On the Air on a Holiday

(Pictured: “Kids, let’s make a plate for that nice young man from the radio station. He can sit at your table.”) 

This Thanksgiving, more retailers than ever are opening on the Day Itself—and this year, some of them are not merely open in the evening, they opened first thing this morning. Why Radio Shack, Dollar Tree, and Staples need to be open during the day on Thanksgiving Day I cannot imagine, but I am sure of this: the executives who decided it was necessary won’t be at their desks today. It’s only the front-line workers who suffer, and whose only reward for disrupting their family’s holiday is that they get to keep their jobs (so they can stay until 10:00 on Christmas Eve, probably). Within a couple of years, Thanksgiving Day will be just another all-day retail day like New Year’s Day, which was once a holiday on which all the stores were closed, but isn’t anymore. (And you can book it: within a decade, some retailer will decide to start its after-Christmas sale on Christmas night.)

In radio, the trend is in the opposite direction. Time was, a few people had to be at the station all day today, doing routine DJ stuff (including transmitter operation), playing syndicated holiday programming, anchoring news, and suchlike. Today, technology makes it possible to go unstaffed for all or part of the day. Automation is sophisticated enough to handle everything, right up to controlling the transmitters and automatically contacting an engineer if something goes wrong. I don’t have a problem with this, for a couple of reasons. Selfishly, it benefits me: I work less on holidays now than I did years ago. And it also makes economic sense. Why pay staffers when you don’t have to?

Automation or not, working Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s is a fact of radio life—or it was, back when I signed up for it. And it is—or it was, back when I signed up for it—how you earned your way into the fraternity. Full-time jocks could often get holidays off, but the new kids and the part-timers had to work. After a while, holiday shifts took on a certain feeling of importance—somebody has to be here to serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity, and not everybody’s qualified to do it, so why not me? You might be tracking Ray Conniff records and reading sponsors’ holiday greetings, but you were there, which is the main thing listeners expect of their radio stations. And on those odd holidays when the weather or the news was bad, you were there for that, too.

As you gain seniority, it is a fine thing to occupy an exalted-enough position to merit holidays off. Some people take every one of them, all they can get, and that’s OK with me. But some of us, as we gained seniority (or age, or wisdom, or whatever the opposite of wisdom is), discovered that we actually like working on holidays. My pleasure at being on the air on Christmas Eve is well chronicled at this blog, and I never minded Thanksgivings either, as long as there was time for a nice meal somewhere. During his early years in Chicago, Larry Lujack used to volunteer for holidays “so the guys with kids can spend it with their families,” even though Lujack had a wife and kid of his own. And on my own hometown radio station, the general manager almost always did a shift on Christmas morning.

I asked some of my radio pals for work-related holiday memories that stood out to them. One remembers triple-shifting on Christmas during a blizzard. Another recalls a three-way conference call during the wee hours of a New Year’s Day, three friends on three stations in three states, doing their respective shows but talking to each other while the records were playing. A couple noted the remarkable generosity of listeners, who called in to make sure the jock or newsman would be getting a Thanksgiving dinner at some point, and/or offering an invitation to one.

On this day, radio people on the job are like cops, nurses, firemen, convenience store clerks, and hookers—we’re providing a vital public service like we always have. It’s what we’re called to do. And many of us are happy to do it, even if you don’t invite us to your house for dinner.

Essential Songs and Official Positions

(Pictured: John Leventhal and Rosanne Cash in 2013.)

We are in pre-holiday mode at the blog this week. Longtime readers may remember that our pre-holiday mode is not much different than our regular mode, except we worry less about the things we should otherwise be doing that we are not.

Over the weekend, The Mrs. and I returned to our much-missed former home of Iowa City, where we saw Rosanne Cash and her husband/guitarist/collaborator John Leventhal perform live. The last time we saw Rosanne she had a full band; this time it was just her and Mr. L doing what she calls “the old soft shoe.” They performed several songs from her latest album The River and the Thread, and she interspersed them with stories about what inspired their creation. She noted that the grave of blues pioneer Robert Johnson, the store where Emmett Till ran into trouble with the people who murdered him (and helped spark the Civil Rights Movement), and the Tallahatchie Bridge, made famous in Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” are located only a few miles apart—a testimonial to the mysterious and outsized influence of Southern culture on American history.

“Ode to Billie Joe” must certainly be on the fabled list of essential songs Rosanne’s father gave her when she was a teenager, and which inspired her 2009 album The List. It was one of her best individual performances Saturday night. (Hear a 2013 performance of it here.) So was “Blue Moon With Heartache,” one of her first hit singles over 30 years ago. “When I wrote this, I was younger than my oldest daughter,” she said. (2011 performance here.)

(Digression: although it will probably be shunted off to the Americana category at the Grammys in favor of a bunch of albums with nine producers and eight songwriters on each track, The River and the Thread should be nominated for Album of the Year, and it damn well ought to win.)

I think we’re gonna make a roundup of links that have appeared on my Twitter feed, which we’ve done here several times recently, into a regular thing. Whatever it takes to feed the content monster, and two dozen of you who are still reading this blog. Let’s get it on:

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A Big Leg Woman, a Stoned Cowboy, and a Partridge on Your TV

(Pictured: you know who. Don’t worry; this post isn’t really about them.)

Here’s an excerpt from something I wrote for Popdose back in 2008:

In “My Son, the Feminist,” the December 11, 1970, episode of The Partridge Family, Keith’s girlfriend wants the band to perform at her women’s lib rally. The family is skeptical, but when a group of hostile, anti-lib parents threatens to run them out of town, Mother Partridge says “screw you” [loose translation] and the family decides to perform. The appearance nearly doesn’t come off when the hostile parents storm the psychedelic tour bus, and Keith’s girlfriend announces that the band has to sing “women’s liberation songs”—grim, unshaven-armpit agit-prop [loose translation]—but after threatening to quit, a rebellious Keith says goddammit [loose translation], the show must go on, and the family kicks into a song the girlfriend considers exploitative and demeaning to women: “I Think I Love You.”  Lo, its powerful bubblegummy mojo wins over the girlfriend, the hostile parents, the school principal, and even Mr. Kincaid, and they all live happily until the next week’s episode. As well they might have: On the night “My Son, the Feminist” aired on ABC, “I Think I Love You” had already spent three weeks at Number One.

“I Think I Love You” first hit #1 44 years ago today, a number that leaves me woozy after contemplating how damn long ago that really is. The songs from the fall of 1970 and what they mean in my life has been chronicled here often, perhaps past the point at which you’re willing to read any more about them. So instead of getting all moony and stupid about “I’ll Be There” and “Tears of a Clown” and “Gypsy Woman” and “Cracklin’ Rosie” and “Share the Land” again, here are five other songs from deep in the Hot 100 on that long-distant date.

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Music From No-Man’s Land

(Pictured: sheet music for one of the popular songs of World War I.)

The rise of jazz, which began in earnest shortly after World War I, is responsible for our modern conception of rhythm and how pop music should sound. Critic Gary Giddins is blunt: he credits Louis Armstrong, who first rose to fame in the 1920s, with inventing “modern time.” After Armstrong arrives, popular music of every style, not just jazz, relaxes and feels more “natural”—at least to our ears, which can’t remember a time when music didn’t have that feeling. But practically everything that precedes Armstrong’s innovations sounds bizarre to us: stiff and mannered performances, painfully sentimental lyrics and arrangements, and in the case of the “coon songs,” idiotically racist content. Add to that the primitive tech of the times, acoustic recordings reproduced on Edison cylinders, and the music of what is known as the Pioneer Era of Recording (pre-1920) sounds like it came from another planet.

That said, however, people of a century ago were about as interested in pop music as we are now, even without radio and other modern mass media to proliferate it. Popular songs would be born in the publishing houses of Tin Pan Alley and make their way to vaudeville stages in New York, and from there to vaudeville stages in smaller cities. By the time a hit song reached a purchaser, it was often in the form of sheet music, which was cheaper than cylinders. And 100 years ago, the song was more important than the performance anyhow. You’d play it yourself, on your zither or your spinet or your parlor organ or whatever you had.

I’m reading a book right now called The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War. Beginning in 2003, author Richard Rubin set out to interview as many surviving World War I veterans as he could find, and he found dozens, ranging in age from 101 to 113. His book tells their stories and recreates their world. One early chapter talks about the music of World War I, and how quickly Tin Pan Alley responded once the war in Europe began. Tin Pan Alley was good at that, according to Rubin. Popular songs 100 years ago were a form of news media. If something significant happened, from a political assassination to a natural disaster, songs about it would hit the stores almost immediately.

So songs about the war were plentiful. In 1914 and 1915, there was a certain ambivalence about it, expressed in songs like “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier,” but after 1916, and especially after the United States formally entered the war in 1917, popular songs about the war were universally supportive of it. There were songs that promised to smash the Germans, like “When the Yankees Yank the Kaiser Off His Throne” and “It’s a Long Way to Berlin But We’ll Get There.” There were songs that promised support for France, like “France, We’ll Rebuild Your Towns for You.” There were love songs made topical by referring to the war, such as “While You’re Over There in No Man’s Land, I’m Over Here in Lonesome Land.” And there were maudlin numbers like “When a Boy Says Goodbye to His Mother (And She Gives Him to Uncle Sam)” and “He Sleeps Beneath the Soil of France.” Not to mention George M. Cohan’s famous “Over There,” and the English songs “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” (a marching song actually written in 1912, before the war began) and “Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile.” And dozens of others, many with the bizarrely long titles so fashionable back then.

Just as the First World War is overshadowed in 20th century history by World War II, the cultural history of First World War pop has been overshadowed by other, later events. Archeophone Records, which has as its mission excavating and retelling the history of the Pioneer Era, is just out with a series called The Great War: An American Musical Fantasy, collecting popular songs from the World War I era. The companion website is a fabulous work of scholarship, describing the propaganda value of the songs, revealing how the American public thought—and how they were being encouraged to think—of the war in Europe, the enemy, and their fellow citizens on the homefront. It describes an era that is both quite different from and significantly similar to our own.

Bound Together for Life

When I was student teaching in 1997, I kept a journal. Poking through it recently, I found this bit, about the experience of chaperoning a winter dance known as “Morp,” which was a sort of anti-prom, for “morp” is “prom” spelled backwards. The essay needs more editing than I’m going to give it, although it got a little. It’s both off-topic for this blog, and quite squarely on it.

I had no idea what to expect. Would I be responsible for keeping daylight between slow-dancing students? Would I be watching for beer bottles or cigarettes? Would I have to break up fights in the restroom?

I ended up helping at the concession stand. . . . Our vantage point was fairly isolated. Most of the action was taking place on the other end of the cafeteria, so I could watch like the amateur sociologist I occasionally fancy myself to be. And I noticed several things.

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Big Mouth on a Big Mike

Pictured: the tools of a hockey PA announcer's trade--mike, mike switch, and line charts.

(Pictured: tools of a hockey PA announcer’s trade–mike, mike switch, and line charts.)

(Late edit: link added at the bottom.)

I’m an occasional public-address voice for the University of Wisconsin’s women’s hockey team, and I had games last Thursday and Friday. Yesterday I did a fill-in gig for the women’s basketball team. Here’s what the job is like from the inside.

I show up about an hour before the game and get a credential at the media gate. If the game is in the Kohl Center (the big arena on the UW campus), I can hang my coat in the media room downstairs, then grab a soda and the rosters for the game before heading to my post. If the game is at the smaller La Bahn Arena next door (where the women’s hockey team plays), the accommodations are less plush—there, we’re paying $5 for a soda like the fans do—and I have to go up to the second level to get the rosters.

This is the point at which I also get my script for the day. Everything that happens is scripted right down to the minute. (That’s why the scoreboard clock is already counting down when you get to the game, and why it runs during intermissions.) All of the promotional announcements I read sync up with the video board. There’s a representative of the UW game-management department in my ear giving me cues, either on a headset from upstairs (for hockey) or right next to me (for basketball).

For hockey, I sit on the ice between the official who keeps the score sheet and one of the penalty boxes. It’s not unusual for players to slam into the glass right in front of us. The ice is cooled to 22 degrees, so I generally wear long johns and multiple shirts for my hockey gigs. The basketball PA announcer has a Spike Lee seat, at courtside, between the game-management guy and the video replay guy. It’s cold there, too, because in a multi-purpose arena the basketball floor is laid directly over the ice, although it’s not nearly so extreme.

Once game action starts, I’m off the script, except for stoppages when there’s something I have to read. For hockey, my job is to announce goals, assists, and penalties, and I may go for several minutes without saying anything. Basketball has more scoring to announce, and we also announce substitutions, which is impractical to do for hockey. You can impose a bit of personal style doing this stuff, as you can when introducing the team mascot before the game, or when you’re doing fan contests between periods. But whatever you do behind the big mike, you can’t go overboard. Wisconsin, one of the most profitable athletic programs in the country and a seriously big-time operation, requires a professional image that may not be so important to Directional State College. Precision is expected, if not perfection: I once accidentally mispronounced a Badger player’s name and heard about it in my headphones instantly. On hockey, I have to relay information on goals and assists to the game-management person so it can get on the video board with my announcement, and if I make a mistake on it, I hear about that, too. And justifiably so.

Fans may be surprised to learn that all during hockey games, the off-ice officials—the scorer, the scoreboard operator, the penalty timer, the auxiliary timer, and the penalty box attendants—carry on conversations that may have nothing to do with the game on the ice. All of the people I work with are certified on-ice officials and lifers in the game. Often, they have just come from officiating one game and may be rushing off to preside over another one after our game is over, and much of what they do is automatic to them. And because the hockey world is remarkably small, the officials sometimes know the players, and will talk to them as they sit in the penalty box.

Almost every hockey arena has a big horn that blows when the home team scores a goal. At Wisconsin hockey games, it’s the PA guy’s job to smack that big red button. The fans will tell you when a goal has been scored, but only when I see the referee point at the goal is it time to blow. And that might be the best part of the job.

I’d like to do more of this work than I get, because I’m strictly a backup guy. But for right now, I enjoy my opportunities when they come my way, and we’ll see what happens in the future.

Any questions?

(For another experience I had doing PA for Badger women’s hockey, click here.)

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