(Pictured: Ronnie Van Zant on stage, 1975.)
The other morning I was reminiscing with somebody about how radio newsrooms used to be staffed. When I was at KDTH years ago, there were at least two and sometimes three reporters on duty in morning drive-time, plus a farm guy and a sports guy. They called various local law enforcement agencies to see what the cops had dealt with overnight, wrote stories about meetings held the night before, updated stories from the previous afternoon, worked ahead on stories for later in the day or later in the week, and covered spot news as needed. If the local paper or a local TV station had a big story first, it was rarely lifted verbatim—more often, one of the reporters would make his or her own calls so that the station’s coverage had its own unique quotes or angle. The news department generated everything that didn’t come off the Associated Press or United Press International wire—and even that stuff would occasionally be fleshed out by local reporting. And KDTH wasn’t alone in this. Nearly every radio station had one or more people whose job this was.
Today, of course, lots of radio stations don’t have their own news departments. If they do any news at all, it’s likely delivered by a news reader, whose job it is to gather stories from the Internet, the wire, or whoever’s writing them, and to deliver them once or twice an hour. Their job isn’t to call up the mayor’s office for a comment on the city budget, or the county sheriff for details on a traffic fatality. If big news breaks during the day, they don’t report it. The jock on the air keeps an eye on CNN’s website, or one of the local TV station websites, and passes along their reports second-hand.
I am not criticizing this. It’s the way radio and technology have evolved. But such evolution makes a plausible argument that the vast run of radio stations needn’t bother with reading news at all anymore (or reporting sports or weather or traffic). When everyone has an Internet device in their pocket or purse, listeners have access to more comprehensive sources of information than an intern reading a 90-second newscast on the morning show, and they can get it on demand instead of waiting for the top of the hour.
But I’m an old radio guy, and I remain fervently nostalgic for the way it used to be.
Forty years ago tonight, a plane carrying the members of Lynryd Skynyrd crashed in Mississippi, killing three members of the band plus three members of the plane’s crew. A friend of mine was a freshman at our small college in Wisconsin then, an eager young radio geek working a late-night news shift at the college station. When news of the plane crash first came in, he and a fellow student decided not to wait for the Associated Press—they got on the phone and started reporting the story themselves. The first wire reports quoted a radio station in McComb, Mississippi, so “We got hold of a newscaster from that station and he gave us a few reports,” my friend said. “I’ll never forget his Southern drawl and his words, ‘I know for sure that the pilot is dead and there are several others who are dead.'”
I don’t remember October 20, 1977, which was a Thursday. I was a senior in high school. I probably had the radio on at some point, and if I did, I’d probably have heard about the crash, although it may not have registered with me if I did. I knew “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Free Bird” by then, but I wasn’t a Southern rock fan generally; I didn’t hear anything beyond those two songs until I got to college a year later.
But memorializing Skynyrd 40 years later is not the point of this post. Others will do that better than I can. Instead, I’m memorializing good old fashioned news-gathering, and the initiative of a couple of young radio guys from the middle of nowhere who decided that if they wanted a major national story done properly, they’d have to do it themselves.
The first baby boomers are past 70 now. The youngest of us are well into our 50s. And while we have valiantly struggled to hang on to our hipness since we started turning 35 (in the early 80s, when “soft rock” became a thing and the music of the 60s became cultural shorthand for a whole constellation of past and present self-images), it’s a harder sell as time goes by. The TV channels devoted to the shows we grew up on and cherished, including MeTV and Antenna TV, are clogged with ads for miracle drugs, medical supplies, and term insurance, all featuring people we’d like to think we are not, not yet. But they are us.
Radio stations playing music of a similar vintage haven’t gone so far down that road. Classic-rock stations are now mixing in the likes of Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Green Day, and other acts of the 90s, and for the most part, the stuff fits nicely alongside Lynryd Skynryd, Pink Floyd, and the rest of the canon. These stations remain somewhat contemporary, because so many of the core artists are still working. The music itself is largely timeless—although a significant percentage of the audience for classic rock can’t remember the 60s, 70s, or even in some cases the 80s, they love it just the same. Nostalgia doesn’t have to be an overt part of the station’s appeal, although for older listeners, it’s a factor.
Oldies stations have always been a bit more willing to talk about throwing back: “the music you grew up with” has been a familiar oldies-radio slogan practically from the beginning. The term “oldies” once referred to a particular style of music, and that music created an atmosphere that was clearly something of another time.
Classic-hits stations, which are basically classic rockers without the album cuts, relying heavily on big singles by rock artists and exclusively 70s and 80s-based, are somewhere in the middle. Like classic rockers, they don’t have to traffic in nostalgia. Without the deep cuts and 90s music, they don’t come off quite as hip, but they can still pull it off, depending on their imaging.
All of this is a windy introduction to what I want to write about: a station I heard while traveling recently. It was a small-town classic hits station, the kind of place that does the high-school football games on Friday nights. It was heavily voice-tracked, and because the jocks lacked the big pipes and smooth delivery of syndication, they were probably local, although you couldn’t tell by what they said. There was nothing remotely local in any of the talk breaks I heard over a couple of days—just lots of national entertainment and feature bits ripped straight from the AP wire.
But what stood out about this station beyond that was its imaging. A remarkable number of its recorded liners played up the fact that anybody listening must be old: “You can remember the first time you heard these songs, but you can’t remember where you put your car keys,” and “You know all the words, but you can’t remember what you had for breakfast this morning.” For somebody in the target demo (which I certainly am), this sort of thing can be funny the first time, because it has a ring of truth. It gets less funny the more it’s repeated, however. And after a couple of hours, it had the effect of turning the station—despite its basic classic-hits library of rockin’ good records, Steve Miller and Heart and Huey Lewis and so on—into a bleak reminder of human mortality. The music didn’t seem hip in that context. It was kind of pathetic, and almost sad.
I am pretty sure this isn’t what they’re going for.
Part of the appeal of this music is in the way it speaks to those of us who grew up with it, not just because it soundtracked days we remember and years we cherish, but also because it tells us who we are now, as art will do. We know we’re aging. We know our time is limited. It’s neither necessary nor right to remind us too frequently of that, especially when you’re doing it with the very music that allows us to forget it for a while.
(Pictured: Debby Boone, #1 with a bullet, 1977.)
Maybe it was the thinning ozone thanks to aerosol deodorant and hair spray. Maybe it was all that polyester. Or maybe there was a deeper reason, something that’s always been part of who we are, and is still part of us today.
“You Light Up My Life,” recorded by Debby Boone, was released on August 16, 1977. (That’s the same day Elvis Presley died, although the autopsy showed no correlation.) Its chart debut came on September 3rd at #71. It went to #58 the next week, then into the Top 40 at #35 for the week of September 17th. It zoomed from #35 to #21 the next week, then to #15, and then, during the week of October 8, took a mighty leap from #15 to #3. The song hit #1 40 years ago this week, on October 15, 1977, where it would stay for 10 weeks, the longest stretch at the top for a single song since 1956.
Week after week during the fall of 1977, other songs stormed the heights of the Hot 100 but none could take it: “Keep It Comin’ Love” by KC and the Sunshine Band, “Nobody Does It Better” by Carly Simon, “Boogie Nights” by Heatwave, and “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” by Crystal Gayle all peaked at #2, Carly and Crystal for three weeks each. Finally, during the week of December 17, the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love” reached the second spot, and it took out the queen on December 24, 1977.
It may surprise you to learn that “You Light Up My Life” spent but a single week at #1 on the adult contemporary chart. Nevertheless, its pop-chart dominance makes it the #1 single of the 1970s.
After the song fell out of the Hot 100 in February 1978, it stayed topical for a while. It won the Oscar for Best Original Song (from a movie also called You Light Up My Life). It tied for the Song of the Year Grammy with “Evergreen,” and was nominated for Record of the Year but lost; Debby Boone won the Best New Artist Grammy. But after the spring award season, “You Light Up My Life” seemed to vanish from history, like a Soviet official declared a nonperson who never officially existed. It never had the kind of afterlife on radio playlists that such an enormous hit would be expected to have. It’s as if collective embarrassment over the embrace of such bland schlock caused people to repress the memory entirely.
It’s arguable that the same impulse repressed Debby Boone’s career. She returned to the Hot 100 only twice, with “California” and “God Knows,” both in 1978. She did a bit better on the country charts, where “You Light Up My Life” had peaked at #4, scoring a #1 hit in 1980 called “Are You On the Road to Lovin’ Me Again.” Eventually, she moved into Christian music (no surprise given that she had imagined the “you” in “You Light Up My Life” to be God), acted on the stage, raised a family, and wrote children’s books.
“You Light Up My Life” got back into the news in 2009 when songwriter Joe Brooks, who also wrote and directed the You Light Up My Life movie, was accused of 91 counts of sexual assault against 11 women, some of whom he had lured to his New York apartment by dazzling them with his Oscar. He committed suicide before the cases could come to trial.
Despite the fact that many claimed to hate “You Light Up My Life” during its chart run, it was on most of the country’s radio stations every 90 minutes for a reason: millions of people absolutely fking loved it. Even with all that airplay, Mr. and Mrs. Average American, and more than a few of their children, bought the single or the album or the cassette because they couldn’t get enough of it on the radio.
“You Light Up My Life” has not endured all that well, but what it represents certainly has. Schlock remains one of America’s favorite mind-altering substances, as it always has been.
(Rebooted from posts first appearing in 2009 and 2010.)
So now then, Tom Petty.
For nearly 40 years, Tom Petty’s been there, like the weather. I became a fan in 1979, when I was in college, and especially when Damn the Torpedoes was in the hot rotation both on our campus radio station and in my apartment. Hard Promises insinuated itself into my life even more deeply than Damn the Torpedoes had. I played the hell out it for years thereafter. Long After Dark didn’t sound quite like the Tom Petty I adored. (Years later, working at a classic rock station, I would suggest that a good alternate title for it might be Benmont Tench Buys a Synthesizer.) After that, Petty’s new music would get a lot of play on my radio stations, if not so much in my house anymore. Through the 90s and into the 00s, he would still occasionally come up with a classic. I’m not sure anybody needs to hear to hear “Free Fallin'” again, but it’s a monument. “The Last DJ” is beloved by radio people for obvious reasons (“The top brass don’t like him talkin’ so much when he won’t play what they say to play”). “Saving Grace,” from the 2006 album Highway Companion, is pretty great, too. He remained a viable hitmaker when many of his contemporaries became oldies acts; his last four studio albums all made the Top 10: 2014’s Hypnotic Eye was #1; 2010’s Mojo was #2.
Three more things about Tom Petty:
—The closest thing The Mrs. and I have to “our song” is “Here Comes My Girl.” The popularity of Damn the Torpedoes coincided with our getting hot and heavy. “Here Comes My Girl” would come on at parties (because of course it would) and I’d sing it to her while our friends watched—if I’d had enough to drink, and sometimes even if I hadn’t.
—Petty hosted a show on Sirius/XM called Buried Treasure. Like Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour, one of the main pleasures of Buried Treasure was simply listening to the man talk. He obviously knew and loved the music he’d play, and he possessed a sly wit, which he also displayed in interviews and in his songs. For example, “He got an agent and a roadie named Bart / They made a record and it went in the chart,” from “Into the Great Wide Open,” never fails to amuse me. The Bart/chart rhyme doesn’t feel like an easy rhyme—it feels a little joke he couldn’t help making because of who he was.
—Petty played the main stage at Milwaukee’s Summerfest more often than any other artist, and he loved it: a few years ago, it was his only American gig of the entire summer. Reviews of the shows were universally positive, so we decided that we’d better go and see him. In 2008, he appeared with Steve Winwood, which is about as great a concert bill as I can imagine, but we were unable to attend. In 2013, we were there on a rainy night, comfortable under the canopy (as well we should have been for what the tickets cost) to hear him play the hits. He led an audience singalong on “Learning to Fly,” and he nearly brought down the house with “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” His performance of “American Girl” that night ranks on my list of performances I am most grateful to have seen, alongside Paul McCartney singing “Yesterday,” Ray Charles doing “Georgia on My Mind,” Mavis Staples singing “I’ll Take You There,” and Winwood doing “Gimme Some Lovin’.”
I walked away that night thinking I’d go see him again. I wish I had, because now I can’t.
A couple of days after Tom Petty died, I was driving in Chicago and discovered an AM station playing his songs, segued one after another, no jock, no sweepers, no jingles, just music. I listened for a half-hour before a station ID, and then another half-hour before I lost the signal out in the suburbs. Talk about a highway companion: I’d been mired in gloom since hearing the news of his death, but hearing his music blew the clouds away.
That’s why anybody makes art, I guess—to lift people out of themselves and take them somewhere else, and/or to show people things they need to see. Tom Petty did that. As we re-explore and rediscover his 40-year body of work, he will continue to do it, thank the gods. He’s going to be in our hot rotation for a good long time to come.
I should write something about Tom Petty here, but I can’t. The news of his death, coming on top of the news from Las Vegas, coming on top of the news from Puerto Rico, coming on top of the horrors we have to endure every day of our existence in this hideous year of 2017, has broken me.
I tried to say something, of course, because gasbags gotta gas. There’s a draft in my files from last night that is as dark and despairing a thing as I have ever written, but I have decided to keep it private. It won’t do you any more good to read it than it did me to write it, which is to say none at all.
At this time, people with nothing valuable to say need to stop talking. So I’m done for a while.