(Pictured: the beach near Fire Island. The sky was spectacular, the water was wild, and since I was wearing dress shoes like Richard Nixon, this was as close as I got.)
Since last Tuesday, I have traveled from Long Island to northern Massachusetts to the Hudson Valley of New York to where I am now, in New Jersey, a bit closer to Trenton than I am to New York City. This part of the trip was iffy while we waited for Hurricane Joaquin to decide where he was going, but here I am.
A Wisconsin boy should see the ocean, so one afternoon I went down to Fire Island Beach, New York’s hippie paradise during the 1960s, and then drove Ocean Parkway on the southern edge of Long Island. You take the Robert Moses Causeway to get down to the ocean, named for the fabled New York city planner, crossing two high bridges to reach the spit of land where Ocean Parkway runs. At the end of the causeway is a stone obelisk, a monument to Moses, in the middle of a roundabout. It’s easy to imagine, centuries hence, travelers from elsewhere drawing up on the coast of the ruined North American continent and confronting that obelisk, an enigma on the shore.
On a day off, I visited the Franklin D. Roosevelt home, presidential library, and museum in Hyde Park, New York. Roosevelt is a political hero of mine, the man who saved the country during the Great Depression, and whose political vision, of an activist federal government taking strong and concrete steps to ensure the public good, is the only thing that can save us now. (“The test of our progress,” he said, “is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have little,” which is pretty much the exact opposite of what our current political system is designed to do.) That said, his home was less impressive than Teddy Roosevelt’s—it was easy to magine TR stomping around Sagamore Hill; the FDR of Springwood, as his home is known, was more elusive.
I did plenty of dial surfing in the car. I especially enjoyed a Boston station called the River, an adult alternative station whose playlist ranged from Otis Redding and Johnny Cash to Dire Straits and Billy Idol to Florence and the Machine and Jason Isbell. They turned me on to Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, whose “S.O.B.” is going to end up the theme song of this trip, and to George Ezra, who despite his remarkably old-soul voice, is all of 22 years old. (Humorous video for Ezra’s “Listen to the Man,” co-starring a famous guest, is here.)
In New York, I listened to Hudson Valley Public Radio, actually a network that spans as far afield as northeastern Pennsylvania, which was gently swingin’ and pretty laid back. If it hadn’t been raining most of the time, I would have wanted something a bit more lively, but in the rain, it was awesome. The network’s weekend host is Bill Hillgrove, a longtime Pittsburgh broadcaster who is far better known as the play-by-play voice of the Pittsburgh Steelers and University of Pittsburgh football. But he’s a lifelong jazz fan, too.
On this trip, I have also learned what tricky tray is. There are yard signs for tricky tray fundraisers all over rural New Jersey.
The best part of the trip (at least until I get off the last airplane in Madison this Friday) was meeting my longtime Internet friends Kurt Blumenau (yesterday) and Larry Grogan (today) in the real world. I’ve been doing this blog thing long enough to remember when people worried that the Internet would make us strangers to one another, sitting solitary at our computers, never developing personal connections with others. But in fact, it’s created connections that wouldn’t have existed otherwise, and I’m grateful for all of mine.
I have been listening to the radio while I’m on Long Island, bouncing back and forth between two radio stations in the car—a classic rocker licensed to Bay Shore that calls itself 103.1 MAX FM, and the legendary WCBS-FM. And here are some things I have observed.
MAX FM’s music mix doesn’t have very many surprises—their tagline is “Hits of the 70s, 80s, and more,” which means the occasional late 60s or early 90s hit mixed in. It’s a very adult version of classic rock—they may play AC/DC’s “TNT,” but it’s not going to be at 2:00 in the afternoon, because a suburban station needs to stay in the middle of the road to attract office listeners and small-town advertisers.
The only one of their jocks I’ve heard for any length of time is the afternoon guy, who talked over the introduction of “Stairway to Heaven” the other day. That’s just not done. The only other jock I’ve ever heard talk over it was Casey Kasem. (Topic for further investigation: how and when the “Stairway” intro became sacrosanct.)
What I heard mostly was tons and tons of commercials, and good for them if the station is selling well. But when you’re a stranger in town, commercial breaks tend to zoom by—you aren’t in need of whatever they’re selling, and you don’t know where the advertisers are located anyhow. If you don’t tune out entirely, you find yourself listening to the scripts and the production. The majority of ads were of a type we have discussed before at this blog: like billboards, as opposed to messages identifying specific problems and offering to solve them. Some were well-produced, and others sounded churned out in a single take.
WCBS-FM was the first oldies station, throwing the switch in 1972, although today it describes itself as an adult hits station, playing music from 1964 through 1995. Scott Shannon, one of the most successful personalities in New York radio history, does mornings. Dan Taylor, who did mornings from 2007 until Shannon arrived in 2014, is on middays. Broadway Bill Lee has been on the air in New York since 1986, and has done afternoons on CBS-FM since 2007. He’s also heard on Sirius/XM. I heard only a bit of the night guy and a couple of breaks on the weekend.
I do not know how the CBS-FM jocks are being coached. I have frequently been told, and I agree, that less can be more. Sometimes all you need is time and temperature or title and artist. A couple of sentences about an upcoming station event or contest is fine; so is a sentence or two about the song you’re playing. Use 15 seconds of a 23-second intro and let the music breathe. But on CBS-FM, if a jock has 23 seconds available, he’s going to fill all of it. Not only that, practically everything’s a bit—something that sounds like it came straight from the pages of one of those show-prep services that so many jocks depended on in the days before the Internet.
Such bits are usually scripted with a mild joke—often a very mild one—at the end. My rule is that it’s OK to laugh at something another person says to you on the air (like a partner or a caller), but you do not laugh at your own jokes. Deliver your punchline and shut up. It’s up to the listener to find it funny. It’s not your job to tell him it is. So when I hear a jock on one of the most famous stations in the country’s biggest market chuckling at the barely humorous jape he just delivered while rushing to get done before Madonna started singing, it drives me straight up the wall. And I heard it several times this week.
But that may be what they’re going for, the feel of an old-fashioned wisecrack-a-minute radio station. Whatever they’re doing, it’s working. In the August 2015 ratings, they were ranked second in persons 6-plus with a 6.8 share, just behind market leader 106.7 Lite FM.
And I’m a Wisconsin dumb-ass just passing through.
(Before we begin: I owe Indianapolis a modest apology. When I wrote about the city last week, I hadn’t found the best parts of it yet. Now I hope I get to go back someday.)
On radio today, syndicated countdown shows or public service programs get loaded into the automation to play at 7AM on Sunday while everybody on the station staff is fast asleep. But before the rise of self-operating automation systems a generation ago, those programs had to be played by a live human being. And so many of us old-timers started at the bottom of the food chain: weekend board operator.
At my first job (KDTH in Dubuque), I was hired to work from noon to 6 on Sundays. I pushed buttons for the noon news block, then ran a taped public service program. If there was any time after that, I got to be an actual DJ until 1:00, when it was time for the nostalgia show Sunday at the Memories. Then came the 5:00 news block, after which I got to do 30 more minutes of real radio.
Other jocks had different experiences. Just last week a former colleague, who’s back at her hometown station after many years away, remembered how she started there in the 80s by playing the legendary Powerline show. If you listened to Top 40 radio between the 70s and the 90s, you probably heard Powerline—at one time, it was on over 2,000 stations around the world. Each week for a half-hour, Brother Jon Rivers mixed music with soft-pedaled religious messages, which made the show a Sunday staple. It was generally heard early in the morning or very late at night. (The show was revived in 2013.)
There are thousands of people in radio who started by running American Top 40 or some other syndicated music show on Saturdays or Sundays. Shows like these could come to the stations on tape, although more often they were pressed on vinyl. It was the operator’s job to play the show segments in the proper order, and to put in whatever local commercials had been sold. Taped shows usually had to be shipped back to the syndicator (so they could be erased and reused), and it was the operator’s job to make sure the tapes got back to the program director’s desk so they could be sent.
There were other tasks that sometimes fell to the board operator—engineering sports broadcasts, for example. My first station carried University of Iowa football, so it was frequently my job to get the game on the air and put the commercials in. To get the Iowa broadcast, you’d dial a toll-free phone number to connect to the feed. A local high-school football game might come in on a portable transmitter, which often had a dedicated channel on the control board. For an out-of-town game, the play-by-play guy would call the studio hotline, and it would be up to you to get the phone on the air.
Some events required you use to the patch panel, a gizmo that allows connection of various inputs to various outputs. By some sort of engineering alchemy, a broadcast source would be routed to the panel, and you’d plug a patch cord into the right spot to route the audio into the control board. (The same thing happens today, but all an operator has to do is dial up the proper channel on the board instead of using a cord.)
The weekend board operator usually didn’t get to say very much on the air. He or she would sometimes read the weather forecast or the occasional live tag to a commercial, but that was it. Given that they almost always aspired to more, many chafed at this. I once hired a young woman to run syndicated shows on Sunday nights until 11:00, after which she was to return to the satellite service until her shift was over at midnight. A couple of months later and completely by accident, I learned that she’d taken it upon herself to do her own show between 11 and midnight. She wasn’t especially apologetic when she got caught, and I felt like I had to fire her. Too bad for her that if she’d simply asked me first, I’d have probably let her do it. Young jocks have to start somewhere, so why not there?
Old radio types amongst the readership certainly have more and better weekend board operator stories than I do, so please share.
I have spent this week in Indianapolis (pictured), where middle America reaches peak Generica. I haven’t found anything like the city in the photo yet—only mile after mile of suburbs and commercial sprawl connected by the most complicated interstate highway system in the nation. Drop you blindfolded onto some random street in this place and it would be hard to guess where you were, and if it weren’t for license plates, you might walk many miles before you got some indication of where you were.
I used to get annoyed when people made fun of classic rock and classic rock fans. “Dinosaur rock” or “dad rock” was a putdown of something I generally like, and all you kids with your indie rock and hippety hop can step right over here and bite me. The stars of the classic rock era—the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, the Doors, the Eagles, David Bowie, Bob Seger, the Cars, Boston, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, name another one here—are too significant to the history of 20th century popular music to be dismissed with an epithet and a sneer, I thought.
But you know what? The importance of those artists is secure, just as the importance of Bach and Beethoven is secure, even though they’re not particularly hip anymore either. I am too old to worry about being hip. If it’s OK with everybody else, I’m gonna be over here liking what I like and not caring one way or another whether you like what I like.
All that said, however, I kind of get what the dinosaur and dad-rock people are on about. I have been listening to the local classic rock station while I’m in Indianapolis this week, and I haven’t heard a single surprising song yet. The only ones I didn’t recognize in the first millisecond were from the 90s, the era after I stopped listening to current hit radio. It’s pretty much one dad-rock warhorse after another.
But that’s OK.
People who criticize corporatized and standardized music radio often ask, “Does anybody really need to hear ‘Hotel California’ again?,” as if millions of radio plays since 1977 make the answer obvious.
As it happens, the answer is obvious.
Yes. Yes, people do need to hear it again.
If listeners were tired of it, they’d turn it off—but they obviously don’t, at least not in any numbers that matter. Therefore, where’s the incentive for radio stations to shake it up? If a steady diet of “Angie,” “Walk This Way,” and “Night Moves” brings in the customers, why risk that by playing “2,000 Light Years From Home,” “Uncle Salty,” or “Get Out of Denver”? Music lovers in the radio biz like to say, “If we would play some deeper tracks, people would like them.” But that sure doesn’t seem to be true.
Consultants tell us that the average listener hears the average station for nine minutes at a time. That single statistic explains why so much ratings-driven commercial radio is so repetitive, with the same songs over and over and the call letters between every song, and why song-to-song segues are as dead as Generalissimo Franco. Gotta maximize this nine minutes in hopes that people will come back for nine more some other time, and remember where to come to.
But you know what? If music is not your passion but merely something you enjoy from time to time, on par with other things you enjoy, like reading or Modern Family or puttering in the garden, it’s probably comforting to know that whenever you turn on your favorite radio station, you’re guaranteed nine enjoyable minutes.
And that’s OK. If you could be absolutely sure that the next nine minutes of your life were going to be pleasurable, you’d take that guarantee yourself.
So if you like classic rock radio, fine. If you don’t, fine. But if you don’t, be honest enough to try and understand why people who like it like it, instead of continually wondering how in the hell it’s possible.
(Pictured: Michael Jackson and Casey Kasem, 1993.)
Even though radio personalities are sometimes called “announcers,” that’s exactly the wrong way to think of the task. You’re not speaking to a crowd in a theater; you’re talking to one person in a car over here, three people in an office over there, and so on. You should talk on the radio like you were in that car or in that office, conversing directly with those people. The greatest radio communicators, with very few exceptions, do exactly that.
I still struggle with this from time to time. The ham in me wants to perform, to show how cool and funny I can be. A talent coach once told me I should not try to be funny at all, despite the fact that it’s how I relate to people off the air, too. A more useful approach might have been to tell me that every radio show is a performance, and that one of my goals should be to hide the fact that I’m performing—to do what I do and be who I am without being obvious about it.
(Someday perhaps I will do an entire post about that particular coaching session, a 45-minute rubber-hose beating that was one of the low points in my broadcasting career.)
A jock who’s coached frequently, or is savvy enough to listen to his own airchecks and critique himself, can usually figure out how to just talk. But those who aren’t coached can get completely lost in their performance. There are thousands of jocks whose schtick is larded with weird inflections, verbal tics and crutches, and stuff that real human beings would never say to one another. (“Twenty-six minutes now past the hour of eight o’clock on this Wednesday morning.”)
So the ideal is just to talk.
I listened to a couple of American Top 40 shows over the weekend, both from the last week in August, one from 1972 and one from 1984. In 1972, AT40 had been on the air for only a couple of years. Casey still sometimes dipped into what I call his FM radio voice, softer and lower than we’re used to hearing from him, an inflection that he stopped using long about 1973. But even with that, the show was a master class in how to talk to people on the radio. His stories about the artists were delivered casually but with humor or seriousness as appropriate; he integrated the various elements of the show skillfully without drawing attention to what he was doing. It was a performance, but you didn’t catch him performing.
Flash forward to 1984. AT40 is by this time an international institution, and Casey possesses one of the most famous voices on Earth. And every time he opened his mouth, on this particular late-August show at least, a listener could not help but be conscious that this man was performing.
Part of the problem came from the padded nature of the four-hour shows. Casey’s bits were written to take up more time, so the first Long Distance Dedication on the show seemed as long as a Russian novel; his chart trivia bits were repetitious, belaboring the main point two or three times. But the problem can’t be laid entirely at the feet of the writers. For this show, Casey slowed his pace noticeably, speaking far more slowly than he usually did, to the point at which he was no longer merely talking on the radio; he was Addressing the World.
Toward the end of the show, he did a bit (a press release, actually) from a group of optometrists who had chosen the best celebrity eyes. It was meaningless twaddle not worth the airtime, but Casey read it at a remarkably slow pace, portentously lingering over every syllable, on and on through a half-dozen different types of eyes, trying to build drama for what had to be a full minute before finally reaching “best doe-eyed celebrity,” Michael Jackson, and using the bit to introduce the Jacksons’ then-current “State of Shock.”
I wanted to pull the radio out of the dash and chuck it out the window.
That particular 1984 show was an outlier. I’ve listened to dozens of AT40s in recent years, and I’ve never heard anything quite like it. It was a master class in how not to talk to people on the radio.
As I listened to a thunderstorm the other morning, I thought about the best newsman I ever knew, a man who was never better than when the weather went sideways.
I first heard Dave when I was still in high school and dreaming of being on the radio. When I got my part-time job at KDTH in Dubuque, he was one of the people I was most excited to meet. I found, however, that Dave was rather difficult. Back then, I was a young idiot whose powers of observation were lacking, so I can’t tell you now, over 35 years later, precisely what made him that way. I can say only that he did not suffer fools, or young idiots, gladly. I merely annoyed him a few times; I was never responsible for one of his legendary blowups, which involved snapping at colleagues or throwing audio carts across the newsroom in frustration. Eventually, when Dave was on during one of my weekend shifts, I would give him a wide berth.
When I went full-time at KDTH in 1982, Dave and I worked together almost every day, and I discovered the charming, wryly funny man behind the frequent scowl. He had a DJ rig for weddings and parties, and he liked weird records. I would occasionally let whoever did the 6PM newscast pick the song that would follow it. One night, Dave brought in some kind of disco bagpipes thing.
He was, above all, a great newsman, able to pack a ton of information into five minutes, and he was absolutely authoritative doing it. Honesty compels me to report that he did not have a reputation in the newsroom as a great writer, but nobody in that newsroom did, at least among the others. By that, I mean that everybody disliked everybody else’s writing. I can still see Dave flicking off his microphone and making a face after reading a story written by a colleague who wrote in the same rococo way he spoke.
I would like to describe Dave’s voice, but I’m not sure I can. It was not particularly deep. It had a certain nasal quality, but it was resonant at the same time. Whatever its specifics, it was a voice that commanded attention—never more than when severe weather struck.
Our practice at KDTH, when a weather warning came in, was to simply cue the newsman and let him read it. Even after all these years, the sound of Dave’s voice comes back to me vividly: “This is Dave Eliason in the KDTH newsroom with this weather bulletin.” He would read the National Weather Service advisory first, then he would elaborate on it out of his own weather experience and his remarkable knowledge of Iowa geography. After we got the first weather radar unit I ever saw—on a 26-inch TV monitor that needed its own desk—Dave would ad lib from the radar. In those minutes when dangerous weather was bearing down on the listening area, he was nothing less than the Voice of God.
After I left KDTH in 1983, I saw Dave only a couple of times. He died in 1998, but I think of him often. Any radio person worth a damn is standing on the shoulders of those who came before, and I often stand on his. Whenever I am on the air during severe weather, I use the lessons I learned watching and listening to Dave: know what you’re talking about, be precise, don’t hype, but don’t downplay the seriousness of the situation, either.
There’s a mildly humorous addendum to this story. The Mrs. worked part-time at KDTH for a while, after we’d gotten together but before we were married. I had warned her about Dave’s temperament, but she got along with him just fine. “It’s easy,” she told me. “I just get out of his way, let him rant, and when he’s finished, we figure out what we’re going to do. Kind of like I do with you.”