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Remembering Robin

I may be late to the races with this one since many others are chiming in, but I’d be remiss not to offer my thoughts and feelings on the passing of the late Robin Williams. 

Normally, celebrity deaths don’t affect me at all.  I will admit to being emotional this year when the Ultimate Warrior died, mainly because he was such a huge part of my life.  In spite of his flaws, it seemed like he’d received closure on life in wrestling.

Robin Williams, however, received no such closure.  At least not the kind that you’d want for him after knowing his struggles.

Anyone who lived through the 90s has to know that Robin Williams just about owned that decade on the silver screen.  After he broke big with Good Morning, Vietnam in 1987, it was off to the races for him.  He turned out several memorable performances during that time, and for many kids, his voice and energy was a staple of their youth.

I remember very clearly going to see Hook around Christmas, and Mrs. Doubtfire years later.  In college, the first time I really hung out with my main circle of friends was when we went to see What Dreams May Come at the local movie theater.  Every girl in our circle was crying her eyes out afterwards, and with good reason.

Robin Williams had the ability to appeal to a range of emotions.  He could be goofy, juvenile, and outright silly.  But at the same time he could be earnest, heartfelt, even somber.  There wasn’t a single feeling on the spectrum he couldn’t bring out of an audience. 

And although he’s most known for his comedic roles, he wasn’t afraid to go dark.  His guest appearance on Law & Order: SVU a few years back is evidence of that.  You felt genuinely unnerved watching him on the screen, and his performance was nothing if not convincing.

I’ll openly admit to not loving everything he did.  I hated Patch Adams, I loathed Flubber, and when I saw him advertised for his most recent sitcom on NBC, I cringed.  I just remember thinking, “Man, he’s been reduced to this?  He’s so good when he wants to be!  He’s better than this.” 

And yet in spite of the recent lag in his career, I feel an unquestionable void when I think about his death.  I feel that way because even at his worst, there was no denying that Robin Williams was something special.  He had tremendous depth as an actor, and apparently as a human being.  Countless colleagues have commented on his loving nature, his warmth, and his generosity. 

Sadly, we now know that there was severe turbulence beneath that warm exterior. 

It hits hard to know that someone so seemingly warm and vibrant could harbor such troubles.  And yet it comes as little surprise.  Most comedians and comic personalities deal with inadequacy and depression at some level.  Laughter is an easy tool on the road to love, and anyone who’s made an audience laugh will tell you that there’s no greater feeling than hearing that sound. 

I’ve dealt with depression myself, and I’d be lying if I said that darker thoughts hadn’t entered my head at times.  It’s undeniably scary, but I was fortunate enough to avoid self-harm of any kind.  But I’m not naïve enough to think that just because I’m lucky, it’s easy.

It’s not easy.  And there are a lot of people right now talking about how they hope Williams’ death will increase awareness of depression and suicidal thoughts.  It might me trite to just jump on the bandwagon, but yes, there’s no question that it’s an issue.  A big one.

It’s more complicated than just a disorder, it’s not really disease, and it’s not an act of selfishness to do what he did.  It’s hard to process unless you’ve been through it.  And even then it’s hard to articulate what it feels like.  There are no easy answers, and solutions take time.

It’s an ongoing process.  I hope that in his passing, Williams revealed that we are all works in progress, we all have fears, and we all struggle.  Sometimes, some of us struggle worse than others.

I have one phrase repeating in my mind.  The infamous scene from Good Will Hunting in which Sean Maguire tells Will over and over again, “it’s not your fault.”  No matter how much Will protests, he never stops.  “It’s not your fault.”

I want to be able to say that to Robin Williams now.  I want to say that to him three days ago.  And if anyone out there is struggling on this level, please remember, it’s not your fault.  Hang in there.


Requiem For The Rock

Sometimes in life, a part of our history comes to an end, and we feel drastically affected.  Naturally, we all hit critical milestones that can result in strong emotions; graduating high school, college, losing a loved one, moving away from home, etc.  But every once in a while, something seemingly trivial comes to an end and we wind up feeling strongly about it.  It might not seem like much to others, but in our hearts, it feels like a little piece of our being was torn away.   

This is my story of one such institution.  And there is nothing trivial about it.       

On August 1, 2014, Hartford said goodbye to one of its longest running and most beloved radio stations.  WCCC, popularly known as “The Rock” in its heyday, closed its doors forever.  While the building and call letters remain, the Christian contemporary format on the 106.9 frequency indicates that the WCCC of old is dead and gone.  And fans of the station couldn’t be sadder. 

WCCC has a long and storied history, both in terms of its local impact and its status as one of the benchmark hard rock radio stations of the last 30 years.  Founded in 1959, the station switched to a progressive rock format in the 1970’s.  Eventually, it would be the first mainstream home to the most famous radio personality in history, Howard Stern.

As famously chronicled in Stern’s book and subsequent film, Private Parts, WCCC was Howard’s first foray into a major market.  He had not yet found his now-famous voice of irreverence, but it was the springboard for him to future success.  It was also where Stern met friend and colleague Fred Norris, who remains on the air with Howard to this day.  It’s no surprise then that WCCC became Howard’s syndicated home in the state of Connecticut in 1996.

In 1999, WCCC embraced an edgier format by going the road of “active rock.”  For the uninformed, that translates to more metal, hard rock, and even up-and-coming acts as compared to just blasting “All Right Now” by Free five times a day.  Hartford was a very competitive market at the time, with not one, but three rock-based stations.  In addition to The Rock 106.9, there was also 105.9 WHCN (a classic rock station), and an alternative rock station known as Radio 104. (WMRQ 104.1)  WCCC and WHCN had a long-standing rivalry dating back to the Stern days, and on-air personalities were known to bounce back and forth between the two stations.  Radio 104 competed more aggressively by countering Stern with a morning show hosted by Dee Snider of Twisted Sister.  They also promoted their own day-long festival called Radio 104 Fest, which was highly popular at the time.

But neither station was able to measure up to The Rock, neither in quality, nor in fortitude.      

WCCC was not afraid to promote guerrilla marketing tactics.  Fans posted WCCC stickers over competitive station’s stickers on street lights and stop signs.  Many concerts were rife with chants of “CCC!  CCC!”  No matter who the main promoter was.  Even DJs were unafraid to take matters into their own hands at concerts where multiple stations were present.

The Rock tapped into a renegade mindset that mirrored the product.  The music reflected a rebellious spirit by embracing the fringe mentality present in heavy metal and hard rock.  This was the station that was not only going to play a variety of Metallica songs as opposed to just “Enter Sandman,” they were also willing to play the bands that traditionally didn't get airplay.  Pantera, Tool, Korn, Slipknot, Megadeth, Iron Maiden, the list goes on and on.  Whereas mainstream Top 40 stations stopped playing Seattle grunge after Kurt Cobain’s death, CCC was still a place where you could hear Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, and even lesser known bands like Mad Season. 

If you were a fan of harder music, this was #1 on your preset dial in Connecticut. 

The veracity of WCCC’s fan base ultimately became the deciding factor in the three-way dance for supremacy.  Fans felt connected to the station personalities.  So much of this stemmed from the fact that the station was not corporately owned, and was willing to push the envelope more.  Every DJ came off as a fan first and a personality second.  At concerts, they were omnipresent, hyping the crowd, and ready and willing to meet and greet their fans.

And lo and behold, they emerged on top.  The first major shift in the landscape of the Hartford landscape came when WHCN switched formats in 2002, shifting from classic to soft rock, and now known as “The River.”  WCCC celebrated the victory by going under the pseudonym, “The Lake, 106.9.”  Later that year, Radio 104 dropped Dee Snider in favor of syndicating Tampa’s resident shock jock, Bubba the Love Sponge in an effort to more aggressively compete with Stern.  While Snider’s show never topped Howard in the ratings, it still had a loyal fan base locally.  The move was met with revile from listeners, and ratings declined.  By the fall of 2003, Radio 104 switched to a hip-hop format.  Snider himself appeared on WCCC’s “Picozzi in the Afternoon” to celebrate what was a moral victory for him, and a definitive victory for The Rock.

While WMRQ returned to its traditional alternative format in 2009, the victor had been established.  From that point on, WCCC’s popularity with fans sky-rocketed.  They continued to differentiate themselves from other radio stations by offering free shows for fans and wacky programming. 

Mike Karolyi worked the late morning/early afternoon shift, and quickly became WCCC’s stalwart DJ.  A presence at the station for 28 years, he endeared himself to fans with his memorable voice, affable personality, and extensive knowledge of all genres of rock music.  He eventually partnered with local promoter Jimmy Koplik to discuss upcoming concerts in Connecticut. 

Picozzi’s afternoon show featured such enjoyable tropes as “Dumb Ass Wednesday” in which Rube the intern was typically subjected to some form of low-grade torture, “Ultimo Destructo Thursday” in which the staff destroyed something on the air through a variety of creative means, and the annual visits from a local witch named Moray.  Moray was dubbed “the WCCC Witch,” and popped in the studio annually to communicate with spirits using a Ouija Board.  During these visits, she purportedly communicated not only with friends and family of the on-air staff, but also notable musicians and personalities including Kurt Cobain, Dimebag Darrell of Pantera, and baseball legend Thurmon Munson. 

Slater became the popular host of the night shift, and was noted for his distinctive voice and frenetic personality.  He became famous for the he would dismiss failed callers in search of concert tickets.  The magic number was six, and if you landed anywhere between callers 1-5, you were greeted with, “CCC… Caller Number One!”  This was immediately followed by an abrupt hang-up.  Caller Number Five always received the loudest, most unintelligible send-off.  Eventually all the dismissals turned into gibberish, but it was part of his comedic appeal.

Even Craig the Porn Star became a favorite at concerts and on the air, due at least in part to a station ID that was just a guttural repetition of his nickname over and over again.  I’d try to imitate it here, but text would never do it justice.

More than the fun, WCCC became known for showcasing new bands and stripping down popular songs.  Mike Karolyi played a large part in the success of the band Staind when he played a non-single from the Family Values live album.  That single was Aaron Lewis’ acoustic duet of “Outside” featuring Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit.  The station’s investiture extended to other bands like Shinedown, Soil, and Zakk Wylde’s pet project, Black Label Society.

The station also became the conduit for unique and memorable performances at a recording studio in Hartford called Planet of Sound.  Over the years, WCCC hosted a number of bands there, conducting in-studio interviews and giving the bands the venue to strip down their best sounds and offer up acoustic renditions.  Numerous acts provided memorable performances, including Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Cold, Fuel, and notable frontmen such as Sully Erna of Godsmack, Aaron Lewis of Staind, and Ed Kowalczyk of Live.  The intimate recording space brought out something special in just about every performance.

But none as special as Zakk Wylde’s rendition of “Stillborn.”  Long famed for being Ozzy Osbourne’s lead guitarist in the late 80s and 90s, Zakk branched out on his own, eventually forming his own metal band called Black Label Society.  WCCC promoted the band at City Limits in Waterbury in the early 00s, and were never afraid to play his crunchy style of metal on the airwaves.  A veritable virtuoso, Zakk is famous for his pentatonic solos and pinch harmonics.  BLS’s first major hit came in the form of “Stillborn,” which featured supporting vocals by Ozzy himself. 

During his Planet of Sound session, Wylde was accompanied by fellow BLS axeman Nick Catanese for a number of songs along with an interview by Mike Karolyi.  Saving the best for last, the two guitarists turned a 3-minute gut punch into a haunting 7-minute epic.

It should be noted that Zakk has played“Stillborn” acoustically several other times, both for other notable hard rock stations and also for iTunes.  However, WCCC’s version stands head and shoulders above any other performances.  There’s just something about it; the echo of the strings resonates in the listener’s ears powerfully.  Every note is hit clean and without error.  And Zakk’s gravelly wail sounds tormented and anguished.

It’s a thing of beauty.

For me, as a fan, WCCC was part of my annual summer routine.  While staying with my parents during grad school, I frequently attended the concerts they promoted, typically with my friend Matt.  Once in a while, I’d venture to the Webster Theatre solo for a weeknight show in the fall or winter.  But once summer rolled around, it was concert season.  And concert season always culminated with the annual celebration of heavy metal known as OzzFest.  These all-day festivals were attended by rabid fans, and never once disappointed.  The high water mark for us as fans came in 2004, when Hartford was the first stop on the annual tour.  This was marked by Judas Priest performing their first set with Rob Halford on U.S. Soil in 12 years.  We had the opportunity to rub elbows with Zakk, members of Lacuna Coil, and Phil Anselmo of Pantera fame.  It was a night that simply could never be duplicated.

Between 2001 and 2005 I listened religiously, even when I was the victim of Slater’s merciless “Caller Number Five” banishment.  When I moved to Southern Connecticut in 2005, I listened a little less than usual.  I still tried to catch Howard in the morning on my way to work, but would eventually have to switch to K-Rock in New York when the signal got too weak.  But on my sojourns back home to see family, I always tuned in. 

Alas, in radio, nothing is permanent.

Over the years, the station took a hit financially after the economy went south in 2008.  Many of the more beloved personalities such as Stephen Wayne, Slater, and Holden Johnson departed.  But The Rock pressed on to the best of its ability until early 2013, when it was announced that the station would be switching formats from active rock to classic rock. 

I remember Matt texting me, lamenting that the Rolling Stones were being played on a station that was famous for its love of Tool.  Eventually I myself experienced the change when Cheap Trick made it into the rotation.  Groups from the 70s were suddenly the predominant flavor, and fans were not happy at all.  Online petitions and protests outside the studio (famously nicknamed “The Asylum” due to its simple stone exterior and location on Asylum Avenue in Hartford) were fevered and passionate.  I imagine many fans unconsciously felt, “Hey, Radio 104 changed back to the old format, so can WCCC.”

But despite the vitriol and even internal disagreements by station personnel, the format change was a ratings success.  Many wonder why, but the simple answer is that the Rolling Stones and Cheap Trick are more easily accessible to the casual listener than Disturbed and Stone Sour.  Moreover, Hartford had been without a classic rock station since WHCN changed formats more than 10 years prior.  The nearest outlets for that were WPLR (91.1 FM) in New Haven, and I-95 (95.1 WRKI) in Brookfield, both of which are 30 miles or more away from Hartford itself.

Alas, there was one more final blow to listeners that would leave an irreparable void in New England radio. 

Last Wednesday, it was announced that WCCC had been sold to EMF Broadcasting, and that its final day as a rock station would be Friday, August 1.  Effective 5:00 PM, the station would be the home to Christian contemporary music under the guise of “K-LOVE.”  This was the final nail in the coffin, and the saddest of ironies considering The Rock’s slogan was once “Sinners Wanted.”  The station that was at one time the home of Howard Stern would now be a bastion of “positive, encouraging” music.

To say that fans were devastated would be an understatement.

Not only was the station now destined to be a relic, but the remaining staff who had hung in there over the years were now going to be out of jobs. 

Thankfully, upper management made a classy decision by letting station veteran Mike Karolyi go out in a blaze of glory.  Between 12:00 and 5:00 PM last Friday, WCCC was The Rock of old, firing off favorite tunes that had been absent from their frequency for more than a year.  The five-hour celebration kicked off with a call from Howard Stern himself.  Howard spoke to Karolyi for nearly 20 minutes, and sang the praises of not only the station, but the city of Hartford as well.

Karolyi steered the ship on its final voyage by connecting with several members of the WCCC family, past and present.  It was the reunion and energy that fans had missed for over a year.

With nothing to do that day, I drove to Hartford and parked around the corner from the Asylum.  I had no idea that Karolyi had invited fans to come visit, so I circled the block on foot, taking a few pictures of the old building and the actual rock outside bearing the classic station logo.  At the bottom of the rock, a small note on scrap paper, boasting the old catchphrase, “Sinners Wanted!”  

I streamed the broadcast on my iPhone as I meandered back and forth, listening to the old guard reunite for one last goodbye.

At 4:45 PM, I headed back to my car and turned the radio on.  For whatever reason, I felt it was important to capture the station's final moments.  Several days later, it still hits home hard:

After the recording, I started the engine and turned the radio back on, listening to “Walk” play out the merry band of misfits into the sunset.  It was a hard pill to swallow.  As much as I wanted to be in or around the station for the swan song, I wanted to make sure I had this moment saved forever.  My own little goodbye.

As I drove home, I changed the presets on my car radio, and did a double take when changing to Radio 104 and hearing the acoustic rendition of “Stillborn.”  I had no idea that Holden Johnson had jumped ship years prior, and came to find out he played this as a tribute to his former home and friends.  A day later, I-95 also acknowledged the format changed and wished everyone luck.

But before I even got on the highway, I received a Facebook notification that my friend Darren had invited me to a group called “WCCC – The Rock Years.”  Not even thinking twice, I accepted the invite and immediately posted the video I took of my car radio. 

That was Friday afternoon.  As of this writing, my silly little video has been shared more than 600 times by both fans and former on-air talents alike.  I've received unexpected expressions of thanks from both "The Reverend" Don Steele and Mike Karolyi himself.  To say that I've been overwhelmed with the amount of activity over this would be an understatement. 

But the more I think about it, the more I can’t even say I’m surprised.  This was the level of connectivity between the fans and the station personnel.  As Karolyi mentioned, they were the fans, and there was no wall between the DJ’s and the listeners.  This type of relationship is beyond rare in radio, especially in this day and age.  Normally, on-air talent at most stations serve as vapid talking heads without authenticity.  That was never the case at 106.9.  Even after the format change, the talent always maintained a genuine connection with the fans.  It’s one of the things that made this station special. 

It’s also one of the things that makes this such a massive loss.  Sadly, it’s “the new normal” in terrestrial radio.  Despite surviving the onslaught of satellite radio, traditional stations have had to compete with the popularity of streaming radio stations like Spotify and Pandora, not to mention the advent of podcasts as a popular talk medium.  Just a year before the original format change, WFNX in Boston changed formats despite being one of the driving forces behind alternative rock in the Northeastern United States in the 90s.  An attempt to live on as an internet radio station lasted less than five months, and WFNX shut its doors shortly after WCCC went classic.  In his goodbye call on Friday, Howard Stern favorably compared WCCC to other legendary rock stations like WBCN in Boston and WNEW in New York, both of which fell victim to unceremonious format changes.

The Rock was the last man standing.  And I truly wish it could have been the sole survivor to carry the flame.

Call it sentimental, but I will truly miss this station and its personalities.  Maybe it’s my time in college radio that drives my passion for the medium.  Maybe it’s the fact that the station connected in a way that no other could.  Maybe it’s just the fact that there’s so much awful music already out there, that I crave a prominent mainstream station that’s unafraid to go a different route.  Whatever the case, this is the first time in over a decade that 106.9 FM is nowhere to be found on my station presets. 

It’s honestly a void that just can’t be filled.  And as much as I miss the station I once knew, I’m not naïve enough to think that anyone will ever come close to matching what they did.

Thanks for the memories, guys.  Good luck to you all.

The Rock is dead.  Long live The Rock.