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.
(First in a series of posts about 1984.)
The Billboard chart dated September 1, 1984, is pretty fabulous, loaded with iconic 80s stars and memorable 80s hits. Just look at the Top 10:
1. “What’s Love Got to Do With It”/Tina Turner
2. “Missing You”/John Waite
3. “Stuck on You”/Lionel Richie
4. “Ghostbusters”/Ray Parker Jr.
5. “When Doves Cry”/Prince
6. “She Bop”/Cyndi Lauper
7. “Sunglasses at Night”/Corey Hart
8. “Let’s Go Crazy”/Prince
9. “If This Is It”/Huey Lewis and the News
10. “If Ever You’re in My Arms Again”/Peabo Bryson
If you turn on your local good-times/great-oldies radio station, it won’t be long before you hear something from 1984. A friend of mine considers it Top 40’s best year in the 80s. It’s hard to argue that it isn’t one of the best of all time. Also in the Top 40 during this same week: “Drive” by the Cars, “Dancing in the Dark” by Bruce Springsteen, Chicago’s “Hard Habit to Break,” Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” and “Lucky Star” by Madonna, none of which have been off the radio since.
Those and other records on this chart remain highly evocative of their times even after 30 years.
(Above: Kris Kristofferson, singer, songwriter, actor, and more handsome than anybody.)
It seems like an easy way to calculate the year’s top hits based on chart performance: give 100 points to the #1 song each week, 99 to #2, 98 to #3, and so on all the way down to the #100 song, which gets only one point. Over the course of a year, the song with the most points is the top song of the year. It’s generally a fine system that balances chart peak with longevity, but it’s one that can get badly fubar’d by a record with an extremely long chart life. I do not know for certain whether that kind of fubaring is what happened to Billboard magazine when calculating their top hits of 1973, but something weird certainly did.
1. “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree”/Tony Orlando & Dawn
2. “Why Me”/Kris Kristofferson
3. “Bad Bad Leroy Brown”/Jim Croce
4. “Killing Me Softly With His Song”/Roberta Flack
5. “Let’s Get It On”/Marvin Gaye
6. “My Love”/Paul McCartney & Wings
7. “Crocodile Rock”/Elton John
8. “Will It Go Round in Circles”/Billy Preston
9. “You’re So Vain”/Carly Simon
10. “Touch Me in the Morning”/Diana Ross
One of those things is not like the others.
(Return with us now to events of precisely 35 years ago this week, rebooted from a post that originally appeared on October 30, 2006.)
I was hanging around the campus radio station one day in late August 1979. I may have been getting ready to go on the air, or I may have just come off, or I may have been there simply because I’d missed it over the summer. I’d worked a lot of radio since my first shift eight months before, and I was already making plans to run for program director in the elections later that fall. I’d also managed to snag a paying part-time gig. In short, I felt like I had radio, and life, pretty much by the tail. At the start of my sophomore year, I was a much different person than I’d been the previous fall.
So, late August 1979. I’m hanging out with a few friends at WSUP. New freshmen interested in radio have been coming in to check the place out. On this particular afternoon, a girl walked in and started looking around. She was wearing a red-and-white striped sweater—which she filled out extreeeemely well—and had long dark hair down to her waist, dark eyes, and a distinctive nose. “Holy crap,” I said to my friends. “Who’s that?” And then: “I have an overwhelming desire to go over and ask her out.” I didn’t, of course, because that is not how I rolled back in those days.
I did find out that Sweater Girl’s name was Ann. And when I found out she was going to be reading news on Tuesday nights, I did what any radio guy shy around women would do—I signed up to host the Tuesday evening show. I also found out she already had a boyfriend, but I asked her out for drinks after the show a couple of times anyhow, and she accepted. She seemed to like me, but she kept dating this other guy, too.
At the end of October, the radio station hosted a Halloween party in the student center bar. It was a rager—legend has it that the party marked the last time $1 pitchers of beer were ever offered on campus because beer consumption broke some sort of record. Ann came with her boyfriend, but she also hung around the table full of radio people, and after about two beers, I wrapped my arm firmly around her waist and didn’t let go of her for the entire night. (Except, it is said, for the brief time I climbed up on the table to do the bump with one of the sports guys.)
I am not sure what became of the boyfriend on that particular night, but even after all that, she still didn’t officially dump him.
Every year in the late fall, the radio station held a banquet. It was ostensibly a time to hand out awards and to honor the outgoing heads of various station departments, but it was mostly an excuse to dress up and drink. I asked Ann if she would like to go with me—not as a date, but as a couple of colleagues going to the same function, since I had a car and she didn’t. (Christ, was I smooth.) But after I dropped her at her dorm room at the end of the night, I asked if I could kiss her goodnight, and she said yes. I arranged to have roses delivered to her a few weeks later on Christmas Eve, and the boyfriend was out of the picture soon after that. I had actually won the girl.
There’s more to the story I could tell, but I’m going to skip ahead. Ann became The Mrs. in 1983, and is still The Mrs. today.
The red-and-white sweater is hanging in the closet in my office.
January 29, 1971: The Partridge Family is in its first season, part of ABC’s fondly remembered Friday night lineup. The family’s #1 hit, “I Think I Love You,” is still on the radio, and in another week their followup single, “Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted,” will bubble under on its way into the Hot 100 and eventually, the Top 10.
On this particular Friday night, the Partridges have a problem. They’ve been booked into a club in Detroit, but it isn’t the posh hotel ballroom they’re expecting—it’s an old firehouse in a neighborhood they clearly find questionable, even nobody comes right out and says so. They park the bus, they go inside, and after a minute or two, one of the owners of the club slides down the pole.
Go ahead, click the link before you read any further. It’ll be more fun that way.
(It’s not my intent for this blog to become all American Top 40 all the time, but I suppose I could do worse. And I probably will.)
About a year ago, I wrote about an American Top 40 show from 1972 that made me feel as if I were listening to Emile Berliner explain how the gramophone works. The show and the world in which it was first heard seemed remarkably far removed from everything we are and everything we know today. Recently, Casey did it again, with the show from August 12, 1972.
Part of the way I reacted has to do in part with the way the late summer of 1972 lives on in my head. Songs from that season remain remarkably vivid—I must have had the radio on 18 hours a day in those two or three weeks before school started, hearing the top hits over and over and over again until they made a mark time can’t wash away. Not every season of the 70s is like this, but the late summer/early fall of 1972 definitely is. I can reach back and touch it in a way I can’t do with other periods in my past. So some of the stuff Casey said on the August 12, 1972, show is jarring in 2014 because it makes clear, in a way the music alone does not, just how impossibly long ago 1972 is.
Early in the show, Casey tells about a multi-talented star who had won a Tony, several Grammys, an Emmy, and a Best Actress Oscar, who was nevertheless blackballed when she tried to buy a $240,000 co-op apartment in New York City. The other owners feared that she would bring the wrong element into their building, which was home to Wall Street types and their high society wives. An era in which Barbra Streisand (pictured above) is considered too questionable a sort to hobnob with the Park Avenue swells has to be more than 42 years ago, doesn’t it?
Later, Casey plays Bobby Vinton’s remake of “Sealed With a Kiss,” the teenage summertime anthem that had been a #3 hit for Brian Hyland in 1962. As I listened, with a device in my pocket that can connect me to anyone anywhere in the world in a number of different ways, the lament of a boy separated from his sweetheart for three months and able to communicate only through letters seemed impossibly quaint. Did we ever really live like that?
Still later, Casey refers to Karen Carpenter as “a modern-day Patti Page.” While the metaphor would zoom over the heads of modern listeners on the repeat, it would have resonated with many AT40 listeners in 1972. Page charted her first hit in 1948 and scored steadily from 1950 through about 1963, and in 1972 was only seven years removed from her most recent Top 10 hit, “Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte.” So to compare her to a contemporary singer in 1972 was little different than comparing somebody who was consistently popular from the late 80s to the early oughts with one of today’s stars. And it’s a fine comparison, really—like Karen Carpenter, Page in her prime had a remarkably pure tone: just listen to her spectacular 1957 hit “Old Cape Cod.” But here in 2014, the comparison knocked me sideways for a second. If this show comes from a time when Patti Page was still relevant, just how long ago a time are we talking about here?
Come August, I am prone to feeling my age. As much as I love fall, the weeks before the seasons change can be hard to take. Maybe it’s a hangover from those days when we’d go back to school late in August and the calendar of life seemed to turn over with a hard and definite click. The clicks seem to come faster now, and there’s been an awful lot of them.