The Magical World of Cyd Salpino
by Mike Bullington, EDN
Dawn, somewhere in Eugene…
The alarm on Cyd Salpino’s Nickelodeon clock radio announces sunrise with a countdown: three… two… one… buuuuzzzzzz. After 14 years of rising early to host the morning show at 96.1 KZEL, Cyd gratefully slaps the snooze button four or five times on the vintage clock radio before the insistent “Get up!” CLAP CLAP. “Get up!” wins out. The DJ hat doesn’t go on until 10 a.m. and Salpino has a whole other world to attend to.
Rolling out of bed Cyd says “Morning Spongebob!” to the Squarepants costume he created for Halloween some years back that now adorns his bedroom.
Childhood has overflowed into life for Cyd. Unlike some 50 year olds, who are trying in earnest to recapture the passion they had in their youth, the sense of discovery and excitement that comes with each new day has never really left Salpino. Born in 1961 in Altoona, Pennsylvania, childhood was an immersion of possibilities and potential adventure. If he seemed in a hurry to grow up at all it was not so he could get out of chores, drive cars or call the shots. It was so he could do any of the multitude of cool things he saw going on in the adult world.
“When I saw people could dress up like batman and get payed for it… I was like, ‘this has to be good.’ Star Trek? You’re getting paid to play with guns!” he laughs, ”I’m already doing that.”
Fly to the moon? Sure! Get paid for playing superheroes on TV? Let’s do it! A Monkey for Christmas? Um, not going to happen. Cyd was a child with lots and lots of ideas. One summer he spent long hours in the family basement in research and a plan to prove the existence of the Loch Ness Monster—a feat that would rocket the eight year old Salpino into stardom. With all evidence of Nessie inconclusive he switched to other means of gathering the attention and laughs of his family: performance. A series of magic shows were arranged, complete with hand drawn playbills.
In the early 1960s a wave of new animation was hitting the television. Cartoons had gone prime-time with “The Flintstones” and “The Jetsons.” Animation was everywhere. “I Dream of Jeannie”, “Bewitched”, and “My Favorite Martian” all sported opening animation segments. Even “He-Haw” was worth a few minutes of attention to get a glimpse of the bucked-toothed donkey. For Cyd, Saturday morning cartoons were a world of imagination just waiting to be added to, transformed and made his own.
Meanwhile, back at the Bat Cave…
Salpino hunches over a pen and ink drawing of his latest creation, the comic strip And Now.. at a makeshift light table in his studio. His tools are a computer, scanner and a mirror that looks back at the TV, supplying a steady stream of on demand cooking shows, BBC and King of Queens.
Being a single-parent, Cyd’s home naturally takes on a blend of memories and projects involving his son, Victor. The two of them would go out trick or treating and there would be his son dressed, as always, like death and Cyd would show in his latest creation: Spongebob or Darth Maul. The two of them would have a blast relating on a common plane.
His son is now 17 but the costumes still adorn Cyd’s apartment. The Buzz Lightyear action figure that has been customized with a skull drawn on the face—his son adores skulls—sits proudly on a shelf as a reminder of those times. Projects take up space in every room as do boxes of writings—old stuff that is waiting to be drawn up.
Art found Cyd, literally. One late night laying awake in his crib, his mother came in to check on him and his older brother—who was snoring happily across the room. Cyd, however, was wide awake with late-night curiosity and eagerly took to a box of crayons and paper his mom put in the crib to occupy him. From there, Cyd the artist was born.
It was not a life that was to pan out for some years, however. While he clearly remembers always knowing that he would be a cartoonist, he got sidetracked, being more ready for “the school of life” than his acceptance at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.
His biggest ambition right out of high school had come from an experience ten years earlier during a family trip to Ocean City, Maryland. Ocean City has a waterfront that is three city blocks wide and eight miles long. In 1969 it was a haven for the east coast counter culture—artists and hippies and bikinis all up and down the sidewalk.
“I walked up to the pier and it was like BOOM — there it is.” The ocean. It struck a chord deep in Salpino. And so, a decade later, instead of heading to the Art Institute he split with $500 of graduation money and landed in Ocean City. “My ambition in life was to live at the beach… that was it” He scored a lax job at a head shop checking ID’s, working on his tan more than for his money.
In an ominous black building located not so far away…
Salpino broadcasts for 96.1 KZEL perched ten floors above the asphalt at the Valley River Center in Eugene in one of two black-glassed constructions commonly referred to as the “Darth Vader” buildings. Each building has a bit of a ‘V’ shape, with the KZEL control booth jutting out of the top floor of one.
“I’ve always wondered what the feng shui of an upside building is,” Cyd jokes.
His current gig with KZEL, “Cyd in the Afternoons,” puts him in charge of the airwaves from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays. It is a role that Cyd feels very comfortable in, switching from comic to DJ mode with the ease of 25 years of repetition.
Salpino does not look like his voice—that husky, cool voice that is a blend of monster truck high and psychedelic mellow. He is much leaner in person, with a graying ponytail and Lennon glasses. His voice is simply him; it is how he talks. He has never practiced his voice and he was never encouraged to, or even really thought much about, becoming a DJ.
Summer had ended in 1978 and living a life as a beach-bumming artist hadn’t panned out for Cyd. After a short run at Penn State taking art classes he dropped out. Six months later his student loans came due.
“I was like, uh-oh.”
A friend came to the rescue with the suggestion of going back to school to defer the loans. He picked up a brochure for a correspondence education in broadcasting and, needing an out, applied. Like most things in Salpino’s life he simply fell into a career in broadcasting.
Once the correspondence school ended Cyd needed a job. He found his first job in radio sales, but it was short-lived. Cyd’s curiosity and desire to learn drove him to learn the control board while at the station. When the entire staff was replaced by new management he took a bold move and, with fake demo tape in hand, started applying for DJ positions. He was hired at now defunct country radio AM 1290 KKLB in Pocatello, Idaho. The only problem was that he had not actually had a chance to cue up a record yet. Ever.
“The guy was like you’re on from six to ten tonight. I was like, ‘whoa — OK, you said you did this. You better do it.’”
He managed to not only survive that first night but the transition from vinyl to CD to digital. Other than dropping a bowling ball—and the s-bomb—while broadcasting live from a local bowling alley (“Who doesn’t curse in a bowling alley?” Cyd reflects), it has gone remarkably well for a guy who happened into a career to avoid student loan payments. He seems able to stay positive regardless of politics going on around him. Twelve years after he worked himself to a gig on the morning show by bringing enthusiasm to his job and never letting whatever may be going on outside of the control booth affect what went on within it, the hatchet man came to KZEL.
In 2004 “The Mark and Brian Show” owned the California morning market and KZEL’s new operations manager wanted a piece of the action. The guys were given a year to pull some miracle in the ratings—more a token gesture than anything. Cyd took it in stride when the morning show was cancelled and easily switched to afternoons. “I could have bitched about it,” he recalls, “but it wouldn’t have done any good. I had a blast doing the morning show; Mark and I had a good run.”
When Mark and Brian proved to be flat in the Oregon market and KZEL’s ratings dropped so low there was talk of management changing formats, Cyd’s co-host Mark Raney put up a tent in the control booth and, risking his job, camped out in demand that KZEL stay local and playing rock. Rather than get into the spotlight with Mark, Cyd busied himself ripping tracks for the new format—Nirvana, Pearl Jam, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the like—while Mark’s gamble paid off and KZEL was spared from the syndicated cloning management had in mind for it.
Behind the scenes in Cyd’s mind…
Underlying the positive attitude lies a cartoon. Cyd seems to think in cartoons. With him everywhere he goes is a blue BIC pen and a folded piece of white paper for when an idea strikes.
“This is my job,” Cyd says. “The ideas are going to come. Work the process. Draw, do something towards the process and it will come.”
Cyd once learned to play Eddie Van Halen’s epic guitar solo, “Eruption,” by applying the same tactic, so he’s pretty sure it will work on cartooning, too.
“I was at a tailgate party and playing some blues riffs onstage with The Outsiders and some drunk guy in the crowed yelled, ‘play eruption!’ I thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be cool to just bust out eruption?’”
It was Cyd’s defining moment: a drunk guy yells out a request and he thinks, “Yea, I’m going to do that.” He had been reading the American author and thinker, Napoleon Hill. Hill had been strongly influenced by Andrew Carnegie (of Pittsburgh Steel fortunes and the prestigious New York concert venue) with the admonishment that the greatest power that Hill, or any person, possesses—greater than social status, education, even greater than fear—is “the power to take possession of your own mind and direct it to whatever ends you may desire.” Salpino put Eddie on YouTube and learned Eruption, measure by measure.
“Don’t think about it, just get your hand in this area,” Cyd would tell himself when he started out. “Someday, you are going to be playing this…”
He did play it and that led to learning pentatonic scales a new understanding of the guitar. “I can look at the guitar now and see every note on there and know what I want to do.”
So when Cyd turned 50 this year he made himself go back to that same beginner’s mind with his cartooning. On January 28th he started a self-imposed one year apprenticeship as a cartoonist. He began drawing entirely with the mouse, resisting the technology of scanning to digital, afraid he would lose something in the process.
Now, seven months into the apprenticeship, he is inking his cartoons on a makeshift light table—a piece of glass with florescent bulbs underneath it—before scanning them, adding captions and giving each cartoon a finished look.
“I sent the finished cartoons to myself in an email and then put them on my desk,” Cyd explains.
To him, that was being published. Seven months later and his work has taken a more industry standard feel that those first, rough mouse-drawn panels. He has published his work at Eugene Daily News, Eugene Weekly, and GoComics.com.
When he saw time evaporating at the computer drawing he knew he was on the right track. “I get a joy of seeing what appears. I like the fact that you think of this thing and then there it is. If people laugh, great, if they don’t get it, fine. It’s almost irrelevant.”
Coming to a comic strip near you…
His first published cartoon came in 1993 and depicted two aliens walking off their spaceship dressed in outlandish hippie garb (beads, afro, tie-dies, the whole bit). Alien number one is flashing the peace sign with its two long fingers to a crowd of onlookers. ”Something tells me they’ve been here before,” a farmer is commenting to a another. It works well visually and is drawn in a single panel style reminiscent of “The Far Side” or “Bizarro.”
“The New Breed,” as the comic was titled, sold. Then a few more sold and he was all of a sudden in the Sunday paper. As success has a way of doing, the pressure choked Cyd’s creativity. He largely abandoned cartooning, or at least publishing, for nearly twenty years.
Now though, it seems Cyd has that eruption-formula dialed in.
“You’ve got to enjoy the process. You have to entertain yourself first and then share that and somebody’s going to get that.” His positive attitude never seems to waiver. “Never beat yourself up. There’s enough people out there to beat you up.”
The world is full of inspiration for Cyd. His cartoon, “Two Nuns and a Duck” ran and afterwards he realized he had been drawing Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy as one of the nuns. Ideas strike him from conversations he overhears and by sometimes asking questions like “what would opossums talk about?”
“I’ll be biking and something will hit me and I’ll stop and write it down. That is me respecting the process of “Look, you wanna do this, when that energy comes, you got to hit it.”
And off Cyd goes, biking to work in the cool hours of the morning, batman emblem sewn to his backpack and his whole day in front of him — so many possibilities.
Later at the station Cyd breaks in with his smooth voice from a commercial set and takes easy command of the airwaves.
“Apparently Pete Townsend told CNN that he feels a lot of pressure these days every time he sits down at the 88’s to break some new ground.” Cyd reports. “Take it easy man… enjoy the ride.”
To infinity and beyond.