Dave Dworkin was an authentic rock DJ who trashed disco, embraced puns and, from his base in the Midwest, injected comedy throughout American radio.
Dworkin died at age 65 on Oct. 13 from complications of alcoholism.
A St. Paul native, Dworkin embarked on a radio career that took him to stations in Appleton, Wis., and Indianapolis before he landed his dream job in 1978 as a DJ for the Twin Cities rock ’n’ roll station KQRS.
“He was so thrilled,” recalled his sister, Judith Arnstein.
Known as “The Dwork,” he became a familiar voice on the Twin Cities’ airwaves from 1978 to 1984, connecting with listeners through humor and skits. He delighted some listeners with his Disco Destruction and Defamation Department — and his habit of disrupting disco songs by dragging the needle across the record and playing an explosion sound effect. He also loved playing rock songs backward for listeners to hear hidden messages.
In an era of artificial “radio voices,” Dworkin was unique for his plain-spoken approach, said Tom Barnard, a longtime KQRS colleague, in a recent broadcast tribute.
“Dave was a hell of an announcer,” Barnard said. “He didn’t go with a fake voice or anything like that. He was Dave Dworkin and that’s who he was.”
During his first KQ broadcast on Dec. 6, 1978, Dworkin sniffed, then laughed, because he had “spent five years trying to get here” only to catch a cold on the day of his debut. “I’m not going to let it get me down,” he said, according to an excerpt of the broadcast. “We’ll get right to music from ‘Silk Degrees.’ Boz Skaggs on KQ92.”
Radio wasn’t necessarily Dworkin’s life ambition; his sister said he decided to give it a try after meeting over lunch at an Embers with a friend who thought it would be a great way to meet rock stars such as The Animals’ frontman Eric Burdon. But Arnstein said humor was always part of her brother’s life, a legacy from his grandfather and his mother, who was a Minneapolis public school English teacher and a master of creating puns.
“It was almost a competition who could come up with the worst pun,” Arnstein recalled. “You could hardly say anything without knowing they would try to turn out a pun from what you just said.”
Arnstein recalled that when she was little, her brother would make her stop crying and laugh instead just by the funny way he would say “shish kebab.” He loved his rock albums, she said, but memorized his mother’s albums by comedians such as Bob Newhart and Tom Lehrer.
Dworkin had an entrepreneurial spirit as well, Arnstein said, and once earned money as a child by asking people via a newspaper classified to mail $1 in exchange for a recipe.
That spirit fueled his second career after KQRS: the creation of a business that sold humor segments and sound effects to radio stations nationwide, and contact lists of radio executives to companies and charities.
“He called it the Radio Mall,” his sister said, “because it provided all the products that radio people would want or need.”
Dworkin loved his cats and volunteered for various environmental and political causes.
Despite his success in radio and wide fan base, Dworkin struggled with alcoholism, his sister said. Attempts at treatment didn’t last, she said. Earlier this year, he suffered severe nerve pain related to the disease and needed physical rehabilitation to walk.
“Everyone was like, ‘Wow, Dave? He had such a good life. He had so much going for him,’ ” Arnstein said. Alcoholism “is a horrible disease. The world needs to know that.”
A service will take place at 2 p.m. Dec. 2 at The Lexington restaurant, 1096 Grand Av., St. Paul.