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Goodbye, Charlie

Charles Laquidara.

Share your fondest memory of Charles Laquindara in Abuzz.

By Jim Sullivan

"My mouth feels like the bottom of a parrot cage," says the morning DJ, off mike, in his station's studio high above Boston. "Do I have time to put in a Tic-Tac?" It's about 8:30 on a splendid summer day, nearing the end of his shift. His producer assures him that yes, even though the pace is frantic, he does have the time. "We have two minutes."

"Can you chew these?" asks the DJ. "I won't die, will I?"

Affirmative on question one; negative on question two.

That's Charles Laquidara - always looking for answers, for assurance. His day began just after 5 a.m. with him and his two staffers huddled over the morning newspapers, pulling items that could make radio fodder. His show on WZLX-FM (100.7), The Charles Laquidara Radio Hour (it's 3 1/2 hours long), is a mix of classic rock - Beatles, Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin - with news, sports, and humor: give-and-take exchanges with colleagues, banter with listeners, quips aplenty.

Now the DJ, as is typical in these times, is ready to rant. But today's target is not one of the usual suspects on white-male-oriented radio - minorities, gays, women, liberals. It's strikebreakers. Laquidara, the onetime, longtime voice of WBCN-FM (104.1) and, for four years now, the morning man at WZLX, is ticked off. Some of it is for show, but the essence of it is real. It seems that two professional football players, St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner and Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis, have crossed the picket line to act in commercials during a nationwide strike of actors unions against commercial makers.

"I don't like these scabs out there," Laquidara says. "Worthless scum." He plays a parody of the Ray Parker Jr. song "Ghostbusters" - done by a member of his production team named Drill (Bob Malatesta) and reworked as "Strikebusters." "I ain't afraid of no union!" Drill sings on tape. Laquidara, a longtime left-winger and union supporter as well as one of the highest-paid non-syndicated DJs in America, disses the football stars and even knocks local hero Doug Flutie for crossing the NFL strike line years ago. Off the air, he tears into a former co-worker, comic-voice specialist Billy (Ren and Stimpy) West, who he says is notorious for not honoring strikes.

But it's one of Laquidara's last rants. He announced in June plans to retire to Maui, Hawaii, and set August 4 as the date of his last show. He's 61, his (temporarily) dyed blond hair is thinning, there's a little extra weight around the middle. He's been doing morning radio - going to bed at 8:30 p.m. and getting up at 4 a.m. - for most of the past 30 years. By now, what he does seems commonplace, but Laquidara had a lot to do with changing the nature of FM radio.

Laquidara more or less stumbled into a radio career. It was the mid-1960s, and he had left the Rhode Island School of Design for the promise of California. He wanted to be an actor, and was, in fact, considered for the role Tony Curtis snagged in The Boston Strangler. "I'm so glad I didn't get the part," says Laquidara, who calls himself a mediocre actor. "I'd be on welfare in Hollywood now."

Instead, he took a job as a DJ in Los Angeles. He mixed classical and rock, knowing little about either but going on instinct. His instincts were good.

He came to Boston in 1968, joining WBCN just in time to hit the second wave of what was called "underground radio." Underground radio meant music, activist politics, free-form association. It meant sets of songs about topics, segues that blended one song into another. Of the people, by the people, for the people. Laquidara started out working nights, sliding into a 10-to-midnight shift held by Peter Wolf, who was also singing for the up-and-coming J. Geils Band and who moved his shift up to midnight. "He came in from the West Coast, a guy who was already, like, a DJ, where most of us were renegades," recalls Wolf. "There was a great camaraderie. One has to remember every individual's show was programmed by the jocks - when one jock went off the air, another sensibility came on. It had nothing to do with radio beholden to the stockholders.

"It was like early Saturday Night Live," Wolf says. "Very exciting. Everybody contributed; everybody was pumping. We all knew we were doing something unique, something for this community. We were part of something very influential. The music was intertwined with the politics because of the Vietnam War, the racial aspects going on."

By 1971, Laquidara had shifted to mornings. There, if he didn't quite invent FM morning drive - now the key shift at any station - he did a lot to boost its prominence. FM radio, at the time, was very much a little brother to AM. But that was about to change, and Laquidara was one of the pioneers.

He was the first FM DJ to work with a full crew - producers, writers, comics - which is now standard procedure. In the morning slot at WBCN, Laquidara created an audio playhouse he called The Big Mattress, because he figured many listeners were waking up and still in bed (with him). This was a time when DJs chose their own music, and Laquidara might put Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan in a set with Carmina Burana.

He would try to take the pulse of the day - rainy and depressing? was Nixon bombing Cambodia? - and tailor his music and chat to fit it. There were song parodies and skits, a daily call to a listener during a segment called "Mishigas," in which Laquidara pulled pranks and awarded prizes. Darrell Martinie, The Cosmic Muffin, gave astrological advice. (The Cosmic Muffin moved around the dial over the years, but he came back to Laquidara and worked with him until 1998.) In one famous on-air incident, Laquidara talked about having matzo ball soup with people he thought were friends, but who had laced it with mescaline - he came to work tripping, he says, the words "melting" as he spoke them.

Over the years, there were alter egos. Laquidara created a teenage jerk named Duane Ingalls Glasscock who became his on-air id from 1978 to 1982. Glasscock once told listeners to send Arbitron bags of poop (except he didn't say "poop" on the air), because the ratings service, he thought, had undercounted his listeners. Glasscock, a very thinly disguised Laquidara, did Saturday mornings (among other shifts) and was noted for "his childish overenthusiasm over trivial matters," as was once noted on the show. Laquidara calls Glasscock "vile, sexist." Some irony: Laquidara says Glasscock achieved far higher ratings than Laquidara ever did. (Among those listening, coincidentally, was Howard Stern, a Boston University student in the 1970s; in 1996, the syndicated shock jock took over Laquidara's spot at 'BCN.)

Laquidara led protests against the US Army during the Vietnam War and against Shell Oil, an advertiser, in 1988, over its investments in South Africa. He and the staff went on a three-week strike against WBCN in 1979, when the station's founder, T. Mitchell Hastings, sold it to Michael Wiener and Gerald Carrus. The new owners, who went on to form Infinity Broadcasting, claimed that the union contract was not a part of their purchase and sacked more than 15 employees, though none of the high-profile talent. But the talent joined the others on the picket line; the community rallied in favor of the DJs, and management caved.

The kind of freedom Laquidara enjoyed would not last, of course. The underground radio format mutated into "progressive rock" and then, later, album-oriented rock - the strictures on creativity tightening with each new term. Today, the format has split into "modern rock" and "active rock," both predominantly hard-rock centered. Listeners these days, the theory goes, don't have the leisure time to spend with the radio; they won't sit still for a long song or something too unfamiliar. Laquidara calls it "lowest common denominator" radio and admits he's part of it, even though WZLX's catalog is larger than most.

But Laquidara is "far more than a survivor," says his friend David Bieber, an executive at the Phoenix Media/Communications Group and a former colleague at WBCN. "He's been a catalytic force in the medium, a leader."

Mel Karmazin, who was Laquidara's boss at 'BCN, lovingly calls him "a huge pain in the butt. I met him in 1981 and have been a fan ever since. He's a character, and I think radio needs more of these. There were things he did that used to drive me crazy. He led a boycott of Shell Oil" - 2,000 listeners cut up their credit cards and mailed them to Laquidara. "He wouldn't run ads for the Army. ... None of this had anything to do with the business we were in: reaching audiences. He was there with his causes."

Laquidara's impact was such that his voice was chosen to be in Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A snippet from an early '70s Big Mattress show is on permanent display in an exhibit about the days of underground radio.

Oedipus, WBCN's program director, was there for practically the entire Laquidara era. He began his radio career working (for free) for Laquidara as a writer in 1975. "Because of Charles," Oedipus says, "I built my DJ and punk rock career."

By 1981, Oedipus had risen through the ranks - from DJ to program director - and was now Laquidara's boss. "I'm this purple-haired punk rock guy," says Oedipus. "I'm the young guy then, and suddenly I'm named program director in the midst of all these older radio legends. . . . You have to make changes, adjustments in presentation. We needed to come out of the '60s mentality."

Laquidara's main strength, Oedipus says, is his "ability to communicate as a real person - what you hear is what you get, on the air and off the air. Charles is your friend, in your automobile, in your kitchen, in your bedroom. You feel he is talking to you exclusively - you laugh, you groan, you get to know him as a person. It's not an act; it is a performance - all the world's a stage - but on or off the mike, that's Charles, and he's such a charming personality."

The charm cast its spell over WBCN till 1996, when self-styled king of all media Howard Stern - his show had been broadcast at night on 'BCN - wanted to expand his empire to the morning shift in Boston. Oedipus met with Laquidara at a restaurant, and Laquidara saw five shots of single-malt whiskey on the table. He knew something was up. But, he maintains, Oedipus didn't force the issue of Stern taking over at 'BCN and Laquidara moving to sister station 'ZLX. Laquidara knew it was the wise move.

"I was used to seeing Charles every day," says Oedipus, "and when he moved to 'ZLX it was bittersweet. He was my mentor. He's going out at the top of his game, and that's wonderful."

Matt Siegel, morning man at WXKS-FM (KISS-108) and a former colleague of Laquidara's at WBCN, calls Laquidara "one of the key people in my career, a mentor," and credits him for his enthusiasm during the early days. Later, when Siegel moved to mornings at KISS, they became friendly rivals, at least in Siegel's mind. "I felt a little competitive, and I beat him in the ratings in one period and told him that. He said, 'What are ratings?' He never had any feel for the business; he did radio because he liked it. And that's why he was good."

Laquidara was born in Milford, the son of a barber and a homemaker, the first of the couple's four boys. In the years since, he has been told to "grow up" many, many times by many, many people.

But as a budding DJ, he found himself in an era when sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll were all part of the culture - all good things. Laquidara was not an idle bystander in this world, and there were some high times, and, after those, some low. As Robin Williams famously put it, "Cocaine is God's way of telling you you make too much money." For Laquidara, the cocaine-using years began in the mid-1970s, and he would sometimes be up for days. He even quit radio from 1976 to 1978, because, he can now quip, "Radio was getting in the way of my drugs."

During this period, he acted in the national company of 1973's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, That Championship Season, which played locally at the American Repertory Theatre. He had a short-lived TV chat show for WCVB (Channel 5) called Sunday Open House. And there were lots of women in his life: His celebrity status, he says frankly, often meant "there was no need for the dance."

Then, when he rejoined WBCN in 1978, he met Doreen Pratt, the station's traffic manager. She thought he was arrogant; he liked her shape. They bumped into each other in the elevator as the WBCN strike began, and something clicked. He says of all the women he'd been with, she was the one he wanted to stay around. They got married in the mid-1980s.

Marriage and fatherhood helped clear his head. He quit cocaine in 1982, reasoning that a wired-to-the-gills father is not perhaps the best parent. He now calls the previous years the "cocaine daze." Laquidara's indulgences now are two or three beers, tops, and two cups of coffee, tops. His producers won't let him have a third cup, he says, because they fear he will go off the wall.

And socially, says Tai, the former WFNX-FM and WRKO-AM DJ who, with comic Steve Sweeney, will succeed Laquidara at 'ZLX, he is "the epitome of suavery." He dines with Mayor Thomas M. Menino, shares off-the-record political yak with Hillary Rodham Clinton, mixes well with the swells. "I never thought of myself as part of the good ol' boy network," he says, "but it's my Milford roots. We just like each other as people."

Like many lefties making big money, he lives with contradictions, illustrated by a story Laquidara tells from the late 1980s at WBCN. Mel Karmazin, then president of Infinity and now CEO of Infinity and CBS owner Viacom, was Laquidara's pal. But the relationship became chilly as Karmazin moved up the ladder. They no longer had lunch, and Karmazin would just nod hello. Finally, Laquidara presented Karmazin with an offer. He would write him a check for $3,000 - $1,000 a minute for three minutes of his time, about what it was worth then - so he could find out what the tension was about. "I knew full well that he'd never cash it," says Laquidara, "and this would be kind of a cute Charles way of getting him to come up and talk to me."

Karmazin took him up on it. Laquidara recounts the meeting: "He looks at his watch and says, 'Go, you've got three minutes.' I say, 'Well, I just want to know why you don't talk to me anymore, why you won't have lunch with me anymore.' He says, 'Things are just different now. To start with, you leave every day an hour after your show, while Howard Stern is still working on his show, for the next day of his show, at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. You have the attitude that you're not going to celebrate when the ratings come out and they're good, because you don't cry when the ratings come out and they're bad. And you use the old hackneyed line that "I just do the best I can and that's all the company can expect of me."

" 'Well, that's not what we expect of you. We expect you to cry when the ratings are bad and celebrate with champagne when they're good. And also, I've been hearing that every time there's some kind of a union grievance, with someone who's being "oppressed by the company," instead of being on management's side, you're sitting in there with your union hat on. You pretend to be a union person, but you make more money than anybody in the city. I gave you stock options that I didn't even give Howard. You're the only jock in the entire Infinity chain in America that got stock options.

" 'You're not union no matter how hard you try to be one of the workers; you're no longer union anymore. You have a house with a pool in Dover. It's a joke that you call yourself a union employee. You have stock in the company - you are the company.' "

After that harangue, Laquidara admits he did rethink a few things, took more interest in ratings, and tightened up his show. And two months later, the cashed check showed up in Laquidara's accountant's office. Then came a welcoming letter from the National Rifle Association, an invite to meet with President Bush, and a thank you from the tobacco lobby. As a prank, Karmazin had divvied up the three grand to give to Laquidara's three least favorite causes in Laquidara's name.

Still, Laquidara remains an unrepentant liberal. He frets that if he had the courage of his convictions he'd be out on the streets smashing windows of corporate America's chain stores. He leads a privileged life - he earned a reported $1 million a year at his peak - and yet he identifies with the working class.

On the air, Laquidara's style remains one of charming abrasiveness, complete with Boston-area accent. Recently, with Channel 5's separated-but-together-on-air anchor team of Natalie Jacobson and Chet Curtis in trouble, he phoned Jacobson on the air during his show and left this: "Hi, Nat, it's me, Charles Laquidara. From the radio ... WZLX? You came to the Franciscans benefit I did last year." Of this year's benefit, he notes, "You'll be stag, which is very cool with me. In fact, you may know my wife is back in Hawaii and, well, I've always had a little thing for you ... even back in the '60s when you had that Mary Tyler Moore hair flip thing going on. Anyway, if you got custody of the answering machine, give me a call."

But off duty, Laquidara is a worrying sort. He worries he's giving the Globe too boring an interview; he worries that he might be portrayed as a relic. A Boston magazine piece a few years ago painted him as an over-the-hill burnout; a Tab piece recently did the same. Laquidara does not feel he was "put out to pasture" at WZLX, and, in fact, from a production point of view he's doing his best work. Yet, what he pioneered - liberal-based establishment-basher as radio star - ended a long time ago.

"That era was probably gone maybe when Reagan got in," Laquidara says over brunch at the Federalist in Boston. "That era was gone a long, long time ago. I just feel like such a survivor. I think if I had to pride myself on anything, it's the fact that after that era was over, that I still like to think that I'm going out a winner. A lot of trains are going by, and some of them I want on, and I jump on, and others I don't want to have anything to do with. I just sort of watch them pass me by. This whole PC/anti-PC movement, this whole anti-liberal movement, that train I'm never going to get on, because I know that, on a very simplistic level, I can say that, if there were a person that existed who was Christlike, that Christlike person would certainly not be a Republican. And that person would not condone everyone having a gun, would not condone the death penalty, and would not be condoning all the hate that's running around in the media today. So I'm a liberal."

Laquidara can be, and certainly has been, accused of being juvenile and sexist, but those sins seem mild in today's attack-radio atmosphere. He's made mistakes but mostly thinks he's done the right thing.

He mentions an upcoming book by Danny Schechter, a former colleague at WBCN who was The Big Mattress's "news dissector" from 1970 to 1982. Laquidara reads from the book: "As he grew older, his shtick became slicker and sillier, reflecting and reinforcing a vacuous teen culture. ... Charles probably felt he had no choice but to move downmarket to keep his ratings up."

Laquidara says Schechter sent him an advance copy of the book with a note: "Just read about your imminent departure for Aloha. A plug would be welcome, an invite to Maui more so." The irony hangs in the air.

The move to Hawaii has been in the works for years. Doreen Laquidara, who has seasonal affective disorder and couldn't take the dim New England winters, first tried moving to Florida, where Charles could visit easily. But as she became ensconced in the Ocala community - she was about to open a vegan restaurant - Charles balked at the vision of himself as an old man wandering the beach in Bermuda shorts with a metal detector. They shifted their site to Hawaii, and six years ago they bought two houses on Maui. One is five minutes from the beach, the other "upcountry," or halfway up a mountain, where the year-round temperature ranges between 60 and 80 degrees.

Doreen has spent a lot of time there during the past five years, and the couple's daughter, Rhiana, just graduated from high school in Maui. Their son, Ari-Jon, will be a junior at Brandeis. And earlier this year, Charles sold the family's Dover home and moved into a Boston hotel suite.

Laquidara claims that these days, he and his wife "have nothing in common" - and he doesn't seem to be kidding. But he believes the relationship has lasted because "I make her laugh."

And she makes him laugh. A few years ago for her birthday, Laquidara bought his wife a specially built vintage VW blue convertible. She had once owned a black Beetle, and he figured she would love this, but she was underwhelmed. On Laquidara's next birthday, she bought him a palomino. He was aghast. "I hate horses!" he exclaimed. Then he realized what the deal was: Her horse, his Beetle.

He's looking forward to not needing the safety net of an Ambien prescription to sleep, to waking up without an alarm clock and a backup alarm clock. He's looking foward to launching an Internet radio show from Hawaii via CBS.

What are his retirement dreams? "My guess is, what I'm definitely going to do for the first year is change my whole lifestyle. I'll be sleeping later. I'm going to learn three languages - Japanese, Spanish, and Chinese. I'm learning Adobe Photoshop. I'm a pretty good cartoonist and may do goofy greeting cards. I'll be doing a lot of swimming, walking, bicycling, riding my two motorcycles."

He knows he'll be stepping into an alternate universe. "I have this network here," he says. "In Hawaii, it'll be 'Charlie who?' "But till then, he's savoring the waning days of his celebrity status.

Laquidara is driving down Massachusetts Avenue, looking to turn onto Boylston. It's blocked off for a Shriners parade, but Laquidara is undaunted. He pulls up next to a policewoman at the metal gates, rolls down the window, and smiles. "Hi, I'm Matty Siegel," he says. "Can I go down this street?"

"I know who you are," says the policewoman, unconvincingly. But she's charmed. Down Boylston Street goes Charles Laquidara.

At the Capital Grille, where the maitre d' knows his real name, he gets a nice table, a nice steak. By happenstance, Cruze, the program director from WFNX-FM, comes in with a group and stops to make Laquidara's acquaintance. Says Laquidara: "You got any openings on weekends?"

"We'll fit you in," says Cruze.

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