It’s Off-Topic Tuesday again. Here’s a piece, re-edited, from an archive of columns I wrote for the newspaper at the University of Iowa in 1996, when I was a returning student there. More than any single piece I’ve ever written in my life, this one breaks my heart.
When I was a kid, I used to love going to the zoo. I grew up around cows, pigs, cats, and dogs, but elephants and zebras and emus and big whompin’ lizards were another thing altogether. Where I grew up, I had access to several good zoos, in Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago, and I went to all of ‘em. Last weekend I went to Niabi Zoo, outside of Moline. . . . Niabi Zoo is one of the Quad Cities’ crown jewels, with a big renovation project underway garnering ample corporate and community support. So why did I get so depressed walking around this pleasant rural spot on a sunny weekend afternoon?
(Pictured: the Electric Light Orchestra takes a bow in February 1977.)
February 28, 1977, is a Monday. President Jimmy Carter is in the Oval Office by 7AM today; his agenda includes afternoon meetings with five Democratic governors in town for the National Governors’ Conference, and with Mr. and Mrs. John Denver. At a press briefing, Carter’s deputy press secretary Walter Wurfel is asked about Carter’s statement during his presidential campaign that he would make available “every piece of information this country has” about UFO sightings. Wurfel says Carter was referring only to information that wasn’t “defense sensitive.” Any sensitive information would remain secret. Carter has family time in the evening, including about an hour in the White House bowling alley with the First Lady, his son Jeff, and other guests. Future country star Jason Aldean is born; Jack Benny’s sidekick Eddie “Rochester” Anderson dies at age 71. Linda Ronstadt is on the cover of Time; the cover story about her has a distinctly sexist edge. Ralph Nader is on the cover of People. In today’s Peanuts strip, Snoopy and Woodstock converse.
Jack Albertson of Chico and the Man gets a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. On Dinah!, Dinah Shore welcomes author Alex Haley and several members of the cast of Roots, which aired last month and became a cultural phenomenon. Merv Griffin welcomes country singer Mel Tillis, actor David Soul, and Ed McMahon. On CBS tonight, long-running hits The Jeffersons and Maude are sandwiched around two newer sitcoms, Busting Loose, starring Adam Arkin as a young man who’s just moved out of his parents’ house, and All’s Fair, starring Richard Crenna and Bernadette Peters as a conservative newspaper columnist and liberal photographer who fall in love despite their political and age differences.
Ray Charles plays the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles; during the show, a fan jumps on stage with a rope and tries to strangle him. Concert security subdues the man before Charles is injured. The concert continues without further incident and no police report is ever filed. In Toronto, Keith Richards is arrested for possession of heroin, cocaine, and drug paraphernalia. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band play St. Louis. Genesis plays Buffalo, New York. The Electric Light Orchestra concludes a three-night stand at the Uptown Theater in Chicago. At WABC in New York City, George Michael is on the evening shift. On the station’s new Musicradio survey, officially out tomorrow, “Torn Between Two Lovers” by Mary Macgregor holds at #1 for a fourth week; “New Kid in Town” by the Eagles, which tops the Billboard Hot 100, holds at #2. The hottest song on the survey is Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” moving to #7 from #17. Also new in the Top 10: “Year of the Cat” by Al Stewart at #8. The survey lists the Top 10 albums but doesn’t number them; first on the list is the soundtrack from A Star Is Born. Also listed: Hotel California, Pink Floyd’s Animals, Songs in the Key of Life, Boston, Rumours, Year of the Cat, Night Moves, Wings Over America, and Jethro Tull’s Songs From the Wood.
Perspective From the Present: The album charts from the winter of 1977 remain astounding after all this time. One album not listed is one I wanted for quite a while and received for my birthday, probably during the weekend before: Olé ELO, a compilation by the Electric Light Orchestra. My girlfriend gave it to me under protest, saying that an album didn’t seem like a personal-enough gift. Although I don’t recall the details after all this time, she probably gave me other, more personal gifts that weekend as well.
I wrote back in January about how I re-enrolled in college 20 years ago this winter, and about my master plan to abandon radio and become a high-school social studies teacher. Obviously that didn’t happen the way I planned it. The rest of the story is on the flip. Since it’s got nothing to do with the ostensible subject of this blog, you’re under no obligation to read it.
(Pictured: Paula Abdul; also pictured: a whole lot of the 80s.)
Because some amongst the readership are not as elderly as I, here’s a record chart that’s not quite as elderly as our charts usually are, from WKTI in Milwaukee, dated February 17, 1989.
In February 1989, I was still doing afternoons on the elevator music station in the Quad Cities. At some point within the previous year, I had half-heartedly pursued the overnight gig at the big Top 40 station in town, which I didn’t get. The program director—who may have been trying to soften the blow—told me that he figured I probably wouldn’t want to go from afternoon drive to overnights, and being the idiot I was, I agreed with him. But the guy who got the job was moved up to afternoons himself within six months—and he wasn’t nearly as good on the air as I was.
So anyway: the songs on WKTI during that February week did not make it on my station, even though we were tweaking the format to make it slightly hipper. We thought hard about adding “The Living Years,” and “Eternal Flame” by the Bangles and Sheriff’s “When I’m With You” could have been made to fit. We would eventually play other hits by New Kids on the Block (“I’ll Be Loving You Forever”) and Breathe (“How Can I Fall”). I was still listening to Top 40 in the car sometimes, so I would have heard many of the hits of the day, and in the early 90s, at another station, I would play a lot of them. Read about a few of them on the flip.
A onetime radio staple that’s gone now is the homemaker show. In a midday time slot, a female host (occasionally with a male sidekick/producer/board operator) would conduct a program aimed at women: about cooking and sewing and crafting and gardening and child-rearing and whatever other subjects might plausibly interest the stay-at-home wives/mothers/grandmothers who made up the audience. Such programs were born in the earliest days of radio and thrived from the 50s through the 70s. They became less important as more women began working outside the home, and by now I’m guessing you’d have a hard time finding one. But in their heyday, such programs were a very big deal. This 1954 radio ad for the Neighbor Lady show on WNAX in Yankton, South Dakota, is a good indication of the power such a show could have, especially on a station with a big signal. (There were similar shows on TV as well.)
When I got to KDTH in Dubuque in 1979, its homemaker show, Cracker Barrel, was hosted by Betty Thomas. Betty, who died in 2013, is a member of the Iowa Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame. She started in radio helping her broadcaster husband, who was going blind, by operating his control board and reading copy into his ear, which he would repeat on the air. In 1966, she took over Cracker Barrel, and would host it for nearly 30 years.
During my time at KDTH, the show was an empire. The phone lines would fill up every morning with listeners who had questions, comments, recipes to share, or advice to give, and the show had a massive mailing list that waited for Betty’s regular newsletter. Cracker Barrel was interactive media before interactive media was cool. When Betty read a recipe, she carefully paused after each ingredient or instruction, and it was easy to visualize dozens or hundreds of pencils scratching down each step. Certain recipes were perennials, and she’d feature them year after year. Sometimes she’d have guests in the studio, but most often it was just Betty, talking about topics she knew her audience would find interesting. The show, crowded with commercials, made a ton of money. Next to Gordon Kilgore, the veteran newscaster I’ve written about before, Betty was the station’s most recognizable personality.
Last year I introduced you to George Lipper, the general manager of KDTH when I worked there, who later hired me to work at stations he bought in Macomb, Illinois. George wanted to turn the AM station into a KDTH-style full-service station, and one of the elements he wanted to replicate was Cracker Barrel. I was skeptical about whether such a thing could be created from scratch in the middle of the 1980s, but George was resolved to try. I wasn’t involved much in the planning of the show or the hiring of the host. Somehow, the station found Debbie, thirtysomething, with a home-economics degree, fairly articulate and not frightened off by the entire concept. And sometime in 1985, we put the show on the air.
Here’s the thing about talk radio: if nobody calls, you, the host, have to keep talking regardless, make it interesting, and entice people to join the conversation. And in the early days of what we also called Cracker Barrel, nobody called. The first shows were brutal, but over a period of weeks, the show got a little better once people discovered it. But we noticed something about Debbie after a while. She was oddly reluctant to offer her opinions on much of anything. She was happy to read recipes and other source materials, but if she had trouble simply conversing with the callers, even on the most innocuous of subjects. She would hem and haw and ultimately say very little. We finally figured out it was because her husband listened to the show every day and critiqued it every night, and the net effect was that no matter what we told her at the office, she became afraid to express herself for fear of getting a bad review at home.
I may have been the sidekick/producer/board operator in those early days, but I don’t think it was a regular gig for me; at 30 years’ distance, I simply can’t remember anymore. And I can’t recall how long the show lasted; I’m fairly sure it was no more than a few months. Our rebooted Cracker Barrel was an anachronism in 1985, as I suspected it might be. Every now and then the green radio man I was back then turned out to be right.