Measuring Life

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“It’s graduation week at my old school.” I wrote that line in a post 13 years ago this week, and it’s true again. I had a nephew graduating from my old school then; this week it’s a niece. Here’s more of that old post, with commentary. Some links have been updated or added.

The Mrs. and I have no children of our own, so we watch our nephews and nieces grow, and we measure our lives by theirs. It’s not just living vicariously through their experiences. It’s re-living too.

Another of our nephews is ending his junior year. At the end of that year, I was in love, and I felt like I had life pretty much figured out. That was the summer I started off by working at the gas station and the grocery store, but early August I had quit one job and been fired from the other. Got your life figured out? Not so fast, kid.

That nephew is one of the lucky people who set his eye on a very specific dream job and then got it. It’s too soon to know how everything will turn out for him, but so far, so good.

Still another nephew is wrapping up eighth grade. Sometime that spring—and it might as well have been the last week of May—we had that fire in our house, the one that reshaped the whole summer.

I used to believe that nephew was going to become either a novelist or a stoner. He is neither today, but he still has a unique personality among our entire brood.

A couple of our nephews just turned 10. Like they are, I would have been wrapping up fourth grade. One of them is deeply into sports, as I was. The other is a bright, earnest little guy who reminds me of myself, nurturing his pet obsessions and eager to be liked. Let’s hope for his sake he doesn’t go full geek over the next several years, as his uncle did.

The one who was deeply into sports still is, a talented college baseball player who graduated this week and now has to figure out what’s next beyond baseball. The “bright, earnest little guy” did not go full geek; he soon became the coolest person in any room he walked into, and he still is.

I have one niece and one nephew who are turning eight this year; one is finishing second grade and the other first. In my life, those years were time without a calendar, as all time was before the fall of 1970. In first grade and half of second, I rode the bus to Lincoln School … Midway through second grade, many of my friends and I transferred to newly built Northside School, which seemed like a great adventure then, but was also a lesson in the profound effects of change.

The niece is now in college. The nephew went to tech school and got off to a rocky start in his chosen career, but things are better now. I have no doubt that he’s been imbued with the same sense of responsibility his father and his uncles got growing up, and he’ll be fine.

How many kids are left to count? A nephew who’s six, a niece who’s five, a nephew who’s four—representing years that are hazier still, first days of kindergarten and days before that, toys on the dining room floor, overnights at Grandma’s house, and back to the very beginning of everything.

The nephew who was six grew up believing he was bound for college, then decided college was not his proper path and found a better one. The nephew who was four is an athlete like his brother. Since my original post was written, we added one more niece, who will soon be 12, and we look forward to seeing who she’s going to be.

The nephew who graduated in 2010 is married now and is one of the good people in this world. The niece who was five in 2010 is the one graduating this weekend, bound for the college The Mrs. and I attended, which pleases us greatly.

I worry for these kids. Their futures are deeply uncertain, through absolutely no fault of their own. I have not asked any of them if they’re worried, however, and I don’t plan to. When you are young, the future is what it is. You face it a day at a time, and you do the best you can in the moment. I hope these kids will do better with their moments than my generation did with ours.

The Robots Are Coming

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(Necessary disclaimer: opinions are my own and not my employer’s or anyone else’s, not now and not ever.)

Do I need to explain what radio voicetracking is? That’s when a jock records their talk bits hours or days ahead of when the bits will actually air. Hit the record button, listen to the last few seconds of whatever precedes our track, say what we’re going to say when the little light goes on, then hit another button when we’re done talking to trigger the next element. By not having to sit through the songs and the commercials, it is possible to track a show that’s several hours long in vastly less time. It is also possible for voicetrackers to be heard on stations in markets far distant from where they live.

A hill on which I would die is that doing a radio show is crafting, like building a birdhouse or throwing a pot. So I prepare a tracked show just like a live one. Whether it’s just one hour or several, I script everything in advance. I have recommended this approach to other jocks, but they tell me it would take them too much time. (I always wonder why a person would go into radio if not to spend time doing radio things, but I guess that’s none of my business.) A voicetracker can walk into a studio and bang out a five-hour show in a relatively few minutes, but it’s gonna be mostly rote DJ stuff, which does little to really command a listener’s attention. Like any other craft, the result you get out of your work is proportional to the time you put into it.

I am forever concerned that my tracked shows don’t sound the same as my live ones. Doing a show in real time means that my talk breaks have a more lively and positive energy than voicetracked breaks, which tend to be more sterile. I am not actor enough to fake that energy to my own satisfaction, although honesty compels me to report that I don’t know if my listeners perceive a difference.

People want to debate whether voicetracking is good, but that ship sailed years ago. What we ought to be debating right now is AI.

Last week, Fred Jacobs published a guest post at his site from veteran radio executive Tom Langmyer, talking about what artificial intelligence might mean for radio, especially as it relates to voicetrackers. One point I had not considered is the ability of an AI “voicetracker” to respond to events on the fly. Langmyer tells about one radio station group that pulled all of the Gordon Lightfoot songs it had scheduled on the weekend after his death because the voicetracking was already done, and it would sound weird to play a Lightfoot song without mentioning that he had died. (At least they cared enough to do that much.) An AI “voicetracker” could have accounted for this, and could certainly update other stuff in real time as well. Certainly this would be a vast improvement over the by-necessity-generic nature of conventional voicetracks.

Langmyer doesn’t mention the very first thing I thought of, however: if an AI “voicetracker” is good, why not replace all of the jocks with AI, which will work for free (after the initial expense), never take vacation or sick days, and won’t bitch about anything ever?

The promise of voicetracking was that a station in West Overshoe could sound like it had major-market talent, which did not turn out to be true everywhere. AI offers a similar promise, only at a more sophisticated level. Will it deliver? I don’t know. Will stations—especially the major chains, drowning in debt with worthless stock—embrace it regardless of whether it delivers what it promises, because of the cost savings?

Yeah, about five minutes after it becomes practical.

Afterword: I have watched the rise of ChatGPT and similar large language AI models with absolute horror. We are not remotely ready for the implications of them. Corporations and entrepreneurs alike are forging ahead with such applications in search of financial windfalls without giving a single microscopic damn about the havoc it is likely to cause. Even if you aren’t concerned about rogue AI exterminating humanity, you ought to have practical and ethical concerns: about the proliferation of deepfakes, about plagiarism, and about whether we really need to hear the Beatles doing Kanye West songs or some shit.

This stuff is world-changing technology on the scale of the wheel and the light bulb, and we’re treating it like it’s Candy Crush on our cell phones. 

A Soundtrack for Everyday People

Earlier this week, I wrote that the way we perceive 1968—as a time of turmoil and change—is not necessarily the way it felt to many people living through it. Millions of Americans worked their jobs and raised their families and went on day-by-day without feeling continually buffeted by the currents of history. As for the music of 1968, we remember it as a wildly creative time. The greatest stars were at the peak of their powers, from London to Detroit to Los Angeles.

But just as each day did not feel like an entry in the history books to those who were living them, daily listening didn’t necessarily feel like it either. Behold the Billboard Easy Listening chart dated May 18, 1968, pictured at the top of this post. (As always, click to embiggen.) Consider it the soundtrack for everyday people, born in the first third of the 20th century, going about their lives with the radio on.

The list is extremely light on the pop stars we remember as the titans of the age, the ones favored by the kids who grew up to write the histories of 1968. Simon and Garfunkel have two hits on the list, “Mrs. Robinson” and “Scarborough Fair,” but that’s it. A trippy hippie might gravitate to the folky/ethnic sound of “The Unicorn,” or to “Master Jack” by Four Jacks and a Jill, Spanky and Our Gang’s “Like to Get to Know You,” and “Goin’ Away” by the Fireballs. But there are no Beatles, no Motown stars, and no Laurel Canyon folkies on the list.

But wait a minute: five of the top 11 songs on Easy Listening during this week were also in the Top 10 of the Hot 100: “Honey,” “The Good the Bad and the Ugly,” “The Unicorn,” “Do You Know the Way to San José,” and “Mrs. Robinson.” “Honey” and “Love Is Blue” had been #1 on the Hot 100. “This Guy’s in Love With You” by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, new on the Easy Listening chart in this week, would spend a month at #1 on the Hot 100 in the summer. The distinctions we’d make today between the kids’ music and older styles weren’t always the distinctions the kids made themselves in 1968. It would have not been remotely uncommon for a teenager to walk out of a record store with “Lady Madonna,” “Mony Mony,” and “Honey” during this week.

However, apart from the Hot 100 hits, the Easy Listening chart is full of stuff with mainly adult appeal, the sort of thing that would have been a staple of shows like Dick Whittinghill’s on KMPC in Los Angeles, mentioned in my earlier post. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, and Sammy Davis Jr. are all in the Top 20. Al Martino is riding high with his version of “Lili Marlene,” which is another song I knew before I knew that I knew it, absorbed and remembered thanks to Mother and Dad’s radio, same as “The Look of Love” by Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66. Popular nightclub and TV acts of the moment such as the Lettermen, Jack Jones, Ed Ames, Jerry Vale, and Nancy Wilson share space with stars of an older generation, Margaret Whiting and the Mills Brothers. There are prominent bandleader/composers and instrumentalists, not just Herb Alpert and Paul Mauriat but Henry Mancini, Roger Williams, and Raymond Lefevre. Young Tom Jones and young Engelbert Humperdinck are here; so is rising star Glen Campbell and early 60s pop mainstays Bobby Vinton and Connie Francis. Ethnic flavor comes from Trini Lopez, although his song is as countrypolitan as Eddy Arnold’s; Erroll Garner adds a bit of jazz. The great Memphis impresario Willie Mitchell is on the chart under his own name with “Soul Serenade.” So are King Richard’s Flugel Knights, an act we have discussed at this website before. Dick Behrke’s studio group hit the Easy Listening chart six times without ever making the Hot 100, which is among the most ever.

The appeal of this stuff to a salesman listening on his car radio as he calls on clients, or to his wife listening on the kitchen radio as she tries to finish her daily chores before the kids get home from school, should be obvious. It’s tasteful and melodious and relatable. It expresses adult emotions in adult ways. If it doesn’t place great intellectual demands on the salesman or his wife, that’s fine. They’ve got enough things to think about already.

The Foundation That Did Not Rumble

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(Pictured: Robert Kennedy campaigns in Indiana on May 7, 1968.)

We can never know how it really was. We try, in our own lives, to remember how it really was. We study the history of bygone times in hopes of learning how it really was. What was it really like to come ashore on D-Day, or to be a peasant farmer on a 14th century English manor? We read memoirs and news reports, we study the evidence and the reconstructions, and we get a sense of it, but we can never know how it really was, in the moment, for the people who were living it.

What do we know, for example, about the spring of 1968? Mostly broad outlines. A bitter presidential campaign is underway. Social movements are blooming: minorities continue work for racial justice, and we perceive stirrings of women’s liberation and gay liberation. We see hippies trying to get back to the garden, and well they might, for it is a violent age, and not just in Vietnam and on the front lines of protests around the world. In the month of May, Martin Luther King has just been shot, and Robert F. Kennedy soon will be.

As we look back from here, in 2023, it seems that seismic shocks were rumbling the nation’s foundations. But were they, really?

A few years ago, I wrote about Los Angeles radio personality Dick Whittinghill, and my piece included an aircheck of his KMPC show from June 10, 1968, which I described as “a remarkably calm half-hour of radio.” Recently, I spent some time noodling with the Billboard Easy Listening chart dated May 18, 1968.

And I thought about my parents.

Over the years, I have asked them what they remember about various historical events, but their impressions are often fragmentary. Dad was cleaning manure out of the chicken house on the day of JFK’s assassination; they woke up my youngest brother, who was not yet three, to watch the astronauts walk on the moon. But they cannot tell me how it really felt to be alive in the moments when history was made, not the way I crave to know it.

That they cannot do so used to strike me weird, but it shouldn’t have. The big events of our times are always projected against a backdrop of the mundane (which is the One Day in Your Life mission statement, basically). And certainly, what looks mundane to us now didn’t seem that way to them then.

In the spring of 1968, my parents were 35 and 32 years old. They had been married not quite 10 years. They had three sons aged eight, six, and almost two. Dad ran a dairy farm with his father; Mother was busy taking care of the house and raising their boys. Such responsibilities were anything but mundane, not if they wanted the kids to eat, and to grow up into civilized adulthood. In the spring of 1968, as in every other spring, Dad had cows to milk (twice a day, seven days a week), crops to plant, and literally dozens of other tasks contending for his time; Mother had chores of her own, plus kids to wrangle.

For them, the news was something that came on the radio at 7:25 and noon, and on TV at 6 and 10, but if it wanted significant attention from them, it had to elbow its way past the responsibilities of their everydays. They did not kill time  contemplating their place in the great sweep of history, not like their oldest son would do one day. They may have, from time to time, considered how much trouble there was in the world, and how much change. But as long as they kept doing what they needed and wanted to do each day, the foundation they were building—a farm, a home, and a family—did not rumble, and would not.

No doubt there was privilege involved in not having to concern themselves overmuch with Vietnam, or civil rights, or gay rights, but in their defense, Dad and Mother were not alone. Millions of people like them went about their days focused on running their businesses and their households, and raising their kids. And they often did so while listening to their local equivalents of KMPC and Dick Whittinghill.

What were they hearing, specifically ? I am up against my self-imposed, completely arbitrary word limit for this post and I have not even begun to discuss that. So tune in again later this week.

Here’s to the Winners

Years ago, I produced a public service campaign for the United Way of McDonough County, Illinois. I used audio clips of people the United Way had helped in the community and people talking about why they support the United Way. The Frank Sinatra song “Winners” was the musical theme the agency had chosen (“Here’s to the heroes / Those who move mountains”). The pieces went together beautifully, and as I listened back to the finished spots it was, as best I can recall at this distant date, an out-of-body experience: “My god, that’s fantastic. Did I do that?” When the spots hit the air, the United Way people liked them and other people at the radio station liked them, so we decided to enter them in the Illinois Broadcasters Association awards contest.

You have to enter a contest like this. Such awards are not given by an omnipotent deity that reaches down from the sky and says, “You have been chosen.” You have to have ego enough to say, “Yeah, this is worth some kind of honor, and I want it.” And it helps if you work for someone who is willing to pay the entry fee, because nobody rides for free.

The banquet in Springfield was an exciting night, because I was sure I was going to win, and in front of industry big shots, too. There would be people from Chicago there. What if one of them heard my stuff and said, “We have to hire this guy”?

I didn’t win. I came in second to what I described at the time as “a melodramatic series of drunk driving PSAs,” at a moment in history when the war on drunk driving was in high gear. I must have received a certificate of merit or something, but I don’t remember; if I did, it stayed at the station and didn’t come home with me. I was disappointed. I honestly felt that my stuff was an order of magnitude better than the PSAs that won.

In 2022, my radio station’s all-day Saturday at the 70s feature was cut back to five hours on Saturday night and given to me to host and produce. At the end of the year, I entered the show in the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association awards contest. WBA radio awards are divided into two divisions, music and news/talk, and three market sizes, small, medium, and large. (Large is Madison and Milwaukee only.) I found out last month that my show was a finalist in the Best Specialty Show category for large market music radio. I am under no illusions that I vanquished a bunch of inferior competitors to make the finals; I don’t know how many entries there were, or even how many finalists. But I had made whatever cut there was, so I went to the banquet last weekend with a few other people from the company who were also up for awards.

In the days leading up to the banquet, I said to myself that I was indifferent to how it might turn out. I would be happy if I won but neither surprised nor disappointed if I didn’t. But when they finally got to my category, I changed my mind. I really wanted to win.

But I didn’t win. I came in second. I was disappointed—for literally five seconds. I swiftly recognized that it’s a great honor regardless, and I’m very pleased with it.

Ego is an inescapable part of a career on the air, in radio or TV. You have to believe that you, personally, are entertaining and interesting and/or worthy of other people’s attention. Young broadcasters tend to have a lot of unearned ego; I certainly did. The older me has tried to tame that ego, but I still have it. After all, I entered my show in the contest. I had the thought, “Yeah, this is worth some kind of honor.” But a lot of people in radio think that way about their work, and about themselves, and it just isn’t true. I have known people who think they’re special but are simply not, and they’re insufferable; I don’t want to be one of them.

Hearing that your work is good from somebody else—like the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, even in the form of a second-place certificate instead of a first-place plaque—is different from telling yourself that your work is good. It says, “You’ve earned the right to a little bit of ego.” Maybe I have. If I become insufferable, let me know.

Snapshots From 1983

Forty years ago this spring, I was music director at KDTH in Dubuque, Iowa. My role was mostly clerical, but I got to shape the sound of the station in a modest way, and I had a lot of fun doing it. What you see here is the Billboard Hot Country singles chart from May 7, 1983. (Click to embiggen.) Some random observations follow.

1. “José Cuervo”/Shelly West. To use a 2023 term, Shelly West was a nepo baby, the daughter of country star Dottie West. She came to prominence a couple of years earlier in duets with David Frizzell, brother of Lefty. “José Cuervo” is not especially subtle, but it was never not going to be a hit.

2. “Whatever Happened to Old-Fashioned Love”/B. J. Thomas. Thomas had a nice little renaissance in the early 80s, with a couple of #1 country hits, although “Whatever Happened to Old-Fashioned Love,” which also crossed over to adult contemporary, is not as good as I remember.

3. “Common Man”/John Conlee. This is the closest I will ever get to a John Conlee appreciation post, but he deserves one: “Lady Lay Down,” “Backside of Thirty,” “Baby You’re Something,” “Friday Night Blues,” “She Can’t Say That Anymore,” “Common Man,” and “I’m Only in It for the Love” are all terrific. Bonus John Conlee fact: before getting into the music business, he was a licensed mortician and radio DJ, although maybe not at the same time.

14. “Amarillo by Morning”/George Strait. George Strait might be the only artist to emerge in the last 40 years who truly belongs in the pantheon of genre-shaping, world-changing country stars. Although he had been scoring hits for nearly two years by May 1983, “Amarillo by Morning” was his first inarguable classic.

15. “It Hasn’t Happened Yet”/Rosanne Cash
20. “Our Love Is on the Faultline”/Crystal Gayle
If you asked me to name a single favorite Rosanne Cash song (and please don’t), I could ride with “It Hasn’t Happened Yet.” Same for Crystal Gayle and “Our Love Is on the Faultline,” actually. Rosanne has written that her main memory of “It Hasn’t Happened Yet” was being hugely pregnant while recording it and straining to reach the high notes.

23. “American Made”/Oak Ridge Boys. This later became a Miller Beer commercial over the group’s objections, and they supposedly stopped performing it as long as the ad campaign was running.

24. “Stranger in My House”/Ronnie Milsap. Between 1980 and 1990, Milsap hit #1 with 25 of 29 charting singles. “Stranger in My House,” which was not only different from all of his other stuff but from everything else on country radio at the time, was one that didn’t, although it got to #23 on the Hot 100.

48. “Pancho and Lefty”/Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. This is country music for people who say they don’t like country music.

59. “Snapshot”/Sylvia. Sylvia got to #15 on the pop chart with “Nobody” in 1982, and “Snapshot” is a rewrite of it, but with an even better hook. The video at that link is 1983-perfect. Sylvia can’t act at all—she spends most of the video wearing a frowny stare that’s probably intended to be sexy—but she’s got some impressive 80s hair.

I remain immensely grateful for my experience at KDTH. Even though I was a young idiot whose gaze was firmly locked on his own navel, it taught me a lot. I learned what it meant to be a pro by watching talented pros. I learned how powerful local radio can be when it’s truly committed to its community. And I learned that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who like Willie Nelson and those who are wrong.

On Gordon Lightfoot: I first heard “If You Could Read My Mind” at the end of 1970, in that liminal space of time where I was becoming what I was going to be. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” means more to me than it does to many, since I actually saw that ship at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, the summer before she went down. When I got to college, I heard “Dreamland” and “Daylight Katy” for the first time, and they became favorites. And in the early 90s, Gordon Lightfoot played live in our town, and we sat in the theater for two hours wrapped in that warm, resonant voice like it was a blanket.

I have written before about how as we sail on our way, certain people stand like beacons on the shore. We don’t always think about them, but if we look back, they’re always there. Only when those beacons wink out do we realize what they meant to us.