are as unbelievable as they are entertaining! So many people back-slapping and Me-Too-ing about hearing something that never happened!
Everyone in this business wants to be famous. We want big audiences, big ratings and big recognition from our peers and everyone else for our talent, performances and accomplishments. Recognition and admiration are our currency. If we get them at all, we get them the old-fashioned way: we earn it. But sometimes all that notoriety can be inflicted upon us, and not in a good way. This story is a true, perfect and immortal example of a bad joke that morphed into fake news that would never die.
The “Atlanta child murders” as they came to be known, occurred from mid-1979 to 1981. It was a huge, grisly story that dominated the news for the last two years the Ross and Wilson Show aired on Z-93. Due to their hard-core content, other than part of our regular newscasts, we didn’t deal with them; we were there for music and good times.
I first heard the “joke” one evening in November 1980 when the WABC/NY deal was warming up behind the scenes. I had gone to Timothy John’s, a hot little nightclub in Sandy Springs. Banks and Shane played there regularly, as they were that night. A listener recognized me at the bar, came over and said:
Hey! Did you hear that song Another One Bites the Dust was written for all those black kids who were murdered? Ha-ha-ha!
Yeah, that’s a real knee-slapper.
And I left him with his beers.
Four months later in Manhattan, relaxing in the ABC Suite at the Waldorf Astoria, basking in the glow of our rise to the number one station in the number one radio market in the entire world, the phone rang. I answered:
Waldorf Astoria, Ross and Wilson suite, how may I help you in some small, insignificant way?
That got a laugh on the other end from Bill King, a media columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Bill had written several complimentary articles about us during our Z-93 years.
Our conversation went something like this:
BK: Hi Brian, Bill King. How are things in New York City?
BW: It’s a lovely day in the Big Apple, Bill! How are things in the Big Peach?
BK: Nice day here, too. Listen, I’m calling to find out if you’re aware of the rumor that’s been going around town about why you and Ross left Z-93.
BW: Rumor? What rumor?
BK: People say you guys were fired from Z-93 for playing Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust and dedicating it to Atlanta’s murdered and missing kids.
I came out of the chair on that one.
BW: WHAT? Who is spreading that bullshit?
BK: Well I don’t know who started it, but everybody’s talking about it. For the record I have to ask you, is it true?
BW: Bill, you know us better than that!
BK: Yes, I do. But as much as I loved you guys, I didn’t listen to every minute of every show every day, so I guess it could have happened and I just didn’t hear it.
BW: Well, thanks for that personal endorsement. I would’ve thought you’d have known automatically. That’s hardly our brand of humor.
BK: Look, Brian, don’t shoot the messenger; I’m just calling to get you guys on the record for the story.
BW: OK, here’s everything I know: I heard that crap from some drunk at Timothy John’s; he told it to me as a joke back before Thanksgiving. I made it clear I didn’t share his bigoted sense of humor. And that was it. I never saw him or heard the comment again. You’re the first person to mention it since then.
Also, our debatable on-air taste and maturity aside, it would have been absolutely impossible for that to happen on our show anyway. Another One Bites the Dust was day-parted out of Morning Drive so it wasn’t even available to us to play. Second, remember that John Young was not only our news guy but the program director. Had we pulled a dumb stunt like that, he would have -- and should have -- fired us on the spot and done the rest of the show himself. And finally, does anyone with half a brain really think we would’ve been hired by WABC to do Morning Drive in the largest radio market in the world if Z-93 had canned us for a tasteless, bigoted stunt like that? You can quote me on all of that, Bill. It never happened.
BK: Brian, I didn’t believe it for a minute but you know I had to call and ask.
BW: Got it. Thanks for your diligence and professionalism. I hope you get it printed in all caps.
BK: I’ll see what I can do. Good luck. Bye.
I gave Ross the gist of Bill’s end of the conversation. We talked about it for a few minutes, speculating unsuccessfully on who may have connected us to such a racist joke -- and came up empty. Everyone in the media who made a comment was both complementary and supportive of our success. Even the GM at the "other station."
I believe the story ran in the AJC the very next day and that was it, for about a day. After a flurry of calls from reporters in and out of the broadcast biz, Atlanta friends and acquaintances, even a gentle inquiry from WABC’s GM, Al Racco who heard about it from the head of an ad agency in Atlanta, the story died a natural death.
Or so I thought.
For the next several years -- yes, years -- you would be amazed and astounded at the number of times and remarkable circumstances that story came back to haunt me. Here’s one example:
In 1991, after reuniting with Ross at Z100 for the Ross and Wilson Z-Morning Zoo, a full ten years after the Bill King interview, I was flying back to Manhattan from Atlanta and got into a conversation with the guy sitting next to me. It didn’t take long before we got around to the “What you do for a living” questions. He was Ted, a purchasing agent for Georgia-Pacific. My colorful career in radio taught me at times like this, it's best to shy away from telling people my full name or occupation, especially when confined to an airplane or other close quarters where immediate escape was impossible. I told him my name was Brian and I was a backward electronics engineer of sorts. It was mostly true; I occasionally operated electronic equipment. I just left out the broadcasting part.
Over the next hour or so, we talked about living in Atlanta, restaurants, SEC football, the Braves, the Varsity, CNN and Ted Turner. As we started the final approach into Newark, out of nowhere the guy says:
T: So you live in New York City now?
BW: Yes, I do.
T: Did you ever hear of Ross and Wilson on WABC? They used to be on in the morning in Atlanta on Z-93.
BW: Yeah, I heard them a few times down there; I catch them once in a while here on Z100.
T: Did you know they were fired from Z-93 for playing Another One Bites the Dust and dedicating it to the murdered and missing black kids back then?
BW: Really? How did that happen?
T: I don’t know all the details exactly, but I was listening one morning and they played Another One Bites the Dust and at the end, the one guy says, "This is dedicated to all the murdered and missing kids here in Atlanta!" And the other guy laughs and the next day they were gone. Then there was the story in the newspaper that they had been hired up here at WABC.
BW: Really? Wow. So you actually heard them play the song and make the dedication when it was over?
T: Yep. I damn near drove off the road!
BW: Yeah… I'll bet.
By now, we were at the gate and people were starting the scrum to collect themselves and de-plane. Having the aisle seat in first class, there was a bit more room to maneuver. I stood, retrieved my briefcase from the overhead and looked down at Ted.
BW: Well, Ted, I enjoyed our chat.
T: Yeah, me too.
BW: Except for that last part -- you know, the bullshit about Ross and Wilson getting fired for playing Another One Bites the Dust.
T: What do you mean bullshit?
BW: I didn't mention my last name. It’s Wilson. Brian Wilson. As in Ross Brittain and Brian Wilson. And I was there for every show we ever did. You never heard it because it never happened. It’s all a lie. And you know it.
Like the old MasterCard commercial line, the look on his face was "priceless."
And that's just one example. Despite repeated confirmation in subsequent media interviews with PD John Young, GM Bud Polacek and several Z-93 sales weasels all there at the same time, the story would not die. As of this writing, it’s been 37 years but I would make a sizeable wager you could easily find 100 people in Atlanta who would say they remember it! Heard it with their own ears! Or they knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who said they heard it! Just Google Ross and Wilson and Another One Bites the Dust!
Everyone in this business wants to be a legend, immortalized in the annals of radio for (insert accomplishment here). Actually, I have some of those “merit badges.” They just haven’t achieved quite the same notoriety as the outright lie about Another One Bites the Dust!