Not Listening in West Overshoe

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.

8 responses

  1. Well said. I spend an inordinate amount of time carping about the “old days when things were different” especially in regard to the possibility of regional success for musical acts. Local/regional Top 40 lists are filled with fascinating/revealing material.

  2. And yet, you can lament the fact that those in your neck of the woods didn’t share the appreciation the rest of the country had for some really good records.

    There’s the famous example of WABC 77 in New York, whose signal could be heard pretty much for a thousand miles at night, and got into many major markets besides NY Metro. Their playlist was VERY conservative, owing to the fact that they DID have some “national” sponsors (besides the locally-infamous “Dennison’s, a men’s clothier,” who always seemed to be in Chapter 11), who didn’t want a playlist that was liable to get listeners to tune out. So they played a limited variety of music, which they rated by sales in local record stores chosen at random, supposedly (to avoid bulk-buys by the labels located in NY, or so they claimed). The trouble with this is that records didn’t “break” in NY, unless they could get play on one of WABC’s low-rated local-market competitors. So the irony is that the largest market, where many of the labels were located (or had a presence, at any rate) saw very little in terms of the variety of the music of the rest of the country, and listeners didn’t hear an “unknown” unless the act was a local act with some sort of loyal followers, who were actually buying records in the NY Metro market. (“Alive’n’Kickin’,” for example.)

    If I got this wrong, I’d like someone to please correct me.

    1. The irony in WABC’s wait-and-see policy was that much of the music that was hip and new in New York had already happened three or four or even more months earlier in Great Falls, Montana. What fun it was to see at least some trends originate in Flyoverland and then spread to the coastal cultural meccas.

      Here in Minneapolis-St. Paul, both top 40s were generally about two months behind the curve in adding most things beyond the obvious hits. That tardiness was based on simple market demographics: a tiny minority population back in the day. Thus, only the very biggest R&B crossovers made the local playlists, and even those records didn’t typically sell in significant numbers.

      But that same heel-dragging also meant we were two months behind what was already on the air in Des Moines. Nothing was more embarrassing to a hip teenage Twin Citizen than the knowledge that one’s rural Iowa cousins were higher up the new music food chain.

      But, hey… at least we were getting things before The Cuz.

  3. listened to the Bobby Vinton “Sealed w/ a Kiss.” Good indeed (the bongos?). And the “truck driver gear change” modulation works very well on this song.

  4. Glad you like The Goat. You can thank Yah Shure, as he’s the one who tipped me a couple of years ago to the wonders of its playlist. And it’s my station of choice these days, at least when I’m listening online or in the car. (In the kitchen, the signal is a bit iffy, so we’re tuned to Minnesota Public Radio for the news.) I got called a couple of months ago by a radio listener survey, and the young lady on the other end seemed a bit startled when I told her my favorite station was AM 540. She asked what they played, and I almost told her – as the station’s Facebook page told me once – “It’s like Beaker Street on steroids,” but I settled for calling it album rock.

  5. Bob Sirott once told the story at a WLS reunion weekend in 1985 that he had worked at a suburban Chicago radio station in the early 70s when they were playing the crap out of a song called “Lady” by a local Chicago band called Styx. Lo and behold, when he reached the big-time at WLS a year-and-a-half later, WLS began playing “Lady.” He figured he played “Lady” by Styx every couple of hours for almost 3 years!

  6. All great stations that have been mentioned but I’d like to add one more:
    103.1 KCDX
    Listen online!

    So good for music and not a single jock in the house. (Sorry, if you guys need that human aspect on your radio.) But this ain’t your Daddy’s automated station with a satellite feed and GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). Someone actually took the time and care to feed the infernal contraption the good stuff. All the classics, the deep stuff and the Whisky Tango Foxtrot stuff too!

    I like to call it the musical juicer – they used whole albums so you get all the musical nutrition!

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