The date was Jan. 8, 1984.
As the second hand of the clock ticked down to 1 a.m., Terry Hughes found himself seated before a microphone and control console at public radio station WEMU-FM (89.1), ready to deliver his first-ever radio broadcast. “Baby Workout,” the 1961 single by Detroit-born Jackie Wilson, was cued up on the turntable. Then the clock struck one, and Hughes took control. “I open up the microphone,” he recalls, “do this incredibly weak intro, and shut the station off.”
WEMU was dead air for two minutes. The “Bone Conduction Music Show” was officially born.
But inauspicious beginnings proved fertile soil for a broadcast singularity. Today, anywhere from 4,000 to 8,000 listeners tune in WEMU Sunday nights at 7 p.m. to hear Hughes broadcast as Thayrone, the 19-year-old perfect master. His raucous blend of vintage rhythm-and-blues, rock ’n’ roll, soul, theology, drink recipes, philosophy and wit is doled out by the pint, and is responsible for an estimated 10 percent of all call-in dollars donated to WEMU during annual spring and fall fund drives. The “BCMS” has, on occasion, raised more money for the station than any other single show in the station’s history, according to station manager Art Timko.
On-air, Hughes’ style is spontaneous and unpredictable. He once championed heating and cooling as “the official diploma of the ‘Bone Conduction Music Show,’” explaining that graduates can easily break into buildings and escape most any prison in the country. He claims to broadcast in his underwear, drinking beer and watching television with his dog, and he became notorious for playing “Prison Bitch,” a ’50s-style doo-wop song certain to be the most shocking thing listeners ever come across on a radio dial.
Hughes, who insists on complete creative control of his show, says he does not work from a script, and that beyond planning the first song of the night, he does not draft play lists in advance. “I could be hung over when I’m on the fucking radio — I could be in the best shape, just worked out, got nine hours of sleep — I feel wonderful,” he says. “But whatever it is, it’s me.”
The 53-year-old, shirtless Hughes is wide-eyed, fit and clean-shaven, with medium-length brown hair combed back from a baby face. On a sticky summer afternoon, he describes how commercial radio has become, in his words, “cancer on the dial.”
“It’s totally researched into the ground,” he says. “I understand it too. When you pay $15 to $20 million for a radio station, you’ve gotta make your money back. How do you do that? You want L’eggs panty hose paying for airtime. Public radio doesn’t do that.”
Hughes’ love of music and radio began at an early age, when he sat nightly by his blond Zenith flip-top radio, seeking out Detroit DJs like Jack the Bellboy on WJBK and Martha Jean “The Queen” on WJLB. He also mentions “Randy’s Record Mart” (a show out of Nashville), Dick Biondi of Chicago and Wolfman Jack as favorites.
“Back then, there was some very cool radio,” he acknowledges. “Who knows what was going on behind the scenes within their corporate structure.
“The thing that always drove me the wildest was the black R&B stuff, the stuff that wasn’t filtered through Pat Boone,” he says.
Hughes’ storied career in radio began early one fall morning of 1983, when he arrived at the doorstep of WAAM-AM, the neighborhood station in Ann Arbor, and waited for the arrival of Skip Diegel, then the general manager of the station.
“I told him I wanted a gig in radio even if I had to empty wastebaskets to get started,” says Hughes. He talked to Diegel and was allowed to cut a tape reading news headlines in the production studio.
From there, Hughes set his sights on WEMU, down the road at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. He knew Jim Dulzo, then the station’s program and music director, from the wild bar days and nights of Ann Arbor in the ’70s.
“We were very open to looking for new talent and we were ready to try anybody,” says Dulzo, now a program host at WDET-FM in Detroit. “He struck me as very quick and very funny. It was kind of a no-brainer, to try anyway.” So Dulzo hired him.
The next step was to settle on a broadcast moniker. Hughes, born Theron Ethan Hughes III, liked “Dr. Rock,” but because WEMU was a jazz and blues station, Dulzo objected. Thayrone, a bastardization of Hughes’ stage name (“The Righteous Reverend Theron”), was selected. Says Hughes, “I’ve hated that name, but I’m stuck with it.”
“The Bone Conduction Music Show” garnered an “immediate, overwhelmingly joyous response,” according to Dulzo. “It brought people who never gave public radio a thought.”
Still, Hughes thought he could do better. Envisioning a larger paycheck, he turned to commercial radio and took a job at WIQB-FM in Ann Arbor in the spring of 1985. Two months later, he moved on to WLLZ-FM in Detroit while working late nights at WSDS-AM in Ypsilanti, spinning country music for truckers. Next was a brief stop at oldies station WIBM-FM in Jackson, before ending his commercial radio career at WNIC-FM back in Detroit.
It took Hughes little time to realize that his freewheeling style did not jibe with commercial radio. Program directors repeatedly pulled him aside and criticized him for having too much personality. Bored playing the same 20 songs over and over every shift, Hughes improvised. When the AC/DC song “You Shook Me All Night Long” appeared on a play list, he would substitute the lesser known “Have a Drink on Me.” Every station, he discovered, was the same: “Everything is tightly formatted; you’ve got a computer-generated play list and a program director’s thumb on your back,” he says.
So Hughes’ response was simply to up the ante.
At WIBM, Hughes was expected to appear around town for live promotional broadcasts wearing official company-logo blue blazers. He flat-out refused to wear them. Despite the warnings of co-workers, Hughes remained defiant, quaffing beer with car salesmen in the back of the parking lots, swapping dirty jokes with the clown making pornographic balloon animals.
It would be enough to get him fired, “which I was proud of,” he says, “because I said, ‘you’ve gotta get fired in radio to get a job in radio.’”
By the time he was at WNIC, Hughes felt stifled and miserable. Yet, after roughly a year-and-a-half in the commercial business, with stints at two major-market stations, he had a respectable résumé in radio and was poised to move out of state to pursue a career.
“I probably looked like gold for somebody to put me on an overnight in Omaha, which is, you know, starting a career.”
But he was also married at the time, owned a home, and he knew his wife would not follow him back and forth across the country as he flip-flopped jobs the way radio DJs often do. And so in the fall of 1986, Hughes quit radio.
He returned to school at Eastern Michigan University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accounting information systems in 1989. He then found a job at the University of Michigan, where he works today as a software licensing and distribution coordinator for Information Technology Central Services. He works out of a cubicle in the basement of the Michigan Union, and out of the house two to three days a week. Hughes says he enjoys his job, but insists it does not define him.
“My day job pays my nut,” he says. “It buys Freeway dog food.” Freeway is the name of the dog he scooped off a busy highway one February morning in 1999 near his home.
In the rockhouse
The Blues Compound of Love is the name Hughes uses for his home on a wooded acre in Ypsilanti Township. The bright and airy split-level home is filled with well-tended houseplants and framed black-and-white photographs of musical legends such as Hound Dog Taylor, B.B. King and Elvis. His coffee table is cluttered with Playboy, Maxim and Esquire magazines. A weight bench sits in the basement, surrounded by the barbells he lifts on a daily basis. Entire walls are devoted to his CD collection and record library — everything from Fats Domino to Captain Beefheart to Madonna.
The centerpiece of the house is its large back yard, containing a wooden deck, hot tub and a 20-by-40 in-ground pool bounded by tall spruce and hardwood trees. Inflatable beer bottles hang from fence pickets, and beach balls and alligator rafts promoting beer labels scoot by on breezes across the water.
Before venturing into radio, Hughes made a living alternately as a truck driver, accountant, manager of an art gallery, and by selling women’s shoes. In the ’70s, he ran an international import-export business with friends, selling ladies’ purses and clothing from Morocco.
“We pretty much partied and hung out,” he says.
He also played guitar in a string of bands, from the Terry Tate Blues Band to the Pete Karnes Band to a college-rock cover band called Stainless Steel.
Hughes has been playing guitar since the age of 24, and is the self-described “den mother” of the Witch Doctors, the band he put together six years ago.
“We are a blues band, but basically we’re a barroom science band,” he says. “We go into a bar; we make sure that you’re having a blast, that you’re having fun.”
Barroom Science is also the name of the band’s new CD. It contains the song “Average Girl,” which he says appears in the pornography film Hot Salsa. Hughes wrote the music.
Hughes was married twice, the first time for 11 1/2 years, the second time for one and a half years. He dates casually these days, and says, “At this point, I have no one I want to marry.”
He has no kids, nor does he want them. Both his parents are deceased.
In 1988, while studying for his degree, Hughes received a phone call from Linda Yohn, the new music director at WEMU. She had heard Thayrone’s old tapes, had seen the fund-drive figures and wanted to know if he was interested in coming back into radio. After a few conversations, Hughes accepted her invitation to take over his old slot on Sunday nights.
On Jan. 8, 1989, five years to the day after his incipient radio transmission, Thayrone was back on the air.
Don’t start me talkin’
When Hughes was born in Detroit in 1947, the United States was gripped by Cold War paranoia and censorship. The FBI was introducing “loyalty tests” to weed out communist sympathizers who held federal jobs, and the Hollywood 10, a blacklisted group of nine screenwriters and a director thought to have communist leanings, was dragged into court by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
In his day, Hughes, who admires G. Gordon Liddy as much as he does NPR’s Diane Rehm, has been accused of misogyny, homophobia and racism, and promoting alcohol abuse. When he played “Torture Rock,” for example, the 1950s striptease song by the Rockin’ Bellmarks that opens with the crack of a whip and a woman screaming, station phones lit up with angry callers.
“Blues and rock ’n’ roll is a sexist idiom,” he says. “Face it. It’s a part of our American history.”
Then, of course, there is “Prison Bitch.”
Hughes thinks the song may actually be titled “Prisoner of Love” and doesn’t know the name of the artist (Internet searches on both titles turned up nothing). He is sworn to secrecy as to how he ended up with the tape, claiming only that it came to him from a fan in Toledo. The song prompted a complaint from an EMU employee (whose name Hughes would not divulge), who said the song was potentially offensive to gays. Hughes removed the song from rotation before Timko, the current station manager at WEMU, asked him to stop playing it.
“One of the perceived problems is political correctness,” says Timko of being responsible for Hughes. “I’m not sure he thinks before he says anything.” But he adds, “That’s the challenge of dealing with creative people.”
Dulzo, for his part, recalls having to yank Hughes off the air once for his reference to a terrorist act in the Middle East in which a civilian bound to a wheelchair was dumped into the sea. Hughes used the incident as the basis for a joke.
And now Timko reports having received two or three phone calls from listeners upset over Hughes’ support of the U.S.-led bombing of Afghanistan.
“There’ve been some objections to his stance on events that have happened in reaction to Sept. 11,” he says. “He thinks we’re all under attack by terrorists.”
“I’m basically a very conservative man who believes in the old Superman show … we stand for truth, justice and the American way,” Hughes says. “I don’t think anything I’m doing is obscene.”
He maintains distance from the work of so-called “shock jocks,” but adds that his responsibility to radio is to “drive a stake through the heart of the politically correct. That’s what they pay me for on WEMU.”
“Radio is run not by people who necessarily appreciate talent,” says Ben Manilla. “Wall Street dictates radio nowadays.”
As president of Ben Manilla Productions, a San Francisco-based audio production company that produces the “House of Blues Radio Hour” with Dan Aykroyd, he spent about six months between 1997 and ’98 trying to find funding to syndicate Hughes nationwide.
“We approached all the usual suspects,” he says.
Part of the problem was that Manilla would approach major distributors admitting “‘We have no idea what he’s gonna do or say next.’ The establishment is not particularly open to those kinds of guidelines.”
Manilla has no future plans to pursue syndication for the “BCMS,” but did point Hughes to WRVG-FM, a public radio station out of Georgetown, Ky., where he was syndicated in 1999 through the NPR satellite. But the show was dropped after a year due to lack of marketing and promotions, and “tons of management turmoil,” according to Hughes.
There have been other detractors too. Hughes was once interviewed by programming director Judy Adams for a job at WDET, but was not hired.
“I don’t remember the conditions of the discussion we had with him,” says Adams. “It was a long, long time ago. DET is extremely successful as it is.”
Hughes also sent a tape of his program to officials at National Public Radio in hopes of being syndicated nationally. The rejection letter, dated March 11, 1993, reads: “Some of our reviewers found portions of your presentation ... well, of questionable taste.”
“I am truly amazed,” says Hughes, “that someone in Detroit hasn’t looked at the stats of what I do and don’t do in terms of raising fund money, and offered me a job. That’s something that’s frustrating, but it’s not something I’m looking for.”
Hughes remains hopeful he can get the “Bone Conduction Music Show” syndicated.
“What I’d like to be able to do,” he says, “is at some point make a living, on my own terms, doing radio the way I think radio should be done. If I could get this show past the suits, past the gatekeepers, past the guys who say, ‘Ahh, we don’t want to hear it; we don’t want to know about it; it doesn’t research well; there’s no statistical analysis saying that you’d sell panty hose to 18- to 24-year-old women’ — if I could get past those guys, people love it.
“I play music that radio is by and large ignoring. And it’s great music.”Sven Gustafson is a Detroit-based freelance writer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org