110 Percent

Veteran radio consultant Fred Jacobs has a blog that’s pretty good reading for those in the industry or interested in it. Last fall, he wrote about a member of the Detroit Tigers who’d been sent home by the team before the end of the season for “a lack of effort.” Jacobs used the incident to talk about effort as it relates to broadcasters. “If radio is your chosen profession, it’s your obligation to work your butt off,” he wrote. And also: “Who’s walking in the station every day, giving it the old 110% on good days and bad ones? Who’s a cancer in the building, fanning the flames of dissent and paranoia?”

There are people in every office—not just in radio stations—who are happy to be there, who find their jobs a continuing source of joy and fulfillment, who are energized simply by walking in the door. And there are people who are not—those who radiate negativity, by accident or by design.

There are degrees of negativity, and some are more harmful than others. No diverse group of individuals who gather to achieve a common purpose will ever operate in complete harmony; organizations with any degree of bureaucracy at all will occasionally get snagged in the machinery. It’s not just radio, it’s every workplace. Things happen, decisions get made, people act or react in particular ways that make you shake your head or grin ruefully—but then you go on about the day. Head-shaking and brief commiseration with your fellow sufferers is completely normal, and even therapeutic. It’s scarcely worth describing with the term “negativity.”

A more damaging type of negativity is the kind Jacobs mentions: a cancer in the building. This person might be a straight-up asshole who takes pleasure in messing with people, or who pits them them against each other to watch the fireworks. He or she might be somebody dissatisfied with colleagues or management, and who actively tries to bring others over to the dark side by “fanning the flames of dissent and paranoia.”

There is also a type of negativity somewhere in the middle—the burnout case, somebody who’s long past their expiration date. Somebody who’s unable to “give the old 110 percent,” either because they’ve made the decision not to, or they’re simply unable to.

I have been that person, who goes to work with no energy, sleepwalks through his off-air duties, ends his airshift happy if he hasn’t butchered more than a couple of breaks, goes home exhausted, and starts dreading the next day the moment he hits the couch. A person who can’t do the job his employer expects of him, or the job he expects of himself. A person who can’t give 110 percent—not even close.

I once got fired precisely because my employer recognized the person I had become. I also quit a job once because I recognized it in myself. The latter was not an easy thing to do, but I hope I earned some good karma by recognizing the fix I was in and getting out before it got worse . . . for everybody.

In a good radio station, Fred Jacobs says, “There are too many people working too hard and giving their all.” If you can’t be one of them, you shouldn’t be there.

One Day in Your Life: July 22, 1948

(Pictured L to R: singer Harry Babbitt and bandleader Kay Kyser, who were enjoying a big hit in the summer of 1948.)

Reader Ken commented recently that he doesn’t think we’re interested in the 1940s. Not exactly true. I just haven’t found a reason to write about the 40s—until now.

July 22, 1948, was a Thursday. President Harry Truman holds a news conference in which he’s asked first about the situation in Berlin. The Soviet Union has blockaded the city, but the Allies have responded with an airlift of food and other necessities. Truman is asked about the November election and the economy, among other topics. The Associated Press reports that 3,603 polio cases have been reported so far this year in the United States, over a thousand more than the same period in 1946, which was the worst polio year on record. The Chicago Tribune prints the story on the same page as a story about the discovery of a new antibiotic, aureomycin, and next to a report about 132 people departing from Chicago to a shrine to the Virgin Mary at St. Anne de Beaupre in Quebec, seeking cures for various ailments. In Newfoundland, voters decide by referendum to join the Canadian confederation. It was the second vote in two months; an earlier vote failed when neither Canadian union, continued union with Britain, nor independence reached 50 percent. Although it wasn’t on the ballot, some Newfoundlanders favored becoming an American possession.

Ten big-league baseball games are played, including three doubleheaders. In one of them, the Pittsburgh Pirates take the first game from the Philadelphia Phillies 5-3, but the second is called on account of darkness, tied 1-1. In New York, the Yankees beat the Cleveland Indians 6-5; Bob Feller pitches five innings and gets the loss; he’s lifted for a pinch hitter and is replaced in the sixth by Satchel Paige. Joe DiMaggio has a home run and four RBIs for the Yankees. Among the spectators is an eight-year-old Ohio boy named Jack Nicklaus, who is attending his first major-league game. Future novelist S. E. Hinton, who will write The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, among others, is born. Author Shirley Jackson, whose short story “The Lottery” has become controversial since it was published in The New Yorker last month, tells the San Francisco Chronicle that she hoped to shock readers with “a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.”

The current edition of The Billboard reports on recent TV coverage of the Republican National Convention, suggesting that politicians will quickly need to learn how to adapt their personal styles to the new medium. On the same page, readers learn that NBC will begin sending kinescopes of its programming to affiliates not connected by coaxial cable, to make network shows more widely available. NBC advises that not all programs will be kinescoped, and there will obviously be a time lag between the original broadcast and the kinescoped repeats. The lag may be greater in some cases due to the economizing practice of “bicycling,” in which one station receives the kinescope film, broadcasts it, and then sends it on to another station for broadcast there.

The Billboard also contains its weekly Honor Roll of Hits. The #1 song on the list is last week’s #2, “Woody Woodpecker,” inspired by the popular cartoon character and available in four different versions. The Kay Kyser version is the most popular. The previous week’s #1, “You Can’t Be True, Dear,” falls to #2. It’s available in at least 13 versions. Organist Ken Griffin’s instrumental version is the most popular at the moment, although the same recording with overdubbed vocals by Jerry Wayne was a hit in the spring. Holding at #3 is “My Happiness.” Buyers can choose from 11 different versions. A duet by Jon and Sondra Steele is the most popular, just nosing out versions by the Pied Pipers (a vocal group who have performed with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and its singer, Frank Sinatra) and Ella Fitzgerald. Four days earlier, a 13-year-old named Elvis Presley recorded himself singing “My Happiness” at the Memphis Recording Service as a gift for his mother.

Perspective From the Present: I am unable to find detailed TV listings for the summer of 1948, but my guess is that early adopters (only 0.4 percent of the population had sets in 1948) saw a lot of test patterns. During the 1947-48 TV season, only NBC and DuMont offered network primetime programming, and then for only a couple of hours a night at most. Summer might have been even quieter. Come fall, however, ABC and CBS would begin primetime programming, and the TV boom would be on.

The Economics of Stardom

(Pictured: this early Led Zeppelin shot gives you an idea of how small were the venues they played between 1969 and 1971.)

I have been reading David Hepworth’s Never a Dull Moment: 1971, The Year That Rock Exploded, and I could blog about it until approximately Christmas. Better you read it yourself—even if you are as passionate about the history of popular music as I am, you will find yourself surprised by some of the stories of 1971, and interested in Hepworth’s insights.

One of his early chapters discusses the unique nature of British rock touring at the time. Only the Beatles had been able to fill stadiums, and they hadn’t toured since 1966. Typical concert venues at the turn of the 70s were clubs or concert halls that seated only a few hundred people; the biggest and most prestigious, the Royal Albert Hall in London, seated only 4,000. Bands made most of their money from touring and not record sales, so it wasn’t unusual for a band to work all week, recording or at day jobs, and then play several shows on the weekend. Led Zeppelin was the first act to break out of the small halls and into larger arenas, where the financial take would be bigger.

Here in the 21st century, the circle has come back around: record sales are sufficiently low and streaming revenue such a relative pittance that stars make most of their money on the road once again. But the economics of touring are different now; Madison, Wisconsin, where I live, hosted a remarkable variety of stars from the 60s to the 80s, acts that would often play here and then play the next night in Milwaukee, 90 miles away. Now, however, major Madison shows are extremely rare; the arena that hosted them back in the day, the Dane County Coliseum, seats maybe 11,000 for concerts, which is not big enough anymore. Big stars are more likely to skip Madison and play in Milwaukee, where the Bradley Center can seat around 19,000. And Milwaukee doesn’t get acts like it used to, either.

The new economics of stardom are particularly visible in country music. Every major star hits the road in the summer as part of a package. Sometimes two A-listers go out together, as Kenny Chesney and Miranda Lambert are doing on a few dates this year, and as Chesney and Jason Aldean did last year. More often it’s one big star packaged with acts of lesser stature. This summer, for example, Luke Bryan is headlining a tour with Little Big Town and Dustin Lynch. “Lesser stature” is relative, however: both LBT and Lynch have scored #1 hits within the last year.

Lynch is indicative of a relatively new phenomenon in country, one that hasn’t really translated to pop music yet as far as I can tell: country artists are releasing singles that are intended to get a reaction from the concert audience. Lynch’s recent single “Hell of a Night” is built on a riff that owes more to Lynryd Skynyrd or Def Leppard than to anything from Nashville. The record itself is forgettable, but that big riff is going to sound awesome on the stage, which is the point. Aldean’s current single, “Lights Come On,” is even more unsubtle—powered by a giant riff but otherwise generic, “Lights Come On” is a country checklist song (blue collar/Budweiser/Friday night) that’s mostly about attending a Jason Aldean concert, and the song is absolutely intended to be a show opener. Even in mainstream country marketing and promotion, this level of calculation is remarkable.

There is a defense, for this kind of thing, though. The Nashville suits behind Dustin Lynch and Jason Aldean, and the artists themselves, are no more interested in making bank than Led Zeppelin and their legendary manager Peter Grant were 45 years ago. (Hepworth makes this very point when discussing Zeppelin’s work ethic.) The main difference is the amount of bank there is to make. And if some fans today believe that the hype surrounding an act, and the falling for said hype, is just as important a part of the experience as listening to the music, that’s not new, either. Hepworth notes that bands as big as Roxy Music were interested in redefining art as a plastic commodity as early as 1971.

But all of this just my opinion. I could be completely wrong.

I’m Not in Love

If I ever wanted to be a farmer like my father, I don’t remember it. I got off the farm just as soon as I could. I got a job in town when I was 17 and I never looked back.

Like many farm kids, I joined 4H as soon as I was old enough—nine, I think. I don’t recall any discussion about it; my parents had been active in 4H when they were kids. In fact, I have found from reading old newspapers that both of them were 4H superstars, highly decorated with prestigious awards. So we kids had no choice in the matter, not that we wanted one.

For a 4H kid, the highlight of the year was the county fair, at which you would exhibit the projects you had presumably spent the whole year working on. Presumably. For some 4H kids, their projects were their passions. I liked 4H well enough, but I didn’t burn with interest in the projects I had chosen. For me, they were just things I had to do. As a result, the fair would sneak up on me, and the projects I entered were often slapdash or worse.

The worst of it was taking a calf into the show ring. The idea was that you’d care for the animal practically from birth, tame it, train it to be led calmly with a halter, groom it, and then show it at the fair. The reality was me putting off the whole process until a month before the fair, picking out a calf from the selection in Dad’s herd, and hurriedly, half-assedly training it. Then I’d drag it into the show ring for several terrifying minutes before the skittish animal and I were put out of our misery with a pink fourth-place ribbon, which was the worst we could do.

Once that was over, however, the fun of fair week began, hanging out in the barns with our friends and dodging our parents, who had other things they wanted us to do, because there’s always work on a farm in the summertime.

The real rock stars at the fair were not 4H kids; they were the family farmers who competed in the open class show. They’d bring several animals from their herds to be judged each year. These families had enough children involved so that the labor of training, showing, and caring for the animals was divided. And they were fiercely competitive. The same families would duke it out for the blue ribbons and the grand champions year after year. For all I know, some of them still do.

Because the animals represented a significant investment and could be worth thousands of dollars each, the families who owned them were not always content to leave them alone at night, watched only by the handful of cops who prowled the fairgrounds after closing time. One or more herdsmen—family members or others—were therefore deputized to sleep in the barns. And despite my general disinterest in farm stuff, that seemed like a grand adventure. And so, 41 years ago this month, I spent the night at the fair, with a friend whose family showed open-class every year.

It was not quite like I had imagined. We did not have the run of the fairgrounds after closing, free to roam a fantasyland denied to mere mortals; we were quite literally put to bed by the cops handling security, who made sure we were in our sleeping bags at midnight and that we stayed there. We were, however, permitted to keep the radio on all night, which was only fitting because we also kept the radio on all day, blasting WLS or WCFL. You could walk from barn to barn and hear them. In the last week of July in 1975 it was “Listen to What the Man Said” and “The Hustle” and “One of These Nights” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends” and “I’m Not in Love” and “Jive Talkin'” and all the others, over and over again.

The 2016 Green County Fair opens this week. Times change, but the fair doesn’t, not much. If you go, you still hear the occasional radio in the barns, or see 4H kids with earbuds in. Because times change, but the music never ends.

If I’m Honest

(Pictured: Night Ranger, motorin’ on American Bandstand.)

I have linked many times over the years to a Salon piece that posited Christmas week 1969 as the single greatest week in rock history, with an incredible variety of legendary albums and singles on the radio, music that endures today as foundation stones of the rock canon. Last summer, I argued that a particular week in June 1977 deserves a similar place concerning the classic-rock radio canon, when some of the format’s most enduring warhorses were at their radio peaks.

I have been listening recently to the American Top 40 show from July 7, 1984, and it occurs to me that one could argue for that week as one in which the pop-rock canon for the 80s was being laid down. The top two singles of the week were “When Doves Cry” by Prince and “Dancing in the Dark” by Bruce Springsteen. Also in the Top 10: “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper, ZZ Top’s “Legs,” and “The Heart of Rock and Roll” by Huey Lewis and the News. (You might argue either way for the canon-worthiness of “Almost Paradise” by Mike Reno and Ann Wilson or “Eyes Without a Face” by Billy Idol, also in the Top 10.) Below the Top 10 are “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” by Deniece Williams, “Magic” by the Cars, Madonna’s “Borderline,” “Sad Songs (Say So Much)” by Elton John, and “Oh Sherrie” by Steve Perry, which would also rightfully be in the argument, were you making a list of 80s essentials. So might Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and “Sunglasses at Night” by Corey Hart, which were on the climb, and “Sister Christian” by Night Ranger, on the way down.

(The hook in “Sister Christian”—“You’re motorin’ / What’s your price for flight / In finding Mr. Right” strikes a perfect balance between dumb and awesome. I leave it to the readership to contribute other examples of gourmet cheese, where something that should be laughable actually turns out pretty great.)

Other Matters: Country music’s A-list couple, Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert, broke up last year. Shelton’s most recent album, If I’m Honest, could not help but be marketed as his response to the divorce (even though he wrote only one of the songs, a collaboration with Gwen Stefani). The first single, “Came Here to Forget” is your basic post-breakup lament as presently constructed by the Nashville machine, with references to drinking and texting. (One of the most tiresome tropes in country music right now is the cellphone, surpassed only by the pickup truck as a lifestyle signifier.) The second one, “She’s Got a Way With Words,” is different:

Little words like “I” and “do”
Lying, cheating, screwed
Yeah all the words I thought I knew
They got a brand new meaning now

At the time of the breakup, Shelton and Lambert both said all the right things about being sad and sorry and hoping to remain friends. Which makes “She’s Got a Way With Words” problematical. Either the stuff about being sad and sorry was BS, or “She’s Got a Way With Words” is an attempt to cash in on the breakup, and a crass, unsubtle one at that. My money is on the latter; for all his success, Blake Shelton doesn’t seem especially bright; my guess is somebody pitched him this song, he said hell yeah, never thought for a moment about how it would look, and that was that.

Miranda Lambert has yet to do a song about the breakup. Given the way she has enthusiastically embraced the crazy-ex role in many of her other songs, I am guessing that she’ll use a razor to greater effect than Blake uses a sledgehammer.

Other Other Matters: I am grateful to Mark, proprietor of My Favorite Decade, for sending me a package of 1976 memorabilia last week: two Falstaff Bicentennial beer cans and one of those bowls made from an old vinyl record (Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 by the Eagles). In 12 years, this blog thing has led to several relationships, real and electronic, that I value a great deal. If I’m honest, I have to say that I have been more on the receiving end of kindnesses than the sending end, but I hope to work on that.

A Pleasant Space

(Pictured: Jimmy Carter at the podium in New York City, July 15, 1976.)

(Despite my best efforts, this post starts out being about one thing and ends up about something else. Sorry.)

Forty years ago tonight, I watched Jimmy Carter give his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention.

I remember being captivated by Carter’s optimism as he accepted the nomination, and the way the delegates cheered and cheered amidst falling balloons and general mayhem long after the speech was over. I don’t think I would have voted for Carter, though. I liked Ford. I always felt like nothing bad was going to happen while he was in charge. Clearly it didn’t feel that way to others. At their convention, the Republicans quite nearly tossed him out for Reagan. And in any case, it was all background noise during my favorite summer.

What’s more vivid than the speech is the memory of having watched it, by myself on a lovely summer evening on the sunporch, in the house where I grew up. The sunporch was, and is, a pleasant space, paneled with the knotty pine frequently found in houses built during the late 50s, with windows on three sides and a beautiful view of the dooryard. It was, and is, one of my favorite places in that house. Before I went to kindergarten, I taught myself how to read out there, looking at books and periodically spelling words to Mom as she worked in the nearby kitchen. She would tell me how to say them and what they meant. Although there was a black-and-white portable TV on the sunporch in the summer of 1976, it was usually the home of the big console stereo, and the easy chair next to it made the sunporch an excellent place for listening to albums. It was where my brother and I would go with the telephone, an extra-long cord stretching from the kitchen, when we wanted a modicum of privacy to talk to our girlfriends.

(Mom and Dad are recarpeting the sunporch this summer. They have removed the old beige carpet, temporarily revealing the red-and-white tile floor I can remember from 50 years ago. I am not sure what color they’re going with for the new floor, but it will not be as spectacular as the shag carpet that was in there through much of the 70s, which was the color of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee spaghetti.)

Carter’s acceptance speech came at the end of a day I had spent as a farmer, because it was the height of hay-making season. I was happy to drive the hay rake, a task that was done in the relative cool of the morning; I was less enamored of chopping hay, which was a dirty, noisy job that at least once I flat-out refused to do, consequences be damned. The summer of 1976 would be the last one in which I did much farming. The next summer I had a job in town (two of them, actually), although I suspect I may have been occasionally press-ganged to help make hay on my days off. Haymaking was all hands on deck; even my mother, who did not do any other farm work, would drive the baler. Dad hauled the loads back to the barn; my brothers helped my grandfather unload the hay into the barn.

My paternal grandfather could outwork much younger men, especially unloading wagons of hay; his only concession to the heat and the exertion was shucking the blue chambray work shirt he normally wore under his bib overalls. He did it into his 80s, and when his health forced him to stop working, he never stopped talking about “when I go back to work.” Thirty years ago this summer, just short of his 88th birthday, he decided one afternoon to clean the gutters on his house, dragging out the ladder, climbing up, having a heart attack, and falling off dead. I have often thought, however, that during the last half-hour of his life, he felt useful and happy, and we should all be so fortunate as to go like that.

All of them, my grandparents, my parents, my brothers, Jimmy Carter—they were just there that summer, like the weather. Forty years later, all four of my grandparents are gone, the last one in 1997. My parents are as healthy as two people in their 80s can expect to be, although I notice them growing ever more frail. And I am grateful for what I remember of the summer of 1976, but sorry I don’t remember more.

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