Tales From the All-Request Saturday Night Show

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(There will be a new post at One Day in Your Life today, possibly by the time you get around to reading this one.)

When I’m on the air, I don’t get many request calls anymore. Maybe people have figured out that any song they want to hear is two clicks away on YouTube or Spotify, or maybe they’ve internalized the fact that radio stations play requests on only the rarest of rare occasions, if then.

Twenty years ago, at a classic-rock station, I did an all-request show on Saturday nights. It started as a one-shot program on New Year’s Eve in 1995 and expanded to a weekly thing not long after. It was the most highly produced show I’ve ever done—I had dozens of drops and sweepers with audio clips from TV shows, movies, comedy albums, and every other weird source I could think of.  Plus, it was a free-form show–nothing was pre-programmed for me. I would occasionally get dinged by the PD if I strayed too far from the day-to-day format, but that taught me how much easier it is to ask forgiveness than to get permission, which has been my guiding principle on the air ever since.

Because I’d been a program director and a music director, I tried to systematize the show as much as possible. People called up for some songs every damn week: “We Will Rock You” (which is the only part request callers ever want to hear; “We Are the Champions” is extraneous), “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” and “American Pie” were among the most annoying. It didn’t take long before I made a rule: I would play certain songs two weeks in a row but then rest them on the third week no matter how much people begged. For most other songs, I had an every-other-week rule. The number of people who were simply listening was always far greater than those who were calling in, and I wanted to keep the show from becoming any more repetitive than it had to be.

While the vast majority of calls would be for songs or artists we played regularly throughout the week, every now and then somebody would blow my mind. I got a call for Mason Proffit’s “Two Hangmen” one night, which may have been the only request I honored a week late because I had to go out and find a copy. (With the hearty approval of the program director, who was an old free-form album-rock jock.)

I had a few other rules for the show: the no AC/DC rule, which I adhered to strictly even though I could have played “You Shook Me All Night Long” nearly every week. (I did not hold my substitute hosts to this rule, so AC/DC got on the show sometimes.) One night a parent called up, put their toddler on, and had the kid ask for “Aqualung.” It sounded funny, so I used the call on the air. I was thereafter besieged by other parents doing the same thing until I made a no-kid-calls rule. (I’d play your song, but not the audio of your kid requesting it.) Another rule was that Steely Dan requests went automatically to the front of the line—the only rule I ever mentioned on the air, but always jokingly so people would wonder if it was really true. When I’d get a call that was obviously from a party where people were listening, I’d move that request to the front of the line also.

Late one night, an obvious party call came in. A woman wanted me to confirm that in the Marshall Tucker Band’s “Heard It in a Love Song,” the singer does not say, as her husband insisted, “ten feet long.” (The line is “can’t be wrong.”) I told her she was right, and she put her husband on the phone so I could tell him in person. That call, followed by that song, made pretty good radio. We had a digital recorder in the studio, the first one I’d ever seen, so it was easy to cut up calls and play them back.

Thinking back, it’s amazing how much autonomy the station gave me, a mere part-time jock. Fortunately, I had a good relationship with the program director, and he trusted me. And in 1996 and 1997, my 7-to-midnight Saturday show was just about the most fun I ever had in radio.

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21 responses

  1. “While the vast majority of calls would be for songs or artists we played regularly throughout the week, every now and then somebody would blow my mind.”

    I find it a little depressing that you’d throw open the gates to listener requests, and mostly people would just want to hear “Sweet Home Alabama” *again*.
    Although I guess most professional radio stations might not be in a hurry (and maybe don’t have the ability) to play album tracks or outtakes or whatever other weirdness people might cough up.

    Did you get many flakes — people wanting Stockhausen or John Coltrane — or do those people usually not bother?

  2. I take umbrage with your description of people who listen to John Coltrane as “flakes”.

    1. I am sure “flakes” was not intended to be malicious. And in any event, calling a classic-rock station to hear “Giant Steps” would be at least somewhat flaky. (Although back in the day, more than one progressive rock station would have been happy to lay down “A Love Supreme.”)

      People who listen to classic-rock stations want to hear classic-rock songs, often very familiar ones. It’s the assumption the format is built on. (It’s the assumption most mainstream music radio formats are built on, actually.) If “Sweet Home Alabama” is your favorite song and the station will play it RIGHT NOW if you call, you’ll probably call. As regards album cuts and outtakes, solely making *one listener* happy is not really the goal of the show—it’s entertaining all of the listeners. For example, imagine you call me up for “China Cat Sunflower” by the Dead and I play it. You and I are both happy. But for people who don’t know “China Cat Sunflower”—a large percentage of a mainstream classic-rock radio audience, I’m wagering—it’s a turnoff. A larger percentage of them would rather hear “Truckin'” again. And so that’s the request I’m likely to favor, given the latitude I had on this particular show.

      1. The thing people need to remember about music radio—especially hit-driven (whether new or old hits)—is how people use the medium. Maybe, if you’re lucky, your station will get half an hour of listening from a typical listener in a day…and that’s probably broken up into two or three visits.

        In a classic rock format, with an average song length of five(ish) minutes, they’re hearing six songs from your library each day. Actually, allowing for commercials, it’s probably closer to four. That’s not a lot, and the typical listener (and if you’re reading this, you’re probably less typical and more of a music aficionado) wants to hear songs they love when they push the button for your station.

        IF you’re managing your rotations properly, it’ll be weeks before that listener hears “Sweet Home Alabama” again—even if you’re playing it on the station one or more times every day. And they won’t remember exactly the last time they heard it, just that they know and love the song.

        The danger, for a station like this, is that the listener won’t hear their favorites often enough, or that songs they’re lukewarm about are playing every time they tune in.

        As a result, it’s no surprise that, given the chance to request, most of them go straight to stuff you’re already playing.

      2. Scott Bennett

        True about programming for short-term listeners. But the pain is exquisite for people like me forced by co-workers to listen to the “Smooth Rock and Roll” of Star 97.7 for 40 hours a week. I call it SCar 97.7! http://www.star977.com/

    2. Sorry if I caused offense. (I own and enjoy several John Coltrane albums.)

      I intended “flakes” in this context to mean “people who are missing the boat” — people who call in to ask for something the station clearly doesn’t have on hand and isn’t going to play.
      A “flake” in this context could also be someone who wants Beethoven, or someone who wants Jimmie Rodgers the Singing Brakeman, or someone who wants Public Enemy.
      All worthwhile artists/composers, but not ones that a classic rock DJ is likely to have on hand or to play on a Saturday night in between “Smoke on the Water” and “Gimme Three Steps.”

  3. I realize that “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict” or the “Australian National Anthem” are unlikely to by played on an all request radio show. I was just messing around. I really took no offense, just a joke.

  4. As that former free-form jock and PD for said Bartlett, I can tell you that it was one helluva show. When you have good people working for you, a little autonomy is the least you can give them (because they don’t make much, as Jim could tell ya). And he showed up every Saturday night too!

  5. Was it mainly an oldies show, and if so, within certain years? Or would you play anything from the ’50s to the then-current ’90s? And I assume there were other occasions when you didn’t have a requested track available.

    1. The station’s format was classic rock, not oldies, covering basically 1964-1985 or so. No currents, although we played a few tracks by core artists who released new albums (Bob Seger, Rush, and Aerosmith come immediately to mind.) We didn’t make any promises. If we didn’t have it, you weren’t going to hear it, unless it was so mindblowingly good (“Two Hangmen”) that we wanted to hear it ourselves.

  6. Does anyone know of a station that still has an old-fashioned “Good Times, Great Oldies” Saturday night request show, with music from the 1950s and early ’60s?

    1. It’s recorded a week in advance, but I heartily recommend Sock Hop Saturday Night with Mike Edwards, Saturdays from 8PM-midnight Eastern on WLNG/Sag Harbor, NY. You can make requests right on the show’s website (sockhopsaturdaynight.com) from a deep library spanning roughly 1955 up to, but not including, the Beach Boys.

      How deep is it? A couple weeks ago, Mike played Clairette Clementino’s “Ev’rywhere”, which I hadn’t heard on the radio since it dropped off my local stations in 1963, after only a couple weeks’ airplay. Nationally, the Capitol single charted for only two weeks (on the Music Vendor – later Record World – chart), peaking at a paltry #116. Talk about an “oh, wow” moment…

      If you can stomach the ridiculous daytime commercial load, WLNG itself is an amazing listen. Virtually everything they do would drive any radio consultant to conniptions, but it’s the very glue that cements the bond between the station, its listeners and the eastern Long Island community. They don’t make stations like that anymore. (wlng.com)

  7. These are the kind of stories that remind me how much fun radio used to be.

  8. WordPress won’t let me respond directly to it, but CalRadioPD’s comment about how people use radio is spot-on. Music geeks (such as the denizens of this blog) and radio people themselves are not typical listeners, and typical listeners experience music and radio in far different ways than we do.

  9. I would think that the audience for a Saturday night request show would be a little different than average, specifically the length of time they listen. Afternoon drive might only get a 30 minute listen on average, but on a Saturday night people are hanging out or having a party, so I’d think they’d listen longer, which might allow for a little more leeway in the playlist.

    But, that’s also based on my experiences from the 80s. Nowadays, who knows what the average listener’s habits are when it comes to radio?

    1. mackdaddyg: Here’s the thing, though. If they’re only hearing four songs a day during the week, that’s 20 songs during the week. Even if they spend half an hour—or an hour—tuned into the all-request weekend show, there’s probably a boatload of songs they haven’t heard that week that they’d like to. And so they call and request “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Hotel California” and “More Than A Feeling”. Not because the station hasn’t played them—but because they haven’t heard them.

      And it still beats my days in Top 40 in the 70s…when I learned just how many people call the radio station to request a song, and then turn on the radio to hear it. Of course, the song they were asking for was playing while they made the call, but that’s not a behavior you’re ever going to change. So you thank them for the call and tell them you’ll get their request on just as soon as you can (which would be about an hour and 40 minutes, since it just played).

      1. CalRadioPD,

        You’re right, and I’m not meaning to dispute what you’re saying. In my relatively short time in radio, I had my share of listeners calling to request a song that just finished playing.

        What I’m wondering is if a three or four hour request show would attract listeners who might be more open to an obscure track or two. I guess I’m talking about a show that was geared towards oldies (or classics, whatever they should be called). To me, that implies that you’re gonna hear stuff that you don’t hear every day, so if chances are really good that you’ll probably hear Sweet Home Alabama at least once during the week, you’re actively tuning in for something different.

        Again, this is geared more towards radio twenty or so years ago. The local station here that used to carry Dick Bartley’s live request show on Saturday nights was an Adult Contemporary station for the rest of the week with an occasional oldie or two. Bartley’s show (which I haven’t heard in a long time – does it still exist?) played a fair share of common oldies, but I remember hearing tunes like “Little Black Egg” on there and having my mind blown.

        Radio today is much different, so it’s understood that even a show that implies to be different will still play a bunch of stuff you can hear any other time during the week.

        Just my two cents from a very limited perspective. I’d like to add that I’ve learned a lot from your posts, and am very appreciative.

  10. mackdaddyg: I think we’re at a point where the people with truly eclectic tastes tend not to tune in to hit-driven stations, even for arguably special programming. Frank Cody, who turned KMET into The Wave 30 years (!) ago, called KTWV a “mood service”. It hit me as babble at the time, but he was right, and most music radio stations today are exactly that. They try to meet an expectation of what the brand promises, regardless of the day of the week or the hour.

  11. So why no AC/DC on the request show? Is that the one band you totally despise?

    1. In the years since I did the all-request show, I have developed an appreciation for Bon Scott-era AC/DC I did not have back then, and if I were doing the show now, I’d happily play that stuff. But Brian Johnson-era AC/DC is hot garbage. Nobody in the history of popular art, going back to the Renaissance, has gone further on less talent than Brian Johnson has.

  12. […] about the scandalous events that derailed his career and sent him to prison. A post about hosting an all-request radio show became the most commented-on post in months. Also popular amongst the readership were two posts […]

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