At 12 years old, every night wound-down the same way. After brushing my teeth, I’d lay down in my “captain’s bed” with the steering-wheel headboard, my yellow Sony Sports boombox against the wall, and fall asleep with my ear pressed against the speaker, the volume just loud enough to be audible.
Then it happened. Usually, between 2am – 3am.
Aerosmith’s “Angel” would come on the radio, and I would rise from the dead.
Steven Tyler, grasping me from the hands of the Sleep Gods, rousing me awake. That was my wake-up call so that I’d be ready to call in to whatever radio station contest was on deck. The preadolescent me deduced that fewer people listened to the radio during the humdrum of the night, thus increasing my odds of snagging a prize.
And I was right.
From MC Hammer autographs to radio station T-shirts to Chicago’s Greatest Hits on cassette–the prizes ran the gamut. But it wasn’t about the reward, I loved the game.
If you are wondering how to win a radio phone contest, there was a method, a playbook to follow.
Rule 1: Trust in Aerosmith to wake you.
Rule 2: Call the radio station’s phone number before the contest was announced to establish a “connection.” I was convinced that calling early and getting through would lock me into an available circuit, increasing the odds that I would get through on subsequent calls.
Rule 3: Be prepared to be hung up on. Back in the eighties, if the station was looking for caller number 95, somebody would actually pick up the phone, say what number you were, and then just hang up. When you got through once, you never gave up. See Rule 2 again.
Rule 4: When the DJ or producer picked up, sound excited and surprised, no matter what the prize was. Being animated increased the odds that your clip would be played back on the air.
Rule 5: Never share your strategy with any of your friends or family, as that would decrease the odds of you winning should they get into the game.
The beauty of music is that all these decades later, the considerably older me, can hear Aerosmith’s “Angel” and be transported back to my childhood bedroom–Nerf basketball hoop hanging off the closet door, the corded phone growing warm against my ear.
I don’t remember many of the prizes that I won, except when it comes to concert tickets. These very concerts got me in the door for my second concert ever: Vanilla Ice at the Beacon Theatre.
Oh, and I had to “rap” on the air for them.
“Vanilla Ice, he’s the man, he raps better than anyone can.”
The DJ was kind and complimentary, accepting my preschool poem as “rap” and granting me two tickets to one of the hottest shows in town, “The Elvis of Rap.” LMAO.
I remember my dad driving through Times Square, amazed at all the colors and lights and people. Even at a young age, I got the sense that this was a dangerous place. I wasn’t completely sure what happened inside the storefronts that boasted “XXX Videos” and “live nudes,” but I knew it wasn’t a place for me.
On that Wednesday night in February 1991, Rob Van Winkle took the stage on the Upper West Side, and the energy of the crowd was, well, lackluster. I’m not sure what I expected, my only other concert to this point was Madonna during the Blond Ambition World Tour in June 1990 at Nassau Coliseum.
Apparently, my father worked with the father of one of her principal dancers/choreographers at the time. This led to some cushy seats and a backstage pass. While that show felt more like a spectacle, the Vanilla Ice show felt more like a record label release party–lots of people unsure why they were there. I was surprised by how outnumbered kids were to adults.
But Vanilla Ice was in his prime and he did his thing; it’s always a great conversation-starter telling people that you rapped on the radio to win tickets to see the “Ice Ice Baby” guy.
A mere 10 days later on a Saturday night at MSG, I would see INXS rip through Suicide Blonde and most of the “Kick” album while the Soup Dragons told everyone, “I’m Free.” This was another experience that reflected poorly on Vanilla Ice’s inability to capture an audience. Michael Hutchence–now there was a frontman…sex appeal, stage presence, and vocals for days.
Like many audiophiles, my obsession with radio started young. I was mystified that these waves could travel through the air and create music; fascinated that stations disappeared and materialize when driving to different states.
And who were these people that seemingly made a living by talking about music and listening to it endlessly?
My curiosity with radio started young. It began with the little microphone embedded into an early boombox. Hit the play and record button simultaneously, say something, and then rewind the cassette tape to hear your voice back. Magic. As mortifying as it was to hear me playing DJ, I knew from an early age that I would have to get in on the action.
My interest in radio grew further when my dad and I went for a walk around the neighborhood and I discovered WTFM–a ‘stereo’ news station from the mid-60’s broadcasting out of my childhood town of Fresh Meadows. Who knew! But by the time we walked the two-story building’s lot, it was creepily abandoned. But this somehow fed the intrigue.
Fast-forward to a radio internship at WLIR on Long Island while in college, and I had come full circle–Now, I was the one picking up the phone for radio contests.
“Number 79.” CLICK.
I never manned the phones overnight or played Aerosmith “Angel” on the radio, but we definitely had our crew of “regular” contest winners.
It’s been probably 30 years since I called in for a radio station contest. But I’m suddenly feeling lucky. I’ve got Aerosmith’s “Angel” cued up and my finger on the dial pad. But I will NOT rap on-air for Vanilla Ice tickets.