When: July 17, 1998
Where: 102.9 WBLM, Portland, ME
Accomplices: The Captain and Celeste of the WBLM Morning Show
The Bit: Lynyrd Skynyrd plays “Free Bird” all night long at the Cumberland County Civic Center
I was working as the Producer of the WBLM Morning Show at the time. My role was the “third man” — There were two personalities who featured prominently on-air, and I “filled in the blanks,” working mostly off mic, doing song parodies, booking guests, producing creative elements, comedy bits, and so on… The mortar between the bricks, if you will.
Lynyrd Skynyrd had played the Cumberland County Civic Center the night before, and a lot of the ‘BLM staff was in attendance, including morning show staffers, all of whom left the show early so we could get up and not be wiped for work the following morning.
Fast forward to the following morning, during the morning show, sometime around 730-8am. Off-air, we were talking about the concert: “Did you stay till the end?” “No, I left early.” “Me too. I wonder how long they played ‘Free Bird’.” And one of us joked: “They’re still playing it.”
Ding. Light bulb.
I grabbed a copy of the Lynyrd Skynyrd live CD “One More From the Road,” and told Captain and Celeste, “I’m going down the hall to the production studio. I’ll call the hot line in a couple minutes. Play along.” I found the live version of “Free Bird” from the album and cued it up to the middle of the long instrumental jam and turned it up loud in the production studio, and called the on-air studio. The Captain put me on the air, and I yelled over the music I myself was cranking…
Captain and Celeste: “What do you mean, they’re still on?”
Me: “I mean they’re still playing ‘Free Bird!’ They’ve been jamming all night!” I held the phone up to the speakers in the studio.
Captain and Celeste: “Oh, my God! No WAY! How many people are still there watching?”
Me: “There are only like a hundred of us still here. If you still have your stub, they’ll let you back in!”
Captain and Celeste: “How are they doing it? That’s like eight hours!”
Me: “They’re trading solos! One guy plays for a while, then takes a break when someone else takes a solo! WOOO!” (I really played it up.)
The show went on, and my partners “checked in with me” throughout the rest of the morning, as I brought up-to-the-minute live updates of this extraordinary concert performance to Blimpville. Other WBLM office staff started arriving for work:
June the Receptionist: “Um, what are you guys doing on the air?”
Me: “Nothing. Just pretending that Lynyrd Skynyrd played ‘Free Bird’ all night long. Why do you ask?”
June: “Well, traffic around the Civic Center is an absolute mess. Apparently people think they can get back in there.”
Raised eyebrows among the on-air staff. Really? Heh. Whoops. OK, maybe we should kinda wrap it up. Show’s almost over, anyway. We did one last break where I pretended to “come back” to the on-air studio, and that was where the bit ended.
Until a TV reporter called a little after 9am during our post-show meeting: “Hi, this is Blah-blah from W-blah-blah-blah News. How did you get exclusive coverage on the all-night Lynyrd Skynyrd concert?”
Raised eyebrows again. The Captain offers a single tentative, “Ummm…” Huge uncomfortable pause.
Reporter: “Was that a joke? Please don’t tell anyone I called you. Bye.”
Why did that bit work so well? A few reasons, I think. First, it was local and topical for our audience. It was something happening close to them, right that minute, that they could go and see, hear, and touch if they wanted to. Second, it was spontaneous. To me, the best bits are the ones that are thought up on the fly. We always had a plan for that show, every morning. But I always loved going “off the board” when something unexpected came up. And finally, there was trust. We knew each other well, and the team trusted each other enough to play along and see where the bit would end up.
There were other great moments on that morning show. Among them, the 60-Hour Morning Show Marathon, Dolores the Cleaning Lady’s cross-country road trip after winning the lottery, and whenever the Cosmic Muffin would forget he was live and drop an F-Bomb. But the all night “Free Bird” jam took the cake for me. Thanks, Blimpville.
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