You Can’t Say That on the Radio

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(Pictured: singer and songwriter Gayle on stage, earlier this month.)

(Do I need to do a language warning here? OK, you’re warned.)

Continue reading “You Can’t Say That on the Radio”

What We Were

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(Pictured: the Ramones in 1978. Not the Reagans’ kind of people.)

I appreciate your comments at this website. All of us together have been making us each of us smarter individually for a long time. Readers catch me in mistakes or offer perspectives I either did not consider or do not share.

If there’s a type of comment that bothers me, it’s this kind: a drive-by (on a 10-year-old post) from somebody who has likely never visited this site before, who got here via a Google search, read one post, and decided that what the world most needs to know is that “I think this thing you like actually sucks.” Nothing constructive or insightful, just the Internet equivalent of egging somebody’s car.

For some people, the strongest urge in life is not for food or sex, it’s to correct strangers online. I try to imagine having the ego to do that, but I can’t.

Last week, I got a comment that I honestly don’t know how to take. Reader Bob wrote, “You’ve become like my father in his latter years … calling hard-disk drive space ‘memory.'” The most charitable way to take that is as a compliment on my voluminous capacity for recollection (albeit Google-aided). I might also take it as a suggestion that I spend too much time noodling with the past, and that my memories have blurred into an undifferentiated mush of information that no longer passes for knowledge.

Which one it is doesn’t matter, really, and I don’t choose to be offended if it’s the latter. Bob is not a drive-by reader; he’s part of this community. But he happened to comment on the same day I found something in the archives that is about being stuck in the past, and whether a person can change. I wrote it after spending some time reading a now-defunct nostalgia website whose tagline was “you are what you were.” I have edited it a bit.

I may claim that in my head it’s still 1976, but I know I am not the same person I was in 1976—and thank goodness for that. The kid who lived through the unforgettable seasons of that year had no idea how much he didn’t know about life, and [he] wouldn’t have listened if you had tried to tell him so. And when I get nostalgic about those wild nights in college, I forget that the kid participating in those wild nights was, at the risk of putting too fine a point on it, quite an asshole.

I suspect that all of us have been people we are glad to no longer be, even as we cling to the memory of having been those people.

I have, from time to time, gotten reacquainted with people I’ve known since childhood but had been out of touch with for years. Generally, we discovered that the adult versions of ourselves were far more likable than the younger versions had been. Time had sanded away our most maddening qualities, but it had left much of the good in us intact.

So we are not necessarily what we were, no. If we’re lucky, we might still retain the best of what we were.

Links and Notes: I am still trying, and mostly succeeding, at spending less time on Twitter. It has made a modest difference in my mental health, and I intend to keep staying off. But I am still finding worthwhile stuff on it now and then, and here’s some of it:

Continue reading “What We Were”

One Night at the Firehouse

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(Pictured: L to R, Richard Pryor, Lou Gossett, David Cassidy, Shirley Jones, and Susan Dey in a still from “Soul Club.”)

I found this post in the archives the other day. 

January 29, 1971: The Partridge Family is in its first season, part of ABC’s fondly remembered Friday night lineup. The family’s #1 hit, “I Think I Love You,” is still on the radio, and in another week their followup single, “Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted,” will bubble under on its way into the Hot 100 and eventually, the Top 10.

On this particular Friday night, the Partridges have a problem. They’ve been booked into a club in Detroit, but it isn’t the posh hotel ballroom they’re expecting—it’s an old firehouse in a neighborhood they clearly find questionable, even nobody comes right out and says so. They park the bus, they go inside, and after a minute or two, one of the owners of the club slides down the pole. The actor on that pole had been knocking around big-time showbiz since his first network TV appearance in 1964. He appeared several times on The Ed Sullivan Show doing Cosby-style standup, nothing like the revolutionary character-based material that would make him a household name beginning in 1974.

In the Partridge episode “Soul Club,” Richard Pryor and Lou Gossett play brothers who have opened the Firehouse as a neighborhood social club where “our people” can meet and hang out. They were expecting the Temptations to perform, but a booking agent screwup sent the Temps to Tucson and the Partridges to Detroit. Neighborhood boss Heavy, from whom Pryor and Gossett have borrowed the money to start up, is the one who orchestrated said screwup, and he threatens to call their note.

While hanging out in the club office (decorated with a Jimi Hendrix poster and one for famed California underground radio station KPPC), the Partridges get an idea: a block party, at which they’ll play, in hopes of making enough money to keep the club afloat. Keith says, “I’ve got an idea for a new song! It’s an Afro thing.” Pryor arranges it for a string section, which Danny recruits from the local Afro-American Cultural Society, and which is intended to stand for the local chapter of the Black Panthers. The block party is a hit (even if Keith’s song, “Bandala,” is about as African as Keith himself), the note is paid, the club is saved, and the Partridges promise to play there again someday. Palms are slapped and awkward soul shakes are exchanged, Danny is made an honorary member of the Afro-American Cultural Society complete with revolutionary black beret, there are laughs all around, and we fade to black.

According to David and Joe Henry, authors of Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him, “Soul Club” was a backdoor pilot for a future series starring Pryor and Gossett. It’s hard to know how serious the backdoor pilot talk really was. By 1971, the time was surely right for a TV series focused on African-American characters, but a series set in a club that supposedly attracted national acts would be tough to sustain without actually getting some of those acts to appear. (In addition to the Temptations, the name of James Brown is also dropped in “Soul Club.”) At that point, Gossett had more acting experience than Pryor, having previously co-starred in the Revolutionary War series The Young Rebels. Pryor was already earning a certain reputation for trouble. In her autobiography, Shirley Jones remarked that Pryor was “drugged up” during filming. He would return to small TV and movie roles for another three or four years.

TV historian Tom Hill ranks “Soul Club” at #81 on his list of the 100 best TV sitcom episodes of all time. In an era when popular entertainment prized “relevance,” it certainly had that, even while swaddled in a blanket of Hollywood cheese. And it’s one of those grand collisions between pop-culture icons you’d never expect to mention in the same breath.

If you watch, be sure to notice to the way the Black neighborhood is portrayed at first as an alien world, in which the Partridges are meant to stand for the viewer, who is presumed to be a fellow white suburbanite. (The idea of whiteness as the default condition of humanity is textbook white privilege.) “Soul Club”‘s attempt to bridge the gap between the white folks watching and “our people” is the kind of “relevance” that helped move network TV toward more inclusiveness, but it also reveals just how far was left to go in 1971.

May 11, 1997: Deep Blue

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(Pictured: Garry Kasparov makes a move against computer opponent Deep Blue.)

May 11, 1997, was a Sunday.  It is Mother’s Day. Rain is forecast for the Northeast and Midwest, but the southern United States and Pacific Coast are mostly dry. Headlines on the Sunday papers include an earthquake in Iran that killed 2,000 people; more legal wrangling over the Whitewater real estate scandal involving Bill and Hillary Clinton; the agreement between NBC and the cast of Seinfeld to continue the top-rated show; and the ongoing match between Russian world chess champion Garry Kasparov and IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer, which is tied going into today’s final match. Today, Deep Blue wins.

At Radio Shack, you can get a new IBM Aptiva home computer with 3.1GB of memory, 16MB of RAM, a fast 33.6Kbps modem with fax, and a 166Mhz Pentium processor for $1999. If you’re in the market for a car, the Cherry Burrell Employees Credit Union of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is offering a 7.4 percent/60-month auto loan for 1996 or 1997 models, with higher rates and shorter terms for older models.

In the NBA, the Chicago Bulls, going for their fifth NBA title in seven years, take a 3-1 lead in their NBA Eastern Conference semifinal series with an 89-80 win over the Hawks in Atlanta. Also today, the New York Knicks go up 2-1 on Miami with a 77-73 win. In the Western Conference semifinals, the Houston Rockets beat the Seattle SuperSonics 110-106 in overtime and lead 3-1. The other Western semifinal has the day off; the Utah Jazz lead the Los Angeles Lakers three games to one. Game five is tomorrow night in Salt Lake City. In the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, three series are decided today: the New York Rangers, Philadelphia, and Edmonton join Detroit in the conference finals. The Red Wings swept their semifinal series over Anaheim last week; game two of the series went 91 seconds into the third overtime before the Red Wings won it, five hours and 40 minutes after the game began. In Major League Baseball, the best record belongs to the Atlanta Braves, who beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 8-2 today.

Two new movies top the box office this weekend: The Fifth Element, a science-fiction thriller starring Bruce Willis, and Father’s Day, a comedy starring Robin Williams and Billy Crystal. Other top movies include Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. On TV tonight, CBS wins the night with part 1 of The Last Don, a miniseries based on the novel by Godfather author Mario Puzo, which stars Danny Aiello and Joe Mantegna. ABC airs the first episode of its own novel-based miniseries tonight, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. NBC Sunday Night at the Movies presents the theatrical release Timecop. Fox presents its regular Sunday-night lineup, which includes The Simpsons, King of the Hill, and The X-Files. Shows on the WB tonight include The Parent ‘Hood, The Steve Harvey Show, and The Jamie Foxx Show.

On this week’s Billboard Hot 100, “Hypnotize” by Notorious B. I. G. is #1 again this week, two months after Biggie’s death in a drive-by shooting. “You Were Meant for Me” by Jewel is #2. “Mmm Bop” by Hanson makes a big leap to #6 from #16. “Wannabe,” the first hit by the Spice Girls, is down to #10 from #6. Only three songs are new in the Top 40 this week: “G.H.E.T.T.O.U.T” by Changing Faces makes its Hot 100 debut at #28; “Don’t Wanna Be a Player” by Joe is at #34, and “Bitch” by Meredith Brooks debuts in the 40 at #37. Michael Jackson’s new song, “Blood on the Dance Floor,” makes its Hot 100 debut at #42. The #1 spot on the Billboard 200 album chart belongs to Share My World by Mary J. Blige. The #1 adult contemporary song is “For the First Time” by Kenny Loggins; #1 country is “One Night at a Time” by George Strait.

Perspective From the Present: I finished my teacher-ed program at the University of Iowa during the previous week, although I would take one additional course during the summer while hunting for a job. The lone offer I received was from a Catholic school in Illinois where I would have made as much money as I did on my last radio job. A couple of weeks later, I was offered a job by an educational publishing firm, which I took. I regret, a little bit, that I never taught beyond my student-teacher semester to see if I could do it without a net. But going into publishing was the right choice, and I’ve never regretted that.

Playing the Hits

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(Pictured: in 1982, Pac-Man was the biggest hit of all.)

On the front page of Radio and Records from May 7, 1982, is a story about WBBM-FM in Chicago adopting consultant Mike Joseph’s Hot Hits format. Joseph, already a successful programmer in places such as New York City and Detroit (as architect of the legendary WKNR, Keener 13), reasoned that people wanted to hear the hits, period, so that’s what he gave them. A Hot Hits station played its top five songs once per hour, with a few other current hits mixed in around them. The station’s entire on-air library might be 50 songs, if that.

Joseph’s first major-market Hot Hits station was WCAU-FM in Philadelphia. On 5/7/82, it reported to R&R a conventional-looking list of 40 songs plus a handful of new and uncharted songs. Five songs appear on the list with the letter H, which I am guessing were the ones being heard every hour: “Ebony and Ivory” by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, “Empty Garden” by Elton John, Asia’s “Heat of the Moment,” “Crimson and Clover” by Joan Jett, and “Let It Whip” by the Dazz Band.

Hot Hits peaked in a time when hot-rockin’, flame-throwin’ Top 40 radio was migrating to FM, and Joseph brought those elements to his client stations. The format was crowded with jingles and sweepers, and the jocks were required to keep it tight. If a song intro was 14 seconds long, they had to talk for 14 seconds. If they went 12 or 13, they were likely to be hotlined by Joseph himself, if he happened to be in town. A high-energy presentation was mandatory, even with the softer songs. At WHYT in Detroit, where the format launched in 1983, one of the jocks told me that he would be physically wrung out at the end of every shift.

To determine what “the hits” were, Joseph looked closely at record sales. He played what people were buying. Radio always claimed that this is what it did, but what they meant was “we’re playing the music people are buying as long as it fits our format.” In Philadelphia, Joseph would play R&B and new-wave hits that hadn’t broken big on Top 40 stations elsewhere. In this week, the WCAU-FM list is pretty conventional, but it does include a few songs that never became big Top 40 hits: “Murphy’s Law” by Cheri, Atlantic Starr’s “Circles,” “Apache” by the Sugar Hill Gang, “Mama Used to Say” by Junior, “Genius of Love” by Tom Tom Club, and the Temptations’ “Standing on the Top.”

The pure Hot Hits format burned out quickly. WBBM-FM, newly christened B96, started tinkering with Joseph’s formula almost immediately. Within a year or two, the format’s moment was passing, but its influence lingered. After stations Joseph had consulted let their agreements lapse, they kept some of his principles intact.

After Mike Joseph died in 2018, Sean Ross wrote about his career and his impact. Go read it.

What else was in R&R 40 years ago this week?

Continue reading “Playing the Hits”

Everything for Everyone

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(Pictured: You have forgotten—and by “you,” I mean me—that in 1971, Shelley Fabares played Joy Piccolo opposite James Caan, in Brian’s Song.)

(I’m not convinced my argument in the following post isn’t profoundly flawed in some way, and if so I trust you will point it out, but it’s time to hit “publish” and move on.)

Many amongst the readership were enchanted by my story last week about the clueless young DJ who followed a Motley Crue record with Shelley Fabares’ 1963 hit “Johnny Angel” played at the wrong speed. No, there’s no tape. I heard it while I was driving home one night, and it was so absurd that I half-believed I was hallucinating it after a long day at work.

I mentioned it as an example of how the competitor station we called Brand X was hilariously bad, although it represents a familiar line of small-market thinking: if we program something for everyone, then everyone will listen. But that wasn’t true in 1992, and it hadn’t been true since the 1960s, before targeted formats became a thing. A person who liked “Johnny Angel” did not have to sit through Motley Crue every day waiting to hear “Johnny Angel”; they could find a radio station that played “Johnny Angel” all the time.

(“But I like a variety of music on the radio.” Yes, but chances are you like it within certain limits: a variety of classic rock, or as the famous adult-contemporary positioning statement says, “today’s hits and yesterday’s favorites.” Most people aren’t turning on the radio to hear a Haydn string quartet in the same quarter-hour with a new Drake song. The we-play-anything Jack stations that proliferated in the early 00s had carefully curated libraries, and so do today’s variety stations. You can’t build a bridge between Motley Crue people and Johnny Angel people and expect advertisers to pay for it.)

Why was Brand X playing Motley Crue in the first place? Because they believed that the local high-schoolers were listening to their hopeless mishmash, on AM. “They live here, so naturally they listen to us.” Unless you are quite literally the only signal audible on the dial, there’s nothing natural or automatic about it. Most people need a better reason than that. There was no way for a crappy little AM peashooter to “out-music” a half-dozen crystal-clear FM stereo stations, even if those stations were 30 miles down the road. If music is what a listener wants, that’s where they’re going, no matter what their age.

But to attract other potential listeners, Brand X had the same advantages my stations had. It involved the stuff we did that the bigger stations would not and could not do. It was in our local personalities, local news and sports coverage, the commitment to broadcast from the local summer festival, and even in the commercials from local advertisers who had neither the need nor the budget to be on one of the bigger stations. You could—and we did—capture the listeners for whom that is a major attraction.

The music you play around that stuff is secondary. Many of your listeners may not care about music all that much. If you want to keep them, the music shouldn’t work against you—which is what a mindless “something for everyone” commitment to variety risks. At KDTH, we emphasized pop country over hardcore twangers, figuring that Kenny Rogers’ appeal (to name one) was broader than that of George Jones, and would retain more of the people who listened for local news, the homemaker show, and University of Iowa football. Competing against Brand X, we ran a format that played current adult hits but was also heavy on 60s and 70s rock and pop. The idea was to be highly familiar without going too far out—to not let the records work against us. If it was a little bland, it was also safe. (Unlike a Motley Crue-to-Johnny Angel segue.) It didn’t get in the way of our broader purpose, which was to entertain people who weren’t necessarily there for the music to begin with.

In major-market radio, your music is often your reason for being. Back in the day, small-market stations made a mistake when they believed it was their reason for being, too. We had to compete on ground where we had an advantage. Today, in a world of streaming audio, there’s a certain irony in major-market stations struggling to learn and embrace what we in the small markets knew 30 or 40 years ago, about how to be relevant when you can’t “out-music” your competition.