Comings and Goings

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(Pictured: Thelma Houston.)

I dipped into the January 22, 1977, issue of Billboard the other day, as one does. On the Hot 100, the #1 song is “I Wish” by Stevie Wonder. (Debuting at #100 is “Up Your Nose” by Gabriel Kaplan.) Wings Over America is #1 on Top LPs and Tape, displacing the Eagles’ Hotel California, with Songs in the Key of Life at #3. The #1 song on Easy Listening is “Evergreen” by Barbra Streisand. “Don’t Leave Me This Way” by Thelma Houston is #1 on the National Disco Action Top 40. In Britain, “Don’t Give Up on Us” by David Soul is #1. In West Germany, it’s “Money, Money, Money” by ABBA.

But that’s not what’s interesting.

In Claude Hall’s weekly Vox Jox column, which chronicles the comings and goings of radio personalities, he writes, “There’s a special breed of person in radio called ‘The Radio Wife’ and without one a man usually doesn’t go as far as he should in radio, perhaps, and certainly doesn’t stay happy or married or either very long at a time.” He goes on to quote a letter he received, from the wife of a guy who had recently won a major broadcasting award. She writes:

But it’s nice to know that his love of music, knowledge of performers, and the 18,000 records we’ve carried from city to city have brought him such happiness and personal satisfaction. I’ve shared our excitement with you, because you understand the sorrows and joys of a radio career. Besides, I’m a very proud wife. I’ve married a hard-working, talented radio man, and although we’ve never made a lot of money and have never known that feeling of security you might get in another industry, we’ve shared more excitement in five years than most people have in a lifetime!

Hall goes on to name other “great radio wives” he knows personally, and then says, “I’m open for nominations on this matter. If you happen to know of or are married to a good radio wife who has put up with a lot of hell during your career, let me know. I’d like to present a winner with an award of some kind.”

Cringe-y? Kinda. But you know what? It’s true. Every time The Mrs. and I have moved from one city to another, it’s been for my job, first in radio and later in publishing. She has always been the trailing spouse, tasked with finding some work she could do after we packed up our lives for my career. When I came home with a job offer in another town she never said, “I don’t want to go there. Why don’t you find a job here so we can stay?”

“The radio wife” is a real thing, and a lot of us owe far more to one (sometimes more than one) than we can repay.

Elsewhere, KTNT in Tacoma, Washington, has some new equipment:

Marc VII is a programming planning unit for live radio. The air personality can program as many as 18 events in advance to appear on a screen (like a TV set) in front of him; each event, whether it is a commercial spot or a song, can then be triggered in turn by depressing a start button. Or the air personality can schedule several items in a row to run consecutively and automatically. . . . An entry keyboard allows the air personality to call upon events—music on carts or spots on carts, music and/or spots on tape decks, a record on a turntable. etc.—from up to 99 sources. Two IGM Go-Cart units, two Studer Revoxes [reel-to-reel decks], an IGM Instacart, and two turntables would allow him access on the air to 84 different music carts, 48 commercial carts, plus selections on reel-to-reel and turntable. KTNT engineer Jerry Beffa thinks “This is the way the entire industry will go in the future. We’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg in micro-processor devices in radio.”

Somebody would still have to change reel-to-reel tapes, cue up turntables, and replace certain carts. But apart from that, this is pretty much how we do it today, only with digital files.

The article ends with this: “Via an optional tape reader as an add-on,  which provides program planning for hours ahead, the unit can handle night-time programming when there is either an unexperienced [sic] personality on duty or no personality at all.”

In 1977, KTNT had seen the future, and the husbands of radio wives weren’t all that necessary.

The Tastemakers

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Here’s a paragraph about John F. Lyons’ book Joy and Fear: The Beatles, Chicago, and the Sixties, which didn’t make it into the post I wrote last month:

Another not-frequently-discussed aspect of Beatlemania explored by Lyons involves the different ways in which girls and boys responded to the Beatles. The short version is that the girls liked the look while the boys liked the sound, but there’s more to it than that. For girls, Beatles fandom was communal. Fan clubs and teen magazines devoted to the Beatles allowed girls to inhabit a space occupied by like-minded people. Lyons claims it helped ease the isolation some girls felt living in newly built suburbs. Boys, meanwhile, were divided by the Beatles’ look, especially in Chicago. In 1964 Chicago, the era of greasers in leather jackets wasn’t over yet. Beatle fashion—long hair, skinny-leg pants, and Cuban heels—was considered outrageous. Much of the criticism of it was homophobic.

I’m not the person to examine the gendered response to the Beatles in great depth, but I’d read it.

I have seen it argued that for much of the history of 20th century popular music, female listeners were the tastemakers. It was they who made stars of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, and who responded on a visceral level to Bing Crosby’s romantic crooning. The throngs who greeted the Beatles when they arrived in America, and the fans who screamed their lungs out for the Beatles and other stars of the 1960s, were overwhelmingly female. The argument continues that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, by making the Beatles into “serious” artists, made male critics into the more important tastemakers. What girls and women liked still mattered—ask any radio programmer over the last 50 years about the importance of attracting the female demographic—but for the next 30 years at least, the most influential American critics and rock writers were almost exclusively men. (Apart from Ellen Willis, I can’t think of another female music writer deemed worthy of space in prestigious national outlets at the time.) And far from the communal nature of female fandom, the male critics were communal only in the sense that they were published in those same prestigious outlets. They were almost universally upper-middle-class white guys hammering away on typewriters, solitary in their city apartments.

This has changed today, when some of the best music writers working are female and/or people of color. But even today, most radio programmers are men; most record executives are men. And nobody can imagine screaming throngs of young women going nuts over “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

Plausibly Related, on the Subject of Women and Men: I found myself kind of disconnected from the recent death of Ronnie Spector, with other things to do and other things to think about during that week. I did find time to listen to a few things people posted on the Internets, including a 1977 version of “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” recorded with the E Street Band. Of all the influences Bruce Springsteen and his mates could point to, the Phil Spector Wall of Sound and the urban pop of the girl groups might be the strongest. Even after all this time, “Born to Run” is still the greatest Phil Spector record not made by Phil Spector. It’s clear that the Wall of Sound frequently works for them.

But sometimes it does not.

Somewhere in my archives I have the album Introducing Darlene Love, her first proper solo album, released in 2015 and produced by Steven Van Zandt. Van Zandt’s overstuffed production is oppressive; four songs in I found myself wishing he’d back off and just let the lady sing. And I felt the same way about “Say Goodbye to Hollywood”: you guys have taken these vastly talented singers and done the same thing to them that Spector did, burying them in showy productions that conform to your personal vision. Did you even ask Ronnie or Darlene what they wanted to do?  What about their point of view, their perception of their talent, their artistic aspirations? Did you even consider that there might be another way to showcase the talents they possess? Or did you just assume that what you wanted is what they wanted?

Perhaps it was what they wanted to do, and if so, that’s fine. But the primacy of what men want is strong, in rock and roll as elsewhere. And it’s been true at least since Sgt. Pepper.

Perfecting Your Craft

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At some point last year, I put a version of the following into my e-mail newsletter, The Sidepiece. Here’s the original, from my Drafts file:

Making a radio show, commercial, or even a podcast, is a craft, like making a chair or throwing a pot. Certain aspects of furniture making have been modernized; you don’t have to make your own nails if you don’t want to, and electric tools are fine. Certain aspects of the radio craft have gone the same way. We don’t play music on records or commercials on tape cartridges, and we can let the sequence of digital files in front of us run more-or-less indefinitely. We can record our bits as voice tracks and do a show without actually being there in real time.

But some furniture makers prefer hand tools. They believe such tools provide a better feel or more control, or they’re simply more comfortable with them. The equivalent in radio is turning off the autopilot and running the individual elements, jingles and songs and commercials, manually. Or arranging the order of the commercials so that the strongest ones—the ones that are produced the best, or the most entertaining—go first. Or doing a live show even if you have the option of voice-tracking it. Doing things in the older ways can make you feel more connected to the craft you practice. And like a furniture-maker planing a board by hand, you can get it exactly how you want it. 

Not everybody in radio has enough talent to make it strictly as a performer, via sparkling wit or fierce intelligence or whatever it takes in a particular situation. Many more of us, however, have the skill and the dedication to persevere at perfecting our craft. If I were advising young air personalities or podcasters, I’d tell them to think of what they are doing not as performing—which I did, for far too long—but as making something, and to direct all their efforts toward making something they can be proud of.

Every few weeks I listen to some airchecks, driving around town and hearing my breaks like a regular person would. Not long ago, I was listening to a bit I had done, one I had put a lot of thought into. While I was doing it, I thought it sounded fine, but listening back to it later, I realized that it just didn’t work.

It happens. There are a lot of breaks in a radio jock’s lifetime, and not every one of them is going to be golden. But what you do after a bad break is important. When I considered myself a performer, I would simply shake off a bad break, fall back on my talent, and trust that if I got into the same situation in the future, I’d do better. But as a crafter, there’s value in living with bad breaks for a while.

If you were building a chair or throwing a pot, it would be important to recognize a rough edge, or when a piece doesn’t fit quite right, or that your basic design is flawed and next time you need to go about it a different way. Same is true for a radio show or a podcast. You cannot fall in love with everything you make. You have to be able to recognize good quality, or the lack of it, in your own work. You have to learn how to critique your own work, because in a do-more-with-less media world, outside feedback has become pretty rare.

And you have to be ruthless about it. Until you can dispassionately evaluate your own work and accept what you have to do to make it better, even at the cost of bruising your ego, you’re never going to be the crafter you aspire to be.

Among My Souvenirs

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(Pictured: Marty Robbins, in a promotional photo for the 1976 Academy of Country Music Awards show broadcast.)

A while back, I threatened to start a blog about 1970s country, and several amongst the readership said they’d read it. This trip inside the Top 100 country hits of 1976 from KLAC in Los Angeles is for y’all.

99. “Fly Away”/John Denver
67. “Country Boy”/Glen Campbell
56. “Hurt”/Elvis Presley
47. “Come on Over”/Olivia Newton-John
Lots of songs on this chart crossed over to the pop chart. All of these made the pop Top 40. Spoiler alert: there are others to be covered below.

78. “Afternoon Delight”/Johnny Carver
76. “Save Your Kisses for Me”/ Margo Smith
32. “Misty Blue”/Billie Joe Spears
Contemporaneous country covers, sprouting up as a song hit big on the pop charts, used to be a thing. That there would be one of “Afternoon Delight” was a mortal lock.

72. “Here Comes the Freedom Train”/Merle Haggard
16. “The Roots of My Raising”/Merle Haggard
4. “Cherokee Maiden”/Merle Haggard
“Here Comes the Freedom Train,” about the Bicentennial exhibit that criss-crossed the country from April 1975 through April 1977, was Haggard’s lowest-charting single since 1965 (!), and it still made #10 in Billboard.

70. “I’ll Go Back to Her”/Waylon Jennings
61. “Suspicious Minds”/Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter
15. “If You’ve Got the Money”/Willie Nelson
13. “Remember Me”/Willie Nelson
5. “Good Hearted Woman”/Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson
The Waylon and Willie outlaw country legend kicked into overdrive in 1976, with the compilation album The Outlaws, the first country album to get the RIAA’s new platinum certification for one million sold, and Willie’s The Sound in Your Mind, which was Billboard‘s #1 country album of 1976. Allow me to recommend yet again Outlaw: Willie, Waylon, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville, an excellent history of the movement, by Michael Streissguth.

68. “Somebody Loves You”/Crystal Gayle
46. “She Never Knew Me”/Don Williams
39. “Among My Souvenirs”/Marty Robbins

34. “El Paso City”/Marty Robbins
20. “Say It Again”/Don Williams
11. “Til the Rivers All Run Dry”/Don Williams
9. “I’ll Get Over You”/Crystal Gayle
Gayle, Robbins, and Williams are not usually mentioned among the first rank of country superstars, but they ought to be. “I’ll Get Over You” and “El Paso City” have been favorites of this blog since always. “She Never Knew Me” is quintessential Williams: brilliant storytelling as natural as breathing.

64. “Hank Williams, You Wrote My Life”/Moe Bandy
35. “Golden Ring”/George Jones and Tammy Wynette
I don’t have much to say about either one of these, but “Hank Williams, You Wrote My Life” and “Golden Ring” are about as country as country can be.

63. “Broken Lady”/Larry Gatlin
49. “If I Had to Do It All Over Again”/Roy Clark
29. “Faster Horses”/Tom T. Hall
17. “You’ll Lose a Good Thing”/Freddy Fender
10. “(I’m a) Stand by My Woman Man”/Ronnie Milsap

I’m gonna sing along with a lot of songs on this chart and nobody can stop me.

53. “The Man on Page 602″/Zoot Fenster. Behold an artifact of a viral sensation. On page 602 of the 1975 Sears Fall/Winter catalog was a picture of an underwear model, and it sure looked like he was accidentally displaying a bit of his junk. Alas, “The Man on Page 602” is not very good, but the fact that it got any traction at all indicates just how sensational the sensation was.

42. “Me and Ol’ CB”/Dave Dudley
27. “Convoy”/C. W. McCall
9. “The White Knight”/Cledus Maggard

As 1975 turned to 1976, CB radio songs were thick on the ground, and the top two below are additional artifacts of that time.

26. “I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You”/Jim Ed Brown and Helen Cornelius
7. “Sometimes”/Bill Anderson and Mary Lou Turner
If you turn on country radio today, you won’t hear many songs about adultery. Not so in the horny 70s. “I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You” is about two people who either want to do it or don’t, and/or want to get married before they do it, or don’t. “Sometimes” is a song I’ve written about before. Bill Anderson, who is now the longest-tenured living member of the Grand Ole Opry (60 years) since the death of Stonewall Jackson last month, had #1 hits with two different duet partners, Jan Howard and Turner.

2. “One Piece at a Time”/Johnny Cash
1. “Teddy Bear”/Red Sovine
Both of these also crossed over to the pop charts, although “Teddy Bear” spent but one week at #40. Sovine is also on this chart at #73 with “Phantom 309,” a truck-driving ghost story also recorded by Tom Waits.

Today, KLAC is a sports station, carrying the Dodgers, Clippers, Chargers, and UCLA football and basketball, but its history includes 23 years as a country station, from 1970 to 1993. My history includes several years as a country radio DJ, and most of these songs were heard on my shows at one point or another.

Happening Now

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(Pictured: the O’Jays on Soul Train in 1974.)

I spent some time recently poking through the yearly statistics at this website, and here’s some of what I found.

—I wrote 132 posts in 2021, totaling over 104,000 words (!). Those posts received 868 comments. WordPress does not show me the most-commented post of the year, but I am grateful for your interaction wherever it occurs.

—The eight most-read posts during 2021 were all written before 2021. The most-read was Off White on Soul Train, written in 2014, which pops up when people google to find out which white artist was the first to appear on Soul Train. In second place is a 2013 post called Believe It or Not, George Isn’t at Home, which is about pop songs used in Seinfeld episodes. Those two outdistance the pack by quite a lot. The Last Word on Humble Harve is next, a 2019 compilation of stuff I wrote in earlier times about the Los Angeles DJ who murdered his wife.

—My most-read statistics give me insight into what people are googling for. There was a bump in interest this year about the appearances of Neil Diamond and the Buffalo Springfield on Mannix, which I’ve written about a time or two. My yacht-rock post from 2017 gets hits every time people go searching for the term “yacht rock.” Posts about old rock festivals tend to get hits on weekend nights, as old hippies go a-googling into the past.

—My most-read post written in 2021 was Who’s Happening Now, in which I took publicist and prolific Twitter-er Eric Alper to task for fluffing Drake’s Hot 100 domination during a single week, and for his ongoing hype of Ariana Grande. After the post went up, Alper (who must have a Google alert set up to ping every time somebody mentions him online; if so, hello again, Eric) sent me a private message disputing my characterizations, but also put up a very cordial public comment on the post saying that he always has time for conversations about music, and that “there’s a lane and a road and an opinion for everyone.”

And after doing that, he went over to his Twitter feed and blocked me.

Dude has 785,000 followers and decided to block me, a guy with 546 Twitter followers and a regular readership of maybe 200 people at the outside. He is absolutely entitled to do whatever he wants, of course, including using a helicopter gunship to swat houseflies. But I would remind you of this: hit dogs holler.

—Other well-read posts written in 2021 included The Prize Movie and Other Tales of Local TV, about the locally produced entertainment shows and contests that were once a staple in markets large and small, and Art and Artifice, about the domination of “corporate rock” in the summer of 1981.

–My least-read post written in 2021 appears to be The Night It Hit the Fan, which indicates there may be a limit to your tolerance for stories from my distant past.

—Just for fun, I looked at the all-time statistics, which go back to my move to WordPress in 2007. My most-read post of all time is Favorite Waste of Time, which was my blogroll, and which hasn’t appeared on this site in nearly a decade and how it’s getting hits I don’t know, unless people are googling for the song “You’re My Favorite Waste of Time,” which is as likely an explanation as any. In second place all-time is jb on the Radio, and thank you for caring about that.

—I suppose I could use these stats to make some prognostication about the future of this website, but I ain’t doing that, except to say that I am going to keep writing here whenever there’s something to write about, for as long as I can sit upright at the keyboard. And at some future day, when this website stops updating without explanation, you’ll know what happened.

The one thing I would like to do is 2022 is to record the handful of podcast scripts that are in repose on my laptop somewhere. When I first launched the podcast I posted episodes every three weeks, and it was embarrassingly foolish of me to think I could keep that up. I have done only two or three since the fall of 2020, and if I were to do more than that in 2022, it would be a surprise to me.

But nothing is impossible, I suppose. I ended up back in full-time radio in 2021, and I never expected that to happen, either.

January 3, 1982: Split Time

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(Pictured: Olivia Newton John performs at the American Music Awards in January 1982.)

January 3, 1982, was a Sunday. Severe winter weather has battered the West and the Rockies since Christmas; in Wisconsin, there’s nearly a foot of snow on the ground after two major snowfalls in 72 hours, and more snow is forecast in the Midwest today. Subzero temperatures have been recorded from Michigan to Montana. President Reagan returns to the White House today from a holiday vacation in Palm Springs, California, where he will have to deal with the ongoing scandal surrounding national security advisor Richard Allen, who is on a leave of absence after being accused of soliciting bribes from Japanese corporations in conjunction with his private consulting business. Jury selection will continue this week in the trial of accused Atlanta child murderer Wayne Williams. In Poland, the martial law crackdown on labor unrest sparked by the Solidarity movement continues. The United States has imposed economic sanctions on Poland; Reagan will meet with West German leader Helmut Schmidt this week to discuss next steps.

In the NFL playoffs yesterday, Dallas crushed Tampa Bay 38-0 and San Diego beat Miami 41-38 in overtime after blowing a 24-0 lead and falling behind 38-31. Today, Cincinnati beats Buffalo 27-21 and San Francisco knocks off the New York Giants 38-21. Conference championship games will be played next Sunday.

On TV tonight, the CBS lineup includes 60 Minutes, Alice, The Jeffersons, and Trapper John M.D. NBC presents CHiPs followed by the theatrical movie The Boys From Brazil. On ABC, it’s Today’s FBI and the theatrical movie Running starring Michael Douglas. At his house in Colts Neck, New Jersey, Bruce Springsteen records several songs that will eventually be released on the album Nebraska. The Billboard Hot 100 will be frozen this week; Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” and “Waiting for a Girl Like You” by Foreigner were holding at #1 and #2 for the week of December 27, the fifth consecutive week they have occupied the top two positions. At WBEN in Buffalo, a new survey comes out on Tuesday. “Physical” and “Centerfold” by the J. Geils Band will hold at #1 and #2. “I Can’t Go for That” by Hall and Oates is #3 and “Comin’ In and Out of Your Life” by Barbra Streisand is #4. “Waiting for a Girl Like You” rounds out the Top Five. Three songs make big moves into the Top 10: “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie from #12 to #7, “Our Lips Are Sealed” by the Go-Gos from #15 to #8, and “Abacab” by Genesis from #23 to #9. “Turn Your Love Around” by George Benson moves from #17 to #13.

Perspective From the Present: Richard Allen resigned his post on Monday, January 4, although he was never shown to have broken any laws. The upcoming NFL conference championship games would both go down in history: the Cincinnati-San Diego game as the Freezer Bowl and the Dallas-San Francisco game for the last-minute Joe Montana-to-Dwight Clark touchdown pass known as “the catch.” And after a grim year for pop music in 1981, 1982 was sounding better already.

It was Christmas vacation at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, although I split time between home and my campus apartment. On Thursday, December 31st, I had done the New Year’s Eve countdown show on KDTH. On New Year’s Day, I ran the board for the station’s broadcast of the Rose Bowl, in which Iowa was thumped by Washington, 28-0. On Saturday the 2nd, two friends and I broadcast a basketball game on the campus radio station—a game that was sparsely attended given the viciously cold weather, and a broadcast likely unheard by anyone not participating in it. Afterward, my friends decided to sleep on my living room floor. The next morning, their cars wouldn’t start until I jumped them. That afternoon, I had to help dig my girlfriend’s car out of a snowdrift after she slid off the road on her way to work.

A couple of Sundays later, I would be on my way out of my apartment, bound for the radio station at 4:30AM, when I heard a banging noise from upstairs. I went to investigate and saw my roommate stomping out burning curtains, which had caught fire from being too close to the baseboard heater. Smoke damage made the apartment unlivable; I decided that I would rent my own place in Dubuque, considering that I was about to start working full-time at KDTH in February while finishing up my last semester of school. So in a span of about two weeks, I found a place, packed, and moved, and become suddenly, unexpectedly, a young man on his own in the city, with no roommates and no parents around, just me, and my salary of $200 a week.