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?
(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.
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.
The other day I was on the road, surfing the radio dial looking for music, when I stumbled upon an AM station playing “Bad Company” by Bad Company. When I dial-surf, it’s always on AM first, because AM oldies stations are great. AM classic rock is highly unusual, so I stopped to listen.
“Bad Company” got over, and the station went immediately—without any kind of station identifier at all—into a 60-second health feature that was completely unintelligible. Not because the audio quality was poor, but because it made no damn sense. Something about vegetable smoothies, I think, but it was so full of jargon and buzzwords it might as well have been in Urdu. Then, with no identifier at all, it was back to music, “Girl Can’t Help It” by Journey. After that, again, no identifier, and not even a back-announce. The jock just started talking.
Nothing makes me crazier than radio stations that roll straight from a song into a commercial, thus forfeiting a chance to tell the listener who they are. Just as bad is when a jock opens the mike and the first thing out of his/her mouth isn’t the call letters or some other station identifier. The jock on this station went straight from music into a bit about a new study that catalogs the behavior of known liars to create a list of tells people can use to determine a speaker’s truthfulness in real time.
Satellite and syndicated jocks do this kind of bit because they can’t do anything local, and local jocks do it when they have nothing better to talk about. (Which one this guy was, I couldn’t tell.) I can even see myself doing it—but only as a quick 20-second bit and ending with a joke, like “Now I’ll be able to tell if [other jock on the staff] really intends to pay back the $20 he owes me.” But that’s not what this guy did. After explaining the study, he proceeded to run down the entire list of tells. The bit took at least two minutes, maybe longer, and for the last minute of it, I was quite literally yelling at my radio, “Dude, shut up, you’re going way too long.” Finally, the bit ended and the station went into a commercial break, coming out of it with an identifier—at long last.
But the next song was “Upside Down” by Diana Ross. So not a classic-rock station, then.
Never mind the interminable jock bit. What sort of radio station plays classic-rock album cuts and disco records in the same quarter-hour? I had arrived at my destination and didn’t listen past “Upside Down,” but I wouldn’t be surprised if they followed it with Johnny Mathis doing “Chances Are.”
I’m not going to identify the station by name; I’ll say only that it’s a mom-and-pop operation located in small-town Wisconsin. And as mom-and-pops have tried to be since the dawn of time, I suspect they want to be all things to all people in their coverage area, capturing people who like Bad Company and people who like Diana Ross.
Could I be wrong? Sure. Could this have been one really bad jock doing whatever he wanted on a Saturday morning? Sure. But I’ve spent a lifetime in and around the radio biz, so I kinda think not.
Geezers such as I, people who are sometimes gobsmacked by the evolution of the medium in 40 years, are kidding ourselves when we think that growth and change have happened equally, everywhere. But the fact is, there are small-town radio stations all over the country that are programmed the same way they were a generation ago, even though they may be using digital automation and voicetracking. Despite the slivering of the audience into demographic slices that have turned catch-all variety formats into catch-none, despite the ever-decreasing time-spent-listening numbers that have made any bit over 30 seconds problematical (the average listener today may be with you for only eight or nine minutes), there are stations that happily trundle on like it was still 1974. They’re playing music that will appeal (they think) to grandmothers and their grandchildren alike. Their ad copy still tells you to visit blank for all of your blanking needs, and to enjoy top-quality service from people you know and trust. And their jocks are still doing two-minute feature bits pulled straight from the AP wire.
(Pictured: B. B. King plays at the Chino Institute for Men, a California prison, in 1972. Given that incarcerated Los Angeles DJ Humble Harve Miller was running the prison radio station at the time, it’s likely that he was involved with the show somehow.)
Earlier this week, friend of the blog Bean Baxter from KROQ in Los Angeles put me in touch with an old acquaintance of Humble Harve Miller, the guy I wrote about here on Monday. According to this person, the story commenter Tim mentioned on Monday is essentially accurate: that after Harve’s wife taunted him about her infidelities while he was on the air at night, he recorded a show, went home, found her in bed with a guy, and shot them both. (However: newspaper stories I found about the incident don’t say it was a double murder, or even a double shooting. They mention only Mrs. Miller.) Harve didn’t hide out in Phil Spector’s mansion, nor was he on the run for two weeks. He turned himself in after about 24 hours. Prison changed him a great deal, his acquaintance says; he apparently got religion and came out a far different man than when he went in. The parole board considered what he’d done a crime of passion that did not make him a danger to the general public, and given that prison seemed to have rehabilitated him, he was set free.
Regarding the National Album Countdown: Harve pitched Casey Kasem’s company, Watermark, about syndicating a countdown of each week’s top albums. When Watermark declined, Harve decided to do it himself. He researched, wrote, and produced it and even sold it to individual stations before making a distribution deal with Westwood One. When the show finally ended in the 80s, it was due in part to the proliferation of countdown shows on the air by then. In more recent times, Harve did satellite radio and a syndicated doo-wop show that aired on a few stations, although it was mostly a hobby. As I mentioned on Monday, Harve is past 80 now, a time when even old radio guys sometimes want to hang up their headphones.
Our friend kblumenau noted that Harve could have changed his name, moved to Buffalo or some other city, and continued his radio career there, rather than going back to Los Angeles under the same name that had been tagged with so much notoriety just a few years before. I am not sure it would have been easier for Harve to do that, though. As I wrote on Monday, he had plenty of friends in California, people who knew him well and who believed in his rehabilitation, as his old acquaintance says above. The radio world is a very small one (although I suppose there’s no profession that doesn’t say the same thing about itself), and that clearly helped him restart his career and life. To a program director in Buffalo, Birmingham, or Boston, the fact that he murdered his wife would have loomed far larger than it did to people who knew him well before and after.
I’d be interested to know whether KKDJ, the station to which Humble Harve returned in 1974, got any pushback from its audience for hiring him. If it did, the pushback didn’t have an effect, nor did it matter to Casey Kasem, or KIIS, or Westwood One. Today, given the power of social media, pushback would be easier to organize and more likely to snowball; back in the day it would have required many, many phone calls and letters.
I am probably failing to remember one that’s big and obvious, but I can’t recall another case in which a radio guy left a job under a cloud of highly publicized scandal only to return. I have an inkling that there was a prominent guy in the Quad Cities who got into some kind of trouble in the 80s, spouse abuse or something, only to get back on the air there at some point in the 90s, but I can’t say for sure.
Maybe the old radio guys amongst the readership know stories they can tell.
Many thanks to Humble Harve’s old acquaintance for the additional information, and to Bean for the connection.