Fred Geobold was the richest man I’ve ever known.
And I don’t think he ever broke 25K.
“Let’s make some radio!” – Fred Geobold (1944-2005)
The receptionist and switchboard operator at 50,000 Watt WBAI-FM, 99.5 in NYC, Fred Geobold was also an on-air radio host, folk singer, songwriter, concert MC, and championed untold numbers of musicians during his twenty-plus-year career.
A short fellow, with a beer belly, long beautiful red hair, and a big, bushy mustache to go with it, Fred Geobold was born Fred Kuhn in Shelbyville, Indiana in 1944. He was legally blind and there was more than one occasion where he’d hit the wrong button during an on-air broadcast, and calmly proclaim, “We have dead air.”
He was ever so calm.
Fred was never happier than when he was on air or just sitting around cavernous WBAI talking politics with the other ancient radio folk who seemed to live at the studio. “Let’s make some radio,” he’d always say passionately before one of his thousands of broadcasts.
I met him through my involvement in the pro wrestling world. He grew up on The Bruiser, Crusher, and Verne Gagne in the Mid-West, and loved my primitive looking nostalgic grappling zine, Wrestling- Then & Now. Inviting me to do a five-minute wrestling update segment on his arts program, Light Show, which was heard 3-5 AM Friday night/Saturday mornings, I readily agreed. Imagine thousands of folk listening to me? In 1991 it was a heady feeling for someone who had just started as an Adult Education teacher after leaving the elementary classroom. I was still trying to “find myself,” and I had suddenly become a very small part of a world famous, politically powerful station. We’d often pre-tape in the studio because of the insane hour, and I’d occasionally do it live on air over the phone. But like clockwork, it was heard each and every week, and it was always amazing to get reaction to it from those graveyard shift workers and late-night revelers. I became hooked on radio and ultimately braved the question to him, “Can I do more?”
Fred, who was never anything but supportive to anyone he ever met, of course, gave me the green light and basically carte blanche.
I soon incorporated the arts into my segment and ultimately expanded to booking artists live on air, so I was now live in the studio. Getting on that 2 AM subway in Queens always felt eerie as it was nearly vacant going into Manhattan. At 2:45 I’d look at the sole human being in the car beside me and wonder, “Is he going to kill me?” Then I realized he was probably thinking the exact same thing.
Approaching the old WBAI studio at 505 Eight Avenue, there’d be the familiar crew of homeless right outside our door. Either amiably drunk or “sleeping one off,” they were never once a bother. Night manager Max Schmid, with his endless ponytail, would let me into the building and he’d escort me onto the ancient, creaky elevator reminiscent of something out of a silent movie. And you’d never know what to expect once you’d get out of it.
Staggering into the station bleary-eyed, I’d inevitably be jolted by an adrenaline rush caused by the alternate reality I had just been dropped into. For here was a waiting room full of musicians, performance artists, authors, and even larger-than-life professional wrestlers.
It was like a Fellini movie.
While most of the world slept, I was ever so grateful to be right here.
In the middle of this delightful chaos would be a bemused, smiling Fred Geobold. Carrying too many CDs for his hands to hold, he’d rush into the studio at 2:59 and change. Somehow he’d squeeze into every nook and cranny a multitude of instruments as well as the excited musicians who lugged them in. For many of them, it would be their first time on the air.
“Let’s make some radio,” he’d say, contentment written on his face.
And for so many, many years we did just that. “You’re listening to a Light Show,” Fred would announce in that sweet voice so perfect for the airwaves.
He described radio as “making something out of nothing.” A blank canvas if you will. And I spent some of the best nights of my life with Fred Geobold at WBAI painting that canvas. Although an old “folkie,” he was open to absolutely anything. We had everyone from metal bands to rapper, Profecy, who worked only in Spanish. We didn’t know what the heck he was saying, but it sure sounded-and felt-wonderful.
Exhilarated after a broadcast, we’d unwind with our colorful guests and just talk. Of course, with the incredibly well-rounded Fred, you could discuss literally anything.
And with those conversations always came laughter.
But it sure wasn’t funny when Fred came down with prostate and bone cancer in 2003. Yet he was so incredibly nonchalant about it, so fearlessly uncomplaining, that I just assumed he’d pull through. But suddenly his shock of hair was thinning and eventually almost gone. And there were weeks at a time that he was out sick as well, and I’d be at the helm of the show with two other co-hosts.
As our beloved Fred began to fail and lay in hospice care, I booked an on-air tribute to him. For two hours musician after musician sang, and our fellow radio hosts came in to express their love. Even station execs put aside their differences for a change and stood in unity in their love for Fred.
The show was burned onto a CD for me and I rushed out to the hospital to play it for him. A fellow DJ was already there gently strumming a guitar and shot me a look that clearly read, “It isn’t good.” And one glace at an incredibly frail, bed-ridden Fred and I realized just that without her needing to say a word. He had that very same “look” my own dad did at the end.
I played the CD for him. In and out of consciousness, he listened to the glowing tributes and kept repeating, “That’s lovely…that’s lovely.”
It was like he was hearing his own memorial service. I excused myself. Sitting in the bathroom, I cried my eyes out.
I said what I feared would be my final goodbye as he weakly shook my hand. “You take care of yourself, Fred. Thank you for everything. Thank you…”
Drained, I walked out in a fog and called the station, encouraging them to get down there immediately. “He doesn’t have long,” I exclaimed with urgency in my voice.
He was gone the very next day.
So now there was one final “show” to do. I organized the entertainment portion of his memorial service. Calling all of his favorite musicians, not a single one said no.
The old, Greenwich Village church didn’t have an empty seat that night. There had to be at least 300 people packed in there.
For some odd reason, it occurred to me that I don’t think I ever saw Fred when he didn’t have a T-shirt on. I doubt he owned a decent pair of clothes because it just didn’t matter to him. He certainly didn’t have pricy jewelry or a car and lived modestly alone in a tiny apartment after his roller derby queen girlfriend left. I’d venture a guess he probably didn’t have a lot saved, either.
But a thought suddenly dawned on me as I stood at that podium looking out at the throngs of people who had come here to honor their lost comrade.
Fred Geobold was truly the most successful man I’d ever met.
One by one the musicians sang not only their songs but Fred’s praises. All were so very grateful for the support he had given them.
I even had a massive 300-plus-pound masked wrestler, The Mambo King, pay tribute while in full ring regalia. Hey, Fred was a warm, funny, sensitive guy, but he sure treasured his steel-cage matches.
He would have loved this.
In a weird way, the memorial felt like another gig. It took the longest time for it to sink in that I’d never, ever see the guy again.
During Fred’s illness, we had moved to a 2 PM Wednesday time slot. Little did I know that our “reward” for all the time spent in the middle of the night would be the beginning of the end for me at WBAI. We suddenly heard murmurs that we weren’t raising enough funds. “Others” deserved a slot at this time. Relatives and friends of the execs wanted a piece of the pie. We went from every week to three times a month. And one day after 16 years on the show, I was called into “the office” and told my voice wasn’t as professional as my colleagues, that I didn’t engineer, that another on-air host had spent more time attending station meetings and such and deserved the show “because she was a woman.”
But I knew it was really all about being in the middle of the dial, middle of the day. The slot had become prime real estate. For our “listener-supported, non-commercial radio,” the power play felt disgracefully “Wall Street” to me. Ironically, and probably fittingly, that was right where the station had moved to. Fred would have been appalled at the apathy that my “firing” was met with there.
A mere couple of weeks later I started my own net radio show, Legends Radio, and haven’t looked back since. And with the show and my club bookings, I’ve tried to champion artists that few others have.
Fred Geobold was more than my radio mentor He was also a dear friend. We’d go to clubs and listen to the music he loved so much, promote and host gigs together, and even hit the wrestling shows.
I loved Fred Geobold. And always will.
When I look back at my now fifty-plus-years on this planet, I realize that meeting him was one of the greatest blessings I’ve ever had.
I may never be the radioman Fred was with that soothing voice of his, but he sure taught me how to “make something out of nothing.”
Every time I’m on the air, he’s still there with me somehow.
So as you used to say after each and every broadcast, Fred, “Stay tuned.”
Yes, stay tuned.