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Peter Cavanaugh '63 Recounts his Days as a Former Disc Jockey

(The Sierra Star, 3/3/11)

Former disc jockey Peter Cavanaugh, 69, held the crowd at Fresno Flats in rapture recently as he regaled listeners with tales of his work in radio during the time rock 'n' roll was coming of age in the 1950s.

Cavanaugh's story is full of comical tales that brought him from Catholic school alter boy to rock 'n' roll DJ.

It all began with the accidental destruction of a neighbor's garage and the 1951 Chevy that was in it. Cavanaugh and six of his friends were inspired by a scene in a Tarzan movie involving flaming arrows. One of their flaming arrows went astray and left the neighbor's garage and the car in a pile of smoldering ashes. Cavanaugh, 10 at the time, was presented a choice -- juvenile hall or Catholic school.

Cavanaugh spent the next eight years of his life at Cathedral Academy, dreaming of rock 'n' roll the entire time.

"I always wanted to be on the radio," he said. "Radio for me as a child was a window to the world. When I was a young man, I fell in love with rock 'n' roll."

He would ride his bicycle 51/2 miles each way to the WNDR-AM radio station in Syracuse, N.Y., just to hangout. One day, they needed someone to answer phones and Cavanaugh made sure he was the one for the job at 14 years old. He later began editing news and then began giving five-minute newscasts. At age 16, his dreams started to become reality when he began working for the station as a DJ.

"I was very fortunate to be at the right time and place in history," Cavanaugh said.

By his senior year in high school his radio show had a 58% audience share, which, he said, was more than all the other stations in the area combined.

At the same time, Father Shannon, director of communications for the Syracuse Diocese, gave Cavanaugh the job of reporting "Saints of the Week" for "The Catholic Hour," in which sometimes the fifth saint had certain experiences never heard before.

"If I had to write five scripts for the week, I'd have a little fun with the fifth," Cavanaugh said, adding no one ever caught on to his saints' fictional exploits.

But someone did find out about his career at WNDR and Father Shannon called him into the chancellery.

"Peter, have you lost your faith yet?" he asked.

"I always thought he was jealous of the fact that I was having fun on the radio," Cavanaugh said.

It was considered a sin to listen and play to rock 'n' roll but because he only had two months left of his senior year, he was spared expulsion.

He did, however, as an afterthought, bait Father Shannon in a later phone conversation into saying rock music was "an occasion of sin" and played the sound bite on the radio between Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry songs.

After graduating from LeMoyne College in Syracuse with a bachelor's of science degree in social sciences, he quit WNDR and went to Flint, Mich., where he began working at WTAC for friend and program director Bob Dell. While working as a DJ, Cavanaugh began promoting concerts by a variety of rock 'n' roll bands and was able to meet numerous big name musicians, which the average person has only dreamed of meeting -- even if it took some out of the box thinking to do so.

When Cavanaugh and Dell found out the Beatles would be performing in Detroit but wouldn't be doing any radio interviews, the duo put their thinking caps on and came up with an idea -- they made fake but "official looking" Michigan State Police Beatles Security passes.

Not only did they make it through all security check points to the backstage area but, according to Cavanaugh, The Beatles were so amused by their tactics that they allowed Cavanaugh and Dell to interview them. The following day, "WTAC Meets The Beatles" was on air.

A few memorable stars Cavanaugh met were Bob Seger, Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, the Rolling Stones -- "especially Mick Jagger" -- Styx and KISS.

Cavanaugh met and promoted KISS while they were still a little known band.

"I had gone down to the Municipal Auditorium in Flint to see the New York Dolls and opening for them was this unknown group dressed in Japanese kabuki outfits and one had a really long tongue. The group was called KISS and I couldn't believe how good they were," he said.

Cavanaugh booked them the next day into Delta College. In between the time he booked them and their performance, their first album came out and the concert quickly sold out.

He says the best concert he ever attended was Led Zeppelin with second-row seats and 51/2 hours of music, including almost every cut from the album "Physical Graffiti" before it was released.

"I was fortunate enough to catch them on a sober night," he said.

He said all real stars have three things in common: up clos,they are very nice; they are intelligent, bright people; and they are in it for the music.

Throughout his rockstar-filled career he worked for two of the top-rated audience share radio stations in America -- WWCK in Flint, Mich., and WIOT in Toledo, Ohio -- and he says they became nationally famous for three reasons.

  1. A good group of people that made up a good radio station team
  2. Knowing what music works and what doesn't
  3. Tons of local community involvement, promotions and contests and DJs that work with community charities.

And, of course, attitude. "Listening to our station made you feel bigger than you were," Cavanaugh said.

None of this could have been done, he said, without his partner and wife of 46 years, Eileen.

The two met when Cavanaugh was president of his parish's Catholic Youth Organization and Eileen was secretary.

"I absolutely couldn't stand him always telling me what to do and then suddenly, over the course of some months, he didn't seem so bad," Eileen said.

The two began dating and Eileen even joined Cavanaugh's mother's Altar Rosary Society so she would approve. They dated through college and Eileen said they'd probably still be dating to this day if it weren't for one vital reason.

"If he hadn't been offered a job in Flint and had to move and do his own laundry and cooking, I think we'd still be dating today," she said, laughing.

Although Eileen doesn't share the same passion for rock 'n' roll as Cavanaugh, she said they've shared a unique life.

"I think by association I became very involved with it too and I enjoyed it, but he lived it. I lived it vicariously," she said. "I was definitely a part of it when it was happening but it wasn't my focus -- it was his passion."

The Cavanaughs moved to the Mountain Area five years ago. After visiting their daughter, Susan, and her family in Oakhurst, they decided they'd have enough Michigan weather and decided to move.

"I can't tell you how many times we moved," Eileen said. "I think of all the people we've met and places we've lived and I wouldn't trade any of it."

For daughter, Susan Seiling, waking up to rockstars in the house "for the entertainment of all" was a normal affair.

"All that you can imagine it was," she said. "Music certainly has directed his life -- everything he's done has been based on rock 'n' roll and radio and just the love of music."

"The luckiest thing about my career is I never worked a day in my life -- I always loved what I did," said Cavanaugh.

More of Cavanaugh's rock 'n' roll tales can be found in his book "Local DJ," which is available at Willow Bridge Books in Oakhurst or online at amazon.com.

(photo: Peter Cavanaugh, at age 17, was already working as a disc jockey for WNDR.)