Category Archives: Radio Tales

Skipping the Needle Around

Following on Monday’s post, friend of the blog HERC has some radio questions. Answers follow, to the best of my knowledge.

Back in the day, when new vinyl showed up at a station, was it the music director’s job to listen to it, pick what was gonna get played and given the (imagined) sheer volume of albums (and 45s?) coming in, was said listening session merely a skip the needle around to the beginning, middle, and end of a song type thing?

If a music director wanted to be first with the hits, he’d have a pile of new music to listen to each week. Some of that was listening certainly of the skipping-around variety, but not all. Different people did it different ways. Reader CalRadioPD talks about his music-director experience in a comment here.

When I was a music director, my ears were not the first thing I relied upon. I used the national airplay reports in Radio and Records and The Gavin Report to decide what to play. (I had no local research data.) In the vast majority of cases, I’d be adding new songs when they reached a certain level, regardless of how I felt about them. I’d sometimes make brand-new artists rise higher on the charts before I’d give them a precious playlist spot, and some records I personally disliked were occasionally made to wait a little, too.

Some stations got good service from the major labels (which had the songs and artists most people wanted to hear), but some did not, especially in very small towns. One place I worked got little from the majors but lots from tiny mom-and-pop labels, songs that were going nowhere by artists no one had ever heard of. But because you had to make do with what you got, some of these songs got on the air while others, by famous stars on major labels, didn’t, because the station simply didn’t have copies to play.

Given the relentless barrage of incoming records, the usual wear and tear of playback and the finite space to shelve those records, what were some of the ways a station would thin the vinyl library?

The stuff that was getting played, either as a current hit or an oldie, would be kept in the studio. If a record was no longer getting airplay, it might be stashed away in a closet, an attic, or a basement. Records that were scratchy or damaged were sometimes simply junked, although sometimes they’d end up going home with a staffer. Same for the never-were-hits that a station received. (Again, I refer you to CalRadioPD’s comment.)

Reducing the risk of wear and tear is one of the reasons why lots of stations put their current hits, or their entire on-air library, on tape cartridges. Record companies could be stingy with was called “reservice,” especially to small-market stations. If somebody scratched your copy of a current hit single, you might be able to get another one sent to you for free. If somebody damaged your copy of something older, you’d almost certainly have to buy a replacement.

Given the inherent competition between stations or even formats in some markets, how did you maintain awareness of what other stations were playing?

We listened to ’em. Stations would sometimes log the competition to find out what they were playing, and if possible, to discern what kind of rotations they were using. (One of the things interns were for.) Today, certain data for individual stations is available from a service called Mediabase, but I’m not all that familiar with precisely how it works.

What was coolest station promo or giveaway you ever participated in?

One of my stations ran a contest in which people sent in their household bills, we’d read their names on the air, and if they called back within 10 minutes we’d pay the bill for them. I once made somebody’s $996 house payment. At another station, I gave away $1000 to caller #106. I was at a station event one night when a listener asked that question, and I was topped by a colleague who once gave away an all-expenses-paid trip to Dublin for a U2 concert.

Many thanks to CalRadioPD for more interesting answers than mine. If anyone else has anything to add, please jump in. And if you have additional questions of your own, send them along.

Radio Science, Radio Art

Our friend Kurt Blumenau asked several questions in response to Friday’s post. The answers merited an entire post, so here it is.

“DJ protocol question: at what point is it acceptable to start talking over the big final chord [of ‘A Day in the Life’]?”

As a commenter on Friday’s post noted, it depends on the format. Album stations would let the chord go longer than Top 40 stations. At the classic-rock station 20 years ago, I’d let it go maybe five or 10 seconds after the big bong because enough is enough. Top 40 stations would likely have cut it shorter.

But as a jock, I might not have much of a choice. When stations played physical CDs, they often bought format-specific libraries from a syndicator, because there’s no need to pay for all of Sgt. Pepper (or Wheels of Fire or Houses of the Holy or whatever) when you’re only going to play one or two cuts. Therefore, a jock would be at the mercy of however the song was mastered onto the library disc. Since it was meant for radio play, it would be highly unlikely to include the whole 40 seconds of the chord. Today, it’s likely that what you are hearing on the air is a digital file, and it’s not going to have the whole chord on the end, either, for reasons explained more fully below.

“What does a DJ know about a record the first time (s)he spins it?”

You might get a memo with a bit of information about each week’s new songs, or the new titles might be written on the studio whiteboard. In days of yore, some stations had music meetings to make sure the staff was up-to-date on new releases, recommended album cuts to push, and so forth. But at some stations, new songs just showed up in the rotation. (When I was a music director, I added new songs and tweaked rotations and libraries on Fridays, with the goal of freshening the station’s sound for the weekend.)

“Will the label be marked to indicate a 15-second instrumental intro, a dead-stop ending, a false ending, a fade, etc? Does somebody at the station give the thing a first listen and clue everybody else in?”

Back when record companies shipped promotional 45s to radio stations, they often printed intro time/total time/ending info right on the label, like this:

:15/3:09/f

If it wasn’t already on the record label, stations would sticker the label or the sleeve (or the tape cartridge) with the information, as well as notes about false endings, abrupt cold endings, and so on. Today, all of that usually appears on the label of the digital file that shows up on the studio computer screen. A digital readout counts down both the intro time and the total time, quite a luxury for those of us who once kept track by watching the second hand on the studio clock, or by feel.

It was once common for stations to hand-time singles. Phil Spector famously labeled “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” as 3:05 when he knew it was nearly four minutes, figuring that stations wouldn’t want to play a record that long, but by the time they figured out how long it really was, it would be a hit and they’d have to stay on it. But also, if record-company timing runs from the first note of the song until the last decibel of the fade, it’s not accurate. Stations don’t let records fade to nothing on the air. They want to know precisely how much usable audio is on the track.

Back in the day, the music director (or an intern) did the stickering and timing. The MD would have put the records in the appropriate bin for the different rotation categories, however a station classified them. Today, he or she does the computer manipulation necessary to prepare new songs for broadcast and to schedule them. The actual selection of songs—what to play and in what rotations—is usually done in conjunction with the program director, and it incorporates whatever research data the station uses. Years ago, the process relied heavily on the MD and PD’s ears, and what sounded like a hit. There’s more science than art involved today, but ears still matter. The best stations sound like an organic whole, and while data can help facilitate that, it can’t do it alone.

I am guessing some amongst the readership have more information to add, so please jump in.

Somewhere, Eventually

You may have read that ESPN laid off a bunch of people earlier this week. While many were not household names, some had high profiles, including NFL reporter Ed Werder, NFL analyst Trent Dilfer, radio host Danny Kanell, college basketball analyst Andy Katz, and baseball analyst Jayson Stark. (And college football reporter Jesse Temple, a name familiar to Wisconsin fans.) I don’t know any of these people personally, although I’m familiar with their work. But anybody in media should be able to feel a great deal of empathy for all of them, because many of us have experienced precisely the same thing.

In my broadcasting career—in a field where everybody gets fired sooner or later—I have been fired four times.

—The first was when I declined taking over the morning show at KDTH because A) I didn’t feel ready to take it on, and B) they weren’t willing to pay me any more for the increased responsibility, hours, and pressure.

—The second was the famous “industrial espionage” firing in Macomb, in which my employers outsmarted themselves right into the very situation they thought they were preventing.

—The third time in the Quad Cities, when I was turfed by the worst person I met in all my years of broadcasting.

—The fourth was in Clinton, Iowa, when the owner decided to get rid of the burnout case, and he ended up doing me an enormous favor.

If you’ve ever gotten a sizable electric shock, getting fired is just like that. A jolt—physical, not metaphorical—goes through your entire body and you become disoriented. Then, still feeling the effects of the jolt, you walk to what used to be your desk, pick up a few personal things, and stumble to the parking lot, where you get into your car and sit there in silence before you start it up, trying to get your brain around what the fk just happened. Then you have to go home and tell your spouse what happened. She puts on a brave face, and so you try to put one on too—after all, she says, you’re talented, and somebody else will want you, somewhere, eventually.

You know she’s right, and so you go on.

The “somewhere, eventually” is the most difficult part, of course. Can I get a job in the same town so we don’t have to move? Or not? Do we have enough money in the bank to get by for a while? How much? And for how long? Or not?

The Mrs. and I were generally pretty lucky. KDTH let me work for six weeks after they told me I was out, so I had time to find another job, and I missed only one paycheck while segueing from one to the other. In Macomb, I picked up part-time radio work across the street within a couple of weeks of getting fired, and full-time work a few weeks after that, but staying afloat was a near thing. (I could reach over into the file cabinet next to my desk right now and pull out the box from the free government cheese we got during those weeks.) It was maybe six weeks between leaving the station in the Quad Cities and starting in Clinton, but we had a little money in the bank by then. After Clinton, I wanted out of radio altogether, and thanks to Ann’s job, I had the luxury of taking nearly a year to find my “somewhere, eventually.”

The ESPNers who lost their jobs will find their next “somewhere, eventually,” although for many, it will mean less prestige and fewer dollars. But before that happy day, there’s still the jolt, the stunned silent moments, the brave face, the financial arithmetic. There’s the leaving-behind of a comfortable perch, a familiar routine, and friendly colleagues. It doesn’t matter who you are, or where, or what you do, whether it’s covering the Dallas Cowboys, cracking wise on the radio, or working the night shift at the sub shop. If you like your job and you wish you could keep it, the feeling of having it suddenly taken away is pretty much the same.

Don’t Leave Me This Way

Scene 1: It is the spring of 2017, and I am teaching a class of high-school juniors. I do an icebreaker in which I ask each student one of a half-dozen different questions, and one of them is “name a band or performer you like.” The kids do not name a single artist I’ve heard of, nor do any two people mention the same artist. They aren’t listening to the top of the Top 40, or they’d mention Ed Sheeran, the Chainsmokers, the Weeknd, Bruno Mars, Drake, or Rihanna. I wonder if they’re sharing a generational musical experience at all, or if they’re part of small circles that rarely overlap other circles.

Scene 2: It is the spring of 1977, and I am a high-school junior. I live every non-school moment with the radio in my ear, where the top of the Top 40 sizzles with springtime energy, including Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” Glen Campbell’s “Southern Nights,” “The Things We Do for Love” by 10cc, “Dancing Queen,” and “Rich Girl.”

Scene 3: Back in 2017, I am in the car, listening to an oldies station on AM. It’s a gorgeous afternoon, sunny and warm, and the car is powered as much by the radio as it is by gasoline. “Summer in the City,” Lou Christie’s “Lightning Strikes,” “I Hear a Symphony,” War’s “Low Rider,” and on and on, every one memorable, every one uptempo, every one by itself enough to make one grateful to be part of the generation that created it.

It is hard for me to imagine that 40 years from now, after I’m long dead and my students are the age I am today, that they will feel the same kind of generational solidarity with the music of the 00s and 10s that I feel when I listen to the music of the 60s and 70s. It’s not just that they don’t listen to the kind of mass-appeal radio stations we had back then. It’s got something to do with the music itself.

In his book 1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music, Andrew Grant Jackson cites a 2012 academic study that examined the tempo and key of more than 1,000 hit songs released between 1965 and 2009. Researchers determined that in the 1960s, 85 percent of pop songs were in a major key, but during the 00s, only 42.5 percent were. Hits of the 60s averaged 116 beats per minute and ran about three minutes; hits of the 00s averaged around 100 BPM and ran about four minutes. Jackson writes, “Our culture perceives songs in major keys with fast tempo as happy and uplifting, whereas slow, minor-key songs are interpreted as sad, serious, complex, and sophisticated.” The bottom line is that today’s music is slower and sadder than music used to be. Skating the thin line between pleasure and pain by listening to sad songs has been a part of the pop-music experience for nearly 70 years now. But in recent years, as you trace the historical curve of that line, it seems like pain has become almost the norm.

The stereotype of an oldies radio listener is of an old person trying to recapture his or her youth. There’s something to that. A song like “Low Rider” comes with a set of associations that I enjoy remembering. But there’s certainly more to it than just simple nostalgia. Many people who aren’t old enough to remember when “Summer in the City” was a hit enjoy it, and there’s data to prove it: it’s my limited understanding that when radio stations do music research with listeners, 90s music tends to do poorly compared to stuff from the 80s [late edit: and other decades, too–Ed.]. The continuing popularity of 70s music with people of all ages is easy to see even without research data. And maybe all of it has something to do with the historical curve of that line.

Will oldies stations of the 50s—the 2050s—play the hits of the 90s, 00s, and 10s the way oldies stations today play the hits of the 60s, 70s, and 80s? I suspect not. And if they don’t, the reason may be a simple one: Who wants to feel serious and sad all the time? Or even 42.5 percent of the time?

Just Can’t Wait

(Pictured: sometime in the 70s, J. Geils (L) plays guitar as Peter Wolf (R) spontaneously combusts.)

Last night, following the death of guitarist J. Geils, Billboard published a list of the J. Geils Band’s biggest Hot 100 hits. The top two are easy to guess. “Centerfold” did six weeks at #1 in February and March of 1982. During the week of March 27, “Centerfold” sat at #7 and “Freeze Frame” at #10. The latter eventually spent four straight weeks—the entire month of April—at #4.

(Topic for future consideration: the remarkable stasis of the Hot 100 during certain weeks of the early 80s. We’ve touched on it occasionally, how in some weeks the chart would barely move at all. For example, during one of the weeks “Freeze Frame” was at #4, the top 6 positions remained unchanged from the previous week, and the other four songs in the Top 10 merely swapped positions. It’s got to do with Billboard‘s methodology at the time—this was the era of the “super star” or “super bullet,” as explained by a reader a few years ago. Somebody with a decent work ethic ought to look into it.)

You may be surprised to learn that the third-most-popular J. Geils hit on the Hot 100 is not “Give It to Me,” but the marvelous “Must of Got Lost,” which went to #12 during the first week of 1975 and is my favorite thing the band ever did. “Give It to Me” ranks fourth, reaching #30 in the summer of 1973. The list also includes “One Last Kiss,” which somehow crept to #35 during the disco-drenched winter of 1979; “Love Stinks” (which lead singer Peter Wolf now performs as a bluegrass number); “Angel in Blue,” the third single from the Freeze Frame album; and the raucous “Looking for a Love,” which scratched to #39 in January 1972.

There’s one song missing, but it’s not because I didn’t try.

I came up in radio at the end of the era in which local music directors could still use their own ears to make hits. The guy who programmed D93 in Dubuque was one of them, having built up a modest collection of commemorative gold records and attaboys from bands and labels for being among the first in the country to play certain hits. But for every gamble that paid off, there were others that didn’t, and as a result, the station played its share of stiffs that went nowhere.

In the summer of 1980, at WXXQ in Freeport, I was not hired as the music director, but the guy who had the job let me do it anyway. And I figured that if other music directors could turn certain records into hits, I could too. I have written many times about how I jumped on Billy Joel’s “Sleeping With the Television On,” sure it was going to be a smash, but there were a couple of others. I added “Stupefaction” by Graham Parker and the Rumour, most likely because I was a young acolyte of Bruce Springsteen by 1980, and Parker/Springsteen comparisons were in the air that summer. (Vintage video here.) And the first time I heard it, I was damn well sure that “Just Can’t Wait,” the third single from the J. Geils album Love Stinks, was going to eclipse both “Come Back” and “Love Stinks,” and I was going to be one of the first music directors in the country to get on it.

It made the Hot 100 for five weeks, reaching #78 in its second week on and then slowly fizzling out.

As I listen to “Just Can’t Wait” now, it doesn’t sound quite so great as it did then. The best part is the opening riff, and the refrain sticks in your head, but the verses sound pretty weak, and Peter Wolf has sung lots of stuff much better. So maybe America was right about it, and I was wrong.

Not for the first time, and not for the last.

My social media feeds were full of tributes to J. Geils last night and this morning. I’m not surprised. My peeps have excellent taste. Jeff at AM, Then FM, has two great stories. Somebody I don’t know personally, Charlie Pierce of Esquire, tweeted last night that of the 10 best concerts he’s ever seen, three of them were by the J. Geils Band. Lots of people whose curiosity has now been piqued are about to discover why the band is considered one of the great live acts of all time. Good for them.

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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