Fifty-four years after it debuted on KAAY-AM, “Beaker Street” is back with the Arkansas Rocks network of stations its new home. Surely that unprecedented longevity proves the uniquely eclectic rock-radio program was a brilliantly conceived concept when deejay Clyde Clifford first introduced it – a concept so buttoned up and locked down that it’s no surprise it lives on, its seventh decade on the air.
Not so much.
KAAY in the mid-60s was a Top 40 station, a bit schizophrenic in that it also featured farm reports early each morning and blocks of pre-recorded religious programming throughout the day. So how about doing a show featuring “acid rock” that bumps one of the religious segments? Why not!
“We were getting all this music [sent by record companies] from California,” Clifford says, “and we wanted to play some of it. After midnight was a good time to do it. Sonny Martin, the program director, said, ‘Do 30 minutes after midnight.’ We did and I got bushel baskets of mail. So, we pushed it to an hour, then two hours, then that’s all I did.”
One reason “Beaker Street” was able to make such a big impact, so quickly, was that KAAY had a license that allowed it to broadcast a directional signal that at night meant the station could be heard along what Clifford calls “kind of a bow-tie looking pattern – mostly north-south, but a little west of north and a little east of due south.”
That’s why late-nighters in the Dakotas, Chicago, Florida and even Cuba were able to rock out to “Beaker Street.” To say none of them had heard anything like that is indisputable. Because nothing like it was being broadcast, particularly to such a broad audience.
Clifford also used “Beaker Street” to test-drive songs he thought were cool, and he made decisions based on whether his listeners agreed with him.
“People would write me and say, ‘That song is cool. Have you heard this?’ So, I would play the things they recommended. I’d give them four or five shots. If I got a good response, I’d keep playing them.”
That meant “Beaker Street” introduced bands that few knew. “Styx was one of those bands,” Clifford says. “Bands I didn’t know at the time would say, ‘Hey, we got played on KAAY!’”
Unfortunately for those “Beaker Street” groupies spread across the country and beyond, the KAAY work experience became untenable for Clifford and his colleagues, and “several of us got to go to KLAZ on FM. We created our own little station. I was doing ‘Beaker Street’ five days a week and was chief engineer,” he says.
“Beaker Street” moved on to KLZR, also known as “KZ-95” (today’s it’s “Hot 94.9”), then to KMJX (Magic 105) before being broadcast once a week on KKPT (Point 94.1), where it ground to a halt in 2011. Forty-five years is an amazing run in any business, particularly for one radio show done by one DJ (though others took over the show in years Clifford wasn’t doing it). And he logically figured that was the end of the road. (FYI: the name “Beaker Street” was a reference to the vessel some used to make LSD, or “acid,” topically relevant in 1966.)
Meanwhile, Clifford – known by his real name, Dale Seidenschwarz – was wrapping up a 40-year career in creative services at UAMS, from which he retired Dec. 31, 2019.
By then, he had reconnected with fellow radio veterans Tom Wood and Mark Wallace (Uncle Marcus), who were two of the driving forces behind Arkansas Rocks, a collection of mostly low-power stations that share a mission with “Beaker Street” – playing cool songs by cool artists that rarely are heard on commercial radio.
With their encouragement, Clifford debuted the latest incarnation of “Beaker Street” May 15, and he is committed to offering listeners an almost unbelievably diverse three hours of music from 9 p.m. to midnight each Friday. And while the Arkansas Rocks stations don’t have the reach KAAY did – what station does? – it in fact can have a wider audience. This crazy thing called the internet means anyone anywhere can listen at www.arkansasrocks.com.
Arkansas Rocks owner “Jay [Brentlinger] is accomplishing an interesting thing here,” Clifford says. “He’s reversing what ‘The Suits’ did to radio. It’s a remarkable thing. I was offered the opportunity [to bring back ‘Beaker Street,’], so I did.
Clifford casually mentions that “I have some health problems right now, multiple myeloma, but I am in the process of beating it. My doctor is happy with my progress.”
A guy who debuted a revered radio program 54 years ago couldn’t be expected to be anything other than “old school,” and Clifford certainly is.
In a day where “voice tracking” is standard protocol on many stations – meaning DJs record their segments and then a computer mixes that commentary with the songs, so a DJ can knock out a four-hour program in a matter of minutes – “I’m doing the show live,” Clifford says. “For one thing, all my stuff is on CDs, a couple of iPods, some thumb drives, lots of stuff. It wouldn’t be easy to do a tracked show and drop stuff in.”
The Story Behind Beaker Street’s Haunting Background Music
The haunting instrumental music that plays in the background as Clyde Clifford talks is something anyone who ever heard “Beaker Street” can probably recreate in their heads. It was a signature feature of the show. So what the heck was that all about?
“The console where I sat at KAAY was 10 feet away from the transmitter,” Clifford explains, “and there was no soundproofing in those days. I was sitting in front seven big tubes with 1,000 cubic feet of air blowing through them. It created all this white noise. … so people could hear the hiss. … I was looking for something really freaky, weird, off the wall (to cover the noise). It never was goofy whale noises, though that’s what people thought it was.
“It was Henry Mancini from Psycho or one of those movies. Mancini rolled steel balls inside a grand piano, while plucking the strings, and put some echo on it. I put some more echo on it, and there you have it.”