On the Road With Wally and Frank

Today’s the day I return to Madison after a 11-day teaching trip in Minnesota. I was having problems with the car CD player, so I spent more time than usual listening to the radio up there, surfing the dial for entertainment and/or companionship. Here’s some of what I found.

—In the Twin Cities, WDGY is a legendary set of call letters, best known in their Top 40 incarnation between 1956 and 1977, and later as a country station. (Friend of the blog Yah Shure worked there back in the day.) WDGY became all-sports KFAN in 1991 and the call letters are now on a different frequency. Frequencies, actually. Today’s WDGY is daytime-only on 740AM, 24/7 on two low-power FM frequencies, and on HD. (It’s supposedly broadcasting in AM stereo, but I didn’t get it in my car.) Multiple frequencies make  a mouthful if you want to identify by dial position, but WDGY gets around this by simply rotating frequencies—they’ll ID as “74” one time around and by one of their FM frequencies the next time, and occasionally use the throwback “Wee Gee.”

—One night, after WDGY-AM went off the air at sunset, another station came blasting into rural Minnesota on 740: Zoomer Radio, CFZM from Toronto.

—Although WDGY has some live jocks, the station runs jockless most of the time. I heard songs spanning 1963 through 1979, with some surprises: “Fool for the City” by Foghat, “Fire” by Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’,”  and “Gimme Three Steps” by Lynryd Skynyrd aren’t exactly oldies format essentials. The station segues from song to song now and then, and as an old radio guy, I like to hear that. But as an old radio guy, I probably wouldn’t have segued out of Foghat and into “Jimmy Mack” by Martha and the Vandellas. Jingles and sweepers help cushion the transition between two songs like those.

—The main purpose of jingles and sweepers, however, is to tell listeners who they’re listening to. Your favorite local music station probably has dozens of them, because few stations segue at all anymore. They tell you who they are after every song. As I’ve mentioned before, the amount of time the average listener spends with a given station before tuning out has grown extremely small—only eight or nine minutes, if you believe the consultants. So stations have to identify frequently out of necessity. But to me, how you tell people who you are is just as important as when. A simple drop of your call letters or a positioning liner will do it, but many stations aren’t satisfied with that. On my trip, I heard drastically overproduced sweepers everywhere, with too many audio effects and too much meaningless text: “the best variety of pure classic rock 24/7/365,” etc. It probably sounds cool if you’re only there for eight minutes, but if you stay longer, the hype can start to feel like an insult to your intelligence.

—In Duluth, I stumbled across a classic-rock station (an AM simulcast of an FM signal) that styled itself “Sasquatch 106.5,” which is . . . unique. Classic rock formats attract a preponderantly male audience, but this was one of the most aggressively male-sounding stations I’ve ever heard, from its consistently heavy music mix to the strip-club swagger in its positioning liners. It often refers to itself as “the Squatch,” which comes across vaguely obscene, and seemed like the nail holding up the sign on the treehouse that says “no girls allowed.”

—On a rainy Saturday afternoon, driving in the middle of nowhere, I found a Minnesota Gophers hockey game on the lone AM signal I could get. Wally Shaver and Frank Mazzocco have been doing hockey in Minnesota, high school and college, separately and together, for various broadcast outlets, TV and radio, since hockey was invented, I think. (Wally is the son of Twin Cities sportscasting legend Al Shaver.) Listening to them is a quintessentially Minnesota experience, partly because they’re so ingrained in the sport, partly because Minnesota is the most hockey-mad state in the nation, and partly because if you run into any two random dudes over the age of 50 on any Minnesota street, chances are their names are Wally and Frank.

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