The American Top 40 show from September 9, 1972 was on in the car not long ago, and there was plenty of blog fodder in it: the odd way Casey refers to “Who” and “Raspberries” without the definite article when introducing “Join Together” and “Go All the Way,” the Bobby Vinton cover of “Sealed With a Kiss” down at #39 that sounds remarkably not-terrible, the growing irrationality of my love for Donna Fargo’s “Happiest Girl in the Whole USA” every time I happen to hear it, or the other moments of grade-A Top 40 pleasure all up and down the chart: “Motorcycle Mama,” “Saturday in the Park,” “Beautiful Sunday,” “Brandy.” But none of it seemed worthy of a whole blog post.
Then Casey started talking about the letters he’d received from people wondering why they didn’t hear certain songs on AT40 that were popular on their local stations, or why AT40 played songs that weren’t heard on their local stations. He explained that local stations tailor their playlists to reflect the tastes of their local markets, and that some songs catch on in one place without catching on in another. American Top 40 reflects the biggest hits nationally, he said, and so it might differ from what you’re hearing in Indianapolis or Denver.
Listening, I felt as if Emile Berliner were explaining how the gramophone works.
Used to be that when The Mrs. and I would travel, we’d try to listen to the big-n-famous radio stations located along our route, and we’d also surf the dial to see what else we could pick up. But it’s been a long time since we did that—20 years, I bet. Now it’s CDs or the iPod or satellite radio, because that jock on that station in West Overshoe, Illinois, sounds a little too good and is probably voice-tracked from Baltimore or some damn place, and I don’t care. The station’s playlist might reasonably be assumed to reflect what West Overshoe likes, in the sense that everybody in America liked “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but how can anyone know for sure exactly how West Overshoe feels about it? Good stations are still doing local market research, but many hundreds more are going by decree from corporate HQ, or with whatever comes down off the satellite. By guess and by god, which was to a certain degree how it was done in the days of the great programmers, is way out of fashion, because nobody wants to risk their profit margin, even in West Overshoe, on something so idiosyncratic as one guy’s ears.
(In this post, we won’t even get started on what goes between the records. The voice-tracker in Baltimore can be supplied with material to fake a certain degree of localism, but he can’t do it like a live human being in real time.)
This is a dance we’ve done before around here, of course. In truth, there are a few terrestrial radio stations that have the courage (or lack the burden of obsession with every penny on the bottom line) to program whatever the hell—for example, there’s an AM classic rock station in whiteray’s town, St. Cloud, Minnesota, that’s an absolute blast to listen to. And there are Internet stations doing a great job of it, including Planet Radio, Okemos Brewing Company, and the reboot of Iowa’s legendary 99 Plus, all damn good (and, full disclosure, programmed by friends of this blog). All of them are handcrafted works in an industry that worships mass production.
True, handmade is no longer entirely practical. Few people want to make their own clothes or kill their own dinner. There’s a place in the world for Old Navy and McDonalds. But the culture is poorer for the number of people who think they’re the only places—and it’s the same with radio.