By Tim Hayes
The neighborhood kids thought nothing of walking up the hill to the main drag of our little borough, climbing on a bus or trolley into Downtown, walking around the streets and hitting the big department stores and sporting goods shops and pizza places. Just another way to kill time on a summer day or a Saturday during the school year.
One corner on a busy Downtown intersection in particular held a grip-like fascination for me, though. In an otherwise nondescript office building where Forbes met Stanwix, up on the second floor, visible from the street through a floor-to-ceiling window, the DJ did his show – live, on the air – at station WKTQ-1320 AM.
Or, as every pre-teen and teenager in Pittsburgh knew it: 13-Q.
No trip Downtown for me could be considered complete until I had dragged my buddies to that corner and stared in wide-eyed marvel at that studio in the window. I loved it, the idea of it. I wondered how cool you needed to be to get to sit in that fishbowl, just above the hustle going on along those city avenues.
13-Q burst onto the scene in 1973, pumping out bubblegum pop music around the clock, played by what then passed as “irreverent” DJs. (These guys would hardly cause a ripple today, but back then it felt like you were getting away with something with that station blaring in your bedroom.)
The hook used by the station to eventually become a dominant force in local radio came via the contest whereby, if the DJ called you while on the air and you answered by saying, “I listen to the new sound of 13-Q!” you’d win what, again, back then, passed for a lot of money: $13,000.
Naturally, all of my friends answered every phone call placed to our homes with that “phrase that pays,” until our parents told us to knock it off. But other contests flowed from the 13-Q stash, and yours truly actually won one of them.
While tuned into 13-Q one lazy afternoon, the DJ said a certain caller – probably the thirteenth – to reach the radio station would win a free album. Fingers furiously whipping that rotary dial on our kitchen wall-anchored Bell telephone, I turned out to be the winning caller! About seven seconds later, I heard my excited voice on the radio with the actual DJ!
It was like I had levitated up right into that second-floor studio at Forbes and Stanwix, sitting next to the DJ. Teenage geek-in-training nirvana. The DJ shuffled my call off to some assistant, who took my name, address, and phone number. I asked when the album would be mailed to me, and I could hear the exasperation in her voice when she replied, “Uh, we don’t send it to you. You have to come to the station and pick it up yourself. You have a week, and don’t come before 10 in the morning or after 3 in the afternoon, and only come on weekdays. Goodbye.”
I had to go to the station? Were they kidding? Wow, another dream come true! Maybe I could ACTUALLY go into the studio with the DJ this time!
Lucky for me this all happened in the summer, so I could go any weekday I wanted. You’d better believe the next morning, I hoofed up the hill from my house, caught the first trolley that came by, and was in town by 8:45 a.m. A little early, I admit, but it gave me time to think of all the albums I would like to have. A station as great as 13-Q must have hundreds, thousands, of albums on hand. I wanted to get there right at 10, because it might take until 3 to make my selection, you know.
Excitement uncontrolled, I rode the elevator to the second floor at 9:30 and walked into the station’s reception area. The secretary looked at me like I’d just crawled in from the riverbank or something. “Who are you? What do you want?”
“I was the thirteenth caller yesterday and they said I get to pick a free album.”
“Oh. Okay. You’re not supposed to be here until 10, you know.”
“Yeah, I know, but I couldn’t wait that long.”
After issuing the Epic Eye-Roll Runner-Up Award Winner of 1973, she pointed at a closet door near her desk and said I could take whatever record I wanted on the shelf in there. She didn’t even ask for my name or anything. My buddies and I could have fleeced that closet for every album they had, if we’d known security were that lax at 13-Q.
As I opened the closet door and my eyes adjusted to the darkness, waiting to be dazzled by the endless library of music contained within, imagine the crushing sense of disillusionment and disappointment when I found only a dozen or so albums by groups that they didn’t even play on 13-Q. Rush, Jethro Tull, all these hard rock artists that sounded vaguely familiar but that I certainly didn’t follow.
Where were the Archies? Where were the Jackson Five? Where was the manager of this place?
I begrudgingly grabbed a Jethro Tull album, walked out of the station, and took the bus back home. Not wanting to see the entire day wasted, I placed the album on the record player. Maybe I’d learn to like this Jethro guy.
After about two songs, the Epic Eye-Roll Champion of 1973 occurred right there in my family’s dining room, next to the stereo, by me. Jethro Tull? Some scraggly, shaggy haired dude tooting a flute on a hard rock album? No, thanks. My free album went into a box in the corner of our basement where weird stuff went to die.
But that same afternoon, there I was again, listening to the new sound of 13-Q. Hope springs eternal when you’re 13…Q or not.
Copyright 2019 Timothy P. Hayes