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.
(Pictured: Elton John, whose Greatest Hits was among the top albums in the winter of 1975, even though it didn’t contain his current hit single.)
The show started with Joni Mitchell’s great live version of “Big Yellow Taxi,” far better than the studio version from years before. The first hour also included Billy Joel’s “The Entertainer,” in which he gripes about being a star even though at the time the song was recorded he wasn’t, really. As it sometimes does, the first hour contained some hot garbage: “Ride ‘Em Cowboy” by Paul Davis, a record so wimpy it makes Neil Sedaka sound like Ted Nugent, and “Your Bulldog Drinks Champagne” by Jim Stafford, which I don’t know what the hell to think. Also in the first hour was the rarest of rarities, a 70s Top 40 hit I can’t remember hearing before, “I Belong to You” by Love Unlimited.
Casey also read a letter from Alan O’Day, writer of Helen Reddy’s “Angie Baby,” the former #1 single that was still hanging on at the bottom of the 40. The letter was a belated Christmas card telling the AT40 staff that he had often dreamed of hearing Casey talking about one of his songs on the show. Casey said that he was looking forward to talking about Alan O’Day’s next hit—which would be under his own name a couple of years hence, “Undercover Angel.”
The show featured another one of those fabulously pleasurable hot streaks:
18. “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything”/Barry White
17. “Junior’s Farm”/Paul McCartney and Wings
16. “Rock and Roll (I Gave You the Best Years of My Life)”/Mac Davis
15. “Best of My Love”/Eagles
14. “Get Dancin'”/Disco Tex and the Sex-O-Lettes
13. “Doctor’s Orders”/Carol Douglas
12. “Some Kind of Wonderful”/Grand Funk
11. “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”/Elton John
10. “Pick Up the Pieces”/Average White Band
9. “Never Can Say Goodbye”/Gloria Gaynor
On “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything,” the Love Unlimited Orchestra glides like a finely-tuned limousine on the Interstate. “Junior’s Farm” is the hardest-rockin’ record on the show by a mile. (Probably woulda killed Paul Davis.) “Rock and Roll,” about the life of a struggling musician, is impossible to resist singing along with (or at least it is for me). “Best of My Love” was heard in its rare 45 configuration, which nobody plays anymore. Some powerful pharmaceuticals were involved in the creation of “Get Dancin’,” or my name isn’t whatever my name is. Next to the Tavares song “Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel,” my favorite disco song is “Doctor’s Orders,” which positively jumps out of the radio. Grand Funk, Elton, and AWB have had 40 years of continuous exposure, but hearing and remembering them in the context of early 1975 was a reminder of how solid they were, and are. “Never Can Say Goodbye” barrels down the track like a runaway train.
The remainder of the Top 10 is all over the place: Donny and Marie (“Morning Side of the Mountain” at #8), Paul Anka and Odia Coates (“One Man Woman, One Woman Man” at #7), Barry Manilow (“Mandy,” #3), and Neil Sedaka (“Laughter in the Rain,” #2) sit sap-tastically alongside the Ohio Players’ “Fire” (#4) and “Boogie On Reggae Woman” (#5). Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good” holds its own with those two a little better, and is the hottest record on the chart (up to #6 from #21).
At #1 is what Casey says is only the third song in history to reach #1 by two different performers. “Please Mr. Postman” by the Carpenters, originally recorded by the Marvelettes in 1961, joins “Go Away Little Girl” and “The Locomotion” with that distinction. (Earlier in the show, when Casey played Carole King’s “Nightingale,” he told us that King had co-written the only two songs to reach #1 by two different artists. At that time, he chose not to tease the coming third one, which strikes me as an opportunity missed.) There’s a video for “Please Mr. Postman,” which I posted here years ago. Back then, I said that it looks like the trailer for a movie called Virgins in Disneyland. It still does.
The winter of 1975 sounds a lot better in memory than it reads in history. Perhaps now, 40 years later, that’s what really matters.
(Pictured: Prince, whose distinctive sound was on the radio in 1986 under names not his own.)
I am not sure why it took me as long as it did, back there in the middle of the 1980s, to pick up American Top 40 for my radio station. We’d thrown the switch on the Top 40 format in September 1984, but we didn’t add AT40 until a year later, about the same time I took over the morning show. Almost every week, Casey would welcome new members of “the AT40 family of stations.” And on the show dated January 18, 1986, he finally got around to welcoming us: K100 in Macomb, Illinois.
At its peak, AT40 was on something like 500 radio stations around the country, and there’s evidence to suggest the syndicator, Watermark, wasn’t big on exclusivity. I am pretty sure you could have materialized at random anywhere in the United States on a Sunday in the mid 80s and found the show on your radio. On the 1/18/86 show, Casey also saluted an affiliate in Galesburg, Illinois, just an hour north of Macomb, and I would not at all be surprised if the show had aired on Top 40 stations in Burlington, Iowa, and Peoria, Illinois, also close by.
The 1/18/86 show was quintessentially 80s: Wham and Survivor, the Cars and Bruce Springsteen, Pat Benatar and Mr. Mister, Corey Hart and John Mellencamp, Scritti Politti and Arcadia. (So much reverb and so few real drums.) It also included two now-forgotten dance numbers in the same quarter-hour, “Everybody Dance” by Ta Mara and the Seen and “Sidewalk Talk” by Jellybean. Each gained popularity thanks to its connections to other, bigger stars: Ta Mara and the Seen were a Minneapolis group produced by Jesse Johnson, who had been in the Time, and “Everybody Dance” sounds like a Prince record. Jellybean was producer John “Jellybean” Benitez. Madonna wrote “Sidewalk Talk” and sings backup on it. Give her credit for a decent lyric (“watch where you walk cuz the sidewalks talk”), even though 45 version seems to go on forever. Give nobody credit for “Everybody Dance,” which was flat terrible. I hated hearing both of them on my air.
Shortly before the show aired, The Mrs. and I had moved to a rented house, the first house we’d ever lived in together. It was a fabulous old thing with two bedrooms, a formal dining room, a huge living room, and a screened porch on the front. The main bathroom was spectacularly ugly, with tile in pink, green, and gray. The walk-up attic wasn’t finished, but the downstairs had four or five different rooms—it wouldn’t have been difficult to rent it out as an apartment if we’d enclosed the toilet and shower that stood in the open down there. We would have to mow the lawn come spring, but I don’t remember shoveling snow in the winter, so the landlord, a local judge, must have taken care of that.
The house had apparently been the judge’s family home when his children were little, and as a result he was reluctant to do anything with it—like replace the damn ugly tile, or let us strip the paint off what we guessed were lovely hardwood cabinets in the kitchen. Had we intended to stay in Macomb—and, I suppose, had I been making real money instead of radio money—we’d have been happy to buy it. It needed some work—all new windows for one thing, and a new furnace. But we came to suspect that he didn’t really want to part with it, and we ended up leaving town at the end of 1986 anyway. We wouldn’t live in a house again for 12 years.