(Pictured: Michael McDonald, the patron saint of yacht rock, on stage as a Doobie Brother in 1982.)
(Before we begin: there’s a brand-new, never-seen-anywhere-before post at One Day in Your Life today.)
We spent some time this weekend listening to the Sirius/XM Yacht Rock Channel. (It occurs to me that we have written about yacht rock in the past, although we didn’t call it that.) Yacht rock is the tasteful, sometimes jazzy adult rock of the late 70s and early 80s.
The yacht rock format is built on Steely Dan, Michael McDonald (with the Doobie Brothers and solo), Christopher Cross, and Toto; although Kenny Loggins and Hall and Oates are considered canon, we didn’t hear them. Despite its occasionally jazzy leanings, it’s an extremely white format; most African-American artists we heard were either duetting with or backing up white folks (James Ingram with McD on their hit “Yah Mo B There”; Cheryl Lynn with Toto on “Georgy Porgy,” which might be the quintessential yacht rock performance). We did hear “Sail On” by the Commodores, but it really didn’t seem to fit.
The Yacht Rock Channel is clearly programmed with the assumption that people aren’t going to listen very long. We heard “Baby Come Back” by Player and “Rosanna” by Toto on Friday afternoon, and when we dropped back in three hours later, there they were again. On Saturday morning, about 18 hours after we’d first listened, we heard exactly the same songs we’d heard Friday afternoon.
Like many S/XM channels that run without DJs, the Yacht Rock Channel plays two or three songs in a row before identifying. The sweepers feature a deep, smarmy voice doing lines about fabulous hair and beards, and vans painted with eagles or dragons on the side—in other words, easy 70s clichés that are exactly what someone listening to this channel might expect to hear.
Perhaps I’m hearing something that isn’t there, or overreacting to what is there, but I wonder just who this channel is intended to reach. I suspect it may not be dudes in their 50s who can remember when this stuff was popular. I wonder if it isn’t aimed at people (of any age) whose default outlook is ironic detachment. The channel and its presentation seem to say, “don’t take this seriously; all of this is silly; aren’t you clever for being in on the joke?” Which is kind of insulting to those of us who do remember the late 70s and early 80s, and who don’t necessarily see this style of music as something to make a joke of.
Much of the music on the Yacht Rock channel was hip back in the day, taken seriously as art by the people who made it and by those of us who listened. Let’s take Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues,” for example. Sure, it’s possible to listen to it as a goof: perhaps the lyrics are a bit too earnest in spots, the saxophone is just too perfect, the groove is just too smooth. But Aja changed my life, goddammit—it’s the album that made Steely Dan my favorite band, which they still are today. The night I crossed a Steely Dan show off my bucket list, “Deacon Blues” was the emotional high point of the show and the climax of many years of fandom. It—and a lot of the other stuff on the Yacht Rock Channel—is music I return to again and again because it means something to me.
If you’re laughing at that, you’re laughing at me, and you can fk right off, actually.
An Anniversary: Twenty years ago this past weekend was my first day at the publishing company in Iowa City, a job I took when I couldn’t find a teaching job after finishing at the University of Iowa. Although I had fancied myself a writer since at least the seventh grade, this was going pro. I have never worked in an office that had a better, more collegial atmosphere; I have never known people who taught me more, about writing and about life. Many of them are still friends and colleagues today, even though I’ve been gone from Iowa City for 17 years and the company we worked for doesn’t exist anymore. This blog wouldn’t exist without that experience. I’d be a totally different person without that experience—and those people—and I will never stop being grateful for it, and for them.
(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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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?