Rich Russo is upset. As he winds through small aisles formed by boxes piled high among the rooms in his three-story Cranford home, he recounts what he lost in the floodwaters caused by Hurricane Irene.
"I had the complete set of Rolling Stone magazines since 1967," Russo says, "a collection my dad started in 1967, when I was born. Every Playboy from the same year too."
"The collection is valued at more than $50,000," he says simply as he describes how the iconic titles sloshed around in the brick-walled basement of the circa-1894 home to become a saturated chronicle of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. "But it's not about the money. I would rather just have it back."
Russo says he's luckier than his neighbors, but he's still steamed. "I would have loved to have been on the air," Russo says. "Think of all the songs — "Lost In The Flood," "Who'll Stop the Rain?," "Kentucky Rain," "Here Comes The Rain Again," "A Hard Rain's A-gonna Fall" — I could go on like this all day."
Russo has a day job. A pretty good one, too, as Senior VP and Director of Broadcast with JL Media in Union . "I've got two lightning-in-a-bottle stories," he says. "We got these two small companies — one was a small fruit-drink company with $50,000 to spend on ad placements and the other was this clothing store nobody had ever heard of — that needed help with their ad buys and marketing plans. They were Snapple and Old Navy. We had pretty good long runs with them, unheard of in this business."
Russo likes talking about his business, but loves talking about music. He inherited his dad's collector gene and has spent his life amassing more than 100,000 albums, CDs, 45s (kids, ask your parents. Well, maybe your grandparents.), eight-track tapes (definitely ask gramps), concert posters and many other pop-culture artifacts. The bust of William Shakespeare next to the living-room fireplace? Lift the Bard by the chin and you can hit the button to send up the "Bat signal." From Gene Autry to the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen to Xene, Russo's got anything, anything from the world of Rock 'n' Roll, sometimes in triplicate.
He’s got the Born to Run album, with the title in a different font, the Beatle’s Yesterday and Today album, with two different covers — one that features a smiling Fab Four covered in dolls that had arms and legs pulled out (a protest led by John Lennon, who proclaimed that the album had been butchered by the record company) or a Paul McCartney bubble-bath dispenser.
A 10th Avenue street sign (Jersey music fans better understand the significance) sits in a box, next to a Jets hat; the table contains a song list from Bruce Springsteen and E Street Band’s 2009 concert in Baltimore. But as you head up the stairs, the landing boasts an impressive array of concert posters, from Pearl Jam to Bob Dylan. Stop in at the Elvis room, with various posters, albums and other King-themed items and it's almost like being in the Jungle room.
His passion for music, and knack for animated conversation, led to his part-time dream job. On a 2008 business trip, Russo struck up a midair chat with a stranger who happened to be an executive from WRXP , the station formerly known as "The Rock Experience." Not long after, Russo — who had absolutely no on-air experience as a disc jockey — launched "Anything, Anything," from 9 to 11 p.m. Sunday nights. The title of the show, which Russo plucked from the song by the same name from Jersey cult favorite Dramarama. He played music in a free-form format (read: the station couldn't tell him to play a Beyonce song every seven minutes), bound by no rules.
He placed a call to Dramarama singer/songwriter John Easedale to get permission to use the title for the show. "So, I call him to talk about it," Russo says," and John says, 'You know, I wrote a song by the same name....' So now I play it to start the show. It was awesome to have them on the show."
"This was like the radio we used to listen to when we were kids," Russo says excitedly. "We were the kids who got albums, devoured every bit of information in the liner notes and then flipped on the radio and the DJs were just like us. Back in the day, when WPLJ and WNEW would have DJs who loved the music, not the business, with guys like Vin Scelsa, who would occasionally even read poetry on the air. But it was about the way the DJs connected us to the music and the way we hung on every word they uttered, like clues to the mystery of music."
Russo didn't care that he was handed a show that is the equivalent of a '76 Gran Torino with no transmission. Rather, he treated it like a kid with his first car, buffing it, replacing the valves and putting in a kick-ass stereo. What would you play if you didn't think anyone was listening? Whatever the hell you wanted. And Russo was stunned to find that he was developing an audience as wide-ranging as his musical tastes; baby boomers and their kids (sometimes without the other knowing it), teens who are tired of commercial radio, college kids looking for alternatives to their alternative sound.
E Street guitarist Steve Van Zandt, whose Underground Garage show, dedicated to the cutting-edge of independent music, on Sirius radio, is a fan and never believed Russo would do whatever he wanted.
"My first show, I played a song called Stairway to Gilligan's Island," Russo says. "The song starts with that familiar Led Zeppelin intro and then goes into the Gilligan’s Island theme song lyrics to the Zeppelin tune. When the song begins, Little Steven texts me. He's screaming at me — all caps, lots of cursing — calling me a sellout. Then, when he hears it go into the rest of the song," he sends another text: 'Sorry. My bad,'" Russo says with a laugh.
"Nobody on commercial radio was doing it," Russo says, "all I was doing was appealing to anyone who wanted to hear a greater variety of rock on the radio and just have as much fun listening to it as I was having hosting the show." Russo also was the first rock DJ to play Cee-Lo Green's "F$%* You." Russo quickly got the attention of artists, who'd come on live and cave in to Russo's conditions: they could tout an album or a show, they could play any of their songs, but they had to play a cover of another artist's work.
"What a great song," Russo says, "It doesn't even need the gimmick to go with it." With the diverse playlist, which would include a string of songs connected by words in the titles, or that had absolutely nothing in common, he built an audience just as eclectic. Parents and their kids, old-school music lovers who reveled in the opportunity to not predict what song would be played next, even folks who stumbled on the station and stayed.
As the Turntable Spins
But faster than you can cue up "Nothing Lasts Forever," by Echo and the Bunnymen, RXP's management team caved in to the "Economic Experience" and figured there was no future in rock 'n roll, morphing it into an all-talk station. "Anything, Anything" and the rest of the shows disappeared. As the professional DJs went looking for work, Russo just went to work the next day.
"I was really upset that they couldn't see a future for the station," Russo said. "But they let me do something I'd always wanted to do and I had to be content that I was doing the show I wanted. They didn't get rid of me, they got rid of the station." What did bother him, however, was that he didn't get to say good-bye.
"I had a show put together that would have been fantastic," he says. "I called in every favor I could to get artists to call in. I had the best playlist (you can find it on richrusso.net ) and I was going to go out with a bang. Then they flipped the switch before I could have that last show." Still, his education in the vagaries of radio did nothing to make Russo sorry that he made the jump from music lover to music provider.
"I've been to 450 Bruce shows, 50 Pearl Jam shows, and thousands of others," Russo says. "I am just a fan and just like everyone else." But, even as he'd go to rock clubs to check out new acts, he never wavered in his desire to find another home for the show. He'd think of different set lists, other things he'd like to say, rockers he'd like to interview.
The Show Must Go On
Russo never stopped looking for opportunities to bring 'Anything, Anything' back to the airwaves. Apparently, program directors had been looking for him too. So if you've got a new gig (or three), where would you go to tout the news? If you're Rich Russo, you go on someone else's station to make your announcement.
Russo had been invited to be a guest DJ with Irwin Chusid , noted author, music historian and producer, who since 1975 has hosted a show on WFMU, Jersey City's independent station. During the show, Russo let the audience know that "Anything, Anything" would be back to help them fight through the end-of-the-weekend blues.
"Unconventional? Sure," Russo says, "but that's rock 'n’ roll. It's not like my show would be competing with 'FMU. They have another kind of show on Sunday nights."
So, Russo starts his new show on WDHA, 105.5 on your FM dial, from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. this Sunday. This comes on the heels of doing a separate show on a station from Westchester, N.Y., WXPK (107.1), that will air from 9 to 11 Sunday nights. Russo says he's working on a deal with WMGM in South Jersey, but they haven't finalized the launch date and times for the show.
"I am thrilled to get this chance again," Russo says. "It is humbling to know that there are people out there who like what I do and I am thrilled that WDHA will bring the show to our Jersey audiences."
The third floor of Russo’s home is the scientist’s lab, the place where he transfers songs from vinyl to CD, then to iPod, and ultimately, onto the set list for his shows. He makes lists, listens to them as he travels around, adding and deleting to best manage the mood. Among the white boxes of tunes, the built-in shelves that contain more music, Russo sits at a simple office chair, swiveling to propel him into the area where he knows particular songs can be found. Resting in a cradle is one of Springsteen’s guitars, with the inscription, “To Rich, Thanks,” and the Boss’s signature. In the corner by the turntables, a cutout of Elvis — Costello, this time — watches eagerly with a “put me in, coach” look — as Russo builds his set.
As he sits among the music, Russo is in his glory, seeking to hit just the right note.
“For two hours, I get about 30 songs,” he says. “I need to make them count. Then I get to do it again. Feels pretty good to say that…”