A Radar Love Story

When Cincinnati was the world capital of radar detectors, I was a blip.

Photograph by Devyn Glista

I have gotten only one speeding ticket in my life. Not that I haven’t deserved a papered wall full of them, but so far there’s been just the one time. I could lie and say it was for something sexy, like the 90 mph I clocked on my mother’s Ford Falcon during my first day with a driver’s license. That one I got away with.

No, my speeding ticket came decades later, absent-mindedly zooming past a hidden cop on a Norwood street. It was the last day of the month—I should have been more alert.

Like you, I tell myself I’m a pretty safe driver. If I decide to break the law, it’s only after carefully looking around, assessing the moment, and quickly but scientifically reaching the conclusion, Yeah, I can beat that S.O.B. Just don’t attempt it on the last day of a month.

By coincidence, my first speeding ticket in 1982 was soon followed by my first radar detector. I acquired an Escort Radar Receiver—universally considered the world’s best—as a gift from Mike Valentine, the guy who helped invent it. We were at Cincinnati Microwave, his factory near the Fields-Ertel exit on I-71, where Escort sales had grown quickly and Valentine wanted my help in continuing this welcome problem.

I was hired to write, cast, and produce a recording for placement inside every new Escort package. It would quickly and amusingly demonstrate the device’s basic functions. The recording would also function as a commercial, accompanying full-page ads in popular magazines.

At this point, some readers may have trouble visualizing a magazine with a recording inside it. (Thank you for not having trouble visualizing a magazine.) Perhaps you’ve forgotten the “flexi-disc,” which looked like a small vinyl LP but was no thicker than a bumper sticker. This allowed it to be flopped inside magazines, newspapers, envelopes, or packages. Hundreds of millions of the things were made between the 1960s and 1990s.

Cincinnati Microwave decided to call theirs the “Escort Radar Disc” and planned to distribute truckloads of magazines, with the discs placed inside of them. I was about to have a hit record, guaranteed! After my script was approved—we’ll give it a closer look in a moment—I booked the recording session.

WLW’s Gary Burbank ruled Cincinnati afternoon radio for years, except for the oc­casional ratings period when I managed to beat him on WEBN. (If you don’t know, I am simultaneously a radio DJ and a freelance writer/producer. Don’t worry, I’ve received therapy.) Burbank’s team of on-air characters—mostly himself—provided my fiercest competition. His talent always forced me to work harder. That’s why my first decision in casting the Escort Radar Disc was to hire Gary Burbank as a voice actor, even though we were rivals at the time. In Cincinnati’s radio wars he was the enemy, but in my alternate world as a producer I wanted the best.

On the Escort Radar Disc, Burbank plays a cop who pulls a guy over. When the annoyed driver protests that he was definitely not speeding, the cop confesses: “The real reason I stopped you was so I could get a better look at your badass car! Man, this thing is hot!” Officer Gary then notices the Escort, whereupon the driver proceeds to show him how it works. Hey, I never said my script was realistic. In my defense, nowhere on the Escort Radar Disc does it say “based on a true story” or “inspired by actual events” or “plausible only to small children.”

The other character, driver of the badass car, was played by Frank Wood, my boss at WEBN. Also known as DJ Michael Xanadu during the station’s early years, he was now general manager and was delighted to help with my side project. I was sure Wood really did have a badass car and knew his way around a radar detector.

Then again, he was less than thrilled to learn that Gary Burbank, WEBN’s mortal enemy, would be his costar. Ultimately it turned out OK. One of Wood’s strengths lay in rolling with his creative people’s choices.

Our recording session took place at a downtown studio. I arrived first, setting up the microphones for Burbank, Wood, and the star of the show, an actual Escort Radar Receiver. It would have several dramatic lines—beeps, buzzes, clicks—to perform on cue. Its acting coach was Mike Valentine, who brought along a tiny radar-frequency generator, built by Cincinnati Microwave, to make the device perform.

Next to arrive was Burbank, his usual boisterous self. I don’t remember if I’d already given him a script to look over, but probably not. He rarely needed preparation more than a few lines ahead. Now all we needed was Wood, who should have shown up by this time. We didn’t worry. Back then, getting downtown from WEBN’s Hyde Park office and finding a place to park was the same minefield it is today. As this was the pre-mobile-phone Stone Age, nobody panicked when someone was a little late without communicating.

OK, we did start to worry after about 40 minutes. But Wood finally arrived, carrying an Escort in one hand and a speeding ticket in the other. Holding both hands out, he walked over to Valentine and said, “Before I record anything, I expect you to pay this…because this, my friend, did not work.”

There was no time to reflect upon the many layers of irony. Valentine performed an emergency examination of Wood’s Escort and found nothing askew, but probably agreed to cover the ticket anyway. We never did determine whether the unit or its owner had malfunctioned. We were just glad to get started.

The session proceeded smoothly from there. Everyone, including the Escort, performed their lines admirably. Burbank returned to WLW just in time for another afternoon of cutting into WEBN’s ratings and profits. Wood got back to Hyde Park and continued growing WEBN until it was large enough to purchase WLW in revenge. Valentine got back to his Fields-Ertel headquarters and continued inhaling money at an incomprehensible rate. Me, I had to stay and edit everything down into a master track.

While preparing this story, I dug out the recording and listened to it, which I hadn’t done since Men At Work topped the Billboard charts. Like so many productions I considered first-rate at the time, the Escort Radar Disc has aged about as well as my prom photo. I’m grateful that everyone who heard the record lived in a pre-Twitter/Yelp world.

A radar detector named Escort still exists, but its Cincinnati roots were severed long ago. Its innards today barely resemble those of its ancestors. WEBN still exists, too, with innards just as unrecognizable. Frank Wood, innards intact, left Cincinnati radio but still is involved with lots of local endeavors. Mike Valentine has similarly moved on from his initial success and, with his wife Margaret, is the principal donor to the Cincinnati Ballet’s new Center for Dance. Gary Burbank retired to Florida, hopefully with all innards accounted for. Flexi-discs also retired, but in recent years they’ve returned to join the modest revival of vinyl LPs. Me, I still enjoy my ADHD mixture of careers on the radio and in freelance.

And I still speed sometimes. Really, though, I’m just in sync with other drivers—each of us playing the odds. I don’t have an Escort any longer. The arms race of radar detectors vs. police detector-suppressors escalated beyond my price range. I depend instead on the popular technique of I’ll just follow a quarter-mile behind this maniac. But not on the last day of the month.

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