Category Archives: Radio Tales

January Job

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I often say that certain repeat posts are “rebooted,” meaning that I have tweaked them a bit to add or remove content, or to make cosmetic changes. This post is a straight-up repeat, as it appeared on January 5, 2010, eight years ago today. Only the title is different.

They say that people with terminal diseases tend to hang on through the holidays and then expire in January. I don’t doubt it. Before the holidays, you move through your days with a lightness of spirit. You feel like giving and forgiving. After the holidays, you’re back on the treadmill, and everything reminds you of the various traps you’re in. December snow is magical; in January, it’s just something that can damn well get you killed if enough of it falls.

When I was in radio full-time, January had a couple of defining characteristics beyond free-floating misery. As the slowest advertising month of the year, January meant less time spent writing or producing commercials, which freed up more time for tasks that were often neglected the rest of the year. What I called “January jobs” included throwing out old tapes that were no longer needed, catching up on filing, or maybe just trying to find the surface of my desk underneath the debris of the past year. The best thing about the January jobs is that they required relatively little concentrated attention, and they left plenty of time for two-hour lunches.

Frequently January would bring a boat show or a bridal show. The best kind were the ones that the station did not have to plan, where we could just promote them and do a remote broadcast or two. Such broadcasts should not be confused with entertainment, however. Unless a listener is immediately interested in buying a boat or getting married, the live broadcast from the boat show or the bridal show can be spectacularly dull. And there’s something vaguely obscene about encouraging people to drop 20 large on a boat or a wedding, particularly during those periods when the economy’s gone to hell—which, in small-town Iowa during the 1980s and early 90s, was every year.

Many stations do a January promotion geared to the Super Bowl. At a couple of the places I worked, this involved giving away a catered Super Bowl party for 12 or 20 people along with a big-screen TV rental for the day, back when big-screen TVs were monstrosities few people owned, and not something you could hang on a wall, as they are today. That’s a pretty good prize by the standards of small-market radio, but the winners weren’t necessarily immunized against the misery of January. One year, our winner was extremely unhappy about getting the big TV for only one day, even though the contest promos and official rules had made it very clear. Eventually, she made us feel like she was doing us a favor by accepting the prize, and I wanted to have the sponsor deliver the damn thing to my house.

People can be surprisingly petty when they’re getting something for nothing. One of my stations gave away a ski weekend in Colorado once—airfare to and from Denver, transportation to the resort, weekend accommodations, ski equipment, a package so great we wondered how we’d ever gotten it to give away in the first place—only to have the winner complain that it didn’t include the 10-minute ride from his house to our local airport. “You mean I have to get to the airport on my own?”

But maybe the cantankerous contest winners were cantankerous because it’s January. This month sucks.


Christmas on the Radio

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It’s been a few years since I wrote about the WLS Holiday Festival of Music, a program the Chicago AM radio giant ran from the late 60s into the 80s on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I first heard it in 1970, and I’m pretty sure there’s never been another radio program so perfectly crafted for its purpose. I have several hours of the 1980 broadcast in my library, and it’s a pleasure to hear it every year.

Although WLS was a Top 40 station, it was never monolithically aimed at kids. At various points in the 70s, it was downright housewifey during middays, even giving away household appliances. In the 80s, it was practically an album-rock station at night. The Holiday Festival of Music was similarly broad. It included Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” and “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” but also made room for Andy Williams and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It all fit together, and that’s because it was made to fit. The Holiday Festival of Music did not merely aim to fill airtime—it set out to create a mood, and it did so in unexpected ways. Segments on the history of various Christmas traditions sat side-by-side with Bible passages and even prayers. One particularly powerful segment from my 1980 recordings is a long reading from the works of Catholic monk, writer, and philosopher Thomas Merton.

Thomas Merton, people.

(A segment of the Holiday Festival of Music is here. It aired at midnight, as Christmas Eve turned to Christmas Day, Thursday, December 25, 1980.)

Lots of radio stations fail on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day because they don’t take the time to do what WLS did so well—to curate their Christmas programming. They just rotate the same songs they’ve been playing since Halloween (or whenever), with production elements in between that don’t differ much from the rest of the year. The argument in favor of this is as follows: as long as it’s plausibly Christmassy, nobody will care. But that’s not true. Radio listenership actually spikes on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day—or at least it did in the days before streaming. People want no-fuss aural wallpaper, and what you play matters. A couple of Christmases ago, at my parents’ house, we turned on the DirecTV holiday music channel, and it was painful. The music selection was ridiculous: playing Justin Bieber and Ella Fitzgerald in the same quarter-hour is a crime against humanity. After a while, we turned it off. Over the years, I’ve heard other radio stations in other places get turned off for the same reason. It takes more than shuffle to set a mood.

When I was a program director, I did my best to curate the holiday programming, although it was a challenge when I was at the mercy of a program supplier. In Macomb, our Christmas library would contain bog-standard Top 40 stuff until Christmas Eve, when we’d bust out some ancient tapes that contained more traditional carols and chorales, Andy Williams and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. In small-town Iowa, we carried a satellite-delivered format that generally went wall-to-wall Christmas for a period on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. As I recall, it was decently done, although at least one year we replaced part of it with a syndicated Christmas show. Another year, the service announced that it would drop Christmas music entirely and go back to the regular format at 4:00 in the afternoon on Christmas Day. I immediately got on the phone to complain: “I’m a small-town station. If I stop playing Christmas music that early, people are going to burn my building down.” Mine must not have been the only call they got; by the end of the day they decided they’d play four Christmas songs an hour from 4:00 through midnight. Not ideal, but good enough.

I have said many times that one of the stations I work for, Magic 98 in Madison, comes as close to the spirit of the Holiday Festival of Music as we are likely to get in a world such as this. The show, “98 Hours of Christmas Magic,” starts at 10PM on Thursday night and runs through Christmas night at midnight. You can stream it right here.

More to Come After This Message

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Our friend Kurt Blumenau went down a rabbit hole the other day and into the history of the “more to come” bumpers shown during NBC’s Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. As I commented at Kurt’s post, it seems kind of quaint to think that NBC would have filled a local commercial break with music and a more-to-come slide instead of running a public service announcement or a network promo (or a commercial for some but-wait-there’s-more gadget, as they would today), but it was a different world.

Surely some NBC affiliates, late at night, had no commercial inventory of their own to run. They could have filled the time with their own public service announcements or promos, but in the days before compact video formats, running PSAs in particular (and filmed programs in general) was cumbersome. It required a piece of equipment called a film chain, which literally projected film into a TV camera. Stations would keep a reel of film with a bunch of PSAs on it, and load it up when needed. Or not.

Talk of late-night commercial breaks reminded me of a couple of stories from our days living and working radio in Macomb, Illinois. Macomb sat between Peoria and Quincy, about 70 highway miles from each, and we got TV stations from both. In the middle of the 80s, Quincy had only two stations, a CBS affiliate licensed to Hannibal, Missouri, across the Mississippi River, and an NBC affiliate. The Peoria stations did not attempt to sell advertising in Macomb, but the Quincy stations did. I never thought it made sense for Macomb businesses to buy Quincy TV. Putting your ad on a TV station 70 miles away meant that your money was being spent in part to reach people way the hell and gone over in Missouri, and they weren’t going to drive 140 miles to shop at your shoe store or muffler shop or whatever.

One especially popular package was “shop Macomb,” which would start with a short blurb encouraging viewers to visit Macomb, followed by three 15- or 20-second blurbs for individual Macomb businesses. (Many TV stations still sell this kind of community-specific package today.) As TV ads went, they were cheap to buy—but compared to radio ads, they cost a lot.

When The Mrs. was selling radio, some of her clients would occasionally pop for a shop-Macomb spot. One Saturday night, we were watching Saturday Night Live, and we noticed that the NBC affiliate didn’t have any local spots scheduled. They filled every local break with scratchy film-chain PSAs. That is, until the first break after SNL got over, right before sign-off, when they ran a shop-Macomb spot featuring one of her clients.

We have conflicting memories of her reaction to this. When I asked her about it the other night, she doesn’t remember being bothered. I remember it differently. Loosely translated, it was as follows: Why the #%!%@ didn’t they run that thing during Saturday Night Live instead of those $!@%ing PSAs, for #$% sake?

After Saturday Night Live each week, the Quincy NBC affiliate broadcast a news summary. It wasn’t a repeat of the late local news, which is what many stations do now in the wee hours of the morning before turning their airwaves over to infomercials. They’d put up a station identification slide and somebody, most likely the master-control engineer (the only person left in the building at midnight), would read five minutes of news, often just copy ripped from the AP or UPI wire. The broadcast would conclude with the weather forecast before the station played the National Anthem and went dark for the night. In the middle of the 1980s, that little low-tech news update seemed like such a quaint, small-town thing to do that I actually started to look forward to it a little.

Nowadays, technology makes it possible for even the tiniest stations in the middle of nowhere to look like big-time operations. Thirty-some years ago, they had to be what they were.

16th Avenue and Other Roads

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(Pictured: country singer Lacy J. Dalton, a muse of sorts, on stage in 1983.)

In November 1982, I was the afternoon guy at KDTH in Dubuque, nine months into my first full-time radio job. I was lucky to start my career at a place like that, a 5,000-watt full-service AM with a storied history, a staff full of talented veterans, and a deep reach into the community’s heart.

Unfortunately, when you are in your early 20s, what you don’t know causes you to think and act in ways you later wish you hadn’t. You choose the roads you take based on where you think they will lead you, even though the destination you imagine is by no means promised to you. What you don’t know is not really ignorance: it’s the stuff that youth and inexperience make it impossible for you to know. So it wasn’t that I failed to appreciate my good fortune, the stroke of luck it took to get the job and the world of stuff I could learn there. I did appreciate it, to the extent that I was able to understand that I should, but I know now that it wasn’t a very great extent.

KDTH played mostly country music by the fall of 1982, although a few pop hits were routinely sprinkled in. As I look at the country chart for this week in that year, I can’t remember some of the songs. For example, the #1 song 35 years ago this week, “You’re So Good When You’re Bad” by Charley Pride, barely registers. I remember “War Is Hell (On the Homefront Too)” by T. G. Sheppard a lot better. It sat at #3 for the week, and is about a young horndog who ends up in the sack with an older woman, the wife of a soldier gone off to World War II. If I’m recalling correctly, KDTH made the decision not to play the record on Veterans Day that year.

Several songs playing on KDTH that November were on the pop chart as well: “Break It to Me Gently” by Juice Newton, “The One You Love” by Glenn Frey, Michael Martin Murphey’s “What’s Forever For,” and “Nobody” by Sylvia (not the same Sylvia famed for “Pillow Talk”). None of them are songs I hear regularly now; on the rare occasions when I do hear them, each of them can turn me, in small ways, back into the 22-year-old kid I used to be. I didn’t listen to KDTH or to country when I wasn’t at work. In the car or at home, if I wasn’t listening to our Top 40 sister station D93, I’d be listening to WLS. Fleetwood Mac’s “Gypsy,” “Southern Cross” by Crosby Stills and Nash, “Steppin’ Out” by Joe Jackson, “Pressure” by Billy Joel, and Donald Fagen’s “I.G.Y” can take me back to that season as reliably as the songs I was playing on the radio myself.

One of the top country songs 35 years ago this week was “16th Avenue” by Lacy J. Dalton, one of seven Top-10 country hits she scored between 1980 and 1983. Dalton sounded a little like Bonnie Raitt, although her voice was thinner, and she’d occasionally lapse into a Melissa Etheridge rasp that was unusual back then. While not all of her singles were especially memorable, “16th Avenue” was, about dreamers who come to Nashville seeking fame and fortune. Written by Thom Schuyler, it would be nominated for Song of the Year by the Country Music Association.

But then one night in some empty room
Where no curtains ever hung
Like a miracle some golden words
Roll off of someone’s tongue

And after years of being nothing
They’re all looking right at you
And for a while they’ll go in style
On 16th Avenue

Thirty-five years ago this month, I was on the radio at last after dreaming of it for many years, getting paid to make golden words roll off my tongue, I thought. And after a few years of being nothing—an afternoon jock in Dubuque, Iowa, for example—they’d all be looking right at me, I thought.

But the destination I imagined was by no means promised to me. And I didn’t yet know enough to know that.

You know?

You Got That Right

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(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 Music You Grew Old With

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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.

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