Tales From the All-Request Saturday Night Show

(There will be a new post at One Day in Your Life today, possibly by the time you get around to reading this one.)

When I’m on the air, I don’t get many request calls anymore. Maybe people have figured out that any song they want to hear is two clicks away on YouTube or Spotify, or maybe they’ve internalized the fact that radio stations play requests on only the rarest of rare occasions, if then.

Twenty years ago, at a classic-rock station, I did an all-request show on Saturday nights. It started as a one-shot program on New Year’s Eve in 1995 and expanded to a weekly thing not long after. It was the most highly produced show I’ve ever done—I had dozens of drops and sweepers with audio clips from TV shows, movies, comedy albums, and every other weird source I could think of.  Plus, it was a free-form show–nothing was pre-programmed for me. I would occasionally get dinged by the PD if I strayed too far from the day-to-day format, but that taught me how much easier it is to ask forgiveness than to get permission, which has been my guiding principle on the air ever since.

Because I’d been a program director and a music director, I tried to systematize the show as much as possible. People called up for some songs every damn week: “We Will Rock You” (which is the only part request callers ever want to hear; “We Are the Champions” is extraneous), “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” and “American Pie” were among the most annoying. It didn’t take long before I made a rule: I would play certain songs two weeks in a row but then rest them on the third week no matter how much people begged. For most other songs, I had an every-other-week rule. The number of people who were simply listening was always far greater than those who were calling in, and I wanted to keep the show from becoming any more repetitive than it had to be.

While the vast majority of calls would be for songs or artists we played regularly throughout the week, every now and then somebody would blow my mind. I got a call for Mason Proffit’s “Two Hangmen” one night, which may have been the only request I honored a week late because I had to go out and find a copy. (With the hearty approval of the program director, who was an old free-form album-rock jock.)

I had a few other rules for the show: the no AC/DC rule, which I adhered to strictly even though I could have played “You Shook Me All Night Long” nearly every week. (I did not hold my substitute hosts to this rule, so AC/DC got on the show sometimes.) One night a parent called up, put their toddler on, and had the kid ask for “Aqualung.” It sounded funny, so I used the call on the air. I was thereafter besieged by other parents doing the same thing until I made a no-kid-calls rule. (I’d play your song, but not the audio of your kid requesting it.) Another rule was that Steely Dan requests went automatically to the front of the line—the only rule I ever mentioned on the air, but always jokingly so people would wonder if it was really true. When I’d get a call that was obviously from a party where people were listening, I’d move that request to the front of the line also.

Late one night, an obvious party call came in. A woman wanted me to confirm that in the Marshall Tucker Band’s “Heard It in a Love Song,” the singer does not say, as her husband insisted, “ten feet long.” (The line is “can’t be wrong.”) I told her she was right, and she put her husband on the phone so I could tell him in person. That call, followed by that song, made pretty good radio. We had a digital recorder in the studio, the first one I’d ever seen, so it was easy to cut up calls and play them back.

Thinking back, it’s amazing how much autonomy the station gave me, a mere part-time jock. Fortunately, I had a good relationship with the program director, and he trusted me. And in 1996 and 1997, my 7-to-midnight Saturday show was just about the most fun I ever had in radio.

Wired in ’76

(Pictured: Peter Frampton, 1976.)

(Before we begin: thanks to all who posed radio questions and/or answered them this week. We can keep that up as long as you like.)

This week, I went into the archives at American Radio History and found the edition of Billboard dated June 19, 1976, to see if reading about that summer is as much fun as listening to it.

Front cover: an advertisement in the lower right-hand corner touts the new album by “five teenage girls called the Runaways. The Runaways devastate their audiences with searing high-powered rock outbursts. . . .”

Page 3: Angel Records plans a promotional push for a three-year-old album by the Concert Arts Symphonic Band, conducted by Felix Slatkin, because it contains “Bugler’s Dream,” which will be ABC-TV’s main theme for the Summer Olympics in July. Angel hopes to turn it into a hit single.

Page 6: In advance of the upcoming Summer Consumer Electronics Show, a report on the slow growth of quadrophonic broadcasting blames broadcaster confusion over competing quad systems and the fact that few consumers own any quad equipment. The most sought-after technologies at CES, however, are expected to be car stereo and CB radio. Former FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson believes interest in both has spiked because listeners are tired of the commercial interruptions on broadcast radio.

Page 16: Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, and Booker T. Jones will reunite for the first time in seven years to back Richie Havens. They’re making an album of Stax covers.

Page 17: Songs most added to radio playlists this week are “You’re My Best Friend” by Queen, “If You Know What I Mean” by Neil Diamond, and “I’ll Be Good to You” by the Brothers Johnson. The Album Radio Action Report of top requests and airplay lists Fly Like an Eagle by the Steve Miller Band, Agents of Fortune by Blue Oyster Cult, The Royal Scam by Steely Dan, and Cardiff Rose by Roger McGuinn.

Page 28: The Don Martin School of Communications in Los Angeles reports that women make up 11 percent of the student body, the most in the school’s 39-year history. “A number of the women are already employed at radio stations,” says the school’s president, “but are studying to improve their positions.”

Page 43: Electric Factory Concerts is promoting four shows at John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia this summer. The first, starring Peter Frampton, Yes, Gary Wright, and the Pousette-Dart Band was on June 12. Although no contract has been signed, the Rolling Stones are set to appear on July 11; on August 15th, Aerosmith, Foghat, and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band will perform (plus two other acts to be announced) and on August 28th, it’s a possible Jefferson Starship reunion with Hot Tuna, plus Jeff Beck and “Robert Trower.” Meanwhile, another promoter’s five-concert July 4 weekend series at JFK Stadium is in jeopardy; it seems possible that some of the scheduled shows may come off, but some of the rumored headliners, including Chicago and the Beach Boys, will almost certainly not appear.

Page 53: New York City’s 35-year ban on pinball machines ended on June 1 after the mayor signed a bill legalizing games with the add-a-ball feature.

Page 70: Billboard reviews 50 albums this week. Spotlight picks are Wired by Jeff Beck and Rock and Roll Music by the Beatles. Also reviewed are 135 singles. Pop picks include Fleetwood Mac’s “Say You Love Me,” “Baby I Love Your Way” by Peter Frampton, “Another Rainy Day in New York City” by Chicago, Neil Sedaka’s “Steppin’ Out,” “Honey Child” by Bad Company, and “Lowdown” by Boz Scaggs.

Page 74: Headline: “Is there a market for a group-funded rock LP?” In 1974, members of several Miami groups formed an all-star band and cut an album. Now, a couple of record executives and a group of 20 financial backers are trying to raise the rest of the money to get it released.

Page 76: On the Hot 100, the top four songs hold their positions from the previous week: “Silly Love Songs” by Wings, “Get Up and Boogie” by Silver Convention, “Misty Blue” by Dorothy Moore, and “Love Hangover” by Diana Ross. On the album chart, Wings at the Speed of Sound knocks the Rolling Stones’ Black and Blue from the #1 spot to #3. Frampton Comes Alive is at #2. The highest debuting new album on the Billboard 200 is the David Bowie compilation Changesonebowie at #45.

The Stones did not appear in Philadelphia that summer. Two cuts with Cropper, Dunn, and Jones turned up on Havens’ 1976 album The End of the Beginning, but neither was a Stax cover. “Bugler’s Dream” did not become a radio hit, but it’s still television’s Olympic theme today. And although the Runaways sound OK to me now, I would have hated them in 1976.

Skipping the Needle Around

Following on Monday’s post, friend of the blog HERC has some radio questions. Answers follow, to the best of my knowledge.

Back in the day, when new vinyl showed up at a station, was it the music director’s job to listen to it, pick what was gonna get played and given the (imagined) sheer volume of albums (and 45s?) coming in, was said listening session merely a skip the needle around to the beginning, middle, and end of a song type thing?

If a music director wanted to be first with the hits, he’d have a pile of new music to listen to each week. Some of that was listening certainly of the skipping-around variety, but not all. Different people did it different ways. Reader CalRadioPD talks about his music-director experience in a comment here.

When I was a music director, my ears were not the first thing I relied upon. I used the national airplay reports in Radio and Records and The Gavin Report to decide what to play. (I had no local research data.) In the vast majority of cases, I’d be adding new songs when they reached a certain level, regardless of how I felt about them. I’d sometimes make brand-new artists rise higher on the charts before I’d give them a precious playlist spot, and some records I personally disliked were occasionally made to wait a little, too.

Some stations got good service from the major labels (which had the songs and artists most people wanted to hear), but some did not, especially in very small towns. One place I worked got little from the majors but lots from tiny mom-and-pop labels, songs that were going nowhere by artists no one had ever heard of. But because you had to make do with what you got, some of these songs got on the air while others, by famous stars on major labels, didn’t, because the station simply didn’t have copies to play.

Given the relentless barrage of incoming records, the usual wear and tear of playback and the finite space to shelve those records, what were some of the ways a station would thin the vinyl library?

The stuff that was getting played, either as a current hit or an oldie, would be kept in the studio. If a record was no longer getting airplay, it might be stashed away in a closet, an attic, or a basement. Records that were scratchy or damaged were sometimes simply junked, although sometimes they’d end up going home with a staffer. Same for the never-were-hits that a station received. (Again, I refer you to CalRadioPD’s comment.)

Reducing the risk of wear and tear is one of the reasons why lots of stations put their current hits, or their entire on-air library, on tape cartridges. Record companies could be stingy with was called “reservice,” especially to small-market stations. If somebody scratched your copy of a current hit single, you might be able to get another one sent to you for free. If somebody damaged your copy of something older, you’d almost certainly have to buy a replacement.

Given the inherent competition between stations or even formats in some markets, how did you maintain awareness of what other stations were playing?

We listened to ’em. Stations would sometimes log the competition to find out what they were playing, and if possible, to discern what kind of rotations they were using. (One of the things interns were for.) Today, certain data for individual stations is available from a service called Mediabase, but I’m not all that familiar with precisely how it works.

What was coolest station promo or giveaway you ever participated in?

One of my stations ran a contest in which people sent in their household bills, we’d read their names on the air, and if they called back within 10 minutes we’d pay the bill for them. I once made somebody’s $996 house payment. At another station, I gave away $1000 to caller #106. I was at a station event one night when a listener asked that question, and I was topped by a colleague who once gave away an all-expenses-paid trip to Dublin for a U2 concert.

Many thanks to CalRadioPD for more interesting answers than mine. If anyone else has anything to add, please jump in. And if you have additional questions of your own, send them along.

Radio Science, Radio Art

Our friend Kurt Blumenau asked several questions in response to Friday’s post. The answers merited an entire post, so here it is.

“DJ protocol question: at what point is it acceptable to start talking over the big final chord [of ‘A Day in the Life’]?”

As a commenter on Friday’s post noted, it depends on the format. Album stations would let the chord go longer than Top 40 stations. At the classic-rock station 20 years ago, I’d let it go maybe five or 10 seconds after the big bong because enough is enough. Top 40 stations would likely have cut it shorter.

But as a jock, I might not have much of a choice. When stations played physical CDs, they often bought format-specific libraries from a syndicator, because there’s no need to pay for all of Sgt. Pepper (or Wheels of Fire or Houses of the Holy or whatever) when you’re only going to play one or two cuts. Therefore, a jock would be at the mercy of however the song was mastered onto the library disc. Since it was meant for radio play, it would be highly unlikely to include the whole 40 seconds of the chord. Today, it’s likely that what you are hearing on the air is a digital file, and it’s not going to have the whole chord on the end, either, for reasons explained more fully below.

“What does a DJ know about a record the first time (s)he spins it?”

You might get a memo with a bit of information about each week’s new songs, or the new titles might be written on the studio whiteboard. In days of yore, some stations had music meetings to make sure the staff was up-to-date on new releases, recommended album cuts to push, and so forth. But at some stations, new songs just showed up in the rotation. (When I was a music director, I added new songs and tweaked rotations and libraries on Fridays, with the goal of freshening the station’s sound for the weekend.)

“Will the label be marked to indicate a 15-second instrumental intro, a dead-stop ending, a false ending, a fade, etc? Does somebody at the station give the thing a first listen and clue everybody else in?”

Back when record companies shipped promotional 45s to radio stations, they often printed intro time/total time/ending info right on the label, like this:

:15/3:09/f

If it wasn’t already on the record label, stations would sticker the label or the sleeve (or the tape cartridge) with the information, as well as notes about false endings, abrupt cold endings, and so on. Today, all of that usually appears on the label of the digital file that shows up on the studio computer screen. A digital readout counts down both the intro time and the total time, quite a luxury for those of us who once kept track by watching the second hand on the studio clock, or by feel.

It was once common for stations to hand-time singles. Phil Spector famously labeled “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” as 3:05 when he knew it was nearly four minutes, figuring that stations wouldn’t want to play a record that long, but by the time they figured out how long it really was, it would be a hit and they’d have to stay on it. But also, if record-company timing runs from the first note of the song until the last decibel of the fade, it’s not accurate. Stations don’t let records fade to nothing on the air. They want to know precisely how much usable audio is on the track.

Back in the day, the music director (or an intern) did the stickering and timing. The MD would have put the records in the appropriate bin for the different rotation categories, however a station classified them. Today, he or she does the computer manipulation necessary to prepare new songs for broadcast and to schedule them. The actual selection of songs—what to play and in what rotations—is usually done in conjunction with the program director, and it incorporates whatever research data the station uses. Years ago, the process relied heavily on the MD and PD’s ears, and what sounded like a hit. There’s more science than art involved today, but ears still matter. The best stations sound like an organic whole, and while data can help facilitate that, it can’t do it alone.

I am guessing some amongst the readership have more information to add, so please jump in.

Surveying Sgt. Pepper

How did AM Top 40 stations of 1967 deal with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? No single was released from the album in the States; “Penny Lane” backed with “Strawberry Fields Forever” had been released in February, and “All You Need Is Love” would come out in mid-July. But pop-music stations in the summer of 1967 could not ignore this titanic release, even without a single to push.

The first song on the album to show up at ARSA is “A Day in the Life.” The earliest entry is from KRLA in Los Angeles, which shows it as “A Day & A Life” on their survey dated April 19, six weeks before the album’s release. Speculation at the Steve Hoffman forums is that somebody at the station got an acetate from Paul McCartney or Beatles publicist Derek Taylor. But the song also shows up on a survey from WFIL in Philadelphia dated April 24, and at KYNO in Fresno and KELO in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on the 29th, as well as WBAM in Montgomery, Alabama, on May 10, so the acetate theory may have a hole it it. (Plenty of time in there to mail tapes of an acetate, I suppose.) In June, “A Day in the Life” shows up in Seattle, Minneapolis, Jacksonville, San Bernardino, Calgary, Worcester and others. British pirate Radio London had it at #1 for the week of June 11. (ARSA shows 25 total entries for “A Day in the Life,” the most for any Sgt. Pepper song, nosing out “When I’m Sixty Four” with 23.)

At KJR in Seattle, “A Day in the Life” was merely the first Sgt. Pepper song to chart. It debuted on June 2; “She’s Leaving Home” and “When I’m Sixty-Four” joined it on June 9. On June 16, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” debuted. (Which one, the opener or the reprise, is not clear.) The four songs ran the chart together until the week of July 7, when both “A Day in the Life” and “She’s Leaving Home” departed and “Lovely Rita” debuted. During the week of July 14, “Lovely Rita” was the lone Sgt. Pepper song left on the KJR Fabulous Fifty, and the new non-album single “All You Need Is Love” debuted. The two songs ran the chart together until “Lovely Rita” dropped off after August 11.

At WORC in Worcester, Massachusetts, the survey dated June 10, 1967, shows eight of the album’s 13 cuts: the “Sgt. Pepper” reprise, “She’s Leaving Home,” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” and “When I’m Sixty-Four” all in the Top 10, with “A Day in the Life,” “Lovely Rita, “With a Little Help From My Friends,” and “Good Morning Good Morning” further down. (WORC billed its surveys as “Worcester’s Official Request Survey,” which helps explain the heavy Beatle-ization during that June week.) A complete run of WORC surveys is not available at ARSA; the next one available, dated July 29, shows the “Sgt. Pepper” reprise and “A Day in the Life” still on, along with “All You Need Is Love” and its B-side, “Baby, You’re a Rich Man.”

What about the country’s two largest markets? During the week of June 17, WABC in New York showed “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Getting Better” as hitbound. But because WABC didn’t publish their entire rankings every week (as you’ll see if you look here), it’s not possible to know if the station stayed on either song longer than the single week they appear at ARSA. Neither WLS nor WCFL in Chicago charted any Sgt. Pepper songs, although surely they must have played some.

Also in New York, WOR-FM listed the entire album on its singles chart starting June 17 and stayed on it at least until July 8, the last date for which a survey is available. There are 88 listings at ARSA with the whole album as one entry on various stations’ singles charts. WBZ in Boston put it at #1 on its survey dated June 3 and kept it there until the week of July 8. (WBZ had previously charted Beatles VI, Rubber Soul, Yesterday and Today, and Revolver on its singles chart, and would do the same with Magical Mystery Tour.)  WRKO in Boston showed the Sgt. Pepper album at #5 for the week of June 15 before moving it to #1 the next week. Several other stations in New England followed suit within a few weeks. Stations as far-flung as Los Angeles, Orlando, and Atlanta also charted the entire album as one entry, although without placing it at #1.

In the download era, non-single songs from an album frequently chart. In the vinyl era, when 45s ruled, and before there was such a thing as album-rock radio, these statistics about Sgt. Pepper further illustrate what a groundbreaking release it was.

Our Batman

(Pictured: Adam West with Burt Ward and Julie Newmar at the launch of the Batman DVD series, 2014.)

I think I’ve written before how Batman, which premiered in the middle of my kindergarten year, was the first TV program I ever loved. At my tender age, I took it at face value, spending many a Thursday worrying about the predicament into which Batman and Robin were stuck at the end of Wednesday night’s episode. It wasn’t until I watched it again in adulthood that I saw past the storylines to the sendups—the way the camera tilted when showing each villain’s lair, the hilariously detailed labels on every piece of equipment in the Batcave, and the famous onomatopoetic fight scenes. I noticed how as Commissioner Gordon, Neil Hamilton would occasionally break the fourth wall, but also how Adam West never did.

West, who died over the weekend at the age of 88, played Batman absolutely straight, and it turned out to be one of the great performances in all of television. West’s Batman bridged the many different ways one could watch the show: straight, as we kindergartners did; campy, as our older brothers and sisters could; or as a satire on pop-culture crimefighters, as many adults could. In the middle of the roiling late 60s, his hopeless squareness (and that of his alter ego, Millionaire Bruce Wayne) would have run against every conception of what was cool—but it fit so perfectly into the world that the show was creating that it came out cool, too.

The single clip that best sums up the appeal of both West’s performance and Batman itself comes not from the TV show, but from the movie made between the first and second seasons, in which Batman is continually thwarted while trying to dispose of a bomb. Even if you’ve never seen the show, you get a great deal of insight into the character West played from the way he reacts to the various obstacles put in his way. And it’s not just the way he reacts, but also the way he acts. He never breaks character, never allows himself to appear exasperated or fearful, but keeps trying to find a way out of his predicament in a scene that lasts over a minute-and-a-half. And, most important to his character’s integrity, he never breaks the fourth wall.

Since the Batman movie franchise was launched in 1989, Batman has always been the Dark Knight, a tormented figure doing a job he’d rather not be doing in a city where nobody would choose to live. Fans of the comic books tend to prefer the Dark Knight (and many of them who had read the series before 1966 hated the TV Batman). Warner Brothers, which owns DC Comics, naturally preferred him too. (It’s been reported that Warner Brothers kept 20th Century Fox, which produced the TV show, from releasing it on DVD for a long time.) Although I’d never seen him described as such before the weekend, Adam West’s Batman was the Bright Knight. Active philanthropist and pillar of the community Bruce Wayne loved and served his day-glo, go-go metropolis, and so did his Batman.

When I bought the first season of Batman on DVD, I was surprised to find that I simply didn’t enjoy it—that the plots were repetitive and some of the performances were painful to watch. But that doesn’t change how I felt about it 50 years ago. Neither does it affect the brilliance of the character Adam West created. For those of us who were the right age in 1966 (and during the 1970s, when Batman was frequently seen on after-school TV), Adam West will always be our Batman, and that day-glo, go-go metropolis will always be our Gotham City.

(Note to patrons: because I have a lot of June posts to draw from, posting will be heavier than usual at One Day in Your Life this month. Sign up over there to get them e-mailed to you, or look for the latest posts linked in the right-hand column of this blog.)

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