(Pictured: the most terrifying thing in the world, to some people.)
Since I wrote the other day about WKRP characters and the extent to which they exist in real radio stations, this next seems appropriate. Partially rebooted from some ancient posts, it contains a few vignettes about radio people I have known.
—A vocal Christian with shoulder-length hair nicknamed “Junior Jesus.” He hosted the Sunday morning religious-music show, and the bluehairs in his audience used to send him money even though he didn’t ask for it, thus fulfilling the dream of low-paid radio guys everywhere. He once lent a CD to another colleague of ours, but insisted that the colleague not tape it because that would be illegal.
—The only person I have ever met whom I would have forgiven for abandoning his family, an incredibly high-maintenance wife and anywhere from two to five incorrigible children. (We were never sure quite how many.) His considerable talents on the air were simply overwhelmed by the chaos in his personal life.
—A sales rep who once asked me if I’d ever written any spots advertising artificial limbs. When I said that I had not, she proceeded to call the Radio Advertising Bureau (an industry group that offers sales and marketing resources to its members) seeking sample copy for artificial limbs, only to be surprised when they laughed out loud at the idea too. I came to admire this woman’s willingness to think outside the box, and also her fearlessness. Once, she was trying to sell our station to a store owner who haughtily told her, “I don’t need to advertise. I already have more business than I can handle.” “Good for you,” she shot back. “Let’s go out front and take your sign down.”
—The very young and very new sales rep who was trying to get a local clothing store on the air. The couple who owned the store could not agree on the image they wanted to project. He wanted a western theme, while she wanted to seem young, hip, and edgy. The rep’s solution was to ask me to produce an ad with a John Wayne voice and Michael Jackson music.
—The college student I hired to tend the automation on Saturday and Sunday nights. I came into the office one night to dead silence—and Elliott, sitting calmly at a desk. “What the hell’s going on?” I asked. Elliott looked blankly at me for a second. “Oh, you mean the monitors? I turned them down. I’m trying to study and the music distracts me.”
—The newscasters afraid of live microphones. The morning crew got to work at 2:30 to completely prerecord the morning news block, then sat in the newsroom drinking coffee while the tapes played starting at 5:30. The hourly newscasts that ran during the day were always recorded a few minutes in advance. After I got there, we scrapped that practice, but it didn’t go down well. One of the news staffers quit rather than speak live on the air. The news director tried to embrace the new way, but she didn’t like it. She was already a nervous person, constantly fumbling for a cigarette, and would nearly jump out of her skin every time somebody walked into the newsroom. One day she came into the studio with a bulletin about a major fire in town. I put her on the air, she read her script, and then I made a mistake: I reflexively asked her whether traffic was being disrupted in the area, the innocuous sort of inquiry any jock would have made in that situation. A look of horror came upon her, and although her mouth fell open, no sound issued therefrom. Then she flipped me off.
(Pictured: Tony Orlando and Dawn. It was this or Nixon.)
Here’s a post from 2005 I found while digging in the archives of my first blog, The Daily Aneurysm. It’s been edited a bit.
On May 17, 1973, the Senate Watergate hearings began. I was in seventh grade that spring, already a news junkie, so if anybody in my school besides the teachers knew about Watergate, it was me. Our social studies teachers, Miss Alt and Miss Odell, made us watch the hearings in class. I am not sure how many students really understood what they meant—and I don’t remember how much I understood about the hearings, either. But I knew major news events when I saw them, so I was interested.
No matter what’s on the front page, above the fold, like the Watergate hearings, life goes on in countless other ways, with events that leave lighter footprints on time. . . .
What follows is rebooted from something I wrote in 2007 about being a wedding-reception DJ, which The Mrs. and I were for a couple of years in the early 90s.
Consider the wedding-reception DJ. Next to the clergyman who performs the ceremony, he’s in the most public role of all the hired help. He’s an entertainer, but he’s not supposed to make himself the center of attention, either. Most of the guests probably won’t notice him at all, unless he does something one of them doesn’t like. And in any room of 250 people, that’s almost inevitable.
Some couples take great pains to come up with a list of songs they want at the reception. But here’s a little secret that some of my brethren in the wedding-DJ biz must surely share: I will ignore many of your suggestions. You simply don’t want me playing album cuts by REM at a party attended by 400 people, including both your six-year-old niece and your 89-year-old grandmother, even if REM is the groom’s favorite band. I’d be falling down on the job if I didn’t give you the benefit of the party-making expertise I possess. The bride and groom are the clients, but the guests are the audience, and the DJ owes them the best show he can put on.
One night I played, at the bride’s request, “YMCA,” which I always followed with KC and the Sunshine Band’s “That’s the Way I Like It.” I made the segue and absolutely nobody left the packed dance floor—except the bride, who came blazing over to angrily tell me that I was ruining her party by playing disco. Which, to her, apparently, “YMCA” was not.
If you can tolerate one more damn tornado-related thing, here’s part of a post I wrote back in 2006 about covering severe weather on the radio, lightly edited for 2015.
It wasn’t until I got to college and watched some of the more experienced people at the campus radio station covering a severe weather outbreak that I realized a fundamental truth of broadcasting—on most days, you’re just playing records and cracking wise. You don’t actually live your station’s commitment to operate in the public interest, convenience, and necessity until you’re on a full severe-weather alert.
In those days, many small-to-medium market stations had the goal of owning severe weather coverage—to be the station that everybody tuned to when the skies turned dark. In Dubuque, KDTH was that station. Even though it may have been late at night or their day off, news department staffers would materialize when watches were issued, and they set a standard for the way to do severe weather right. They knew what information people needed, who to call or where to go to get it, and how to ad-lib off the radar screen, as well as how to do it while staying cool, even when the newsroom behind the studio door was chaotic. You knew—although we never faced it while I was there—that if a tornado were bearing down on the station’s very building, they’d stay on the air no matter what. I learned a lot at KDTH, and by the time I got to my next radio job, on tornado alley in western Illinois, I considered myself an expert on how to cover severe weather.
One of my jobs there was public-service director, which meant I was responsible for the box of 3-by-5 cards with “community calendar” information for jocks to read, and for the public-service announcements jocks could play to fill time. That first spring, I planned to do a series of PSAs for Tornado Awareness Week, but management vetoed them. We can’t let you do it, they said, because it might start a panic.
Honest to God, that’s what they told me, and I still can’t fathom their logic. But they fired me a few weeks later (not for the tornado PSAs, but for something equally loony) and I went to the other station in town. As it turned out, that station was about to be purchased by the guy who had been the general manager at KDTH, so I was sure my weather expertise would be appreciated there, and it was.
Within a few years, severe weather coverage, especially on music radio stations and extra-especially in large markets, started going out of fashion. In the late 80s, a jock in Dallas was famously fired for breaking his station’s format rules to read a tornado warning for the area. At about the same time, I was driving home in a horizontal rainstorm driven by 50MPH winds and listening to a station in my town when I heard the jock say, “A tornado warning has been issued for a portion of our listening area. If you want to know the details, call me on the listener line.”
Honest to God, that’s what he said. If he’d been working for me, I’d have fired him on the spot. To this day, it might still be the single worst thing I’ve ever heard on the radio—although he was probably just doing what he’d been told to do.
By the early 90s, I was working for an owner whose commitment to the public interest, convenience, and necessity matched my own. The station was located in a little prefab house on a hill just outside of town. During the first bout of bad weather that spring, I wasn’t entirely up on the local geography. “Hey,” I said to one of the news people, “We’ve got a warning here that says a tornado is on the ground seven miles southeast of Miles, Iowa. Where is that?” She got a strange look on her face and said, “That’s . . . here.” Instead of heading for shelter in the basement, I immediately ran outside to look for the tornado.
I didn’t see it.
Today, I’m pleased that my stations have a commitment to cover severe weather, and they’ll pay us to come in after hours to do it if necessary. It’s part of the reason they have the license in the first place. Without that commitment, they’re just playing records and cracking wise.
(Pictured: the late 70s edition of Journey harmonizes during an appearance on The Midnight Special.)
Here’s part of a 2007 post, slightly edited, that I wrote about Journey in the wake of the last episode of The Sopranos, which famously used “Don’t Stop Believin'” in its climactic scene.
One of Tony Soprano’s little tics—chalk it up to David Chase’s gift for character development—is his taste for thoroughly mainstream classic rock. Play the show’s theme song, Alabama 3′s “Woke Up This Morning,” for Tony and he’d be likely to say, “Wut da hell is dis shit?” “Don’t Stop Believin’” was a brilliant dramatic choice by Chase for a lot of reasons, chief among them its complete averageness. It’s one of those records that’s just there (and for over 30 years now) without any particular reason to make it memorable or significant. Now, of course, fans of The Sopranos will be attaching significance to it, and speculating about what it meant to Tony at the second the screen went to black, until the end of time.
The fact that Journey is one of the more critically reviled bands of the classic-rock era makes its pivotal role in one of TV’s most talked-about episodes seem almost subversive. Journey’s Greatest Hits (originally released in 1988) was at Number 56 on Amazon.com this afternoon, right between Norah Jones and Brandi Carlile. Indeed, the disc does a pretty good job of summarizing the Journey that critics hated. (Some disc jockeys, too: If I had a vinyl copy, it would have trackwide scratches across “Open Arms” and “Faithfully.”) It largely ignores the five albums Journey made before 1980′s Departure in favor of several soundalike hits from the 1980s.
It could have redeemed itself a bit had it included “Just the Same Way” (from 1979′s Evolution) and “Line of Fire” (from Departure), two of the best tracks the group ever cut. Both can be found both on the double disc compilation from 2001, The Essential Journey. If you want to add some Journey to your collection, you’d be better off with that. Not that The Essential Journey is perfect—it includes the early track “Anytime” without its companion, “Feelin’ That Way,” even though most rock stations play them as a single song. And it’s got “Open Arms” and “Faithfully,” too. Neither compilation includes “Walks Like a Lady” or “Where Were You,” both from Departure, and both of which stomp probably 20 of the 32 cuts on The Essential Journey.
If you want to buy a Journey album with “Don’t Stop Believin’” on it and and you don’t want to pop for The Essential Journey, buy Escape. At the historical moment when the power ballad was becoming a necessary part of the teen-rock repertoire, Journey resisted going over the top like REO Speedwagon had done with “Keep on Lovin’ You”—at first. It’s easy to imagine how “Who’s Crying Now” might have gone desperately wrong—Steve Perry dialing the whine up to 11, guitarist Neal Schon playing the closing solo with his fist instead of his fingers—but none of that happens. It’s tasteful and intelligent and a highly non-annoying entry into the power-ballad sweepstakes. It didn’t last, of course—the song’s aesthetic opposite, “Open Arms,” was Escape’s closing track.
Yeah, I got issues with “Open Arms.”
(Pictured: Billy Joel strikes an out-of-the-ordinary pose, 1994.)
The other day on Twitter, Ultimate Classic Rock asked followers, “Which classic rock album actually p___ed you off when it came out?” The first one that came to my mind was Kilroy Was Here by Styx. As cold and mechanical as the robotic world it claimed to decry, it’s one of the most unpleasant listening experiences you can have, and I hated the presumption Styx showed by expecting radio stations to play such twaddle. When I went back into my blog archives, I was surprised to note that I hadn’t put Kilroy in a 2006 post I wrote about albums I really hated by people I generally like. Here’s that list, with the text edited a bit.
Fundamental/Bonnie Raitt (1998). Bonnie Raitt’s 1990s comeback was guided by Don Was, who produced Nick of Time, Luck of the Draw, and Longing in Their Hearts, with spectacular results. Bonnie tried changing things up on Fundamental, turning to the hot producers of that moment, Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake. Well, there’s avant garde, which is what Froom and Blake purportedly were, and there’s just plain clueless, which they demonstrably were. Some of the songs are as good as anything Raitt wrote for her previous three albums, but the production is so incompetent that the album is painful to listen to. Froom and Blake sound like they don’t know how to place a microphone or run a mixer.
Time Sex Love/Mary Chapin Carpenter (2001). At the time, this was MCC’s first new album in over four years, and as a result, I really wanted to like it, but I didn’t then, and I don’t now. There’s almost nothing on this record that’s as affecting as the weakest cuts on Stones in the Road, her best album. Plus, MCC spoils the effect of the album’s loveliest track, “Late for Your Life,” by following it with a hidden outtake, which features she and the band melting down in laughter. This sort of self-indulgent piffle is why hiring an outside producer isn’t a bad thing. Unless it’s Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake.
Clues/Robert Palmer (1980). After a superb series of blue-eyed soul records that were exactly the kind of thing I adored, Palmer went new-wave on Clues, collaborating with Gary Numan, an artist I didn’t understand and could barely tolerate, and I hated the album like poison. I think maybe you have to be 20 years old to feel betrayed by an album, because I know now that Clues isn’t worth that kind of passionate dislike. And in retrospect, some of it (“Sulky Girl,” “Johnny and Mary”) really is a lot better than it sounded to me then.
River of Dreams/Billy Joel (1993). The title song of this album blew me away, and still sounds pretty good. The rest of the album is shrill and hectoring. For example, the second big single, “All About Soul,” goes on for six minutes, and by the end, you feel like you’ve been beaten over the head for that long. Even the ballads have a disturbing darkness to them. If this really was Billy Joel’s last pop album, it was a memorable exit for all the wrong reasons.
I can’t claim to have actively hated very many albums recently. Perhaps it’s a function of age, or maybe it’s the sheer volume of music I listen to—if something awful pops up on shuffle, there’s always something better coming along in a little while. Perhaps I’d rather focus on stuff I like than stuff I don’t.
Surely some artist you like has made an album that really ticked you off. If so, please share it with the whole class.