WDVE's Sean McDowell is still rockin' the airwaves after 4 decades
WDVE disc jockey Sean McDowell put on Don McLean’s “ American Pie,” an 8-minute-and-33-second tune, thinking there was plenty of time to get to the men’s room and back.
Well, McDowell got locked inside the bathroom.
The year was 1986 and he was working on a Saturday, back in the days before everyone had a cellphone. One of his co-workers noticed the dead air — it had been close to 40 minutes — and came to the station and found him.
“That wouldn’t happen today,” says McDowell from his studio at WDVE 102.5 in Green Tree. “With all the digital technology and cellphones … and the main bathroom doors here swing in and out, so they don’t lock.”
That’s just one of many quirky tales McDowell has to tell about his four decades in radio, 25 at WDVE, Pittsburgh’s preeminent classic rock station that plays international, national and local music. He’s watched the industry transform from turntables and vinyl records to a computer system where — with the touch of a button — you can change songs, artists and genres.
Through the changes
His father Al McDowell, a broadcast pioneer and Pittsburgh icon, wanted his son to be a journalist. He thought radio was too cut throat and too down-and-dirty.
But the lure of radio was strong for Sean McDowell. He got his first radio job at WYDD in New Kensington but was fired after two years when a new program director said the station was going in a different direction.
He then worked at WYTK in Washington, Pa., for one year but left to sell cable television door-to-door for five months before getting a job at FM 97. He worked there from 1981-1993 before settling in at WDVE.
“There aren’t a lot of stations left that play classic rock and local rock because there is so much competition,” says McDowell, 63, of Scott, who studied broadcast communication at the University of Dayton. “But Pittsburgh is the kind of city where people grew up listening to WDVE because their grandparents and parents did. I know I always listened to WDVE.”
An Upper St. Clair High School grad, McDowell is on the air 3 to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. He sits in front of four computer screens on which he plans his daily show, keeps himself informed about what’s happening in the music world while also reliving some interviews and shows he’s done in the past.
The digital experience puts everything he needs at his fingertips, he says. No more vinyl records and turntables, compact disc players or cassette tapes where you had to splice the tape with a razor blade.
McDowell had to take a short hiatus from the station last summer to have open-heart surgery. It was an operation he knew he had to have for about a year. It was time for a valve to be repaired.
Dr. Scott Halbreiner, a cardiac surgeon for Allegheny Health Network at Allegheny General Hospital operated on McDowell at St. Clair Hospital, where he was part of St. Clair Cardiovascular Surgery Associates. The doctor has only lived in Pittsburgh a few years so he wasn’t familiar with McDowell’s profession.
“Once we talked, and he told me what he did, I could definitely tell by his voice, ” Halbreiner says. “Sean definitely has that radio voice. It carries when he talks. He was a fantastic patient. I knew this was a life-changing experience for him. I told him it would take weeks to recover. I don’t think he liked hearing that, because he wanted to be back on the radio.
“The nurses follow him on social media and kept me up to date with his progress,” Halbreiner adds.
McDowell quit smoking in 1999 — after a pack a day of Marlboro Red for years — and then stopped drinking alcohol in 2017 because he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.
It was hard to be away from the profession while he recovered from the surgery because it’s all he has known his entire life, but it helped to have the support of his wife, Cindi, McDowell says.
“This is not an easy business,” he says. “You work late nights and holidays and weekends. Radio never shuts down. I definitely have a face for radio. I also can’t really sing. I hum along. It’s best if I don’t sing. I flip around the stations when I am in the car.
“And Cindi is the best,” he adds. “She understands the demands of my job and has been there every step of the way. She does tell me I shouldn’t sing, however.”
“People have called drunk and/or high to request songs or they need clarification on who sang a song or about a song title,” he says. “That’s why I am here. I am a human Google for songs. I have solved plenty of arguments and some where the husband and wife called and were on two different phones, and I was in between trying to settle it.”
“I have always loved music,” he says. “I grew up listening to local radio. I was fascinated by radio. People don’t recognize me too much visually, but they often recognize my voice and say ‘Don’t I know you?’
He is definitely recognizable, says Scott Blasey, lead singer for Pittsburgh’s own The Clarks.
“Sean’s voice sounds like Pittsburgh,” Blasey says. “Combine that with his encyclopedic knowledge of rock-n-roll, and it’s no wonder he’s been on the air for decades.”
“I am glad about the digital age and appreciative of what we can do with access to so much music. I can put on some songs and go to the bathroom and not worry about getting locked inside. …I can have a few songs and commercials queued up and I will have my cell phone to call for help.”
JoAnne Harrop is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact JoAnne at 724-853-5062 or email@example.com or via Twitter @Jharrop_Trib.