After the last reverberative strains of Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" a chord progression sure to launch a thousand baby boomer reveries a new but oddly familiar voice hit the air on Sacramento's classic rock station, the Eagle.
"I am your new game show host, Walt Gray," the DJ told the listeners early on the morning of Oct. 22.
Wait. Walt Gray?
The TV guy who for years told us about fires in the foothills, floods on the river and triple murders in Stockton, all with the utmost anchor gravitas?
Yes, that Walt Gray.
" It was always my hope," he continued, "in my TV career, that I'd be able to do something, probably in radio, where I could just let it go. When you're anchoring tele-vision news, you can't, at the end of a story go, 'He's been put in jail, right where he ought to be.' You know, you just can't say stuff like that."
He can now. And he does. For 4 1/2 hours each weekday morning on a show that's equal parts oldies music and host banter, with a smidgen of news sprinkled for diversion.
Freed after three decades from the stuffy respectability and rigid objectivity of being a trusted anchor on Channel 3 (KCRA), Gray, who lists his age as "in his 50s," cuts loose at will. He can let down that Brillo pad mop of hair, doff the blue blazer, wipe off that pancake makeup and crack wise about matters deemed too trivial, too salacious, too darned fun for a TV station whose motto famously is "Where the news comes first."
As his new radio co-host, Kat Maudru, told him on that first broadcast of "The Walt Gray Show," "I'm excited for people to get to know the real Walt Gray, not the buttoned-down, uptight dude on Channel 3."
Almost two months now into the show, which airs mornings from 5:30 to 10 on 96.9 FM, here's what we've learned about Gray, a man we only thought we knew well:
He was arrested twice in his misspent youth: once for trying to steal a frozen chicken by putting it down his pants; and once for a dine-and-dash episode in New Hampshire.
His father, Walt Sr., a two-time state senator from Rhode Island, was none too pleased about the arrests. But Maudru and producer Chris Rice busted Gray's chops more for the fact that he's from what they teased was a blue-blooded New England family.
He recommends the Roberta Flack-Peabo Bryson ballad, "You're Looking Like Love to Me," as a seduction tool with the ladies. To wit: "I'd have that cued up, because when you come home you don't want to be fumbling around with the stereo and kill the moment."
He can carry a tune, as evidenced when he broke into the chorus of "Looking Like Love," even coming close to hitting the Brysonian high notes.
He can cut to the chase of the Gen. David Petraeus scandal, interviewing a reporter in Tampa, Fla., and asking the question everyone wanted to know about the socialite at the center of the controversy: "Is Jill Kelly as hot as she seems?"
When the reporter pleaded ignorance, he pressed, "You know exactly what I'm talking about."
All right, so it may not be 50 shades of Walt Gray, but he certainly has revealed more than he did as the beige news reader people saw anchored to a desk all those years.
To some, it may be what they suspected all along. Though on-air banter was mostly verboten at KCRA, Gray always seemed to have a glint in his eye, a slight smirk edging up on his upper lip. And off-air, of course, Gray was able to cut loose on his annual charity Harley-Davidson ride, but such brio wasn't evident while reporting on a rollover on the Capital City Freeway.
Turns out he's been pining to crack wise all along.
He's no shock jock, mind you. Nothing that bawdy. But provocative? Absolutely.
"I don't know many people who've been a television news anchor for 25 years and go into morning radio," he said after a recent show. "It's kind of uncharted waters. What do you say? How do you act? People see me a certain way. Will they be offended by what I say?
"I don't think so. It's showing a different side. I'm having to navigate through being true to what I am and being what's needed for morning radio."
So, is this the real Walt Gray, his long-suppressed id unleashed?
"I'd say so, yeah," he said. "This is the (Walt) who hangs out at the bar. You have to change who you are in a television newscast because, remember, you don't have an opinion."
Unlike in his TV incarnation, Gray seems to be smiling much more as a radio "personality," though, being radio, nobody can see it.
He lets his unpretentious (even if he is a senator's son) New England "Cheers" dive-bar persona run free, espousing the ethos of giving as good as you get in feisty verbal exchanges.
That's precisely what the Eagle's station manager, Curtiss Johnson, and Maudru, wanted in a marquee morning man, after the longtime syndicated duo Mark & Brian retired last summer.
Gray's high visibility and wit are why Johnson lured him from the clutches of TV news, but Maudru said it took a while for Gray to lose the Walter Cronkite act during the two-week, off-air "boot camp" the new morning crew endured before its Oct. 22 launch.
"It's a whole lot easier to loosen up than tighten up," Maudru said. "I told Walt during the transition he was coming in here and then going to KCRA for two weeks I said, 'Walt, literally and figuratively, take the tie off.' So the first day he came in with shorts and sneakers, he was a different person when we were practicing.
"Now, look at him. He swore he gave all his suits to Goodwill."
One recent morning, standing before a microphone and monitor with legs bent and arms folded across his chest, Gray gave off the sloppy-on-purpose air of a radio veteran. His much-discussed hair, which seemed matted down when he was on TV, curled and frizzed with impunity. His purple Polo dress shirt, two buttons undone, went untucked. His jeans and black loafers seemed better suited for a pool room than a country club.
Considered by some to be pushing the sell-by date for a local TV anchor, Gray said age had nothing to do with his departure from KCRA. In fact, he had to break his TV contract to join the Eagle.
"Ultimately, in TV, if you're not on the way up, where are you?" Gray said. "Plus, I've done every show there is to do there. It wasn't too long ago, 2009, I was doing the morning (anchor) and the 5 (o'clock news) in a split shift. It's like, do I think I'm going to continue to grow there? No. So why not take this opportunity?"
Gray's wife, chief meteorologist Monica Woods of News10 (Channel 10, KXTV), said her husband struggled with the decision to leave journalism.
"I recall one night standing in our living room having a heart-to-heart to get focused on what he really wanted," Woods said. "He took a deep breath and said at the end of his career he always dreamed of the red light going on and talking into a radio microphone. It was at that point I think we both realized where he needed to be."
The move also helps family life. Woods works an evening on-air shift, so the day shift for Gray enables their three children (Abby, 10, Kelly, 7, and Joseph, 5) to have at least one parent home at all times. Gray treasures the prosaic tasks of picking up Joseph from kindergarten or taking his daughters to theater rehearsals.
There are tradeoffs to the new arrangement, of course. Radio personalties usually don't make as much money as TV anchors, but Gray now gets to do something forbidden to objective anchors: voice commercials. Already, he's shilled for Sleep Train ("Tell 'em Walt Gray sent ya") and a heating and air conditioning company. He was headed up to El Dorado Hills after this interview to chat up a potential new client, a local bank.
"I'm not going to make a habit of doing that," he said, smiling. "This is not my bag."
What Gray tries to remember, with varying degrees of success, is that news is no longer his bag. Those pesky journalistic instincts keep popping up.
When the Raley's grocery store strike ended one recent morning, a friend texted Gray with the news, which had yet to be made public. Gray reported it on the air. Afterward, though, Johnson told him it didn't fit the format.
That's when Gray learned that what's valued in radio is a "fun bit," not an important scoop. And he's fine with that. Really, he is.
"It's deprogramming from 25 years of news," he said.