A Voice In The Night
The state of the contemporary radio industry is one of constant change; changing musical formats, personalities, program directors and especially, owners. With radio stations nationwide being gobbled up by conglomerates, industry critics would contend that we've only seen the beginning of the homogenized, standardized cookie-cutter radio programming that has existed over the last few years.
With many broadcasting companies being network driven, with the on-going elimination of local disc jockeys and on-air personalities, and with the old Top-40 being trimmed down to the Top-5, there's little hope for a broadcaster who remains with one format over a period of years to succeed. Or is there?
Dave Nemo has spent the last thirty years of his broadcasting career bucking the passing trends and doing things his own way. And he's made a lot of friends and acquired a lot of fans along the way.
His style is low-key and relaxed. He doesn't possess a loud, strident voice like many of the on-air personalities in the radio business, nor does he hype his program's sponsors with the rapid fire patter of a used-car salesman behind a microphone.
Instead, listening to Dave Nemo's overnight trucking show is like hearing from a friend; someone to keep you company through the lonely miles at night. His style is one of "easy talking" and all of it is directed to the audience he's maintained for the past three decades of late night radio - the professional driver.
One of the pioneer broadcasters involved in the then-unknown business of "trucking radio," Nemo is also a country music purist who still plays the music from the early days of, and many would say, the golden days of country.
"Looking back, I suppose I was a rock and roller as a kid (I even discovered a liking for classical music), then I developed my appreciation for country as I grew older."
"Webb Pierce and Ernest Tubb are two of my favorites," says Dave. "The first country song I remember hearing is Hank Snow's Movin On."
Dave is originally from Illinois, with time spent in Mississippi and many years in New Orleans. He and his family now reside in Nashville.
A graduate of Loyola University with a degree in Communications, Nemo was one of the first people with a degree in that area of study. "I was program director for the college radio station during my last two years and that helped to develop my love for this medium," says the broadcaster.
"I worked my way through school out on the riverfront in New Orleans, tying barges together and playing in a country music band," he recalls. "There were 9,000 rock bands and two country bands; if you played country, you had a lot of work!"
"In my senior year in college, I landed a part time job at radio station WWL in New Orleans. I had a very low draft number at that time, and the US Army grabbed me and sent me to South Korea. I was assigned to the Armed Forces Korea Network (AFKN), working in a suburb of Seoul."
"My show was on from 6 pm to midnight. We called it ”˜Nemo's Nitebeat'. The guys working at what we called Radio Gypsy were all seasoned radio disc jockeys and we ate, drank and slept radio."
"We had a wide ranging musical format, playing a variety of music. I still use things today "on the air" that I leaned in the Army. My love of Bluegrass music, for example, came from a sergeant I met in the service who educated me about the great artists of roots music."
A new type of radio
During Nemo's stint in the Army, WWL air personality Charlie Douglas and his program director John Pela had developed the concept of radio programming focused on the professional truck driver. They took a chance on the format and it was immediately successful. Called the Road Gang, it was embraced by the truckers, and fortunately, the sponsors.
When Dave returned to work at WWL after his stint with Uncle Sam, he and Charlie developed a friendship. "Well, this was the early 70's and country music was almost non-existent at that time in New Orleans. Because of my background, I was one of the few in radio there who knew country music. Charlie needed a second host for the show and we began a working relationship that lasted for 13 years, until I took over the full time duties in 1984."
"Charlie has to be credited with inventing trucking radio; we were probably one of the first programs to do live remotes and promotions."
Nemo regularly conducts informal surveys to find out more about his listeners and experiments with different ingredients in his show's mix.
" When you have only one radio program (aimed at truckers, as was the case when the Road Gang started in 1971), you have to go with what the majority is. And we did informal surveys continually through the years."
"Yeah, you do have a lot of diverse musical tastes out there, but if you have to go with one, you're going to have to go with country," Dave says, "and if you're going to go with country, your best bet is to go with traditional."
"We have always interacted with the audience behind the scenes on the phone; our audience feels they are a part of the show. A lot of our ideas for the show are driver generated, i.e., the music we play, how we present the weather and other features; they all come from the drivers."
"The things we talk about on the show run the gamut from A to Z," he continues, "and we talk about a wide range of topics. If I don't know the answer to a question, the audience usually has the answer. We get more information from the audience than they do from me."
Dave says that his show never takes it's listeners for granted and that they never stereotype the listeners to fit a profile. Professional drivers come from incredibly diverse backgrounds with drivers entering the profession from all walks of life.
Nemo says one of the most rewarding aspects of his three decades of broadcasting has been watching the show being "passed down" from father to son, then again to the son's son. The listeners of these shows are very loyal.
"It's so rare to find someone who is a regular listener who doesn't have a family member in trucking," Dave says. "It's part of family culture, especially in the south. When interviewing a country artist, I always ask, 'Okay, who's a trucker in your family?' And it's really hard to find somebody who doesn't have a family member who wasn't in trucking."
An integral part of the Nemo style has been his many interviews with some of country's biggest names. He says, "All of the country music artists have been great people who are very down to earth. Most of them came from very modest circumstances and the music is what drives them. The vast majority of those people in country music who I have met seem to be value oriented and family-centered."
"This applies not only to the singers, but the songwriters as well; they have a passion for their music that is all-encompassing."
He reflects, "I've really enjoyed doing all the interviews with the country artists and one of the best compliments I've received about my interviewing style is that I make them feel comfortable."
"That definitely comes from researching the subject of your interview; there have been times when I've asked an artist about some part of their personal history (a non-scandalous issue), and they've been surprised to find that I know about it."
A business associate and friend
A long time friend, business partner and integral part of the Dave Nemo programs of more than a decade is Ms. Micki McIntyre. Micki, who handles the business and promotional end of the show have greatly contributed to the show's success and she receives high praise from her friend and associate:
"When Micki entered the trucking radio scene in the 80's," says Nemo, "she made a great impression and built a solid reputation as someone who was an honest, straight shooter. We are a great team and it's a pleasure to work with her." Micki recalls, "Dave and I ran into each other many times when I was working with the Truckin Bozo in the mid-80's at different truck shows all around the country. We always had mutual respect for each other's talents."
"Dave was on WWL exclusively around 1990 when the station's new owner took a great interest in the overnite truck show and wanted to expand Dave's reach by linking together AM stations through satellite and I was hired to do that."
"I had a blast for 6 years putting the shows together! We were on the road constantly, with many tours of truck stops and meeting and greeting drivers and people in this industry. It was always a lot of fun putting the faces to the voices who call in to the show."
Micki tells of her appreciation for her long-time business associate: "Dave is real, what you hear on the radio is who he is in person. His respect for the industry is heartfelt and that creates loyalty among his listening audience. After 30 years they still tune him in."
It is this acceptance by the trucking fraternity that has allowed Nemo - never a trucker himself - to stay on the air all these years, and he knows it. "I've been very fortunate," says Nemo, but it's no secret that respect for his audience plays a large part in that acceptance.
All of the music played on his show is programmed by Nemo himself, and after years in the business, he says that he's become accustomed to that freedom of programming choice.
It was in the interest of expanding the format of his show, that a few years back he tried an experiment with a regularly scheduled, 15 minute segment of bluegrass, his personal favorite musical style. It didn't seem to interest his audience. "We found out the hard way that the drivers didn't seem to care for it."
Because of his love of bluegrass, Nemo keeps a banjo under his bed; he jokingly says that when one of his friends heard him play the 5-string, it was recommended that the banjo remain right where it was.
Over the last few years, Dave has added a little rockabilly to the show, which he says has worked out well so far. "Rockabilly is kind of a roots music for many artists, and we try to play a representation of different styles."
The Nemo show has always programmed trucking songs in his music mix and trucker country music has seen something of a rebirth during the past decade.
"There have only been a couple of occupations that have been profiled in country music," Nemo reflects, "train songs and trucking songs. The difference is, the train songs were about the trains, the trucking songs about the drivers and people."
"If music is about anything," he continues, "it's about mystique and romance and wanderlust. But there aren't many cowboy songs anymore, or train songs."
"Back in the earlier days, I think there was more of a mystique about truckers than there is now. We know so much about everything that there's no more mystery. You don't romanticize something that's not mysterious any more"
The veteran broadcaster touches on the subject of the "fragmentation" and "segmentation" of the broadcasting world, with targeted TV and radio audiences becoming narrower and more specialized. "In the earlier days of radio and TV, there was a greater "common ground" because people were likely to have seen the same TV show the night before and that generated the water cooler discussions. I suppose the last show that had that kind of impact and response was "Seinfeld."
A long time fan
"Rusty Wheeler is a renaissance man," says Dave Nemo. A look at his career history - Apprentice Electrician, Police Officer, Truck Driver and Trainer, Recording Studio Owner, Engineer, Producer and Songwriter - bears that out.
And add to that resume, weekend radio personality.
"I was a long time listener and fan," says Rusty, who also fills in when Dave is on the road. "As a matter of fact, when I was working as a trainer, I insisted on driving at night to be able to listen to Dave's show."
"I think the most amazing thing about Dave is his decency and honesty; his concern for the driver is absolutely on the level."
Ironically, though Rusty was brought up on classical music and possesses a masters degree in musical theory, he has a deep love of country music which began, "when I first heard Jim Reeves singing 'He'll Have To Go.'" Possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of country, he also confesses to being a Beatles addict.
"I listened to Dave for 8 years before meeting him," Rusty recalls. "The meeting came to pass when I wrote a song called "Christmas Comes On 18 Wheels" which was part of a Christmas album on MCA. The first time I heard Dave play it on his show, I just about drove off the road!
"I contacted Dave and we developed a friendship, which in turn, developed into a working relationship."
Among Rusty's other pursuits, he owns a recording studio and functions as the recording engineer, although producing the artists is his first love.
Regarding his stints behind the microphone on the Dave Nemo Radio Network, he says, "The drivers are fun to talk to, and I try to be a good partner. As far as the time I spend with Dave and the show, it's a thrill to work with him."
The past and the future
After 28 years of working under the Road Gang banner, WWL was sold and it was the new owner who moved the show to Nashville. After the station changed hands a number of times in a very short time span, in the summer of 2000 the show's long run ended.
Dave had worked long and hard to develop his role in trucking radio and didn't want to leave his audience of many years. In August of 2000, he placed a call to his associate Micki McMintyre and they were back in business.
Micki had left the day-to-day operation of the program around 1995 to try her hand in the fledgling truckside advertising business which she says was "a little too futuristic at the time; no one understood what we were selling!"
Since her return to the broadcasting business, Micki tells of the show's great success: "We have grown the network with the XM Satellite rebroadcast which has expanded our audience; we judge our success by the new callers who contact us and that indicates growth. Fortunately, the advertisers are happy and satisfied."
"Dave's credibility with his audience is phenonmenal. Dave has the ability to understand a client's products or services and is able to explain that to his audience. It's really incredible and he makes my job easier!"
Micki concludes, "Dave and I are proud of the fact that we do real truck radio that is audience-driven. We're proud to be a part of trucking life."
Dave tells us that being part of the new technology has him very enthused: "I'm excited to be part of XM Satellite Radio! I've met a number of truly professional radio people at XM, folks who love radio, even some former radio people who had left the industry, but were lured back to it by the satellite opportunity."
"Like everyone and everything else," Nemo says, "we've had our ups and downs. The drivers have always been there for us and our sponsors have stuck with us through thick and thin. Being out there with all of the drivers has kept us current with the drivers and industry issues. It has allowed us to keep our finger on the pulse of the truckers."
Somewhat somberly, Dave reflects, "Keeping this program on the air is a struggle. Truckers have an unappreciated status in our society and the lack of appreciation includes problems on the road, shippers/receivers, truck stop operators, even folks in radio."
"The struggle continues, and it's not getting easier, but quitting is not in our vocabulary."
"Integrity is what we're all about."
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