(Pictured: Ronnie Van Zant on stage, 1975.)
The other morning I was reminiscing with somebody about how radio newsrooms used to be staffed. When I was at KDTH years ago, there were at least two and sometimes three reporters on duty in morning drive-time, plus a farm guy and a sports guy. They called various local law enforcement agencies to see what the cops had dealt with overnight, wrote stories about meetings held the night before, updated stories from the previous afternoon, worked ahead on stories for later in the day or later in the week, and covered spot news as needed. If the local paper or a local TV station had a big story first, it was rarely lifted verbatim—more often, one of the reporters would make his or her own calls so that the station’s coverage had its own unique quotes or angle. The news department generated everything that didn’t come off the Associated Press or United Press International wire—and even that stuff would occasionally be fleshed out by local reporting. And KDTH wasn’t alone in this. Nearly every radio station had one or more people whose job this was.
Today, of course, lots of radio stations don’t have their own news departments. If they do any news at all, it’s likely delivered by a news reader, whose job it is to gather stories from the Internet, the wire, or whoever’s writing them, and to deliver them once or twice an hour. Their job isn’t to call up the mayor’s office for a comment on the city budget, or the county sheriff for details on a traffic fatality. If big news breaks during the day, they don’t report it. The jock on the air keeps an eye on CNN’s website, or one of the local TV station websites, and passes along their reports second-hand.
I am not criticizing this. It’s the way radio and technology have evolved. But such evolution makes a plausible argument that the vast run of radio stations needn’t bother with reading news at all anymore (or reporting sports or weather or traffic). When everyone has an Internet device in their pocket or purse, listeners have access to more comprehensive sources of information than an intern reading a 90-second newscast on the morning show, and they can get it on demand instead of waiting for the top of the hour.
But I’m an old radio guy, and I remain fervently nostalgic for the way it used to be.
Forty years ago tonight, a plane carrying the members of Lynryd Skynyrd crashed in Mississippi, killing three members of the band plus three members of the plane’s crew. A friend of mine was a freshman at our small college in Wisconsin then, an eager young radio geek working a late-night news shift at the college station. When news of the plane crash first came in, he and a fellow student decided not to wait for the Associated Press—they got on the phone and started reporting the story themselves. The first wire reports quoted a radio station in McComb, Mississippi, so “We got hold of a newscaster from that station and he gave us a few reports,” my friend said. “I’ll never forget his Southern drawl and his words, ‘I know for sure that the pilot is dead and there are several others who are dead.'”
I don’t remember October 20, 1977, which was a Thursday. I was a senior in high school. I probably had the radio on at some point, and if I did, I’d probably have heard about the crash, although it may not have registered with me if I did. I knew “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Free Bird” by then, but I wasn’t a Southern rock fan generally; I didn’t hear anything beyond those two songs until I got to college a year later.
But memorializing Skynyrd 40 years later is not the point of this post. Others will do that better than I can. Instead, I’m memorializing good old fashioned news-gathering, and the initiative of a couple of young radio guys from the middle of nowhere who decided that if they wanted a major national story done properly, they’d have to do it themselves.
The first baby boomers are past 70 now. The youngest of us are well into our 50s. And while we have valiantly struggled to hang on to our hipness since we started turning 35 (in the early 80s, when “soft rock” became a thing and the music of the 60s became cultural shorthand for a whole constellation of past and present self-images), it’s a harder sell as time goes by. The TV channels devoted to the shows we grew up on and cherished, including MeTV and Antenna TV, are clogged with ads for miracle drugs, medical supplies, and term insurance, all featuring people we’d like to think we are not, not yet. But they are us.
Radio stations playing music of a similar vintage haven’t gone so far down that road. Classic-rock stations are now mixing in the likes of Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Green Day, and other acts of the 90s, and for the most part, the stuff fits nicely alongside Lynryd Skynryd, Pink Floyd, and the rest of the canon. These stations remain somewhat contemporary, because so many of the core artists are still working. The music itself is largely timeless—although a significant percentage of the audience for classic rock can’t remember the 60s, 70s, or even in some cases the 80s, they love it just the same. Nostalgia doesn’t have to be an overt part of the station’s appeal, although for older listeners, it’s a factor.
Oldies stations have always been a bit more willing to talk about throwing back: “the music you grew up with” has been a familiar oldies-radio slogan practically from the beginning. The term “oldies” once referred to a particular style of music, and that music created an atmosphere that was clearly something of another time.
Classic-hits stations, which are basically classic rockers without the album cuts, relying heavily on big singles by rock artists and exclusively 70s and 80s-based, are somewhere in the middle. Like classic rockers, they don’t have to traffic in nostalgia. Without the deep cuts and 90s music, they don’t come off quite as hip, but they can still pull it off, depending on their imaging.
All of this is a windy introduction to what I want to write about: a station I heard while traveling recently. It was a small-town classic hits station, the kind of place that does the high-school football games on Friday nights. It was heavily voice-tracked, and because the jocks lacked the big pipes and smooth delivery of syndication, they were probably local, although you couldn’t tell by what they said. There was nothing remotely local in any of the talk breaks I heard over a couple of days—just lots of national entertainment and feature bits ripped straight from the AP wire.
But what stood out about this station beyond that was its imaging. A remarkable number of its recorded liners played up the fact that anybody listening must be old: “You can remember the first time you heard these songs, but you can’t remember where you put your car keys,” and “You know all the words, but you can’t remember what you had for breakfast this morning.” For somebody in the target demo (which I certainly am), this sort of thing can be funny the first time, because it has a ring of truth. It gets less funny the more it’s repeated, however. And after a couple of hours, it had the effect of turning the station—despite its basic classic-hits library of rockin’ good records, Steve Miller and Heart and Huey Lewis and so on—into a bleak reminder of human mortality. The music didn’t seem hip in that context. It was kind of pathetic, and almost sad.
I am pretty sure this isn’t what they’re going for.
Part of the appeal of this music is in the way it speaks to those of us who grew up with it, not just because it soundtracked days we remember and years we cherish, but also because it tells us who we are now, as art will do. We know we’re aging. We know our time is limited. It’s neither necessary nor right to remind us too frequently of that, especially when you’re doing it with the very music that allows us to forget it for a while.
(Pictured: a modern view of Chicago in autumn.)
Thursday, September 23, 1971, was the first day of fall. News headlines that morning included accusations that President Nixon had lied about the purpose of recent bombing raids in North Vietnam. A new report suggested that the earth’s climate was cooling. A coroner’s jury ruled that a woman who fell from the 90th floor of Chicago’s John Hancock building died accidentally. The Pittsburgh Pirates clinched the National League Eastern Division championship the previous day. In the wake of the recently announced move of the Washington Senators to Dallas, Senators fan Nixon told reporters he would switch his baseball allegiance to the California Angels.
Larry Lujack was on the air at WLS in Chicago, where he’d held down mornings for a year. I recently came across an aircheck of the 7 to 8AM hour of that show. The aircheck is unscoped, which means it contains complete songs and newscasts as well as full commercial breaks. Such airchecks are comparatively rare; it’s more common for airchecks to be “scoped”—that is, to have jock-talk only, with music, commercials, and news edited out.
Many of the songs on the aircheck are hits of the moment: “If Not for You,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and “Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” but also Dawn’s charming “What Are You Doing Sunday,” which WLS charted as high as #3 while it was making only #39 on the Hot 100. It also includes the Fifth Dimension’s version of “Never My Love,” which prompts Uncle Lar to say it’s so good he wants “to take the cartridge out of the machine and eat it.” Also heard: Sly and the Family Stone’s “Hot Fun in the Summertime” and “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot” by Jerry Reed, which Lar misidentifies as “Amos Moses,” Reed’s hit from earlier in 1971. On the Klunk Letter of the Day, a regular Lujack feature, a listener writes to say that Lar blew her mother’s mind on an earlier show by playing a Roy Orbison song, so he plays “Candy Man,” which he calls Orbison’s best song ever. The last song heard on the aircheck is an oddball: “Who Will Answer” by Ed Ames, a 1968 hit that is trippy enough for the late 60s and straight enough to appeal to the housewife demo.
The aircheck includes a full newscast on the half-hour by Lyle Dean, who anchored news from the 60s to the new millennium alongside Chicago legends: not just Lujack but Clark Weber, Fred Winston, and Bob Collins. The Cubs and White Sox scores get mentioned a couple of times within the hour, as does Nixon’s transfer of baseball allegiance. The Senators’ move is also the subject of Howard Cosell’s regular Speaking of Sports commentary, which is also heard in full.
As a kid, I was weaned on my hometown station’s morning show, which unfolded so precisely that we never had to look at the clock—we knew what we needed to be doing by what we were hearing. So when the aircheck got to the regular morning broadcast of The Secret Adventures of the Tooth Fairy (a two-minute serialized superhero parody created by advertising genius Dick Orkin in the wake of the legendary Chickenman), it felt like time for the bus to be getting to school. Back then, when Cosell’s commentary came on at about 7:55, we would often get off the bus, just minutes before the first bell rang. And on that Thursday morning 46 years ago, I was almost certainly listening, on my way to another day in sixth grade at Northside School.
Lujack does quick bits in and out of songs, goofs on the weather, the traffic, and a laundry soap commercial, and talks about a recent jock meeting at the station. “We have them every couple of weeks,” he says, “so the program director can tell us we’re not as great as we think we are.” At this one, the staff teased night jock Kris Erik Stevens for his flowered shirt and his long hair, calling him a hippie communist.
Larry Lujack, on a normal day in his natural habitat, rasps and pauses and smirks and sometimes sounds like he’s badly in need of more coffee. He was not the honey-voiced fast talker of Top 40 legend (not like Kris Erik Stevens, whose delivery I have imitated for 40 years whenever I want to “sound like a DJ”). But by September 23, 1971, he was one of most important people who would ever come into in my life. At the age of 11, I already knew that I wanted to be on the radio, just like my old Uncle Lar.
(Pictured: British newspapers headline the death of Princess Diana on August 31, 1997.)
I have written previously about being on the air the afternoon Michael Jackson died, and about reading the bulletins on the morning of the Challenger explosion. Twenty years ago tonight, I was on the air at the classic-rock station when Princess Diana died. (It was early in the morning of August 31, 1997, in Europe, but the evening of August 30 in the States, and the Saturday night of Labor Day weekend.)
We did not do breaking news on that station, of course. Our conventionally wacky morning show had newscasts, but it was the barest of headline services. A hard news item that could break through at any other time of the day had to be very, very big.
I was doing the all-request show that night. If our studios were connected to the Internet, it was an extremely new development, and I can’t say for sure whether I got the first bulletin that way. Although the company still had a news department, I wasn’t in the habit of looking at the wires. I suppose somebody from one of the other stations in the building could have come in and told me. Maybe a listener called up and told me. By some method, I tracked down a bulletin, although I didn’t read the first one, which was about the princess and a car accident. But later in the evening, when it became clear that it was a serious accident, I decided to go on with it. An hour later, the bulletins I was seeing made it clear that Diana had died in the accident, so sometime after 11:00 I delivered the news.
There was no consultation with the program director before I did it. I made the decision entirely on my own hook, as a veteran jock smart enough to recognize that this was the kind of news story even we shouldn’t ignore. That’s not intended to make me sound like a hero. It’s more an illustration of the fact that if you smack a mule in the head with a two-by-four, you can get his attention.
That show was one of the last ones I did at that station, as we were getting ready to move from the Quad Cities to Iowa City. It may have been the next-to-last week, which would mean my final show was September 6, 1997. Somewhere, I still have a tape of that last show (and I think I saved the tape of the Diana show, too). I talked about it being my last show, and I am sure I played some songs because I wanted to hear them. My ego was/is such that I undoubtedly played every phone call I got from people saying the show wouldn’t be the same without me.
Long before that night, I had chosen the Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” as my last record. The last request I played was for “End of the Line” by the Traveling Wilburys, which seemed cosmically appropriate. I gave a little speech at my last break, thanking the audience and thanking the program director for putting up with me. Then it was into the Beatles and I was done, except for a back-of-the-studio, off-mike response to the overnight guy during his first break, when he told the audience how much the station would miss me.
I didn’t think of my exit from the Quad Cities as the end of my radio career, although I had no plans to return to radio anytime soon. And I didn’t. Over the next several years, I would do a few sports broadcasts, but I wouldn’t do a music show again for nearly nine years.
On a recent morning, I was on news duty at the radio station. It was the day after Trump tweeted his directive that transgender soldiers no longer be permitted to serve, and on that day, the Senate was getting ready to vote again on repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
The Associated Press radio wire moved a couple of versions of the same story on transgender soldiers, and it was in the classic Associated Press form. It quoted two military veterans serving in Congress, one a Democrat and one a Republican, expressing contrasting views. The AP’s stories on the healthcare vote were even sketchier—“another vote is expected today as the GOP tries again to repeal Obamacare after recent failed attempts,” basically. That’s true as far as it goes, but it barely qualified as news on that morning. It’s as if the AP reported that the sun had risen in the East.
Thank you for reading this far. I have now arrived at the point I want to make: during the same couple hours that morning, while the AP was reporting in perfunctory fashion on two critically important stories—and repeating the same basic story without additional information in several consecutive hourly updates—the agency moved four different, updated versions of a story about a European soccer league’s corruption scandal.
On any given day, it’s clear that the AP is most comfortable with breaking stories: new developments in a scandal, a carnival accident or bus crash, the government’s release of monthly economic indicators. There was a time when being a well-informed citizen required little more than being up on breaking news. But that time is past. The world is exponentially more complicated than it used to be. Knowing only the headlines means that you know very little about what matters. Complex stories with profound effects on millions of people, such as those involving LGBTQ issues or the healthcare debate, are hard to fit into the AP’s headline-service template—so you end up with binary, he-said/she-said reporting offering a single sentence to two contrasting views, as on the transgender military story, which simplifies the story to the point of distorting it.
Here’s another example of how headlines distort reality: during debate on the healthcare bill in the House of Representatives last spring, it was reported that Republicans were stalling passage of a bill many of them had promised to support. The he-said/she-said template left a listener with the impression that those opposed to the new bill must naturally support the status quo. Therefore, it was big news if Republicans preferred Obamacare to their own party’s bill. But that was not what was happening. The Republicans opposed to their party’s bill were against it not because they preferred Obamacare, but because the new bill didn’t go far enough in demolishing Obamacare and salting the earth where once it stood.
The problem today is that context is perceived as bias. For a news outlet to report that Republicans in Congress want their healthcare bill to be even harder on the poor and the needy, even if it can be proven by quotes from the legislators’ own mouths, would be considered a partisan act. The context problem becomes even more severe when journalists are required to deal with obvious lies. Call something bullshit, even if it irrefutably is, and you commit what is perceived by the liars as a partisan act. So media outlets don’t do it. They report the lie and the truth side-by-side and hope the audience can tell the difference—which, as we know all too well, it often cannot.
What the solution is, I do not know. The AP radio wire and its sketchy, context-free service meets the needs of most member stations quite nicely, since so many want little beyond 60 seconds of headlines and a few sports scores every morning. Which is part of the reason we’re in the trouble we’re in, I guess. People don’t want to know what’s really going on, and if they do, it’s an awful lot of work to find out.
(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.