Wolfman Jack was a larger than life Radio DJ that broke out after he adopted a persona and created a very interesting character. Can you say marketing?

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Dave Young:
Hey guys and gals, midnight Pals, Dave Young here with Stephen Semple, and Stephen whispered in my ear Just now that today we’re going to talk about Wolfman Jack, famous disc jockey, American disc jockey on a Mexican radio station.

Stephen Semple:
Can you do the howl? Can you do the howl, David?

Dave Young:
Not really. No.

Stephen Semple:
You’re not even going to try, are you?

Dave Young:
He had a really interesting voice, Wolfman Jack. Right, he did. He was the first guy to do that with his voice. Kind of what made Famous in American Graffiti, in the movie. I mean, I think he was regionally famous before that, but became a part of the whole public consciousness, probably as a result of American Graffiti. And now we’re to the point where I don’t know a whole lot else.

Stephen Semple:
American Graffiti put him on the map. Midnight Special. He was on the Odd Couple. He was a regular guest on the Howard Stern Show. And look, he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Dave Young:
A guest on Howard Stern way before Howard Stern was Howard Stern.

Stephen Semple:
Yes. But I felt like I needed to do this one because a couple of reasons. So many of our partners come from a radio background and Wolfman had such an influence in that space. Plus it closes a loop on Episode 23 on Dr. Brinkley. Remember Dr. Brinkley?

Dave Young:
Oh yeah. The guy that, do we…

Stephen Semple:
Well let people go back and listen to it to really get the punchline on it. But when we think about one of the things that happened with Dr. Brinkley, Dr. Brinkley was such a quack and such a thief that he was kicked off of radio stations in the United States. So he went south of the border into Mexico, built this radio tower that had such a strong frequency that he could blanket all the US and even into Canada. And guess what? That was the station that Wolfman Jack found himself on.

Dave Young:
Nice.

Stephen Semple:
So to me, it kind of closes this loop because this is the station where Wolfman Jack became famous and became an icon, and as we said, was in American Graffiti, Midnight Special, the Odd Couple, has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Broadcasters Association. He’s in broadcast pioneers of Philadelphia Hall of Fame. The list goes on and on. He had a big influence in not only radio but pop culture.

Dave Young:
Sure. When did he start on that station? When did he get a foothold?

Stephen Semple:
Basically, 1960 is when he got a foothold in that station. Now his real name is Robert Weston Smith, and he was born on January 21st, 1938 in Brooklyn, New York. He was the son of a truck driver and he had this passion for music and entertainment at a young age. Wolfman Jack’s family later moved to Norfolk, Virginia where he attended high school and got his start in radio. He started on air as Daddy Jules on the radio station, Newport News in Virginia in the 1950s. And one night while playing music, he howled like a wolf and a listener commented, “It sounds like you got a Wolfman in there.” And it stuck. And he later added Jack to the name as a tribute to Jocko Henderson and the early influence of his.

Dave Young:
Wow. Okay.

Stephen Semple:
But he got into radio a bit by chance. In the 1950s he’s working as a gas station attendant in Virginia, and he would practice his DJ skills by talking to customers through the loudspeaker.

Dave Young:
Of course he did.

Stephen Semple:
And so somebody came across and said, hey, I’m in radio. You should be on radio. And so that’s basically how he got a start in radio. And then in 1960, he got onto that big station, XERF-AM in Mexico, which is the huge one that was built by Dr. Brinkley that basically broadcasts all over the United States. And believe it or not, the station had a reputation for pretty controversial programming. Well, think about its history. And the station had a reputation of playing music that was too risque for the US. No real surprise. And he became, Wolfman Jack became really popular for his irreverent style and humor, and he did a lot of endorsements and advertisings, and when we were growing up, everyone knew who Wolfman Jack was.

Dave Young:
Sure, sure. Everyone knew. There are these just icons of radio that I feel like we’ll never see another one like that because of the way, not just that industry has gone, but it’s almost impossible to get that big anymore. I don’t know. I might even be speaking out of turn, but I mean, there are actually guys like Joe Rogan who have a podcast listenership that’s probably close to the size of Wolfman Jack’s audience, but a little bit weirder to put your finger on.

Stephen Semple:
Yes. One of the things that’s different about broadcast media when we had these icons in broadcast media, it’s a little bit more also of a shared experience because you’re listening at the same time. It’s really interesting. Talk about a different icon, Lucille Ball, like the Lucy Show. And they’ll talk about how when the Lucy Show came on air, it actually impacted traffic patterns. Because so many people were sitting down to watch television. It was much more of a shared experience. The Joe Rogan podcast is a different experience because I might listen to it today. You might listen to it tomorrow. I might listen to an episode three weeks from now.

Dave Young:
Right. We’ve both had that experience with people telling us about Empire Builders episodes that they’ve listened to. Right? Oh, hey, I love that episode you guys just did. I’m like, which one’s that? Because we record these a month or two in advance. So when someone says the episode we just did, I don’t know exactly what they’re talking about. It means the episode that they just listened to, not the one we just did.

Stephen Semple:
Right.

Dave Young:
If you’re cruising around in the 1970s in your car at night on Main Street in your town, wherever that is, and Wolfman Jack says something outrageous and you run into your buddies at the drive-in in a half hour, you’re all going to be talking about this shared experience even though you maybe weren’t in the same car when it happened. You’re going to sit around the office tomorrow talking about what was on I Love Lucy because you all had to watch it at the same time even if you weren’t in the same room. So it’s a weird different world now.

Stephen Semple:
Yes. It is a different world, but there are lessons to be learned from a guy like Wolfman Jack. When we think about radio personalities, there’s a few that have stood out. Wolfman Jack, Howard Stern, Dick Clark. That’s probably it. Now what’s interesting, when you look at Howard Stern and Wolfman Jack, what made them stand out was one could say, well, they’re controversial and they’re all this other stuff, but they had a character.

Now, Wolfman Jack made this character the Wolfman, and he created this style around it, but this is what made him stand out, was developing of a character and a persona that he then developed and pushed out into the world. Howard Stern has a character and a persona. And if you want to become famous, you kind of need to develop a character, and that character cannot be ordinary. It’s not your neighbor next door, that’s not the character. The character actually has to be a little bit strange and weird.

Dave Young:
Yeah, that’s true.

Stephen Semple:
When we’re creating advertising campaigns, one of the things that we really work on is that whole idea of what is the character? And we develop that whole character diamond and whatnot, and yeah, there’s got to be something that is unusual about that character to make people connect with it.

Dave Young:
Even if it’s just something that you find as part of the brand, part of the owner, and you just emphasize it.

Stephen Semple:
Yes.

Dave Young:
Because it’s a little odd, right? It’s almost like a caricature drawing. If you’re drawing someone and they have a big nose, if you draw it like it’s real and they have a big nose because they have a big nose, it’s not emphasized. But if you draw it and the nose is huge, it becomes a caricature of them and in some ways instantly recognizable as them, even though it’s a gross exaggeration of one or two features.

Stephen Semple:
And it’s that gross exaggeration that makes it humorous and we connect with it. But it’s interesting what you bring up because in some ways, Wolfman Jack’s character was manufactured, but in other ways it was authentic because he was already in a radio station howling to the moon when somebody called in and said, “Sounds like there’s a Wolfman there.” He just got a hold of that and probably made it bigger and brighter. Shined the heck out of that penny. Right? Made it larger than life, but it was already there. He already had that gravelly voice. He was already doing those things because he enjoyed doing them. He just probably leaned into it more.

Dave Young:
Yeah. Don’t you wonder what he was like when he got home, kicked his shoes off, sat down? I doubt that he was Wolfman Jack at home.

Stephen Semple:
Well, here is a surprising fact about Wolfman Jack. He was also an ordained minister. In the 1970s he became a licensed minister of the Universal Life Church, and he began performing weddings and other ceremonies for friends and family, but seemingly he had quite a religious background and took the job as an ordained minister quite seriously.

Dave Young:
Very cool. Very cool. Big lesson here is be known for who you are, your authenticity, and your willingness to stand out.

Stephen Semple:
And if you want to be known, you have to be known for something. And if it’s your character, as you said, it’s about creating that caricature over exaggerating something that’s unusual, something that stands out that a person can then hang their hat on. Can’t just be known, you have to be known for something.

Dave Young:
Absolutely. Well, cool. Glad to hear the story of the Wolfman. As a teenage radio disc jockey myself, he was one of the guys you knew who he was.

Stephen Semple:
Yep.

Dave Young:
Right? And I was in this isolated little town, but even I knew who Wolfman Jack was.

Stephen Semple:
Yeah. He was a legend and an icon. And it helps us close the loop on Dr. Brinkley.

Dave Young:
Yeah. They didn’t overlap, did they?

Stephen Semple:
No.

Dave Young:
He didn’t-

Stephen Semple:
No, no, not at all.

Dave Young:
Brinkley was gone by the time. Oh, good.

Stephen Semple:
Brinkley was gone, but Brinkley had built the station and kind of set the groundwork for doing controversial stuff.

Dave Young:
Yeah. Who knows what kind of medical procedures a guy named Wolfman would’ve been.

Stephen Semple:
All right. Thanks David.

Dave Young:
Thank you. Thanks for listening to the podcast. Please share us, subscribe on your favorite podcast app, and leave us a big fat juicy five star rating and review. And if you have any questions about this or any other podcast episode, email to [email protected]