Radio legend Ron Britain reigned on the AM and FM dials in Kentucky – including on WKAY-Bowling Green in 1954 – and became one of Chicago’s most popular personalities. On Monday, Britain will bring his list of stories to entertain on air with D93 WDNS-FM host Greg Martin.
“I’m excited. It is pretty surreal,” Martin, also a guitarist for country-rock band The Kentucky HeadHunters, said of his radio idol. Martin’s show, “The Lowdown Hoedown with Greg Martin,” invites Britain’s invasion into Bowling Green from 7 to 10 p.m. Monday to celebrate the program’s 18th anniversary on D93. (The actual anniversary date is Tuesday.)
Britain accepted Martin’s invitation to join Monday’s show in a hand-written note.
“Hi, Greg, Really excited to come down and be on your show and see you! Thanks for the honor...” Britain wrote in holiday letter stationary addressed by him and his wife to Martin. ”See you soon, Love and God Bless.…”
Martin’s father moved his family from Louisville to Edmonton in December 1966. Although Martin enjoyed life in the small Metcalfe County community, the change in environment often left him with little to do.
“Being in a little area, at night, I had this little GE tabletop radio and I could pick up stations out Chicago, Nashville, Cleveland and various parts of the country. For some reason, there were three stations I really listened to: WLS-AM (Chicago), WOWO out of Fort Wayne, Ind., and then I discovered WCFL which was also out of Chicago. In ‘67, I started catching this zany disc jockey on during the week. It was AM radio and his show, which was really zany, was fun, a lot of fun. The music of that day was really good anyway. You just never really knew what to expect out of Ron.”
After Martin graduated in 1972, he returned to Louisville and music gigs. But the future Grammy Award-winner’s radio career sprung in Munfordville in 1986. “It was a little station, WLOC, I only did it for a few months ‘cause things were totally busy. When that ended, well that was it until 1997. WVLC out in Campbellsville hit me up about a radio show there.”
For 2 1/2 years, WLVC in Campbellsville was home to “The Lowdown Hoedown” radio show. Britain strongly inspired Martin’s show and aspirations.
“I got my first computer, I started trying to track Ron Britain down,” Martin said. “I got to thinking about him because, you know, he was a big inspiration to me because I listened to him all the time and I couldn’t find him. Just couldn’t find him. I didn’t realized he had retired, pretty much.
“So, I talked to one guy in Chicago and said ‘I don’t know what happened to Ron.’ He said ‘Well, Greg, I think he’s back in Louisville.’ I didn’t realize he was from Kentucky. I had no clue. The problem is I could never find him because Ron Britain wasn’t his real name. My friend handed me the number and I just called one day out of the blue. And it was Ron. I met Ron in 1998. I finally tracked him down 30 years later after first listening to him.”
Britain, whose real name is Ron Megal, now lives in Louisville. Listeners will relax and linger to the 85-year-old legend’s life-stories – including the Montreal moment Mick Jagger experienced after eyeing Britain's Jaguar in the 1960s. Britain made a rule for no one to drive his Jag, Jagger included.
“I did a few shows with the Beatles, and hung out with them a few times,” Britain said to longtime Chicago radio veteran Rick Kaempfer, a writer for Chicago Radio Spotlight, in May 2008.
Britain’s beginnings are credited to WHAS-Louisville in 1949 and included an envy-inspiring list of industry contacts: The Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and more.
“I introduced (The Beatles) on stage. After the show, I was looking for something of theirs to sell – remember, they were selling everything they touched in those days, even the sheets they slept on – so I went on stage and thanked the audience for coming out,” Britain told Kaempfer. “And I saw that Ringo had left his drum sticks on the stage. I put them in my pocket and gave them away on the air the next night.”
Britain’s aspirations begged for New York, but the buzz on “King B,” a semi-formal nickname coined by teen listeners in Cincinnati for the local celebrity and fan of English culture, aimed at another market city in 1965: Chicago. By way of Cleveland through a connection with his brother-in-law, his career flew into the Windy City as a newcomer with the rock station Martin found: WCFL-AM. The Anglophile – the reason for his stage name – cultivated a following. His scheduled skits, scat singing, drop-ins and quirky characters quickly caught on.
“If you could have heard him back in the day, he was so imaginative,” Martin said. “I listened to Ron on WCFL out of Chicago from 1968 to 1972. I discovered his underground radio show, ‘The Subterranean Circus,’ which was his serious side. He would play everything from The Doors, Bob Dylan Cream, Led Zepplein, B.B. King, Frank Zappa and some others. When I listened back in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, I was more aspiring to be a musician, I was being educated by what he was playing.”
“The Subterranean Circus” was an anomaly and was inspired after Britain’s work trip to Mercury Records in London in 1966. After executive approval, it was the first American radio show to debut Jimi Hendrix and other underground sounds, including psychedelic English rockers The Moody Blues.
“It was the music you didn’t hear on the mainstream,” Martin said. “And I would listen every chance I could. I would try to catch that show on Sunday night and it was on from 7 to 10 and that’s during the time of my show. It was a big inspiration to do my own radio show.”
Britain put the personal in “personality,” and with trailblazing muscle for an audience – the Baby Boomers generation – growing with him, his former show pumped popularity. He is well known to have said radio is a personal thing between him and listeners like Martin and doesn’t stray from his personal brand.
“Maybe some folks like me that grew up in rural areas that listen to Chicago radio at night,” Martin said. “I’ve been at D93 for 18 years and always in the back of my mind, I wanted to do radio. That’s not my main gig, I enjoy doing it, but I always wanted to do a show like ‘The Subterranean Circus.’
“Ron has worked for a lot of folks. He’s met so many people, so many experiences. It’s going to be exciting. He was a Kentucky boy that had a dream. He worked radio in Glasgow as well. He went on. He was very successful. To me, that was probably the ‘hey-day’ – what we call AM, hey-day of radio. He made a career out of it, did really well and he made his job great, it should be some great history lessons Monday night.”