Art Goes to War

With the centennial of Armistice Day coming this weekend, here’s something off-topic.

The picture was taken 100 years ago. The young man in the military uniform regards the camera with a unsmiling gaze meant to express determination. It is a look I don’t remember seeing. Years hence, he will almost always look at his grandsons with a kindly twinkle. The determination is there because Arthur E. Bartelt of Winslow, Illinois, age 20, is going off to lick the Kaiser.

We don’t know how Art came to be in that uniform. As America’s involvement in the Great War intensified, he would have been required to register for the draft in either August or September 1918. This third registration was the first to include men under the age of 21, but it’s likely he had already volunteered by then. I never thought to ask him, and my grandmother, whom he would not meet until the 1920s, wasn’t able to remember. It is likely that he had completed his stateside training and was set to go to Europe when the Armistice intervened, because below his picture in the photo frame hangs a medal that belonged to him, inscribed with the words “welcome home.” So he received his welcome even though he never left.

Grandpa Art changed the spelling of his last name from Bartelt to Bartlett sometime in the 1920s. (We don’t know the why of this either. It may have been to reflect the way people in northern Illinois pronounced the name. A better story I’ve also heard is that he changed it to spite his father, my great-grandfather, with whom he didn’t get along.) He has been gone since 1986. I have a million questions I wish I had asked him, and not just about his military service or his father. I suspect that his military records were among those destroyed in a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. Eighty percent of the Army’s records of personnel who served between 1912 and 1960 were lost.

The jacket Art wears in the picture was eventually handed down to my brother, who wore it out during his college days in the early 80s. (I still have the pants, somewhere.) Although I have pictures of Art in a suit, I always think of him in bib overalls, with a chambray work shirt underneath and the engineer-style cap he always wore on his head. The only variations came in the summer, when it was really hot. He would shuck the chambray shirt and work in bibs alone, and he sometimes broke out a safari hat with a wide brim to keep off the sun.

Art farmed every day of his life until he was in his mid-80s, and he put far younger men to shame. When we were in high school, my brother had a friend who, whenever he needed $10, would come over on a summer day and unload hay wagons for a few hours, often alongside Grandpa Art. On one especially hot afternoon, my brother’s friend came into the kitchen, grabbed a soda from the fridge, threw himself down at the table, and exclaimed, “That old man’s incredible.”

One day, two or three years after his health had made it impossible for him to work as he used to, Art decided to get the ladder, climb up the side of his house, and clean the gutters. He had a heart attack, fell off, and died at age 88. Sad, yes, but during the last half-hour of his life he felt useful and was almost certainly happy, and we should all be so fortunate as to go out that way.

Grandpa Art and Grandma Vera, so stoop-shouldered she was nearly bent double, lived on the other end of our farm, in a house that my brother and his family occupy now. They were fixtures in our lives. When we were little, we’d see one or the other, or both, almost every day. While they were incredibly kind to my brothers and me, my sense is that they were not nearly so kind to my father, their only son. I wasn’t old enough to understand what went on when it was happening. Now that I’m older, it’s a subject I haven’t pursued. I’d rather remember them the way I do.

Other Duties As Assigned

Embed from Getty Images

I am not actively looking for a full-time radio job, but if I see a job listing that intrigues me, I’ll make the appropriate inquiries. I saw one a few weeks ago for an operations manager gig in a small market. The initial posting made the job sound like the kind of thing a radio veteran such as I might be well-suited for, so I responded to the e-mail address and asked them to send the job description. It follows here, edited to eliminate any potential identifying information. Square brackets are my annotations, parentheses are in the original.

Hosting mornings 6AM-noon Monday thru Saturday [on one station, voice-tracked] plus other fill-ins as needed on [other station in the group] plus remotes and public appearances, including walking in and attending parades

Office hours of 8:30AM-5PM (with some time set aside to voice Monday morning news on Sunday night; no in-studio visit or time required)

News for [other station in the group] at 6AM, 7AM, 8AM, noon, 4PM, and 5PM Monday thru Friday (approximately three stories each with actualities)

Serve as production director for [both stations]

Creative writing and production submission to voice talent

Commercial production and client coaching

Imaging for [one station] and some for [other station in the group] as assigned

Maintaining EAS and public file for [both stations]

Downloading and uploading weekend syndication

[weekly public service program] recording and production

Weekend talent scheduling

Social media postings

Help with [e-mail list maintenance]

Help with website maintenance

Studio and office maintenance (windows/garbage/recycling/vacuum)

Other duties as assigned

Broadcasters wear a wider variety of hats nowadays as ownership groups pare expenses to the bone. It’s not unusual to have multiple duties across multiple stations in a single group. However, as I read this, there’s no way this job gets done in the specified office hours of 8:30 to 5. Even if you assume an operations manager is normally going to work 10-hour days to make it a 50-hour week (which is not unusual, especially in a small market), that’s still not going to be enough time. Between voice-tracking a six-hour show, doing news, and handling production and imaging, this job will require a minimum of three to five hours in a recording studio every single day. Only after that could you start thinking about tackling the rest of your responsibilities—down to emptying the wastebaskets, vacuuming the floors, and washing the fking windows.

And by the way, it’s going to be a seven-day job a lot of the time, because many remotes and public appearances are going to be on Saturdays, and you’re also expected to have “time set aside to voice Monday morning news on Sunday night; no in-studio visit or time required.” It’s nice of them to let you do it from your home studio—if you have one, and you’d damn well better get one. But even if the newscasts are only three stories long, somebody still has to write them and gather the actualities they require, either by making calls to local newsmakers or picking up soundbites from some network news source. Who’s going to be responsible for that every single day?

I think I know who.

In the end, what intrigues me the most is the last bit: “other duties as assigned.” What other duties could there possibly be when you’re already doing the jobs of DJ, operations manager, production director, news director/anchor, and janitor?

Yeah no, I’m not pursuing this gig any further, although I was tempted to play it out just to see what kind of salary they would offer. If they asked my requirements, I’d start at $125,000, since I’d be doing the jobs of three or four people—and $125K would be cheap for what they’d be getting. Hell, asking for an ownership stake wouldn’t be entirely out of line. But one person doing all of it for a single small-market salary—maybe $25K or $30K a year, but maybe less—is something no humane employer should expect, and something nobody with any other employment options should accept.

I’m sure this company will eventually find somebody who doesn’t blanch at this job description—somebody who has no idea how completely insane it is. But at least the poor bastard will get experience doing nearly everything a person on the programming side of a radio station has to do nowadays.

I understand the need for a company to operate as efficiently as possible, but how efficient is it to hire somebody for an impossible gig, burn them out, and have to hire someone else? Because that’s what’s gonna happen here.

A Thin Disguise

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: the Eagles and some friends take a bow.)

We live in a world where old guys like me have to continually check ourselves regarding our interactions with women. For example, I grew up in a time when it was perfectly normal, and even considered polite, to compliment a woman on her appearance. I don’t do that anymore, except with The Mrs., because I don’t want to risk making work colleagues feel uncomfortable. I check myself to see whether I interrupt or overtalk or mansplain. I’ve even discussed these sorts of things with the women in my life. I don’t do it out of a desire to be a social justice warrior. I do it because I was taught to be decent to other people as best I can.

That I grew up halfway enlightened is a credit to my parents, and especially to Dad, who was a liberated husband and father before it was cool. In 1964, black activist Stokely Carmichael was asked about the position of women in his movement, and he responded, “Prone.” Joke that it was, it expressed a truth commonly held for years thereafter: that a woman’s proper place was, if not taking care of her man in his home and in his bed, than at the very least, taking care of him in his bed. The womanizing excesses of rock stars and athletes were well-known then, especially in the 70s, but as something they—or any man, powerful or otherwise—were entitled to by virtue of being men. A woman who insisted on what she felt she was entitled to—taking charge of her own desires, or her own life choices—was likely to find herself branded as an oddball, an outcast, a rebel, or a threat.

(As recently as three years ago, it felt as though American society was beginning to evolve beyond these attitudes. Today, they’re highly fashionable again, at least among a certain class of moron.)

Take the Eagles as one example of how these attitudes worked. In a lot of Eagles songs, a woman is present to stroke the ego of a man, or as the object of his desire, sexual or emotional. But if she becomes more than just a passive plaything—if she gains power, especially sexual or emotional—she becomes an obstacle to the man getting what he deserves. In one famous case, a woman who merely tries to live her life the best way she can gets judged for it in terms of what she’s doing to the man in her life.

One way to read the theme of the Eagles’ “Lyin’ Eyes” is that we do whatever we must do to best live with the life choices we have made. It’s beautifully played, sung, and produced. It was on the radio during a season I remember fondly. But its easy-rockin’ feel hides a viciousness inside of it.

You remember the story. A young woman marries a rich old man, but she discovers that money is no substitute for youthful passion. So she sneaks away to find that passion with a man her own age, and later feels guilty about having done so. Anyone listening, man or woman, can probably imagine themselves in the woman’s place. I feel compassion for her. I suspect that many listeners do, and that Don Henley and Glenn Frey were happy to make us feel that way. But that last verse is cruel:

My oh my, you sure know how to arrange things
You set it up so well, so carefully
Ain’t it funny how your new life didn’t change things
You’re still the same old girl you used to be

The story goes that Henley and Frey were inspired to write the song by the sight of a younger woman and older man together in a Hollywood restaurant, and Frey’s instant assumption that their relationship had to be based on a lie. And so, rather than pointing out that you can’t run away from who you are—an observation most of us would find reasonable—they’re standing up for a rich old man they consider the real victim. “Take your unhappiness and suck on it, you conniving, cuckolding bitch. You’re the same whore you were back when you had nothing.”

Half the Story

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton.)

I spent some time this week at ARSA reading through random radio surveys as October turned to November, so here’s a fragmentary look at some of those bygone weeks:

WGEM, Quincy, Illinois, 1966 1967: This chart is is topped by “The Rain, the Park, and Other Things” by the Cowsills, a song we dig around here. “Let It Out” by the Hombres and Neil Diamond’s “Kentucky Woman” both blast into the Top 10, as does “That’s Just Half the Story” by Herman Grimes. Grimes was a popular local act in St. Louis (a couple of hours from Quincy) and was inducted into the St. Louis Classic Rock Hall of Fame in 2017 alongside such luminaries as REO Speedwagon and Miles Davis.

(Digression: this year’s inductees to the St. Louis Classic Rock Hall of Fame include longtime St. Louis and Kansas City radio jock and friend of the blog Randy Raley. It’s an honor well-deserved. I wish my career had produced 10 percent of the stories Randy’s has, some of which he’s told at his own blog, From the Rearview Mirror. Here’s one about dinner with Alan Parsons and the bathroom break that wasn’t.)

WCFL, Chicago, 1973: The Rolling Stones’ “Angie” goes to #1 on this chart, taking out Cher’s “Half-Breed.” Making a strong move into the Top 10 is “Rubber Bullets,” the first American chart hit by 10cc, which made #73 on the Hot 100. Crosstown rival WLS charted it for nine weeks and it got as high as #23. Also outperforming its national number (#33) in Chicago: the fantastic “Jimmy Loves Mary Anne” by the Looking Glass, which is at #6 at WCFL this week after peaking at #5. It went to #2 at WLS.

WIRB-FM, Enterprise, Alabama, 1975: Enterprise, Alabama, is roughly equidistant from Montgomery, Alabama, and Tallahassee, Florida. WIRB’s survey touts “10,000 watts of stereo rock,” which you can inject straight into my veins, especially “Miracles,” “Lady Blue,” “It Only Takes a Minute,” “Lyin’ Eyes,” and “Games People Play.” At #12 is the debut single by the Canadian band Trooper, “Baby Woncha Please Come Home.” If you know them at all, it’s probably for “Raise a Little Hell” in 1978.

WPDH-FM, Poughkeepsie, New York, 1978: This station charts approximately 80 albums, including all the expected chart-toppers of the day. No self-respecting album station of the 70s would fail to play jazz and fusion, so WPDH also charts Jean Luc Ponty’s Cosmic Messenger, Chuck Mangione’s Feels So Good and Children of Sanchez, Images by the Crusaders, Sea Level’s On the Edge, and Mr. Gone by Weather Report. And just to make sure the spectrum gets completely spanned, the station is also playing Talking Heads, Waylon Jennings, and the FM soundtrack. I’d listen to it.

KKBQ-FM, Houston, 1983: There’s not much to get me excited on this chart, although “Islands in the Stream” by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton is damn near perfect. Debuting at #24 is “Superstar” by Lydia Murdock, which includes a bassline you will recognize and the words “I’m Billie Jean and I’m mad as hell / I’m a woman with a story to tell.” It didn’t make the Hot 100, and its 20 listings at ARSA come from three stations: KKBQ, KIQQ in Los Angeles, and CKGM in Montreal, where it made the Top 10.

WHTT-FM, Boston, 1985: The summer of 1985 was a glorious era for radio music. By the fall, things weren’t quite so glorious, although this week’s #1, “Take on Me” by a-ha is an all-timer, and you can’t listen to the radio for very long today without hearing “Part Time Lover,” “Money for Nothing,” “You Belong to the City,” or “Broken Wings.” But this chart also includes “Oh Sheila” by Ready for the World, which had been one of the weakest Hot 100 #1s ever, and plenty of other records that disappointed me back then: Godley and Creme’s bizarre “Cry,” one of the worst momentum killers in radio; “Communication” by Power Station and “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down” by Paul Young, which were not remotely as good as the hits those artists had charted earlier in the year; and “Sleeping Bag,” with which ZZ Top began their descent into self-parody.

KDWB-FM, Minneapolis, 1989: I often talk about the crazed variety of Top 40 radio in the 70s, but that decade’s got nothing on this week. The KDWB Top 10 includes Europop, dance music, a blues guitarist, hard rock, a pop power ballad, and two hits by New Kids on the Block. Go a little farther down and get you some hair metal and hip-hop too.

Cherry-picking the charts doesn’t really tell the whole story of any given week. But it got us up to the word count, didn’t it?

Is This the Real Life?

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Queen in 1976.)

This is not the post I was planning for today. I wrote something a few weeks ago, scheduled it, took it down, rewrote it, scheduled it again, and got up this morning thinking nah, I ain’t doing that. So here’s a rundown of some stuff that has recently passed through my Twitter feed instead.

—The movie Bohemian Rhapsody opens in the States on Friday. The handful of reviews I have read suggest that Rami Malek’s portrayal of Freddie Mercury is impressive, but the movie itself is only just OK. A piece in The Guardian suggests that the film sanitizes Mercury, depicting his sexuality as a problem rather than an animating force behind his art and his life.

—Tonight at my house we’ll watch It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, as we’ve done around Halloween since God was a boy. The show inspired our man Kurt Blumenau to state five reasons why he likes it. In a Twitter exchange, Kurt pointed out that in the title of my post about The Great Pumpkin last week, I misquoted Linus’ anguished line after Lucy stabs the pumpkin, which is actually, “You didn’t tell me you were gonna kill it!” I have resisted changing the title, but it’s gonna drive me nuts every October until the end of time. (During my recent trip to the East Coast, I had the opportunity to hang out with Kurt for a couple of hours over beers and pizza. It was the best part of the trip by a long shot.)

—You may recall that I’m a Rosanne Cash fan. We’ve seen her live three times (with a likely fourth in Madison next spring), and her albums are an instant buy. Her latest, She Remembers Everything, will be out on Friday. You can still stream it at NPR, and you should.

—Also out on Friday is a new album by J. D. McPherson. I know precious little about him beyond what a quick Internet search turns up—a fortysomething rocker inspired by Buddy Holly and other 50s rock and R&B acts. But a headline on Paste‘s Twitter feed grabbed my attention: “JD McPherson Is Planning a Retro-Rock Christmas With Holiday Album Socks.” “Retro-rock Christmas” is in my wheelhouse, even when it’s rushing the season—and holy smokes, the two tracks previewed with the story, “Socks,” and “Hey Skinny Santa,” are fabulous. Socks is gonna be an instant buy on Friday as well.

—I have written here many times before that my parents were (and are) devoted radio listeners. So in addition to memories of hearing my own music on my own stations, I remember hearing their music on their stations. And it was on their stations that I first heard Freddie Hart, because while his crossover hit “Easy Loving” made #17 on the Hot 100, WLS didn’t chart it. “Easy Loving” was the first of Hart’s six straight #1 country singles in Billboard, a streak that also included the very fine My Hang-Up Is You,” which sounds like a reboot of “Easy Loving” and was #1 for six weeks where “Easy Loving” did only three. This past Saturday, Freddie Hart died at the age of 91. He had just finished a gospel album, which hasn’t been released yet.

—After Hurricane Michael hit Florida, a radio station in Panama City Beach was shut down by its owner after suffering storm damage. But two of the station’s DJs, Tiffany Dunning and Sean Streeter, weren’t ready to stop operating in the public interest, convenience, and necessity. One of them had evacuated to Birmingham and another to Nashville, but they kept updating emergency information on the station’s Facebook page even after the station was off the air. Streeter says, “This is what we signed up for as broadcasters.” Damn straight, sir, and well done.

Raise All Kinds of Candy to the Stars is discussing every song to peak at #2 on the Hot 100. Last spring, with the feature up to 1974, writer Marcello Carlin had to suspend it because of some medical issues. But after six months, he’s back and coming in hot with this spectacular essay tying Sylvia Plath and the Titanic to 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love.” If I could write like that, I would, and so would you.

And one more thing: my post on Monday about the badly run station in the nowhere town prompted reader Mike to respond with one of the craziest radio stories I’ve heard in a long time. Read it here.

The Wrong Decision

Embed from Getty Images

(Before we begin: there’s a new post at One Day in Your Life today, which I hope you will read.)

Nearly every radio jock who’s been around a little bit can tell you stories about working at the badly run station in the nowhere town. Different stations, different towns, same kind of stories: of managers who couldn’t manage and owners who got owned, but also of other victims of circumstance similarly trapped, and ultimately, how the story ended.

Thirty-five years ago this week, The Mrs. and I drove a U-Haul to the nowhere town. And on November 1, 1983, I spent my first day at the badly run station.

I’d been fired from my previous job, and I needed a new one. This station offered me one, and I took it. Whether that was a good idea never really entered our minds. We were 23 and 22 years old, married six months, and had no money in the bank. Beyond the obvious need to keep a roof over our heads, it seemed to me that this was how radio worked: you went where a job was, and your talent would move you up from there.

But I wish it had been clearer to me that I shouldn’t have gone where this job was.

It did become clear, however, and pretty damn quick. From the moment I accepted the job in October 1983, nothing about it seemed quite right. It’s said that pioneers in wagon trains sometimes found the Great Plains oppressive in its vastness and suffered from whatever is the opposite of claustrophobia. We felt the same way about the flat Illinois prairie. The one-bedroom basement apartment we took cost more than we wanted to pay, but it was the only one we saw that was close to acceptable. They told me I’d be doing afternoons, but I didn’t find out until the day before that my shift would be 5 to 8PM. The station’s music format was crazily schizophrenic, twangy country during the day and rock-leaning Top 40 at night. My first day, I discovered that quite literally everyone in the office was a smoker. Smokers were not yet banished outdoors, so I breathed second-hand smoke all day long. I had been told the company offered health insurance, but it didn’t. They told me I’d be doing lots of production, but it wasn’t remotely the volume of work I was used to. I was soon spending half of my 11AM-8PM working day reading every word in the newspaper because they didn’t have enough work to fill my time.

It was no more than a week before I came home and told The Mrs. I’d made a terrible mistake. But when you’re young and green and you think you understand how it’s supposed to be, you persevere. You hope that things will get better.

Except things didn’t get better, not in any significant way. I eventually got moved to a real afternoon drive-time slot, but only because the guy who had been doing it—the amiable doofus of a program director who had hired me—got fired. He was replaced by a martinet who started from the proposition that every jock on the staff was incompetent and had to reinvent themselves, in his image. This proposition was doomed, however, because he wasn’t as talented as he made himself out to be, and all of us could see it.

It wasn’t long before I got fired myself. Officially, all they told me was, “It’s not working out.” Unofficially, they were paranoid about my ties to the prospective owner of the other station in town, who had been the general manager of the station I’d just left. I hadn’t been at the new place for five months yet.

(I would later hear that the news director, another victim of circumstance, stormed into the program director’s office upon hearing the news and shouted, “I can’t believe you fired Jim! You need more people like him!”)

One of the cruelest facts of this life is that there can be grave consequences for not knowing what you aren’t equipped to know at the moment you most need to know it. You have to make the best decision you can with whatever information you have, and it may take years before you realize you decided wrong. At that point, all you can do is “chalk it up to experience,” whatever the hell that means. But a wrong decision is still a wrong decision. And 35 years ago today, I started living with one of mine.

(Your stories about the badly run station and/or the nowhere town are welcome in the comments.)

%d bloggers like this: