Mal Sharpe, Back On the Streets Again,
by Ben Fong-Torres
November 17, 1995

If you've taken note of a mini-trend in radio and TV advertising--the use of a smart-ass voice, often conducting interviews of real people, coaxing wacky answers by asking wacky questions--you can lay the blame or credit on Mal Sharpe.

He's not necessarily that voice, although he's still actively doing such commercials, but, back in the late '50s, he was among the first to play tricks on unsuspecting people and capture the results for broadcast. He and his late partner, Jim Coyle, asked people to lend them their cards, as a psychological test on the issue of trust, or to allow them to graft chicken wings onto their forehead as an aviation experiment.

It was a radio version of Candid Camera that the two nervy con men perfected.

Now, its back on the air, thanks to Henry Rollins' record company and to various believers at college and alternative radio stations.

"It's been very invigorating," says Sharpe, now 58. "College stations are picking up on this." WFMU-East Orange, N.J. broadcast an hour of Coyle and Sharpe classics weekly, and they're on the playlist at WTUL-New Orleans.

"And we're on the Internet," Sharpe adds. "It's pretty amazing to think that young kids think of us as conceptual artists."

Among those kids is Rollins, who has his own label, 213CD, through American Recordings. "He was going to reissue an old Coyle & Sharpe album from Warner Bros.," says Sharpe. "But we ran into legal problems there." Although the team issued only two albums in their time, Sharpe had piles of tapes littering his house, collected from daily adventures for a show they did in the early '60s on KGO-San Francisco.

Sharpe's daughter, Jennifer, logged the tapes while transferring them to DAT, and a brand-new CD was soon born.

Besides his work as a comic interviewer, Sharpe is a DJ on KCSM-San Mateo, doing a weekend jazz show. "It's almost a heyday," he says of current radio. "There's such a variety of material. If I owned a station, I'd find some people who were bright and out of the mold--people like Al 'Jazzbeaux' Collins, Stan Freberg, Jack Benny (a tremendous influence on me, with his non-sequitur style of humor), or Bob and Ray--and encourage them to so their thing with radio as theater of the mind. That's the biggest thing missing today."