STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) Chuck Berry's guitar riffs hit the airwaves, the phone lines open, three overhead lights shine down on the microphone and Tom Dirato's voice once again kicks off another edition of northern Oklahoma's best retro radio program.
No, this isn't the Dirato who talks about the Oklahoma State Cowboys or his beloved Coweta Tigers during the week. This Dirato is a different man on Sundays, one who hearkens back to the DJs of his youth such as Bruce "Cousin Brucie" Morrow and the "Morning Mayor" Herb Oscar Anderson. When he arrived in Oklahoma in the late 1970s, he saw his new home had the same icons in guys like Ronnie Kaye on KOMA.
Dirato has been hosting the "Stillwater Jukebox" on Triple Play Sports Radio every Sunday from 6-8 p.m. since August 2003 and only missed maybe three weeks out of almost 900 shows. Whereas sports were his bread and butter for many years and still is during the week Sundays are reserved for his labor of love that is music.
"You don't have to talk baskets and field goals and tackles here," Dirato told the Stillwater News Press . "I find that a lot of fun. Just talk music and have a good time, like old radio used to be."
Dirato approached station owner Bill Coleman and the late longtime KRMG Tulsa radio icon Jerry Vaughn nearly 20 years ago and said he would like to get into the music side just for kicks. He never thought that after the first show back in the old studio in a former Perry beauty salon that he would be back the next week or let alone the next 16 years.
Now at the current Stillwater location on Seventh Street in downtown, Dirato can be seen yes, seen as he likes to open up the blinds and entertain passers-by as much as his listeners still every Sunday at the same time.
Dirato prepares for the show throughout the week to fine-tune it as much as he possibly can. As a kid growing up in Northvale, New Jersey, he and his family had an old phonograph in the house and radio was a big part of his life. Stations like WABC and WINS in New York City were mainstays with a live host on no matter what time you called.
"There was always a radio in the background and it was our connection to the world," Dirato said. "I do remember those days and wish we had those days really. It is one of those reasons I like this show because we have a little of that connection back. It is like it was. I try to make it like that without copying anybody."
For two hours a week, Dirato likes to bring that era back and plays tunes from the 1950s on to even the 1980s, though the latter is a little more rare, unless it is a theme night or by request, as Dirato likes to stick to his roots.
It's how it was when he started the show as he stuck mainly to the '50s and '60s, with the former being something he said one doesn't hear much of anymore and what makes his show unique. While he doesn't have much big band music from the '40s or rap of the '90s in between Dirato can pretty much find anything.
In a show the News Press was present for, the Jukebox was holding a "Rock and Roll Hall of Fame" night and there was a wide range of HOF members played from the Village People to Meatloaf and the Bee Gees down the line to Fleetwood Mac along with all those in between.
Dirato has a playsheet consisting of several pages of notebook paper stapled together chock full of blue ink with no spare real estate of white space. In it are a variety of songs once one is played, it is shelved for a couple of weeks unless it is requested, along with lengths and plenty of tidbits about the artist to help fill the airtime.
Filling the blank space has never been a problem for the septuagenarian, as the two hours fly by. One minute, he is coming on the air and welcoming listeners to another edition and the next, the highly popular hand-holder half hour is winding down to close out the show.
"It is such a fun two hours, it really is," Dirato said. "I have never, in any of the years I have been doing it, I have never not looked forward to coming down here. That is a lot of shows."
The show isn't like any other around as Dirato isn't just playing music for the two hours straight or taking up most of the time talking. He knows his audience and with the now five signals the station boasts, he understands his audience goes from border to border so there are a lot of drivers listening along.
He keeps it lively and personal, answering every phone call that comes in and getting every request that comes in on the radio as long as he has the song. Usually it isn't a problem as in the hand-holder half hour, he fulfilled requests for The Teddy Bears the only band Phil Spector ever sang in and Lobo real name Roland LaVoie.
Out of the nearly 400 albums placed in a system along wall racks and his personal collection that only he can navigate, rarely has there been a song Dirato couldn't find.
With the albums all from the original Perry studio, Dirato is familiar with what tracks each contains and he has a routine of loading and unloading the dual player while keeping the program on time that one is mesmerized watching him until the time has already wound down and a dozen empty disk cases lie beside the soundboard.
"People will call and say, 'That's not the Tom Dirato I know,'" he said. "That is what I aim to do. I am one doing sports, I was one working at the university and one on the Cowboy Radio Network. People who hear it for the first time say I don't even sound the same. For two hours, I am not because I am a whole other persona. I don't want this to be another sports show because it is not. If I create a little bit of a different energy and sound, I do it by design."
A music aficionado, Dirato has a wide array of listeners from college students to senior citizens, experts to people who have to hum the tune because they don't know the song or artist's name. Since it is on a sports station, word of mouth has helped it grow and most of it comes from the host's persona.
Although never a musician himself he played the trumpet for about a year before deciding sports better suited him Dirato gets what his listeners want. His favorite artist of all time? Little Richard, much to his parent's chagrin as his mother was a Frank Sinatra and Jerry Vale fan. Favorite albums? Can't go wrong with Neal Diamond or Johnny Rivers as well as a storyteller like Harry Chapin. Even those artists he is not a fan of, he will play with a smile on his face.
One such singer is Elvis Presley, who Dirato felt got it a little bit easier than the rest of his military counterparts and he just never liked the songs, but when someone wants to hear "Heartbreak Hotel," you won't hear a 'no' from the DJ.
"Live radio is what it is all about and that is what drives me on this thing knowing that I am here and people know that I am here listening to them," Dirato said. "I try to make it sound that way."
Although he doesn't have a vault full of 45s and 78s, he likes the theater of imagining he is like the radio idols of the 50's. When he gets a pat on the back from Coleman, calls from as far as Fort Smith, Arkansas, or people dancing on the sidewalk next to the studio, Dirato has all the validation he needs.
As the show wound down with a hand-holder request from soft rock band Bread, Dirato started cleaning the discs before putting them back in the case and on the shelf. Despite another show being over, he was already looking forward to the next week and its theme of trivia night. While the past might be just that, for two hours every Sunday, he gets to live them for just a little bit longer and that's all he can ask for.
"I am so happy people remember these songs because it is so easy to forget them," Dirato said.
Information from: Stillwater News Press, http://www.stwnewspress.com