Rock 'n' Roll DJ
By Rob Turbovsky
Allan Handelman has a lot of stories to tell. Ask him a question that might bring a story to mind and he nearly trips over himself in his exuberance; his excited gestures and equally animated voice show that he is almost too full of memories to be able to put together a thought.
"I was backstage with the Rolling Stones and wait, I take that back - that was with Van Halen. That’s another interesting story."
As the host of the syndicated Sunday night radio program, "The Allan Handelman Show," Handelman uses his impassioned storytelling to drive the show. Listeners can’t help but follow along, no matter how off-the-wall the topic may be, because they hear a host genuinely interested in the material he is presenting, a host who loves to draw stories out of his guests and to tell stories of his own.
Handelman talks about his career with a tone that suggests not self-satisfaction but a genuine affection for radio. "Growing up, radio truly was something that was part of my everyday life," he says. With twenty-five years of experience interviewing celebrities, politicians, and experts in the paranormal, he has collected hundreds of compelling stories. After all that time, he still tells them with the enthusiasm and vigor of a wide-eyed young fan. And he is. Talk to him for three minutes, as a caller on his show might, or for three hours, as a guest might, and that becomes clear.
"Frank Zappa was huge. He never did interviews," Handelman says, still amazed. "But, I was a fan of Zappa, and whenever I was a fan of someone and appreciated the music, I went out of my way to get up with them." With Zappa, Handelman’s effort paid off. Though the legendary musician had to cut short his first appearance on the show because of recording commitments, he gave Handelman a rare, jovial interview, filled with joking and laughter. Zappa enjoyed the show so much that he asked Handelman if he could return next week. "And the next week he did two hours," Handelman says, proudly. "And he loved the show. His very last interview, three weeks before he died – he knew it was going to be his last – and he did it with me."
Then there was the time that Handelman tried to interview his last minute fill-in guest, Beverly Sassoon, wife of hair product magnate Vidal Sassoon, while she was soaking in a bath tub, drunk, and screaming profanities – on the air – because her toe had become caught in the drain. Or the time he was doing a show on UFOs at the exact moment that there was a huge surge in UFO sightings at the Voice of America and above a local air force base.
With such a colorful career in radio, it’s difficult to believe that Handelman didn’t study it in college. "Mostly to appease my parents, I got a degree in teaching," he says. "And I never taught a day in my life." Handelman’s rejection of a more traditional career path may have occurred even earlier than college; as a child growing up in Long Island, New York, he would pretend to be a disc jockey using his family’s old record player. By the time he was in high school, he had his own pirate radio station and was also coming to understand the importance of an on-air personality.
"[AM] radio really wasn’t playing the kind of music I wanted to hear. For music, I had switched to FM like everybody else. I was listening [to AM] mostly for them – the entertainment from the disc jockeys."
The disc jockey, for Handelman, was the person responsible for drawing universal connections, bridging the gap between the guest and the audience. But, in order to do that, he had to be authentic and actually care about the people who heard the show and the people who were on the show. Handelman credits his ability to book notoriously reticent guests like David Letterman or Frank Zappa to his genuine interest in their work. "Letterman gave me that first interview because he really saw that I knew what he was doing and appreciated what he was doing," he explains. Handelman immerses himself in his guest’s work and he doesn’t ask the same hackneyed questions. In return, he doesn’t get the same hackneyed answers.
"One of the things I’m proudest about is not just the impact on the audience but also the impact on celebrities who don’t do interviews because they’re sick of dumb questions," he says. "Yet they were so intrigued by this little station in North Carolina and just me - some kid - that they’d not only do it, but they’d put their ear to the phone for three hours."
What the celebrities enjoy about doing Handelman’s show also mirrors what appeals to listeners. "I like listening to his band interviews," Handelman listener Ryan Tyma explains, "because, when he’s not actually letting the fans ask questions themselves, he asks the kind of questions a fan would ask. He somehow knows what’s interesting to me and he touches on that. I can hear he’s as big of a fan [of the bands] as I am."
Off the air, Handelman has that same boyish enthusiasm. Watching him bob up and down excitedly before AC/DC’s entrance during their once-in-a-lifetime club gig at Manhattan’s Roseland Ballroom, you would never guess that the tall guy with the anxious expression, worn t-shirt, and faded jeans is a radio DJ, let alone the fact that he has a special bond with the band. As Handelman might say, "that’s another interesting story," one that launched his career – and by complete accident.
"The biggest for me, musically and in a lot of other ways, was AC/DC. It was all spontaneous. I was just out of college; they were on the Highway To Hell tour [in October 1979]. Somehow I managed to get into their dressing room. It was just a couple girls and Bon [Scott, the band’s lead singer], drunk, with a joint burning in one hand and a bottle of Jack in the other, holding two girls between them. And I went in there and said ‘Can I interview you,’ and he said, ‘Sure man. Come on in, have a hit.’ And I went in, didn’t have a damn thing prepared, barely knew his name. I really winged it and it really clicked. We hit it off. He really liked it and I really liked it and that turned out to be his last interview [for American radio]."
Though Bon Scott’s career would soon end, a result of his death from alcohol poisoning in February of 1980, AC/DC’s – and Allan Handelman’s – were just beginning.
"They remembered that day. And they also remembered how much Bon liked me, and I got the first interview with Brian [Johnson, Scott’s replacement]. And since that was the only interview they did that year, the show I did was syndicated by NBC. And that was the very first show of the tour; at that point, the album had just come out."
The album was Back in Black, which would go on to sell over twenty million copies, catapulting AC/DC to superstardom and changing Handelman’s life forever.
"That was the beginning of my career - it gave me the confidence to approach anybody anywhere. In my mind, being in a small town in North Carolina had no bearing on reality. For me, my reality was that my show was good enough to be heard anywhere in the world. I just made that part of my mission, part of my being."
"You kind of get trapped in [the show]," Handelman’s call screener Dave Mitchell says of his appeal as a host. "Even if the topic is not something that you’d think you’d want to listen to or call in about. Because you’d never thought that way before, I think it strikes a chord."
Indeed, topics on the show can vary from a discussion of political advocacy in rock songs with Bono to a conversation about corporate power with Ralph Nader. Or there might be a psychic or an expert on the occult. Last week’s show, with guest Lewis Black, had him warmly reminiscing over their similar college memories of smoking pot and listening to Bob Dylan. Handelman’s interest in all these subjects is an intuitive one. His passion comes through in the inflection in his voice, the way he begins frantically telling another story about how, working at his first radio job, he came to host such an odd show.
"I remember one guy saying, ‘Listen, I got this show I do on Sunday morning, it’s called ‘Forum,’ I’m getting sick of doing it. We have to do it because of legal obligations to the FCC; we have to do a couple hours a week of public affairs. But if you want to do it, I’ll give you $15’ – which even then was nothing. And I said, ‘What do you mean public affairs?’ And he says, ‘Public affairs - that’s all the FCC says’…And I went home and I thought, ‘Public affairs, to my public, to my rock listeners, is sex, it’s rock and roll, it’s drugs, it’s bands, it’s UFOs.’ This is my public; these are the affairs we talk about. So in my mind, in my twisted way of thinking, that’s public affairs. And I did it."
Far from being worried about how a show with that kind of content would play in the small town North Carolina radio market he was working in at the time, Handelman says he loved to talk about that sort of thing and that was enough for him. Twenty-five years later, Handelman’s interest in the material remains. He is energetic enough to push the topic or the guest during the show, but not so selfish that he dominates the program.
"He does a really good job of presenting the guest," Mitchell says. "You certainly hear what Allan thinks, but it’s much more about the guest and leaving it up to the audience."
In a time when greater numbers of rock stations are owned by fewer and fewer corporations, when music is mass-marketed, when radio is becoming more and more impersonal, Handelman stands apart. Even with a long career built on celebrity interviews and UFO close encounters, his audience is what he remains devoted to and interested in. The only time he gets genuinely upset in conversation is when discussing the news that a powerful station that carries his show in Raleigh decided to cancel him – after thirteen years – in retaliation for a broadcast he did on satellite radio. His sadness comes not because of the outright act of censorship, but – and here he winces - because the Raleigh market was where it all started for him, where the listener base provided him with the confidence and support he needed to believe in his show. And now, they can’t hear him, though the listener reaction protesting the cancellation of his show in Raleigh has been enormous, surprising even Handelman; he hopes to move his show to a rival station in the same market. He describes, with more than a hint of fondness, an incident broadcast there that occurred after a concert.
"I went out into the parking lot and turned on my tape recorder and just wanted to hear what people were saying, and I just went from van to car to party. And people were just expressing themselves and for the next six or seven hours, I just had the most incredible sounding show. It was a real highlight of my career, being with listeners and talking to them about stuff that they’d never heard a radio person ask them."
Of course, his love for the audience couldn’t exist if he didn’t also still love his job. And despite all the work – fifty hours a week for most shows since he alone does the booking and research – Handelman obviously loves what he does. He wants to expand to weekdays and satellite radio, to be able to continue the conversation. His other goals for the future are further evidence of just how little he has changed from the idealistic young DJ who rejected a career in education, saying "I’d love my hometown of New York, my friends I grew up with, to hear my show. I want to be on more stations, but not if I have to sacrifice what I want to talk about. And at the bottom of the list, I’d like to make some money. I’m doing okay, but it’s not the most important; I just need to be comfortable. I’m pretty simple."
All in all, Allan Handelman says he’s had quite a run, from a young kid with a love of radio and rock music, to a nervous fan in Bon Scott’s dressing room, to the last man to interview Frank Zappa. With an attitude that suggests he can’t wait for the next day, the next show, the next interview or segment, Handelman’s enthusiasm is infectious. It’s easy to see that his success was no accident at all, a product of his passion for the power of radio and his bond with his listeners. A bond forged by events like the one when he and two hundred of his listeners camped out and conducted séances at a haunted forest – over the air. But then, that’s another interesting story.