The Transformation

We know that memory is not history. If you’ve ever discussed the good old days with a friend and discovered that they don’t remember what you do—or that their memories of a particular event contradict what you “know” to be true—you understand memory’s unreliability. A spate of recent news articles has suggested that memories change all the time, for reasons both physical and psychological. It’s enough to make a person wonder if he can trust any of them.

So we can never know how it really was.

As heirs of the Enlightenment, we hold to the creed that anything worth believing must be founded on evidence—empirical truths that are apparent to everyone. So it follows that the question of whether our memories are true matters a great deal. (People are sent to prison all the time because of someone’s false memories.)

But not everything in which we believe is founded on such truths. Religion isn’t. There’s more hard, empirical evidence for the existence of Bigfoot and aliens than there is for the personal God of the Christian Bible, or Allah, or Zeus, or Odin. But the “truths” of religion are strong enough to live in the hearts of millions of people who order their lives by them. If you believe your god is real and you live your life as if it were, it doesn’t matter whether it’s real or not. Your belief is real, and that’s the fact that matters.

When I write about the fall of 1970, three-and-a-half transformative months that began with a remarkable act of kindness by a neighbor girl in early September and ended with the most significant Christmas gift I would ever receive, I understand that the vivid details may not be real. Things may not have happened as I remember them, and may not have happened at all. That I was being transformed almost certainly never occurred to me. (Recognizing oneself mid-transformation isn’t guaranteed to happen to a guy in his 50s, let alone a boy of 10.)

But the belief that I was transformed? That belief is real. No matter how many years it took to recognize it, no matter how the shape of the transformation might have been affected by events that have happened since, the belief that I was transformed has nothing to do with empirical reality, and it doesn’t have to. My “memories” from the fall of 1970 have the power of myth. Myths are the stories we tell ourselves to explain the world. The ancients told them to explain the weather; today, religion tells them to give meaning to life in the face of certain death.

And I retell the myths of 1970 to explain how I got this way.

We take as our text today the WLS Hit Parade, September 14, 1970:

1. “Looking Out My Back Door”/Creedence Clearwater Revival. “Wondrous apparition / Provided by a magician”

2. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”/Diana Ross. “Remember life holds for you one guarantee / You’ll always have me”

3. “War”/Edwin Starr. “Who wants to die?”

4. “Julie Do Ya Love Me”/Bobby Sherman. “Are you thinking of me / Will you still be there?”

5. “Candida”/Dawn. “The future looks bright / The gypsy told me so last night”

Inscrutable mysteries. The yawning abyss of doubt and fear.

Abiding hope. Everlasting love.

When you’ve got a radio, you don’t need a church.

The First Chapter of Genesis

(Pictured: the marquee for Elvis Presley’s 1969 Las Vegas debut. A future radio icon was in the audience.)

Over Labor Day weekend, the American Top 40 repeat on stations around the country was from August 29, 1970. It was a rarity in that most of the time, when Premiere Radio Networks offers shows from 1970, 1971, or 1972 to affiliates, it also offers an alternate show for those stations who’d rather not air something quite so ancient. Not this time.

The show was the eighth one in AT40 history. Technically, this one is pretty sketchy, like the engineer was having trouble balancing Casey’s audio level with the music, jingles, and sounders. The timing is occasionally off—a record fades before Casey comes on, or a jingle or record starts a split-second sooner than it should. And the beeping synthesizer sounder so frequently heard on the early shows is everywhere on this edition, as if Casey doesn’t want to talk without some kind of sound behind him, even for a couple of seconds. Casey himself doesn’t seem particularly well-scripted—a song will play for three or four seconds before he comes on mike, hurriedly says something that sounds like he just thought it up, and barely gets out of the way of the vocal. He’ll give a title without the artist’s name, or fail to mention the chart position of a song—which is kinda bad on a countdown show.

This show contains a couple of random oldies. I missed Casey’s intro of the first one, due to a combination of bad levels and his tendency to hurry unnecessarily. All I heard was that it was from 1966, and I didn’t recognize it at all—some female R&B singer from Memphis, I guessed. But it turned out to be this. The other featured oldie was “Chances Are” by Johnny Mathis, a vivid example of why many program directors today aren’t wild about the shows from the early 70s.

I can only think of a couple of instances in which Casey mentioned his personal life on American Top 40—and one of them was on the August 29, 1970, show. He told the story of seeing Elvis in Las Vegas in 1969, and how Elvis came down to his ringside table to sing to his date and ended the song by kissing her. “It was the only thing she talked about for weeks,” Casey remarked. Then he told how he’d seen Elvis again a few weeks ago with a different date, and how he was careful to sit several tables away from the stage this time. The only similar instance I can recall was on a 1976 show, when Casey told about being a high-school classmate of future jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd and playing in a band with him.

(Listen to most radio shows for several years and you’ll eventually learn something about the person or people behind the microphone. But little of Casey Kasem the man, as opposed to the radio icon, ever leaked over into AT40. He was politically active, a vegan, a baseball fan, and an actor who appeared on Hawaii Five-O, Emergency, and Charlie’s Angels in addition to dozens of voiceover gigs during AT40‘s heyday, but he never betrayed a hint of it on the show.)

A person of scientific mind might find themselves in speechless awe when contemplating the Big Bang. A religious person might get a similar sense of wonder when reading the first chapter of Genesis. In my world, the ur-text is the Hot 100 from the fall of 1970. It’s where the things that have mattered the most throughout my life began to begin. And although I’ve written about that subject many times before, I intend to go to the well again in the next post.

1984: Game Days

(Here’s one last post in our 1984 series.)

The University of Wisconsin has one of the most profitable athletic programs in the country, with the majority of its broadcasts syndicated by Learfield Sports, which originates games for dozens of other big-time schools. At smaller institutions like Western Illinois, the whole thing is less formal. Local stations may bid for the rights, but the broadcasts themselves are usually less elaborate. And in bygone years, the broadcasts were less elaborate still.

Thirty years ago, at my new little Top 40 station in Macomb, Illinois, we carried Western Illinois football and basketball. Our play-by-play man was the station’s sports director, the splendidly named Larry Derry, who had done the games since 1969. The pregame show started 30 minutes before kickoff, and the postgame show ran for maybe 30 minutes afterward. The broadcast was crowded with ads, many of which Larry sold himself. (The man drove a really nice car.)

Although today it’s commonplace for FM music stations to carry sports play-by-play, 30 years ago it was not. As far as I understood branding back then, I thought that sports play-by-play detracted from ours, even as I acknowledged that our largely student audience would have some degree of interest in WIU games. On the very day of the format change, I was forced to run a University of Illinois football game on my station—a night game that would normally have run on our daytime-only sister station—and when I found out I’d have to, a couple of weeks before, I was furious.

Our station also carried high-school football and basketball games. They were (and are) often an emotional buy for businesses that want to support their local school or the team their kids play on. By doing the hometown games and the games of a few nearby towns—football, basketball, volleyball, softball, baseball, hockey—a station can bring in quite a tidy bundle year after year. The downside is that high-school sports don’t generally attract huge listening audiences, apart from state tournament games, but carrying some games people don’t care about is the tradeoff you make for the money. I happily made that tradeoff—until I found about the games we were doing for free.

The Macomb-Western Holiday Basketball Tournament, a high-school event with 16 teams, had been held each year right after Christmas since 1946 (and is still played today). In 1984, to my horror, I discovered that my station had traditionally broadcast all of the tournament games, even the ones featuring two distant schools far beyond the range of our signal, and even if we had no sponsors for them. This struck me as remarkably stupid, and I fumed about it for the three days my air was held hostage to the tournament. (The next year, I successfully persuaded my boss that airing such games was silly—no advertising, no game.)

In 1984 and 1985, we carried WIU football and men’s basketball as the station always had. Come 1986, the university undertook a major marketing push for its football program, with the idea of turning WIU games into major events. And so we started broadcasting from the stadium parking lot a couple of hours before kickoff, talking to fans and various celebrities the university brought in. (I recall interviewing onetime WLS newscaster Catherine Johns, a WIU alum.) After the postgame show was over, we would broadcast for another hour or so from the private, catered postgame party the university threw for boosters. This gave the radio station a chance to schmooze important business and university leaders by making them feel like celebrities. Being the guy responsible for anchoring those broadcasts made me feel like a celebrity, too.

This past Saturday afternoon, I sat in my usual seat at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison watching Wisconsin pound lumps into WIU, which hasn’t been very good in recent years. There were 78,000 people there, and nobody knew I used to work on behalf of the other side.

The Youthquake

(Our 1984 series will continue with one last post after this brief detour.)

Once a month since April, we have been tracking the Beatles and the British Invasion as it appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 against the weekly surveys of a representative local radio station, WOKY in Milwaukee. But entirely apart from chart numbers, Beatlemania was at an unequaled pitch in Milwaukee as September began, for on the 4th, the Fabs played a show at what was known then as the Milwaukee Arena.

On the Hot 100 dated September 5, there are four Beatles songs in the Top 40: the former #1 “A Hard Day’s Night’ at #8, “And I Love Her” at #12, “Ain’t She Sweet” at #30, and “I’ll Cry Instead” at #34. All are headed down the chart except for “And I Love Her.” Another Beatle ballad, “If I Fell,” is at #53 and rising in its 6th week on; “Matchbox” and “Slow Down” debut at #81 and #99 respectively, and “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You” bubbles under at #112. The George Martin Orchestra provides a bit of additional Beatle flavor with an instrumental version of “This Boy” (officially titled “Ringo’s Theme”) at #55. At WOKY, “A Hard Day’s Night” tumbles from #3 to #13; “And I Love Her” falls from #12 to #22. “Matchbox” and “Slow Down” debut together at #29.

Other British invaders were leaving their mark with iconic records 50 years ago this week: the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” hit #1 at WOKY the preceding week and held for the week of September 5, its first week atop the Hot 100. “Because” by the Dave Clark Five was at #5 in Milwaukee. Chad and Jeremy’s beautiful “A Summer Song” moved to #17 from #27, well ahead of its Hot 100 pace, and Manfred Mann’s “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” debuted at #20 (and at #58 on the Hot 100).

On the subject of icons, the reign of the Supremes had begun with “Where Did Our Love Go,” which sat at #2 on both charts after topping the Hot 100 the previous week. The wistful “Under the Boardwalk” by the Drifters held at #4. The single hottest record at WOKY was “Oh Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison, jetting to #10 from #32 the previous week. It took a similarly mighty leap on the Hot 100, to #27 from #52. Debuting at WOKY was another new Detroit group, the Four Tops, with “Baby I Need Your Loving.”

On the flip, five more songs from the WOKY chart, less iconic but still noteworthy.

Continue reading →

1984: The Flow of Days

(Pictured: Cub fans lose their minds watching the impossible happen in 1984.)

(Another post in a series.)

Some of life’s milestones we see coming. Many more we do not. Some years are full of them, as 1984 was for The Mrs. and me.

An Innocent Man: We started the year feeling marooned in Macomb, Illinois. The previous fall, I had naively taken a job that turned out to be terrible, and she was, as she puts it, “watching General Hospital professionally,” unable to find work of her own. In February, the terrible radio station fired me, and by March, times were bad enough to get us a chunk of that free government cheese they were handing out back then. As we got ready to celebrate our first wedding anniversary in April, however, things got better—the other radio station in town hired me, meaning we wouldn’t have to move for the second time in six months. They wanted me to start on the 9th, which was our anniversary, but were gracious enough to make it the 10th when I explained the significance of the date. It represented our first night out in months, dinner at Golden Corral and the new movie Splash, which has just opened.

Nobody Told Me There’d Be Days Like These: Not three weeks later, my best friend died. He’d been in and out of the hospital for several weeks before complications from his congenital heart condition did him in at age 23. The first death of a close friend was a wrenching transition. It turned out he had always known he was going to die sooner rather than later, although if any of his friends knew it at the time, nobody acknowledged it. But that knowledge explained the way he had lived his life since I had first met him in the fourth grade: he simply didn’t give a damn. Not in a negative way; he just didn’t let his heart condition dictate what he would do. If he had, he may have lived longer. Instead, he packed plenty of livin’ into his limited time.

Let’s Go Crazy: As summer unfolded, I got comfortable in my new job. Ann started working at the station too. Our new owner and a summer of preparation for the new Top 40 format consumed us, although I was also consumed by my beloved Chicago Cubs, during the miraculous season that resulted in the team’s first pennant of any sort since 1945. We bought tickets for a late-season game in St. Louis, which turned into a doubleheader thanks to a fortuitous rainout—and had the Montreal Expos obliged us by beating the New York Mets just once that weekend, we would have been there for the pennant-clincher. As it was, the moment had to wait for the next night. Somewhere in my archives I have a scrapbook I kept with Associated Press wire copy and newspaper articles about the game, including snapshots of the TV screen emblazoned with “National League Eastern Division Champions.” It was—even accounting for two Packers Super Bowl victories in more recent times and other very good days I have been fortunate enough to experience—the single happiest day of my life.

Lights Out: As the pennant chase reached its height, we joined the VCR revolution, buying one with a wired remote that snaked across the living room. On Friday nights we would go across town to Western TV and Appliance and spend $8 to rent three videos for the weekend. We scraped together movie admission now and then too, because 1984 was one of the most remarkable years in film history. Consider the first week of September: Ghostbusters, The Karate Kid, Purple Rain, Revenge of the Nerds, Gremlins, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were all still in theaters.

If this were a fictional story, there would be a cherry on top to make it a coherent whole. But I do not recall how our 1984 ended. Did we visit family for Christmas? Did we see friends on New Year’s Eve? I don’t know. And it’s actually fine that the story of 1984 doesn’t have a scripted ending, because life seldom does. When we are young, we scarcely notice the flow of days, let alone the flow of years. That only comes when we’re old, and we look back, and we are unable to see anything else.

1984: Father’s Day


Thirty years ago today, I became a real Top 40 radio guy for the first time. Ten years ago, I blogged about it. Here’s a portion of that post, lightly edited.

By 1984, The Mrs. and I had moved on to Macomb, Illinois, where I had joined WKAI-AM and FM. I’d come in with the station’s new owner that spring. Because Macomb is the home of Western Illinois University, it seemed obvious to us that a Top 40 format on our FM would be a sure winner. So throughout the summer of ’84, we planned the switch. I was going to be the station’s program director. . . .

I sometimes think that the changes at the station were terribly hard for the operations manager, who had been with the company over 20 years at the time. We shared an office, which must have been hard too, given that he was organized and fastidious while my idea of filing was piling. But he was a soft-spoken and gentle man, impossible to dislike, and as utterly devoted to his stations and his town as anyone I ever knew in the broadcasting industry. Because he had originally put the FM on the air in 1966, I think he felt like the Top 40 changeover was vandalism—and that I was the kid with the spray paint.

For example: In those days, stations like ours, which were run entirely by computer, often used a recording that would periodically announce the correct time. One day he asked me if I was going to use the time-announce on the new format. I told him I wasn’t, because I thought it cluttered the station’s sound and was unnecessary anyhow. He looked at me for a second and said, “What about blind people?”

We never really understood one another. . . .

Stations like ours purchased a music service from a syndicator. We didn’t shop around—we already had a contract with an outfit called Century 21, so we stuck with them. We opted for a version of their Top 40 format that allowed us to heavily daypart our music—lighter during the day, on the assumption that we’d be more appealing to in-office and in-store listeners, but harder at night when the kids would be our primary audience. (It was standard Top 40-era thinking, although in later years I sometimes wished we had ignored it.) And in the early hours of format-change day—September 1, 1984—after the station signed off at midnight, some of the staffers assembled for a dry run, just to see if the computer sequence we’d mapped out for the format would work, and to hear how the thing sounded. The Mrs. and I were there, along with the general manager, the sales manager, a couple of the sales reps, and the poor old operations manager, who doubled as the station’s computer wiz. We polished off a case of beer watching the reels of tape turn and eagerly anticipating the format change, which would officially happen at noon. . . .

Just before noon, we played the last song on the old format: “Candida” by Tony Orlando and Dawn. I had found a recording of a synthesized voice counting backwards from 10, so we rolled that out of “Candida.” I did a station ID in my best Top 40-voice (terribly high and nasal, it sounds to me now), and then kicked into “The Heart of Rock and Roll” by Huey Lewis and the News. I will never forget the electric thrill of hearing the studio monitors actually rockin’. While “The Heart of Rock and Roll” was playing, I noticed, completely by accident, that “Rock and Roll Fantasy” by Bad Company and “I Love Rock and Roll” by Joan Jett were cued up and ready to play, so I jumped the computer sequence to program them in. Thus, we played three songs in a row on the new format before stopping so I could do the weather forecast. (It was going to be 100 degrees that day.) We followed that with “10-9-8″ by Face to Face—not exactly one of the strong current hits I’d been plugging in promos for the new format—and another Huey Lewis tune, “If This Is It.” Then we stopped for our regular noon-hour newscast, which contained a full commercial load and stopped the music for six momentum-killing minutes. (Today, when stations change format, they sometimes play hundreds or even thousands of songs in a row before the first interruption. This didn’t occur to us then.) After that it was “Sexy Girl” by Glenn Frey, Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” and Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With,” and another commercial break, in which the local Chrysler dealer advertised a clearance on brand-new 1984s, with “low 12.9 percent financing available.” Then it was “When Doves Cry,” and that’s where my tape of the changeover ends.

I am unable to get my brain around the idea that these events are now 30 years in the past. It really does feel like it was just yesterday.

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