Monday, July 19, 2010

DJ Mad Mike Metrovich

The LA Times called Mad Mike an iconoclast. That's pretty accurate. Mad Mike was on the air in Pittsburgh at the same time as Porky Chedwick but was an entirely different sort of eccentric. There were plenty of other DJs in the pantheon of early rock n' roll. But it was rare that they championed the obscure.  It made Porky and Mad Mike quite a mismatched pair. Porky was zany and wholesome. Mike just wasn't. Mike was more manic than mad, more paranoid than poetic, and more private than public. He rarely identified the sides he spun on air and sometimes went as far as to scratch off the band names on the 45rpm labels. He once wrote “I walk through stacks of records and I hear voices. The records are calling out to me, ‘Play me! Play me!’ These things haunt me and I have nightmares.” 
Metrovich was born in PA but wasn't exposed to rock n' roll until he joined the Navy.  While in the stationed at the Brooklyn Naval Yards, Metrovich was turned on to early rock n' roll music. Like Porky Chedwick he hosted record hops. That led to his first disc-jockey gig at 730 WPIT-AM in 1964. At the time Michael Komichak, who also built the station back in 1947 was still running things. He ran the station well into the 1970s. (It was sold to Salem in 1993)   Back then, WPIT's studios were located on Smithfield Street, in downtown Pittsburgh. At the time KQV-AM and KDKA-AM were playing the Beatles. Mad Mike wanted none of that. He made his own picks.

But he didn't stay at WPIT for even a whole year. In August of 1964 he moved to 1590 WZUM-AM in Carnegie PA. It was a rhythm & blues station from the very beginning, a perfect fit.  Well perfect except that Polka bandleader Jimmy Pol (aka James Psihoulis) owned the station and only ran Rhythm & Blues in the day, and Polka every morning from sunrise until 10:00 AM. that morning show was hosted by Jimmy Pol (of course) and his dog, Polka Pete. Jimmy had a much bigger career in writing football fight songs for the Steelers than he had in radio. Jimmy's goal was to attract a large black audience. Even though it was a daytimer competing with KQV and KDKA the station took off. Quickly Jimmy realized that the appeal of rock n' roll went beyond race.  He was quoted in Billboard in 1967: "There's no such thing as a Negro or white station anymore."  By 1968 he wasn't even bothering to mention race.  He was quoted in Billboard as saying: "According to the last ARB (Oct-Nov), WZUM had the third largest number of Teens after  KQV and KDKA and that was before KDKA switched to a softer format and WZUM expanded it's music list to include contemporary as well as R&B."

Even though there was polka in his heart, Jimmy was foursquare behind the rockn' roll format. The records that Mike played wee obscure. Obscure, hard to find, out of print.  He relished their unavailability, it was part of his own uniqueness.  He spun records you couldn't hear anywhere else.  So when one of his singles took off, demand instantly outstripped supply. Because of that he was able to release released a six-record series of oldies compilations called Mad Mike's Moldies."The collect-ability of these cannot be overstated. They've been issued on Supreme Teen Enterprises, re-issued, issued on colored vinyl, then reissued again on Norton Records. Two double CD sets are also planned in the near future.  More here.
 Mike stayed with WZUM-AM into 1972.  Jimmy Pol sold the station in 1974 to Robert Hicklin who changed the calls to WPLW and the format to religious talk. The station still runs religious talk and has no ratings to speak of. It's been dead for over 30 years. After leaving WZUM the winning streak was sort of over.  Mike had an oldies show on WYEP-FM in the 1980s, also worked at 810 WEDO-AM and 540 WWCS-AM. Mad Mike died on Halloween in 2000. How utterly appropriate. More here and here.