Radio DJ-turned lawyer David Milberg shares the legends behind several rock ‘n’ roll’ hits.
Like the Lone Ranger and the Green Hornet before him, Longboat Key resident David Milberg has dual identities.
By day, he’s a mild-mannered lawyer and an adjunct professor of media law at The John Marshall Law School in Chicago. By night, he’s a DJ and storyteller with a “groove yard” of hundreds of thousands of LPs and 45s, ranging from monster hits to obscure oddities.
They call him: The Disc Jockey at Law.
Milberg’s voice first hit the airwaves in 1959. He went on earn more than 20 broadcasting and advertising awards. His career spanned both radio and television — but his favorite episode was a side project: the “Rare & Scratchy Rock ’N Roll” show. Milberg wrote it, Ken Deutsch produced it and Al Mitchell announced it. This research-heavy mix of tales and tunes was syndicated on more than 135 radio stations in the mid-1980s. After advertising revenue dried up, Milberg stayed on the air in other formats. Then in 1993, he devoted himself to the law. From 2007 to 2014, Milberg returned to the air on Sarasota’s WSLR. In 2016, he resurrected the “Rare & Scratchy” show in podcast form to listeners on six continents.
Milberg likes to joke, “I have a face for radio.” But he’s also known to rock the house in person. Starting Jan. 11, he’ll be sharing the legends behind some of the top rock ‘n’ roll hits in a full course at Ringling College Lifelong Learning Academy. We recently tuned into Milberg’s wavelength and got a sample of his many stories. Here’s some of what he had to say:
How’d you get into radio in the first place?
The genesis was growing up in Detroit with my ears glued to the legendary Motor City radio stations — WXYZ, especially. Are those the greatest call letters in the world, or what?
Even in kindergarten, it made a big impression on me. When I said my “ABCs,” I’d end with ‘…WXYZ AM-FM in Detroit.’ I wanted to be a DJ when I grew up; I’d sit in the living room with my 45s and my little record player and pretend to be on the radio. That was always my dream! As a teenager in college in 1966, my dream came true. I had the good fortune to be on WXYZ, and many other stations. I’m still living the dream today.
In the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, disc jockeys could pick and choose the songs they played. DJs like you could make or break emerging talent. Somewhere along the line, program directors started making the decisions — and handing their DJs a fixed play list. How’d that happen?
What happened was that radio became more and more corporate. Basically, we’re talking the Top 40 radio format, which was invented by Todd Storz, a guy who owned a bunch of stations. He came up with a simple recipe. To maximize profits, figure out the songs that people want to hear — then play those songs, over and over. Maximize listeners; maximize profits; maximize advertising.
That’s a recipe for homogeneity.
It certainly is. The Top 40 format is not a good recipe for creative experimentation. But if you’re out to make money, the formula works. The payola scandal also helped dethrone the disc jockey.
DJs taking money to push certain records?
Exactly. It brought down a lot of the big, early ’60s DJs, including Alan Freed. Funny thing. Payola’s actually legal if you admit it. If you hide it, you’re not paying taxes and violating various FCC rules and regulations. Dick Clark admitted it under congressional testimony. He said mea culpa, and they let him off. Alan Freed denied it—and they nailed him.
What’s happened to radio since then?
More homogeneity! In the old days, you could own seven AM stations, seven FM, stations and seven TV stations, and you couldn’t have all seven TV stations in the largest market. Now, there’s unlimited media ownership. The good news is, listeners vote with their ears. Spotify and other online music sources are taking their toll on terrestrial radio broadcasting. Young people discover new music by listening in on the internet.
And you’re there, too. What’s the format of your podcast?
It’s basically a compressed version of the syndicated show I had in the mid-1980s. I use snippets of classic songs as a jumping off point for a wide range of rock ‘n’ roll stories. My topics are all over the map, from what was the first rock ‘n’ roll record, to the top Halloween hits.
Why only snippets instead of full songs?
Because obtaining music rights for podcasting is a legal nightmare. And I say that as a qualified attorney! If I played the song in its entirety, I’d have the record companies and artists coming after me. If I play only 20-30 second snippets, I can avoid those problems.
You’ve said teenage radio listeners changed America’s cultural norms during the 1950s. In what way?
They broke down divisions of race and class. Music companies used to have their mainstream label for white people and “race records” for African-Americans and other ethnic groups. Black artists would create original songs; the music companies would release covers by white artists like Pat Boone or the McGuire Sisters. White kids would listen to the covers, and then hunt down the originals. Kids then started crossing the color line at concerts by both white and black musicians. The kids started a cross-fertilization between cultures, and that opened the door to bigger changes.
What can we expect at your course?
I’ll tie America’s songs into our culture. No matter what era, music is the key to the culture. There are so many interesting stories. Get me started and I won’t stop. I’m like a radio you can’t turn off.
You have a legendary record collection. What’s the most unusual thing about it?
I think I have the world’s largest collection of Christmas music. If there’s a Christmas song that became a charted Billboard hit, I’ve got it. Every holiday season, I get called to do a ton of Christmas interviews. I’m very Jewish—and I love it!