Category Archives: Radio Tales

Bad Company

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.

More About Harve

(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.

The Humble Harve Story

(Pictured: Los Angeles DJ Humble Harve Miller, at right with the beard, photographed in 1968, backstage with a member of Iron Butterfly and an unidentified woman. I don’t know if that’s his wife.)

If you google the phrase “national album countdown,” the second hit out of 625,000 is a link to this low-rent blog of mine, which should give you some idea of how little information there is on the Interwebs about the National Album Countdown. Each week, veteran Los Angeles DJ Humble Harve Miller counted down the top 30 albums as compiled by Record World, the little sister of Billboard and Cash Box. A 1977 ad in Billboard celebrating the show’s first anniversary says it’s on 85 stations around the country, although a 1980 Billboard article about syndicator Westwood One says only that it airs on the Armed Forces Network. Scattered mentions of the show from around the web indicate that it lasted until 1985. During 1976, I was a dedicated listener to the show, and I frequently kept track of the top 30 as Harve counted them down.

Humble Harve Miller was one of the Boss Radio jocks at KHJ starting in 1967, but his tenure there ended in 1971, when he was 36 years old. On May 7 of that year, he shot and killed his wife. The story goes that she had been unfaithful to him, and she taunted him by saying that if he didn’t like it, he should get a gun and shoot her. Which he did. After two weeks in hiding (at Phil Spector’s mansion, according to one account), he was caught. Miller pleaded guilty, got five-to-life for second-degree murder, and went to prison in August. In December, Billboard reported that Miller was going to program a new radio station set up at the Chino Institute for Men, where he was incarcerated. Radio stations and record labels would donate equipment and records. (Miller was supposedly furloughed from prison to make a trip to San Diego, driving his own car, to pick up donated records from radio station KGB.) The Columbia School of Broadcasting of Los Angeles planned to offer classes for inmates, although Billboard snarked that “Harve doesn’t need any lessons, of course.” In January 1972, a one-line item in Billboard reported, “Chino Men’s Prison has been hearing some good rock since disk jockey Humble Harve began serving his term.”

It’s unclear to me just how long Miller was in prison. One blogger mentions that he “received a 14-month sentence.” If that’s how long he served, he would have been out in October 1972. A May 1974 edition of Billboard noted Miller’s return to the Los Angeles airwaves on KKDJ. In July 1974, he sat in for Casey Kasem on American Top 40. When KKDJ was purchased by the owners of KIIS in 1975, he was installed on an evening shift, the same daypart he worked on KHJ in the 60s. His voice was featured in the 1975 movie Aloha Bobby and Rose, as the title characters listen to their car radio. And in 1976, he became the host of the National Album Countdown.

What happened to Harve in recent years I have not been able to determine. He was doing satellite radio in the early 00s, and he’d be past 80 years old now. Reading between the lines of the news reports and retracing the arc of his career, it’s pretty clear that he had lots of friends in the radio industry. They did not abandon him when he went to jail, or afterward. All these years later, in a less-forgiving media era, I wonder if a similarly prominent person convicted of such a crime would ever get his local gig back, let along gigs of national prominence.

The Year in AC and Country

(Pictured: country singer Cam. As I have said on the air several times, if you would like her to be your girlfriend, get in line.)

If you’re a radio DJ and you like a certain song, you can say so on the air. If you think it sucks, you keep that to yourself. It makes sense, of course—the theory is that every song a station plays could or should be someone’s favorite. You as an individual jock (and you as a radio station) shouldn’t tell them their taste is lousy.

Sometimes you can get away with something if you do it obliquely. I have played David Soul’s “Don’t Give Up on Us” in the spring and suggested it is appropriate for a season in which the sap is rising. I justify this by saying that even people who like “Don’t Give Up on Us” know it’s sappy, and that more people will find the wisecrack funny than offensive. I once back-announced a country song that recycled every cliché of the last five years—pickup truck, girl in a ball cap, liquor brand name-check, and no original idea in the whole three minutes—by saying, “That’s new . . . although it sounds strangely familiar.”

Given the fact that listeners of my radio stations read this blog (or they can, theoretically—I am not sure how many of them do), the same rules apply here. I can tell you which of the Billboard Top 50 adult contemporary hits of 2016 I like. Same for Country Aircheck‘s Top 70 of the year. If you want to know which ones I’d like to kill with fire, you’ll have to talk to me in a bar.

On the AC chart, the best of the Top 50 are the three singles by Adele: “Hello” (#4), “Send My Love to Your New Lover” (#12), and “When We Were Young” (#16). I really like “Ex’s and Oh’s” by Elle King (#6) because it strays a long way from the young-woman-shouting template that so many singers default to. Pink’s “Just Like Fire” (#9) is her best single in years. Bucking a couple of the last decade’s trends, it’s got some actual dynamics—soft parts and loud parts—plus the version we’re playing clocks in at a compact 2:57. The surprise of the year is probably “Adventure of a Lifetime” by Coldplay (#29), the most un-self-conscious (and best) record they’ve ever made. They finally stopped worrying about being tasteful and just got down.

(I’m not going to link to all of these, as they’re easy enough to find at YouTube.)

On the country chart, 2016 was a year in which bro-country (pickup truck, girl in a ball cap, liquor brand name-check) continued to wane, although it was also a year in which the most successful male acts continued to borrow more from Justin Timberlake and Bruno Mars than from the legacy artists of their own genre. The best of the year’s top 70 are still recognizable as country: “Stay a Little Longer” by the Brothers Osborne (#8), “Record Year” by Eric Church (at #19, a song that made nearly every respectable critic’s list of the best country songs of 2016), “Humble and Kind” by Tim McGraw (at #28, the lone single to appear on both the country and AC year-end charts), “My Church” by Maren Morris (#41, and my favorite record of the year, either AC or country, by a mile), and “Burning House” by Cam (#54, which also crossed over to AC but not enough to crack the year’s top 50).

A major difference between the AC and country charts is that the worst junk on the AC chart doesn’t make me feel embarrassed for the people who perform it. The worst records among country’s top 70 are all stupid in unique ways, but their performers share an obliviousness that’s remarkable. A couple of veteran acts commit to hideously bad songs like they were “Stand By Your Man” or “Ring of Fire,” while younger offenders may be too dumb or too beholden to a team of producers to know the difference, or making too much money to care.

I hadn’t been in radio long before realizing that at any given moment, whatever format I’m doing, I’m gonna find that one-third of the songs will be OK to good, one-third will be OK to not good, and one-third will leave little impression one way or the other. After nearly 40 years in the biz, those proportions still seem about right to me.

Day One

There’s a new jock starting at my radio station today—her first full-time job—not long out of college, enthusiastic and ambitious with a lot of potential, but still with a lot to learn. And so I have been thinking about my first days at my first full-time radio job. I got promoted from part-time to full-time at KDTH in Dubuque, Iowa, in February of 1982. Because of my part-time experience, I was somewhat familiar with how the place worked, but there was a certain learning curve all the same.

When I give career advice to college students, I remind them that they will be working closely with people who are not the same age as they are, possibly for the first time in their lives. Not everybody is going to have the same generational touchstones, value the same things, or understand the world the same way. Most important, those people are probably not going to perceive you the same way you perceive yourself. In jumping from part-time to full-time at the same place (no matter what the place), the culture shock is less because you will have met some of your colleagues already. But age difference is still something you need to recognize and adjust to.

When I started as a full-timer at KDTH, one of the biggest adjustments I had to make was to the number of people in the building. When you work nights and weekends, you often have the place to yourself. During the week, the halls bustle with salespeople, front-office people, creative-services people, engineers, clients, and other visitors. It took me a while to get used to that. Today, even though I’m used to the bustle, I still enjoy working on weekends or at night, because the building is quiet again.

When you’re a part-timer, you answer only to your program director, and you deal only with other jocks and listeners on the phone. As a full-timer, your constituency expands. You work with creative-services people and salespeople, and sometimes directly with advertising clients. Salespeople run the gamut. Some of them are thorough professionals who understand both their job and yours. Others understand theirs but don’t really get yours: “Look, I know this copy runs 28 seconds already, but I promised the client we’d put in the phone number twice. Can you cut it again? I have a meeting with him at 3:30.” (This inevitably happens when it’s 2:45 and you’re on the air at 3.) And some are clueless enough to make you wonder how they got hired in the first place. When you’re on your first job, negotiating the personalities in the sales department is daunting for a while.

There are a few people who work at a radio station but are not radio people. Their jobs involve the business end of the business—accountants, office managers, and the like. Sometimes they buy in, and they embrace the unconventional spirit that suffuses the best radio stations. Others never do. You’ll learn soon enough who’s in and who isn’t. Not buying in doesn’t automatically mean they’re bad people. It’s just that you’ll have to relate to them differently.

You’re under more pressure as a full-time jock, especially if you work in a rated market. You will be told what the ratings are. You will know how your daypart is doing. And if it’s not doing well, you will be expected to fix that. You will also have the pleasure of meeting with consultants who parachute in from out of town, critique your work, and then go back to where they came from. As a young jock, you will find these sessions to be extremely stressful. As you gain wisdom and experience, you will find these sessions to be extremely stressful.

My main memory of my first day at KDTH has nothing to do with what happened at the office. That night, my boss took me out for too many drinks, and afterward I spiraled unsteadily home, back to the furnished apartment I’d moved into the day before. On the way, I remembered that I needed to make a stop at the grocery store for critical supplies. I bought the following: an eight-pack of Coke in returnable bottles, a bottle opener, and a package of toilet paper. Which could be some sort of metaphor for the career that has followed on from that first day.

Who Are You and What Are You Doing?

George Carlin once described the stand-up comedian’s job as thinking up goofy shit, telling people what it is, and then going off to think up some more. I have modified that joke to describe what I do on the radio. I can’t speak to what it’s like to have a regular partner or a show with a cast; thinking up stuff is still the essence of the gig, but it’s a collaborative effort and a conversation. (Neither do I know anything about doing talk radio.) So when it’s just you in a studio, with a microphone and unseen thousands (hundreds? dozens?) out there in the beyond, the weight of the responsibility is great.

What makes you think you’re interesting enough to spend three or four hours each day knitting together a bunch of songs on the radio?

Many people aren’t interesting enough. They may have nice voices (although not necessarily), but they never really say anything that engages you. They’re just there, playing the songs, reading the promos, taking up space. People like this can have long careers, but they aren’t getting into anybody’s Hall of Fame.

At the other end of the spectrum are the people who are endlessly engaging. They’re the chosen few of the chosen few, the Hall of Famers, people who don’t sound like anybody else, the people aspiring jocks aspire to be.

In the middle are the talented craftsmen (men and women). They’re technically skilled (although technical radio skills matter less in a world of digital automation than they did in the days of turntables and tape cartridges); they know their audience well, and they are committed to bringing something to that audience every day that only they can bring—a particular interest, bit, or story, or a unique take on whatever people are talking about on any given day. Craftsmen, while they may not be among the unique talents of the age, sound like real people communicating one-to-one instead of disembodied voices yammering about nothing to nobody in particular.

I learned early on that I wasn’t talented enough to be a Hall of Famer, so being a solid craftsman and real person became my goal.

When I arrived at KDTH in 1979, there was a big sign in the studio at eye level reading “smile.” It was the first piece of professional advice I ever ignored. If your goal is to be a real person on the radio, you can’t do it if you’re always smiling. Not everything you say should be delivered with a smile. I was on the air the day Michael Jackson died, and the day the Boston Marathon was bombed, and I’ve done countless severe weather broadcasts. At those moments, speaking with a smile on my face would have been unconscionable. Some days you don’t just feel like smiling: your kid is sick or your car is in the shop or your boss got in your face just before the show. And that’s OK. If you can’t smile, don’t worry about it. Try not to be grim, though. Strive for geniality: be as pleasant as you can under the circumstances, but don’t fake something you don’t feel, or that isn’t appropriate.

One day, I hadn’t had enough sleep when I came to work. I was not especially willing or ready to do a show that day, but I didn’t have a choice. After about an hour, one of my colleagues came into the studio and said, “You sound crabby today—but you’re funny.” I got away with being less than 100 percent by the fact that on other days I’d been at 100 percent—that I’d established myself as a real person—and on this particular day I was going to be genially sardonic.

Sometimes real people have bad days, and that’s OK.

If you want to be either a craftsman or a Hall of Famer, as distinct from one of those jocks who’s just there, ask yourself this: “What am I doing on the air every day that nobody else can do?” The number of jocks, young and old, who can’t answer that, or who can answer it only in vague terms, is a scandal. Pro tip: “Just being myself” is not the answer. Lots of jocks, young and old, think it is, but it’s only the first and most obvious part of the answer. If you know exactly who you are, and you know the specific things you bring to the show every day, you’ll be way ahead of those who don’t.

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