Hello. Is this the Greaseman?
It's 8:20 a.m. Only two hours into the Greaseman's first stint on the air yesterday as WWDC's new morning personality, he already has a hostile caller. You don't sound so good. Why don't you just go back where you came from?
Clearly a Howard Stern fan. The Greaseman, unfazed, is quick to respond. "You still there? Do me a favor. Put the phone right between your eyes." The Greaseman hits the button for the sound-effects tape marked "GUNSHOT." Blaammmm. Cue to record.
The Greaseman cometh. Hot on the heels of Howard Stern, former WWDC morning maniac who burned brightly and briefly, beefing up the station's ratings while managing to offend just about everyone. A big mouth to follow. But Greaseman says Stern learned a thing or two from him.
His real name is Doug Tracht, and he just left a seven-year spot as morning personality for WAPE-AM (the Big APE) in Jacksonville. Tracht has a national reputation in radio circles and two comedy albums under his belt, and after years of jealously guarding his anonymity--he says he has never allowed a photograph before now--announces he is ready to "come out of the closet, in a way."
"For a time there, I thought people would want more what they can't have," he said. "The very thought that they never knew what I looked like seemed to add to the mystique.
"People were always coming to the door of the station, saying, 'Can we see the Grease?' and I'd say, 'I'm sorry, but they won't let anybody back there,' " Tracht said. "They were always expecting this big old bearded truck driver, 50-year-old-looking guy," said Tracht, who is actually 32, tall, tan and well-muscled.
"I'm very grateful to Howard for garnishing a huge bunch of devotees who want to hear something extra in the morning. And I'll give it to them. He's warmed them up very nicely for me.
"I was controversial, too, but I've never been sued or anything. But that kind of radio can be an easy way out," Tracht said. "The problem with shock humor is where do you stop? Eventually it just hits you like a snowball rolling down a hill; it kind of runs away with you. And people expect more and more of it."
This is Tracht's second go-round in Washington; a decade ago, he worked as a deejay at WRC-AM. "Greaseman was a fabulous talent, but the act he was doing at the time, was, shall we say, a little ahead of its time," said Ken Wolt, who fired Tracht in 1973 when WRC was the "Rock of the Capitol" and Wolt was its program director. Wolt is now vice president and general manager of WLTT. "He just didn't fit the format. We were trying to be more Top-40 and less offensive--we didn't want to bring ourselves that kind of attention then."
I got this job through the FBI. That's right: prior to today, I USED TO BE A HIT MAN FOR THE MOB! (ominous music swells) I had a little out-of-the-way apartment in Bethesda, and once a month a plain brown manila folder would come in the mail. Inside would be a picture of that month's target. And a dossier of that man's habits, his likes, his dislikes, his family, his comings and goings, his tag number--I had it all. And then, when the time was right, I'd make my move . . .
Even at 8 a.m. on his first day on the air, the phone rings incessantly. Welcome to Washington. This is the North Side Tongue Wagger. Between forkfuls from a freshly opened can of tuna, Tracht swivels and spins on his chair in front of the control panel with its blinking red and green lights, cuing up records, checking commercial cartridges, reading news wires and answering the phone. He takes four calls in rapid succession, tapes them and plays the usable ones on the air. The callers are waiting at 6 a.m.: computer operators finishing their shifts, bored 10-year-olds, heavy breathers. They request songs or free T-shirts, ask advice, compliment or condemn him. Like the Wizard of Oz behind his curtain, Tracht conjures an audio illusion of himself, stoking his listeners' fantasies first thing in the morning.
Hello, Greaseman? I was wondering something--I hope you won't think this is a personal question . . . Do you have a girlfriend? It's 8:46 a.m.
Consistently near the top of the ratings in Jacksonville, Tracht was lured away by WWDC with a $1 million, five-year contract. During his Florida tenure, his station switched formats from Top-40 to country, and recently was put up for sale, which perhaps facilitated his decision. "Everything was right about the deal," Tracht said. "Plus, to make it even more right, I was working for an AM station, and AM radio, unfortunately, is going the way of black-and-white TV. When color TV came along, there might have been some classic 'Twilight Zones' on in black and white, and people wouldn't watch that, they'd watch the 'Beverly Hillbillies' in color. So how can you compete?"
He's a yarn-spinner, with a macabre sense of humor, perhaps a little macho and violent for precoffee listening. Backed by the theme from "Peter Gunn," or other mood music plucked from a stack of sound tracks, he metamorphoses into a mob hit man, a private eye, a Western lawman. He lunges to grab sound effects from a rack of cartridges, with labels like "Man Off Cliff," "Breaking Glass," "Toilet Flush." His flexible voice grows loud, the monitoring needles jump into the red. His words trail off with a distinctive sound, a shuddering whine, heeeaauuugh. This first morning he gets lots of phone calls telling him to "cut it out."
I'd leave my apartment with my black attache' case. Inside, my sniper rifle. Slowly I'd fix my silencer to the end of the barrel. And I'd wait . . . I'd find my man in the cross hairs, and slowly I'd squeeze out a couple of silenced rounds. DOOF-DOOF! And the man would crumple to the ground. Cackling, I'd drive to the bank and deposit my 10 Gs . . . And that's how it worked. Until one day, the Mob, like any other organization, had a clerical slip-up, because when I opened the envelope to get that month's picture, imagine my shock when I realized . . . it was a picture OF ME!
A mainstay in his stable of characters is the Lawman, a redneck cop, drawn from experience. During his off-the-air hours in Florida, Tracht attended the police academy in St. Augustine and volunteered in the Clay County sheriff's reserves, walking the downtown beat. "There's no quicker way to learn a city and the nuances of life there than to ride with a lawman for one day. I've thought about it here, but I don't know. You hear too many si-reens in the dead of night."
Tracht, a native of the Bronx, said his first announcing job was "selling hot dogs in Yankee Stadium for the 1967 season." He began his radio career in 1968, as a disc jockey at Ithaca College station WICB in Ithaca, N.Y. "I just used the college station to get the hang of it, the knobs and dials, and then I was 'off and shrieking,' as the Greaseman would say."
Greaseman was born early on. "Back in the early days of radio, the late '60s, all the boss jocks were on the air saying they were cooking. So I would say I was cooking with grease. Somebody at the station made reference to something I said: 'As the Greaseman would say . . .' Eeeaugh, I thought, what a great name."
The Greaseman character evolved during his stints at stations in Binghamton, Rochester, Hartford, and Jacksonville. "My character always takes a dramatic change, every town I've ever been in," Tracht said. "The same basic flamboyance is there, but it's always got a new slant, a new feel to it. I suppose that maybe here I might get a new bit of sophistication into it."
Tracht slips easily into the lingo of his alter ego: "As I age and mature, so doth the Grease. I always picture him as a blustering swashbuckler. He's the compassionate man with bravado and no fear, he's the compassionate person that stares death in the face and bats aside enemy machine guns, yet . . . cries when he sees a sparrow with a broken wing.
"The stories I tell are actual things that happen to me. I sometimes exaggerate to a ridiculous extent. But generally everything starts with a germ of truth. And just goes totally nuts."
. . . Well, for weeks I had somebody else start my car for me. When the secret of the Mob was broken up, the FBI gave me a new identity, changed my name to the Greaseman, got me a job as a boss jock and now that I'm a public figure, I'm SAFE from the Mob. So I guess I can start breathing again. Now that you know that much about me, let me push the button for my next record . . .